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'Intimidation' becoming an ugly part of being a local politician

'I’m in council chambers with people that have joked about killing council and I’m just expected to sit up there and smile,' Tiny councillor says of social media posts
Deputations during the recent meeting of Tiny Township council included many residents opposing the proposed new municipal facility, including protest organizer Karen Zulynik (centre).

Politicians. They are the lawmakers, voted in by a majority of non-apathetic residents, intended to lead their area to more prosperous times through efficiency and forward thinking.

However, nothing in life is perfect.

A number of Tiny Township residents braved through a blustery April winter storm to attend the regular council and committee of the whole meetings because they wanted their voices heard once again with their opposition against a new administration building.

Built in 1967 and with a council chamber capacity for roughly 55 audience members in a basement, accessible by stairwell, the municipal administrative building at 130 Balm Beach Rd. W. was deemed “insufficient for the township’s current and future needs” in a 2017 building needs assessment. A 2022 asset management report reinforced the need for the township’s underfunded infrastructure, including the building.

Late last year, a protest rally organized by Tiny resident Karen Zulynik occurred where she presented an online petition with 1,000 signatures to council. Despite insufficient seating in the chambers and with elderly residents struggling to use the staircase, protesters demanded council halt preliminary exploration into the build of a modern facility, anticipated to cost roughly $25 million.

Zulynik’s persistence continued over the past months, including knocking on doors and posting flyers to inform other residents of her stance. As the sole administrator of a social media group aimed at Tiny council’s dealings, Zulynik has posted almost daily on her interactions with council and others, including sharing documents obtained through freedom of information requests regarding any of council and staff’s activities.

During the recent meeting’s opening, Coun. Steffen Walma addressed the issue of cyberbullying including incidents where township residents had engaged in “defamatory libel; there’s intimidation” against council and staff, through posting on social media of “people wanting to run council over with trucks” and “threatening to hang council members in a meme form”. 

Zulynik had previously sent MidlandToday a meme image depicting bylaw officers photographing an interior, calling it “a rather interesting way to look at things.”

The same image appeared on another social media page regarding contentious short-term rental bylaws in Tiny, generating similar appreciation by its administrator and participants.

“I would encourage the public to stop,” urged Walma.

Throughout the meeting, Walma repeatedly asked residents with concerns to speak with council “as your elected officials” directly by in-person meeting, phone or email.

The meeting proceeded through deputations by various residents in opposition to the Tiny Township administrative centre (TTAC) project.

Zulynik took the opportunity to squeeze in challenges against council, mostly in protest of a 300-page TTAC update published days before the Easter long weekend. Council countered that they too received the report at that time and had the same opportunity to digest its contents. She also informed council that the petition had reached over 2,000 signatures.

A resident describing herself as emotional implored council to halt the project, citing the 57-year-old building as being before her birth and that it should remain for her children to experience; another resident with physical limitations opposed the new facility while admitting the inadequate basement lights of council chambers caused hardship and she required external time to recover after attending a meeting.

A deputation by Federation of Tiny Township Shoreline Associations (FoTTSA) president Paul Cowley laid out a set of reasons to put a pause on the project, but followed with a set of questions he demanded council answer within weeks.

Walma, prepared for Cowley’s deputation, held up a copy of the 2015 strategic plan committee where Cowley had participated, noting several municipal goals including initiating the TTAC project.

Several times during the meetings, a call to order was raised against the vocal attendees.

Mayor Dave Evans interrupted the regular council meeting when voices were raised to ask for respect, threatening to “clear the chambers.” In the latter committee of the whole meeting, chair Coun. Kelly Helowka similarly stopped proceedings to urge decorum.

Coun. Dave Brunelle voted in sole opposition to nearly all progress of the TTAC project, sympathizing with protesters and reading prepared statements aligning with their concerns. Over several meetings, Brunelle has continually requested for greater transparency beyond municipal legal obligations or limitations, often being instructed by Walma or CAO Robert Lamb on why such requests couldn’t be accommodated.

When the time came to discuss the 300-page report, public works director Tim Leitch gave a high-level overview of its contents and four resulting motions.

The proposed facility looked at by the TTAC committee, including members Evans and Walma, aimed to use new technology for the 50 years ahead of its build.

These included: Meeting net-zero carbon emissions; utilization of geothermal and solar energies; providing an Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act environment for staff and the public; reduced-but-open office spaces and increased council chamber capacity including a larger lobby area for overflow and kitchen facilities for functions.

Grant opportunities such as the Green Municipal Fund were being explored, offering a possible 15 per cent on a borrowed $10-million investment. Leitch explained the justification for Unity Design Studios as the grant writer at a cost of $100,000, as the amount could offset the annual $1.5-million grant receipt over the term of the project.

