‘We are embarrassed’: Richmond Hill residents hit the streets to protest a ‘bullying culture’ at council that’s upended city business
Oct. 20, 2022
While most municipalities are fighting voter apathy about next week’s elections, Richmond Hill voters are so upset with their elected officials they’ve actually taken to the streets.
Over the past two weekends, a group called A Better Richmond Hill has held two rallies to encourage residents to vote out three councillors the group says have repeatedly disrupted council business, creating a “toxic environment” at city hall and making residents “embarrassed” to live here.
The rallies -- both disrupted by counter rallies by supporters of the same three councillors -- are symbolic of the divisiveness and mayhem that has taken over local politics this term. Monthly council meetings have frequently turned into yelling matches -- with police being called in to the final, disorderly meeting of the term.
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“We feel like a lot of the troubling behaviour at council have come from these three members,” said John Li, a member of the registered, third-party group. “That’s why we decided to focus our resources to get rid of these three, to get our council back to functioning normally.”
The three councillors, which include mayoral candidate Carmine Perrelli, and ward councillors Tom Muench and Greg Beros, have accused the group of engaging in a smear campaign against them.
“This group is not interested in educating residents, exploring issues or honest debate,” said Perrelli, in an email. “Their singular focus is to spread anger and hatred, tactics that will not go over well in Richmond Hill,” adding that many of those protesting have a personal vendetta against him.
In addition to holding the rallies, the group has also paid for lawn signs and an advertisement in the local paper that it says shows the voting records of the three councillors on contentious issues.
Over the past four years, Richmond Hill council has made headlines for the disruptive behaviour of some councillors during meetings, which have bogged down in hours of debate over procedural rules such as approving that meeting’s agenda. The result made council meetings tense, and delayed important city business like the approval of an affordable housing strategy, delayed by six months after councillors couldn’t agree on definitions.
“Anybody who has watched the YouTube videos of Richmond Hill council in operation can easily tell that it isn’t working and business isn’t getting done,” said Arnold Schwisberg, a member of Better Richmond Hill group. “All they do is argue amongst themselves.”
The source of the problem is the three councillors who “vote as a bloc and behave in each other’s interests,” Schwisberg added.
“I remember what this community was like years ago. But I don’t recognize it anymore, and I don’t like it anymore. And I’m not alone.”
Schwisberg said the residents who created the citizen’s group came together to do something because, “we are embarrassed and because we care for our community.”
Tensions came to a head at the final council meeting in September, which quickly became chaotic after members disagreed over whether to go in camera to listen to legal advice about two lawsuits Perrelli launched against the city and many of his fellow councillors -- or remove the item from the agenda altogether.
But council couldn’t even get the agenda approved to officially begin the meeting.
Instead, it ended up in a yelling match, which led Mayor David West to mute the microphones of Beros and Perrelli, and eventually call a recess.
When the meeting resumed a few minutes later, Perrelli was still yelling, and West said “he had no other choice” but to ask him to leave.
“We will adjourn until such time as Councillor Perrelli leaves the meeting,” West can be heard saying in a recording. “He has been ejected from the meeting.”
York Regional Police were called in to keep the peace. The meeting finally reconvened two hours later with all members agreeing to abide by the rules of the chair.
In an interview, Perrelli said the debate and disagreement is a normal part of council and that the behavioural issues of this term have been “grossly exaggerated.”
“There is no disrespect in council meetings, there is no name-calling and there is no vulgarity,” he said. “When people disagree and they use the procedures properly and respectfully, how is that dysfunctional?”
He said that he only speaks up when he feels his rights have been violated during council meetings.
Perrelli said that 80 to 90 per cent of decisions on council have passed unanimously, and they have managed to pass the windrow snow cleaning service and kept taxes low, which proves the city’s business is functioning as usual.
In an email, Muench, who was present at the first counter protest, said: “The ‘rally’ is nothing more than a continuation of these individuals’ American-style smear campaign, which includes ads in the local paper designed to fool residents into believing that they are a legitimate grassroots non-partisan organization.”
Beros said that he has not attended the rallies and that his “focus has been on running a clean and positive campaign focused on residents and how best to serve them.”
Paul Rose, a member of the Council Accountability Group, an independent group not affiliated with the rallies or the Better Richmond Hill group, said the climate at council had become “toxic.”
“There is a difference between a healthy difference of opinion on council, and a bullying culture and someone who intimidates staff and the public and makes people uncomfortable,” said Rose, whose group has closely monitored council over the term. “I think many would agree that’s the direction our council has gone this term.”
Protests like the ones in Richmond Hill are often a tool for “the voiceless,” according to political science professor Jacquetta Newman.
“Those who find that the institution doesn’t listen to them all that well, they protest,” said Newman, a professor at King’s University College at Western.
One possible benefit of the rallies is that “voter engagement will go up,” she added.
“It goes with the general tendency of Canadians to not vote for candidates but to vote against candidates.”
Marj Andre, also a member of the Council Accountability Group, said she hopes the passion behind protests translates into higher voter turnout at the polls.
“This decision will shape our city for a long time.”