What will it take for Hamilton City Council to start enforcing its own Code of Conduct?
By Ryan McGreal
Published September 21, 2016
A certain west mountain councillor was allowed to turn Monday's Public Works Committee meeting into a farce in which he spent 45 minutes hounding city staff over the Herkimer and Charlton bike lanes and even directly asking staff whether they are "putting lives at risk" with the project.
A child rides in the protected bike lanes on Herkimer while a transport truck drives past (Image Credit: Tom Flood)
Yes, Ward 8 Councillor Terry Whitehead is at it again, demonstrating once more that his default reaction to criticism of his ludicrous claims is to double down on them and make matters even worse.
Between his inane line of questioning and Ward 2 Councillor Jason Farr's obligatory rejoinders, Whitehead wasted 45 minutes of everyone's time grilling staff over bike lane project implementation details that staff had already investigated and addressed during the two-year planning phase of the bike lanes.
In classic concern-troll fashion - he kept insisting he supports the bike lanes - Whitehead threw everything he could think of against the project in the hope that something might stick.
Our west mountain councillor started by complaining about a tweet from Coleman earlier in the same meeting, which stated:
Whitehead said, "I never made that statement," and asked staff to fact-check the tweet, eliciting chuckles and groans from around the table.
(Later, Coleman explained his tweet in a response to RTH: "I noted the underlying message - Whitehead has staff state that free-flowing traffic is better than stop-and-go traffic. I was noting this as an underlying narrative.")
It was at this point that other members of council started leaving the room, starting with Ward 5 Councillor Chad Collins, who left within the first minute. Ward 4 Councillor Sam Merulla strolled out of the room a minute later. Next, Ward 12 Councillor Lloyd Ferguson sauntered out around 6:30 into Whitehead's witch hunt.
Then the Councillor grilled Traffic Engineering manager Martin White about the Hamilton light rail transit (LRT) alignment and whether the grade-separation is designed to allow emergency vehicles to access the LRT lanes to bypass backed-up traffic.
You can see where this is going. The councillor went on to ask where people are supposed to pull over on Herkimer and Charlton to make room for an emergency vehicle. White answered by pointing out the places people normally pull over on a street: into empty parking spots, into the throats of intersections, and so on.
Whitehead wouldn't let it go. He demanded a specific list of all the places cars can pull over, arguing that Herkimer is a direct route for people in the West Mountain to access St. Joe's, and asked: "Are you putting lives at risk here?"
This is a completely inappropriate question to ask, as it clearly implies staff are being negligent. It is a straightforward violation of the Hamiton City Council Code of Conduct [PDF], Section 13.2, which states:
13.2 Under the direction of the City Manager, City employees serve the Council as a whole, and the combined interests of all members of Council as evidenced through the decisions of Council. Accordingly:
(a) members of Council shall be respectful of the role of City employees to advise based on political neutrality and objectivity and without undue influence from any individual member or faction of the Council;
(b) no member of Council shall maliciously, falsely, negligently or recklessly injure the professional or ethical reputation, or the prospects or practice of City employees; and
(c) members of Council shall show respect for the professional capacities of City employees.
To White's credit, he refused to take the bait, responding, "I'm not going to answer that question, Councillor."
Now, this would have been a good place for a member of the Senior Management Team to step in and put a stop to the inappropriate line of questioning, but no one from the SMT row of chairs spoke up.
It would have been even better for the Chair of the committee meeting, Ward 13 Councillor Arlene VanderBeek, to intervene and rein in her colleague. But she remained silent here and, bizarrely, continued to remain silent throughout the entire painful exchange that followed.
The bitter irony, of course, is that the bike lane design was in part a response to the dangerous conditions recorded on Herkimer prior to its introduction.
People in automobiles were recorded driving at 80-90 km/h on a daily basis on Herkimer before the street design was changed to add the bike lanes, but our suddenly safety-conscious councillor did not seem interested in whether the old design was "putting lives at risk".
The road is much safer now than it was when dangerously high speeding was a regular, daily occurrence.
And for the record, St. Joseph's Healthcare has publicly stated, "the hospital has no report of problems due to the new bike lanes". The hospital even retweeted the announcement of an event celebrating the new bike lanes, which will be held on September 24.
But let's keep moving. Next, Whitehead challenged staff that traffic gets stuck behind the garbage truck on waste collection day and asked if waste collection workers "have to carry garbage a longer distance from the sidewalk through the parked cars to put it into the garbage truck". He asked if staff have assessed the "occupational health and risk" as a result of this.
The manager who responded pointed out that staff were already carrying garbage through the parked cars but that there is a slight additional distance on the north side to cross the bike lane. She also responded that no additional health and safety implications have been identified.
I would also point out that outside of morning rush hour, Herkimer has always had parking on both sides, so the waste collection context has not really changed.
