Controversy grows over Hamilton's transit summit with province

Hamilton city council gets a chance next week to ask for its slice of a $15-billion transit funding pie, but what message will be delivered is unclear.
Steven Del Duca, shown heading to a cabinet meeting on June 24, will be in Hamilton for a closed-door meeting next week to talk about rapid transit. But at least one councillor says he's worried the mayor will send an anti-LRT message. (The Canadian Press)

A planned summit meeting with the province meant to clear the air between the Hamilton and the Wynne government over rapid transit funding is already embroiled in controversy and uncertainty.

City councillors will get a chance next week to talk to Minister of Transportation Steve Del Duca about Hamilton's slice of a $15-billion transit funding pie announced in the provincial budget.

The city is seeking clarity on what the province will fund and the province says it needs clarity of what Hamilton plans to to when it comes to rapid transit: light rail or bus rapid transit.

Some councillors expressed concern what message will be be delivered and that the plan is to deliver it behind closed doors.

And for those reasons, Ward 4 councillor and LRT fan Sam Merulla will boycott the long-awaited meeting.

The plan at the moment is for Mayor Bob Bratina to meet with Del Duca , MPP Ted McMeekin and the city's four-member government relations advisory group on July 25. The mayor’s office announced the meeting will be closed, but Bratina was in the U.S. on city business Tuesday and couldn't be reached for comment.

"This was organized in a very haphazard manner," said Merulla, who is a member of that committee.

He told CBC Hamilton on Monday that he believed the meeting was going to be open, but said he assumed it was the fairness to Hamilton committee, of which he is chair. The optics of a private meeting are at issue, Merulla said, and he doesn't want to create a "perceptual problem." 

"We need to take a step back, reevaluate how we move forward and cancel the meeting," Merulla said. "I won't be in attendance."

Ward 1 councillor Brian McHattie said he's “uncomfortable” with the mayor, who's against the provincial money going to LRT, delivering the first communications to a new minister when there's 10 years of transit funding up for grabs — especially since council won’t be meeting as a whole to give any direction to the government relations committee.

“I’m pretty uncomfortable with the way in which the meeting is called,” McHattie said. “We know for a fact the mayor has been bad mouthing that position.”

Last year, councillors unanimously supported the city's Rapid Ready plan, which includes an $800-million LRT line, so long as the province picks up the entire capital cost of the project.

Local blogger and activist Ryan McGreal went further than McHattie, calling the meeting Bratina's "latest attempt to derail" LRT.

"Frankly I applaud Coun. Merulla for not going along with this farce," McGreal said.

"(The mayor) has his own interpretation on what he voted for," McGreal added. "It's been an ongoing issue what the mayor is saying to the province is not consistent in what council is voting for."

The last comment is in reference to council 2011 decision to strip the mayor of powers to meet with the province, an issue that came to boil over GO Transit funding when the Liberal minority came to power in Oct. 2011.

"I want to make sure that when (the Minister of Transportation) comes to Hamilton what he’s hearing is what council has been supportive of.. I don’t want (Del Duca) to get a distorted view of where Hamilton stands on LRT," McGreal said.

McHattie worries what message may be delivered by the small group, if he’s able to attend, and the timing of the meeting’s announcement.

“The meeting was announced the day after council…ensuring there would be no opportunities to talk about it in council,” McHattie said. "It’s very unfortunate how it’s come together.”

McHattie has asked the city clerk’s office if he can attend. 

The mayor’s office, meanwhile, said a closed-door meeting is a normal for introductions.

“Most meetings with other levels of government are closed, especially when meeting a new minister,” said the mayor’s chief of staff, Peggy Chapman. “This is just the first of what is expected to be many meetings which might include public access.”

Ward 7 councillor Scott Duvall, who sits on the advisory group, said he hoped the meeting would be open, but did not think a closed-door session would alter the message from council to ask for 100-per cent funding for LRT.

“It hasn’t changed,” Duvall said.

Councillor Russ Powers also sits on the committee.


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