Everybody’s wondering what the decisive issue of this municipal election’s going to be.
Taxes? When is that not an issue?
Transit? Also a constant issue.
Driveway width? Oh yeah!
It was with more than a little curiosity, and some healthy pessimism, that I attended a town hall a couple of weeks back hosted by Ward 1 Councillors Dan Gibson and Bob Bell, along with Mayor Cam Guthrie. The topic of the town hall was driveway widths and the apparent overzealousness of bylaw enforcement on giving citations on the matter.
I was, admittedly, looking at the matter rather cynically. As you may have heard, I’m rather anti-car.
Over 125 people packed the gym at William Winegard Public School, and they all had stories to tell. Although the details were different, they were all tales of anger, frustration and resentment.
The more complete picture was chronicled on Guelph Politico, but the “too long; didn’t read” version is that some people thought they had reached accommodation with the City but got a citation anyway. Others moved into a home with driveway extensions that were never authorized and are now on the hook for fines.
The common thread has two ends. On the one hand it seemed that bylaw enforcement had suddenly discovered a wealth of driveway scofflaws in the east end and they’re not going to rest until they’ve gotten $615 from every home east of Victoria Street.
The other end? It looks like City staff don’t give a damn.
Unduly harsh? Tell that to the provincial prosecutor who said to an elderly woman named Virginia that her note from staff "didn't mean anything." That note was an exception from bylaw to park side-by-side with her husband’s car in their driveway due to her early morning medical appointments and his late evening arrival home from work.
At the very least, there are cross communications. Someone is giving residents some reassurance, and that reassurance is later taken away because someone else didn’t get the memo, or they have an alternative (read: harsher) interpretation of how to treat these people.
Now you, like me initially, may be thinking “Rules are rules.” Very true, but I’d like to offer a conservative point of view.
No, you read that right.
I was once chatting with someone that ran a live entertainment venue and was being inspected for safety when we was told that there was some violation because he had 21 people working and the cut off was 20. My friend asked the 21st person to go home. Problem solved.
That was probably not the solution that the inspector expected, but what could he do?
Now imagine a scenario where the inspector just said to the manager, “Look, just so you know this rule demands you can only have 20 people here at this time, so just watch out for that when you schedule.” Seems much more humane then threats of fines and closures, doesn’t it?
But rules are rules! As an inspector, or a bylaw enforcement officer for that matter, you don’t want a reputation for being a pushover either. You don’t want people to take advantage and force you to decide whether each case is an honest mistake or an instance of someone trying to take advantage of the natural human inclination toward forgiveness.
It’s a tough call in other words, if only there was someone else to blame…
Actually, there is. In the case of driveways, it’s the person who appeared to have a genuine violation that was reported, and then seemed to retaliate against all of his or her neighbours, which is how this whole thing allegedly got started in the first place.
Bylaw enforcement is a complaint-based system, and every complaint must be investigated, and enforced if the investigation warrants it. That’s the system working even if there are mechanisms in the machine acting in bad faith.
The point may be moot because a Notice of Motion from Gibson and Guthrie is coming forward at Monday’s council meeting that asks the City to suspend certain portions of the bylaw governing driveways, and temporarily replacing them with a simple list of qualifiers until the bylaw is reviewed.
It will be interesting to see what council makes of this. Will they recognize that the rule of bylaw here has become more a sledgehammer than a scalpel, or will they argue that rules are rules, and there are rules for a reason?
Could it not be argued that there’s a concerning precedent being established here? In the future, if enough residents complain loud enough, will council consider suspending entire sections of bylaw until staff, to borrow a phrase, figure out what the hell is going on?
It’s clear there’s a friction, so far as driveways are concerned, between the strict word of bylaw and a seeming state of non-compliance that bylaw might have accidentally created out of years of lack of oversight. There must be a way forward that’s not only just, but compassionate.
Can such balance be achieved though? Well, it is an election year after all.