Not getting the answer he wanted, Whitehead moved onto DARTS accessible transit service, suggesting that the Herkimer design does not allow people to access it.
Displaying an admirable forbearance, White pointed out yet again that Herkimer already had parking on both sides of the street before the bike lane went in, so DARTS vehicles would always have had to load passengers from the centre lane.
Oh, and also, there are not actually any DARTS pickups on Herkimer anyway, so it's a completely moot point.
But that didn't stop Whitehead from continuing to drill at staff, rehashing in eye-rolling detail his point that a DARTS vehicle would have to stop in the live lane to pick up or drop off its hypothetical passenger, a situation that has changed not one bit as a result of the new bike lane.
Next up, Whitehead demanded to know how the City plans to undertake snow removal on Herkimer and what the cost implications will be, yet another grandstanding line of questioning that was already addressed during the bike lane design phase.
Again, the manager pointed out that Herkimer is a through street and has parking restrictions at night between 2:00 AM and 7:00 AM, which is when most snow clearing takes place, and that it is impossible to predict how much it will cost to clear snow when we don't know how much snow is going to fall this winter.
Then Whitehead tried to pin Transportation Superintendent John Mater on whether the bike lanes are a "pilot" or an "experiment", presumably hoping to get confirmation that they can be reversed. Mater replied that the configuration is common in other cities but new to Hamilton. "I don't like the word 'experiment', exactly, but it's a learning experience that we're going through with this."
Next, Whitehead tried to argue that there was not enough consultation on the project, pushing staff to define what a "collector" street means in terms of west mountain residents using the street to get to lower city destinations. He actually asked whether such residents are "legally" using the street.
White drily replied, "All vehicles may use any street in the city of Hamilton."
But Whitehead would not let the point go, demanding to know "the definition of 'collector' and the function of that road as it stand [sic] for many years and currently."
White replied, "Traffic from the mountain is, and can, and may legally use that roadway." He went on to say that he would have to pull the definition from the Urban Hamilton Official Plan for a more specific answer.
For the record, according to the City's Classification of City Streets [PDF], a collector should be designed to enable "traffic movement and land access of equal importance". That is, the design should balance local access needs with automobile traffic flow.
As for cycling infrastructure, the Classification recommends "wider lanes or separate facilities where required".
Meanwhile, Whitehead continued to grandstand at length about "stakeholders, taxpayers, hard-working families, mothers and fathers across this great city of ours" and demanding to know whether staff held any Public Information Centres on the mountain about the bike lanes.
When White pointed out that anyone in the city was welcome to attend the information meetings held in Wards 1 and 2, Whitehead demanded to know where the events were advertised.
Of course, given Whitehead's excessive and unseemly obsession with everything going on in the lower city, I have to ask why he didn't circulate some notice about the projects or information meetings to his constituents during the two years that the design process was underway.
We're almost 18 minutes in now, and Councillor Farr took his turn to call out Whitehead for his inappropriate line of questioning, as well as his stream of made-up claims and misinformation.
I take the approach with all of you [in the Public Works Committee] that we're working collaboratively to build a better city. That we're working collaboratively on urban renewal and attraction of young professionals, young families. Making lives easier from a pedestrian standpoint, not just a cycling standpoint, with the models that we've put into place, that have been models that have been very successfully put into place in other big cities. We can think like big cities too, here.
He pointed out that the bike lane installation is still a work in progress. "We're still looking at this, and we've already made tweaks and we're willing to make some more tweaks.
But we're also wanting to - at least in Ward 2, and I can say this with a great deal of confidence - wanting to walk the talk. When I support Pedestrian Mobility, and Transportation Master Plan initiatives, and the Cycling Master Plan, I want to walk the talk.
From there, Farr began asking staff to clarify Whitehead's false statements on the Bill Kelly Show on AM 900 CHML.
That basket of false claims includes Whitehead's spurious claim that the Waste department did not support the bike lanes, and Whitehead's completely made-up claim that there are only 15 bikes per 1,000 cars on Herkimer, which he attributed to staff and which was reported in a newspaper article that there are only 15 bikes on Herkimer.
Sidenote: Farr also made reference to the research we published on RTH last week analyzing five days' worth of Hamilton Bike Share trip data to count the number of bike share trips that touched on Herkimer or Charlton.
Staff noted that they have not yet made use of Bike Share data to evaluate bicycle use, but that they will use it as part of their upcoming assessment of automobile and bicycle traffic counts on the two streets.
Farr also asked about Whitehead's claim that a car door was smashed off in a collision, to which staff responded that they were not aware of any collisions related to the bike lanes.
Farr argued that it "takes considerable time and energy" to counteract the false claims - like a woman in Ward 6 who called Farr to ask why there are bike lanes when "there are only 15 people using it".
About Whitehead's antics, Farr said, "It is bewildering. It is not productive, it's not helpful, and it's just building a divisive wall."
