City Council usually plots its legal strategies behind closed doors.
But Ward 3 Coun. Matthew Shoemaker took a different tack tonight, signalling strongly and publicly that he's prepared to support legal proceedings against the federal government over its foot-dragging at Pointe des Chenes.
"This is the federal government's responsibility," Shoemaker said, referring to water quality issues cited in the city's recent closure of the Lions Club Pointe des Chenes campground.
"Can we sue them for their lack of action here?" asked the councillor, an associate lawyer at Wishart Law Firm LLP.
"You can sue anybody," responded Mayor Christian Provenzano, who's also a lawyer.
The mayor acknowledged that nothing stood in the way of councillors talking publicly about pending litigation, but he asked Malcolm White, the city's chief administrative officer, for his perspective.
"When we start talking about actual legal actions and potential legal moves, strategically we would prefer that those discussions be held in closed [session,]" White said.
Councillors voted on Feb. 8 to close the campground, which is owned by the city but has been operated for the past 35 years by the local Lions Club.
As SooToday first exclusively reported in 2016, elevated levels of cancer-causing benzene have been found in untreated water at the campground's PUC-operated water treatment plant.
PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances associated with firefighting foam) have also been detected there.
The campground has been under a continuous drinking water advisory since 2008, with ‘do not drink the water’ signs posted at every access point.
Algoma Public Health and others believe the contamination originated from firefighting operations conducted by Transport Canada at the nearby Sault Ste. Marie Airport.
The Pointe des Chenes neighbourhood is home to a number of local lawyers, but residential water sampling suggests the pollution seems to be bypassing their homes, percolating directly to the campground.
Transport Canada is expected to conduct more residential water sampling there this summer.
City councillors voted tonight to put off any decision on re-opening Pointe des Chenes campground until federal and provincial officials can ensure potable water there.
"Have we had any discussions with [Liberal Member of Parliament Terry] Sheehan about this? About what he can do to get Transport Canada.... has anyone had any discussions with them?" asked Ward 5 Coun. Matthew Scott.
"The discussions we've had with Transport Canada over the past few months, we feel that things are moving now," responded CAO White. "Everybody recognizes now that it needs to move more quickly than it has."
As recently as last week, both federal and provincial officials recognized the urgency of the situation, White said.
Coun. Scott asked that regular updates be provided to City Council.
"The federal government, by way of the ministry of transportation, caused the problem, which is first and foremost an environmental problem," said Scott's wardmate, Coun. Corey Gardi.
"It threatens groundwater and shoreline areas in the St. Marys River and the Great Lakes."
"The federal government needs, once and for all, to commit to remediating the issue to the extent that they can," he added.
"I've spoken to MP Sheehan about this. He's told me he's willing to assist," said Gardi, who has previously served as a campaign manager for the Sault Ste. Marie Federal Liberal Association.
"This council is very impatient with the response we received from the federal government," Mayor Provenzano added.
"But as staff have indicated tonight, there have been some productive conversations and things feel like they're moving along."
"I think our impatience and our frustration at how long it's taken to get this resolved should be reflected and noted and they should be aware of that," said the mayor, who ran for the local Liberals in the 2005 federal election.
Ward 1's Sandra Hollingsworth said she looked forward to an update at the next City Council meeting on "this very serious matter."
"I'm still very disappointed that we're still using probably our most important asset, which would be Terry Sheehan, to be at the table," added Ward 4's Marchy Bruni.
"I'm glad to hear that in the last two weeks, staff has had communication. But prior to the two weeks, we were told very little communication had occurred," Bruni said.
"I think it's very important to get Mr. Sheehan involved. He is our representative."
CAO White responded: "Discussion has been occurring. Not just in the last two weeks, but before that. Discussion that had meaningful results hasn't always. The city didn't cause the water problem and the city is looking for sustainable solutions to it."