‘Ottawa’ Almonte Council Parkland Dispute Results in Member of Public Leaving in Handcuffs
A long-simmering dispute over a small plot of Almonte parkland erupted at a Mississippi Mills council session this week, with three police officers pinning a member of the public to the floor before leading him out of council chambers in handcuffs.
“I won’t deny I was angry,” said Mario Coculuzzi, a 58-year-old IT consultant who attended Tuesday’s meeting as one of 16 residents invited to share his opinion on the rezoning of Don Maynard Park.
“This issue has been going on since August and we’ve had very little input. To all of us here, it’s just a sham. It’s a guise for making more properties and collecting more property taxes while lowering our property values.”
The plan has been a hot-button issue in the community since August, when council first proposed selling off about 40 per cent of the parkland, and eventually settled on a plan to develop the green space into five residential properties facing Gale Street.
There was considerable outcry at an Aug. 9 public consultation, when nearly 400 residents showed up, with crowds snaking through the hallways and spilling into the parking lot at Almonte Town Hall, where opponents presented a 1,300-signature petition urging council to reconsider.
Opposition was led by Gale Street residents, including Coculuzzi, Gloria Leonard and Steve Maynard, son of the local hero who the park was dedicated to just 13 years ago.
“I consider it an insult to my father,” said Maynard, whose father, Don Maynard, was a well-loved high school teacher and community builder.
The rezoning was designed to raise around $300,000 for upgrades to another larger park, Gemmill Park, on the other side of town.
“Destroying one park to renovate another doesn’t make much sense,” Coculuzzi said.
Opponents presented council with several options for preserving the park, suggesting smaller-scale renovations could move forward with in-kind contributions, community fundraising and donations from local contractors.
But in March, council forged ahead with the proposal to sell a portion of the park, and invited the public to weigh in on the redevelopment options.
The winning bid received nine votes out of the 180 residents who attended, according to an account in the Carleton Place-Almonte Canadian Gazette. The proposal to preserve the park, presented by Maynard and Gale Street residents, received 153 votes.
It was rejected by council, however, because it did not meet its criteria of including residential lots.
That, said Maynard, was precisely their point.
“They just threw our presentation out,” Maynard said.
According to Maynard, Coculuzzi and several others in attendance, Tuesday’s meeting was heated from the outset, with Mayor Shaun McLaughlin insisting each of the public presentations be limited to two minutes.
Maynard, equipped with four pages of typewritten notes, said that would not be possible, and an escalating war of words between Maynard and the mayor — with catcalls of “Let him speak!” raining down from the gallery — prompted council to call for an abrupt recess.
When council reconvened 10 minutes later, there were four OPP officers stationed at the back of the room.
Coculuzzi was due up to speak when the meeting reconvened, but said he grew agitated when the mayor interrupted his presentation to say council would only hear public input on the rezoning options, not on the opposition.
“I did get loud, of course I did,” said Coculuzzi. “The mayor kept cutting me off, he didn’t want to hear about the history, how wrong this process was. I had my back to the cops, and I guess my adrenaline was going, and I was saying, ‘You can’t just shut us up.’
“So then I was literally taken down. And the more I resisted, the stronger they got.”
Coculuzzi was eventually cited for trespassing, but was not charged.
Mayor McLaughlin called the incident “extremely unfortunate,” but said Coculuzzi violated both council rules and the OPP’s rules.
“I started (Tuesday’s meeting) by laying down some guidelines – to keep within two minutes, because we had 16 people wanting to speak, and to please address the issues around planning, and let’s not rehash all the grievances about not selling. We’ve already made the decision to sell part of the park,” said McLaughlin, who said the decision to call police was made during the 10-minute recess.
“Mario came forward and started very calmly, but then started ramping up both the rhetoric and the volume, and I tried to stop him a few times, and asked him numerous times to sit down. He didn’t use any expletives, but it was abusive language.”
McLaughlin said he invoked the procedural bylaw in asking Coculuzzi to leave, which he refused.
“The police arrived and … he started physically pushing back, so they took him to the floor and arrested him, as they would do with anybody,” said McLaughlin.
“I hate to see that happen in our town, but the police have their rules and he was exceeding any level of propriety. I gave him multiple chances to either sit down or leave the building quietly, and he just refused. He got angrier and angrier. And that’s what happened. We were all somewhat amazed by it.”
McLaughlin also defended council’s decision to rezone the park.
“We’re going to take some of the money from the sale to put amenities in the park, because right now that park doesn’t even have a bench,” he said. “We’re going to make a better park out of it … but they’ve just dug their heels in, and most of (the opposition) comes from the five or six people who live beside or across from the park. It’s very self-serving.”
Who was Don Maynard?
Don Maynard, the namesake of Don Maynard Park, was a well-loved high school teacher and community builder known for his tireless advocacy of the town’s parks and recreation.
As local lore goes, Maynard visited Almonte on honeymoon, inquired about the vacant teaching position at Almonte and District High School, and served as a teacher and coach for 33 years until his retirement. He and his wife Tessa raised six children in town. He sat on committees for a new arena and a new high school gym, played an instrumental role in the minor hockey association and was a volunteer member of the parks and recreation committee for 22 years, where he advocated for the development of Gemmill Park.
Steve Maynard said his father was deeply honoured with the dedication of Don Maynard Park, by former Mayor Ron Pettem on Aug. 17, 2003. The ceremony was one of Don Maynard’s last public appearances. He died in October 2004.