“These are very technical reports that have to be written in a very defined time frame,” explained Leitch, “and there are groups where this is what they do. They know the nomenclature… the wording to put in there, and they know how to get these grants approved through the government. We want the success of this grant; we need this grant to make this project – it’s very helpful from a financial standpoint.”

While stressing that there were no financial decisions or approvals in the meeting, Walma attempted another try to reason with opposing residents through their tax bills via calculations of the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation.

“For the average home in Tiny Township if your MPAC value is $350,000, that is a cost of $6.39 a month over the cost of the project; you’d be at roughly $75 a year to pay for the administrative building, laid out as such," he noted.

Brunelle sought clarification from staff on potential environmental impact regarding ice age grass that could halt progress on the TTAC, but was informed that preliminary studies including environmental assessment would be required as part of the normal planning and development process.

An introduced motion by Brunelle to halt the project and host a public information session “so all the questions can be answered right now” was met with applause by the protesting opposition, but it was defeated as council reasoned answers would be provided once the studies were initiated and completed, with those reports made available for the already-allotted public information session in the project’s future.

However, council members did agree to a Brunelle request for an immediate public information session.

Further discussion arose on its immediacy as the limitations of township space for such a session, and its hybrid bandwidth approach to include seasonal residents, led council to request staff explore external municipal locations, which even included Vaughan. Cost, time and location options were requested for a council meeting later this month.

The olive branch extended further as Walma reiterated his offer for residents to contact him, and other council members, for in-person meetings over the coming weeks.

Direction to the TTAC committee approving of its four options listed in the staff report was given, to be brought back for possible discussion and ratification at an upcoming regular meeting of council.

Walma reached out to MidlandToday for further comment on the cyberbullying aspect.

“This is about sharing a message that you can be frustrated with a process… with a decision, but there’s a respectful way to go about doing it. The culture that has sprung from the social media channels is just inappropriate,” said Walma, reiterating online threats regarding “buses with tandem axles” toward council and Tiny staff, who he reminded, were acting on council’s decisions and direction.

Anticipating the “toxic atmosphere of people in that room who think no one sees these posts they’re making” for an additional public information session with residents, he mused why he would want to subject himself or staff to such an environment.

“I’m in council chambers with people that have joked about killing council,” said Walma with a nervous laugh, “and I’m just expected to sit up there and smile.”

While not feeling threatened directly by the comments, Walma said the same might not be the same with other council members and staff which was his reason for addressing the cyberbullying issue at the meeting.

He added that while politicians are perceived to have signed up for such engagement, it wasn’t what he signed up for.

“I’m all for constructive criticism and discussion, but when it comes to bullying or harassment, there’s a line.”

Regarding Zulynik’s activities, Walma stated: “She never approaches it in a dialogue format; it’s a demand format.”

MidlandToday reached out to Zulynik for comment on the meeting as well as her social media activities, but did not receive response at the time of publication.

However, a post by Zulynik was later made on her social media page on April 4 reading: “Citizens reporting their views and facts regarding anything relating to taxes/costs and citizens rights in direct relationship with what that the Township is doing. Please no hate speech or cyberbullying, no mention of threatening anyone's life.” No ‘likes’ or comments were given by participants to the post at the time of publication.

CAO Robert Lamb was asked to comment on municipal staff response to cyberbullying in the corporation.

“All of our policies relate to staff; of course we don’t tolerate harassment or bullying at any of our facilities. The challenge is when people carry on that behaviour in a social media context that leave us pretty much hamstrung in order to respond to comments that are made," said the CAO. 

Lamb also shared his concerns about “...comments that were made about ‘put them in a boathouse and burn them up’ or ‘they all need to be run over’ with a truck or bus. I don’t know why anybody thinks it’s acceptable to do that.”

Lamb cited instances where people would drive into the municipal office lot to take photos of township staff’s personal vehicles to put online, and stated that Tiny staff “expressed severe concern” about being intimidated by such surveillance.

Lamb added he had spoken with Southern Georgian Bay OPP detachment commander Insp. Todd Pittman about “possible future steps" if it carries on.

“I’m not going to allow my staff to feel intimidated,” Lamb asserted.

He stated in his 25 years as an employee of various municipal entities he had “never seen such behaviour,” but added that incidents were rising in other communities as addressed by the Online Harms Act put forward by the federal government recently.

The TTAC update report, recommendations, and schematics for proposed facility variations, can be viewed on the agenda page on the Township of Tiny website.

Archives of council meetings are available to view on the township’s YouTube channel.


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Derek Howard, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

About the Author: Derek Howard, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Derek Howard covers Midland and Penetanguishene area civic issues under the Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the Government of Canada.
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