Rob presents oak leaf print in honour of save-the-tree campaign

Council approves $25,000 to top up save-the-tree fund 

IN GRATITUDE Joyce Burnell was presented with a special oak leaf print by local artist Rob MacDougall in honour of her efforts to spearhead the successful save-the-tree campaign.

Kim Arnott

January 31, 2007

By the time the vote was taken - after more than three hours of debate - it was almost anti-climactic.

With little fanfare or discussion, Oakville councillors voted in favour of spending $25,000 to ensure the future of the towering white oak tree beside the Halton Regional building on Bronte Road. Only Ward 2 Councillor Fred Oliver voted against it.

However, the vote came at the end of an evening that saw 23 delegations speak passionately, both for and against, spending tax dollars to reroute a planned road widening around the 250-year-old tree.

Since last June, the tree has been at the centre of a community fundraising drive. Various efforts, along with one large anonymous donation, raised about $270,000 toward the $343,000 needed to pay for changes to the road design to preserve the oak tree.

Shortly before Christmas, a three-way deal was proposed that would see the Town, Region and Province each contribute $25,000 to make up the shortfall and fund the alternate route.

The arrangement was approved at a meeting of Halton Regional council, following assurances from Oakville Mayor Rob Burton that it would be approved by Oakville council.

When the item finally came up for town consideration on Monday night, the packed council chambers appeared to be fairly evenly divided between those supporting the proposal to contribute $25,000 from the Town's 2006 surplus to the cause, and those opposing the idea.

The meeting featured everything from an art presentation to a petition, and from allegations of conflict of interest to Oakville history lessons. It also featured the Town's first use of newly-installed digital clocks to limit delegations to a ten-minute speaking time.

The art presentation came early in the meeting, when local artist Rob MacDougall presented a special oak leaf print to Joyce Burnell, the 86-year-old retired teacher who spearheaded the drive to save the tree.

The prints will be sold this year, as part of a fundraiser for the Ian Anderson house, in commemoration of Oakville's 150th birthday.

When it was her turn to address council, Burnell reminded councillors of the town's sesquicentennial celebrations and the proposed plan to plant 150 new oak trees to recognize the event.

"This is not the year to cut down the grand-daddy of them all," said Burnell. "We have an ethical obligation to pass on this wonderful gift to the next generation of Oakvillians."

She added that the $25,000 amounts to about 15 cents per Oakville resident - "not a great deal to preserve our heritage."

Others supporting the initiative to save the tree reiterated the value of the tree as a symbol for the town, as well as the small amount of money involved.

"There's more to a community than dollars and cents," said Terry Smith, who described the financial contribution as "immaterial."

"It's pennies for residents," he added. "It's a minor distraction in the budget."

Jim Young, who co-chaired the community fundraising committee added, "Let's not confuse what we're doing here tonight."

"The tree itself is not in need of a dime. The substantial amount of money we've raised will be used to build a public highway - which everyone will use freely, and probably quite frequently," he said.

However, councillors also heard from a number of residents who expressed concern about both the expenditure and the political process.

Retired local nurse Linda Da Costa presented councillors with a 408-name petition in opposition to the town pitching in the $25,000 to save the tree.

"We feel there are many better ways to spend our money," said Da Costa. "Principles were violated, no matter what the cost per person will be. This is allowing a tiny special interest group to direct Town policy."

Her concerns were echoed by Peter Swirzon, who described the issue as "a sentimental effort to save one tree."

"The save-the-tree committee was given a fair opportunity to meet their objectives. Unfortunately, they failed. But their failure should not be our responsibility," he said.

"I'm against saving the tree with my money because I don't think it's a good investment of my money," Swirzon added, suggesting that the appearance of a conflict of interest existed for some councillors who donated money to the fundraising effort and lobbied to convince others to support the cause.

Swirzon suggested that councillors had an obligation to approach the issue with an unbiased perspective, and suggested those who couldn't should declare a non-pecuniary conflict of interest and refrain from voting on the matter.

No councillor chose to make that declaration, and the proposal to spend the $25,000 was quickly supported.

However, Ward 3 Councillor Mary Chapin also said she was "most displeased" about having the Town publicly committed to doing something prior to an official meeting.

"I have concerns about the process through which we've come on this issue," she said, noting that, in the future, she hopes for a "full, inclusive discussion" of all issues, with all councillors.

Ward 4 Councillor Allan Elgar blamed the public dissension around the issue on "a lot of misinformation," while Ward 3 Councillor Keith Bird added, "This whole thing has become quite embarrassing."

However, Ward 1 Councillor Ralph Robinson noted, "I believe that every move that was done on this issue was done in good faith."

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