This is an implicit comparison to Donald Trump, the American Presidential candidate who has built a movement out of stoking fear, resentment and cynicism and repeatedly tossing off blatantly false claims to support his agenda - including building a wall to keep Mexicans out of the United States.
This echoes a July 27, 2016 editorial cartoon by the Hamilton Spectator's Graeme MacKay, which compared Whitehead to Trump with respect to the ridiculous and immediately-debunked anti-LRT "report" his office prepared.
Hamilton Spectator editorial cartoon, July 27, 2016 by Graeme MacKay
Continuing with his rebuttal, Farr directly called out Whitehead's concern-trolling:
And you can talk about, Oh, I'm going to work with the ward councillors and we're going to make this better all you want in one breath, but when you open with [...] "Are we putting lives at risk?" That's not a working-together, collaborative thing to say. That's not a collaborative thing at all! What is that?
He added, "If I sound irritated now, there's a whole lot of people out there that are much more irritated than I am."
Farr went on for longer, but one highlight was when he said to Whitehead, "I don't know where you find the time" to pour so much energy into attacking and undermining livability improvements in the lower city.
He concluded: "This kind of stuff ends up on the public record, and let me tell you: you ain't fooling my public, and I'm not going to sit quietly any more."
The dynamic between the two councillors was already alarmingly personal and heated, but the exchange still wasn't close to being over. When Farr wrapped up (around the 33 minute mark in the video), Whitehead came right back and rehashed the same points he had already made, calling the bike lane design "haphazard" - once again attacking the professional integrity of staff.
I'm already sick and tired of transcribing the exchange, and you're probably sick and tired of reading it. Even Farr apologized to the committee and "staff, especially, who have been great" for his "rant".
But he made the point: "This is different, this is new, and you all know ... change is difficult for people. Change is hard. But we're the leaders, and we have to defend those actions. And we have to do it with facts."
He also pointed out the double standard over who has a say in a local street project: "No one ever called us down here when you made Stonechurch a complete street, and no one's ranting and raving about it, either."
And unlike Charlton and Herkimer, which are designated as residential collectors, Stonechurch is designated as a minor arterial under Appendix 11 of the Urban Hamilton official Plan.
Map detail with superimposed legend from Appendix 11 of the Urban Hamilton Official Plan
Farr closed by stating it is "proven" that the claims Whitehead made when he was on the Bill Kelly Show were "not factual" and that they "caused a lot of consternation in the community, that caused divisiveness in the community."
At this point, Whitehead tried to raise a point of order, and Farr replied, "If you support it, show your support. If you want to collaborate, collaborate. You are always welcome. I highly and strongly suggest, though, for your own credibility, to do it in advance of these projects and not knee-jerk, willy-nilly, afterwards. Thank you."
What is perhaps most amazing about the entire 45-minute exchange is that the Chair remained completely silent throughout. Neither Whitehead's abuse of staff nor the increasingly heated, personal nature of the Councillors' comments was enough to elicit any kind of response from Councillor VanderBeek.
For his part, Farr challenged Whitehead asking staff, "Are you putting lives at risk here?" but it just amounted to commentary and counter-commentary. But several other Councillors simply got up walked out of the room, not wanting to have to witness what was clearly going to be an ugly, aggravating coda to the meeting.
And VanderBeek as Chair did nothing at all.
It's not as if this is the first time Whitehead has been allowed to abuse staff.
During the ill-fated transit lane debate, he accused staff of having an agenda:
This report was driven by public transit staff that are advocates for the higher order transit and obviously they're looking through a singular lens when it comes to addressing these issues. So I guess the next question is: would it take, what would it take for public transit staff to say no to bus lanes? Would it be short of a nuclear bomb going off?
This past April, when staff announced that they had secured $295,000 in Provincial capital funding for a cycle track on Bay Street, Whitehead again bullied staff, accusing them of inappropriate behaviour, going behing Council's back, and favouring the lower city at the expense of his ward.
He went on to spend several days continuing to attack staff on social media and claiming falsely that City Manager Chris Murray had apologized for their actions, proving his claims (Murray merely acknowledged that staff "could do a better job of communicating" but that their application for the Provincial fund was entirely consistent with Council's direction).
In July, he accused Hamilton health Sciences of "ripping and raping" the mountain by moving some administrative jobs from the closing Chedoke Hospital to leased space in the Stelco Tower downtown. Challenged to apologize, he posted a letter from his staffer suggesting an apology statement, then retracted the statement and started attacking the people who were criticizing his use of "rape" to refer to moving some jobs.
His conduct is appalling, and it brings discredit to Council as a whole and to the City of Hamilton. It contributes to a culture of fear at City Hall in which staff are punished for carrying out their jobs with "courageous change" in an "engaged empowered" manner, as the Council-approved Corporate Pillars of Success pledge.
It's past time for Council to start enforcing its own formal standards of behaviour among its members.
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