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Frustrated Matheson residents turn to province for help

Some residents are calling for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing to intervene in the township, however, the mayor argues there are parts of a petition that aren't true
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MATHESON - Some Black River-Matheson residents are looking to the province to help in the wake of a significant municipal tax hike. 

A petition calling for intervention from the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing was created after a 34.2 per cent tax increase was approved by Black River-Matheson in May. The ministry recently received it and has 24 sessional days to respond.

Mayor Doug Bender said there are parts of the petition that are untrue, one of which being a statement that the township isn’t following legislation.

Pauline Francis, who spearheaded the petition, said over 70 per cent of eligible residents signed it.

“They had a budget meeting not open to the public, they had no public input whatsoever, and they had increased the budget at such a high rate with no explanation as to why other than it is past councils’ mistakes,” Francis said.

“They passed the budget in like six hours. When I worked for a municipality in Alberta, we would start a budget, but it would take us months because we would analyze everything and we'd have a public meeting and so on. Everybody is frustrated with the way things are (run) here and they all want the same thing: public accountability, financial accountability, and transparency.”

Francis has talked to Temiskaming-Cochrane MPP John Vanthof.

Vanthof told TimminsToday he made it clear that it was not his role to get involved with another duly elected level of government's matters.

“But if they had concerns, there was a petition process in the Ontario legislature by which they could contact the Minister of Municipal Affairs,” he said.

“If a petition is to be created according to the rules of the legislative assembly, and is signed by residents of Ontario, it is my responsibility to ensure that the petition is introduced into the legislature. Residents of Black River-Matheson created a petition and I submitted to the clerk's table last week.”

The messaging from the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing is similar to Vanthof's.

"Ontario recognizes municipalities as responsible and accountable governments, with responsibility to manage their annual budgeting processes taking into account local circumstances and other related timelines for raising revenue and paying expenses," said spokesperson Sherine Williams in a statement.
"The levels of municipal services, estimates of financial needs (including those for annual maintenance and infrastructure improvements), and the amount of revenue to be through property taxes are decisions of council."

The ministry encourages people to voice their concerns with the township. 
If someone believes that council is not operating within legislation complaints can be filed with the Ontario Ombudsman, which investigates municipalities. 

The mayor believes the township has some of the best staff in the country.

“Our staff follows every rule in the municipal act, actually to the extreme, where sometimes I'm being cautioned as to how I even proceed. They're making sure that I'm not in trouble and that the municipality is running very legally and properly, as well as fiscally responsible," said Bender.

On June 30, Francis was issued a cease and desist letter signed by Bender pertaining to defamatory comments and the petition. About 40 people in total received a similar letter, said Francis.

“Since April of this year, our senior staff have been subjected to hurtful, absurd, uninformed and inaccurate comments that has and continues to cause mental or emotional suffering without any reasonable purpose. Many of these comments have been made on Facebook sites known as The New Matheson Group and Matheson 2021 What’s Happening,” Bender wrote.

The letter noted that defamatory comments are damaging the good reputation of the township’s senior staff. It also said that the municipality respects the rights of residents to develop and seek signatures for petitions that are reasonable and contain factual information.

It called for Francis to remove comments from Facebook and publish a retraction and apology to the clerk-treasurer and CAO.

“Should you decide to continue this harmful behaviour including the circulation of the current petition or do not retract and apologize for your past statements, then the township will seek remedy from the court system,” Bender wrote.

Bender told TimminsToday that no legal action has been taken.

“It was basically an effort to try to get, as we like to call them, the social media cowboys to quiet down. It's fine to have an opinion. Everybody says, ‘Oh, you're trying to stop free speech.' There's nothing wrong with free speech, but there's rules behind free speech. You cannot slander people and you cannot spread false statements around that have no basis on fact and those are the people that received those letters,” he said.

The cease and desist letters were sent on behalf of Bender and council, representing the township. If there were to be legal action, he said it would be by the individuals affected.

“I was just making it very clear that I was aware and that the municipality supports our staff and if they are being slandered and the staff decide to take their own legal action, the municipality supports their actions,” he said.

While Bender said the social media comments have quieted down, it’s far from being perfect.

“There's still people out there that want to express their opinions in a fashion that aren't very appropriate. But at the end of the day, it's all being very well-documented,” he said.

Francis said regardless of the response they receive from municipal affairs, she won’t give up her fight.

“I have to wait for that response. If the answer is no, I will move forward with my next step. I am determined and will not back down,” she said.

“They need to be here. They need to do an investigation, what we call a forensic audit, determine where the breakdown occurred and let's move forward from there and start a new chapter because the current road that is going down is not a good road.”

Marissa Lentz, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

About the Author: Marissa Lentz, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Marissa Lentz covers civic issues along the Highway 11 corridor under the Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the Government of Canada
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