Harassing pool staff, families, over program issues “inappropriate”: mayor

By Ken Kellar
Staff writer

There is still plenty of upset in the community surrounding programming at the Memorial Sports Centre, but Fort Frances mayor Andrew Hallikas says that while disagreement with council and administration is fine, he draws the line at members of the public harassing those who have nothing to do with the town’s decision making.

In a phone call with the Times, Hallikas explained that while he has heard constructive and respectful feedback from many who have been disappointed or upset with programming at the pool being postponed due to a current lack of proper certification, he has also received reports and heard from staff that some members of the public have been venting their frustrations about the situation at not only pool employees, but the family members of town staff and administrators.

“It’s human nature that when you disagree with something, you want to try and redress that, and I totally agree with that,” Hallikas said.

“When council or administration make decisions that some residents don’t agree with, they’ll often contact us to voice their concerns, and rightly so. That’s the democratic process in action, and we welcome feedback… but what’s never appropriate, in my view, is to confront or harass town employees who are not involved at all in the decision making process and are just going about their day doing their jobs. Even more concerning is when some members of the public confront or harass family members of town employees. I’ll put it bluntly: this is extremely inappropriate, and people who do that should be ashamed of themselves.”

Hallikas said his message to members of the public who are concerned about proceedings at the pool, or any other town matters, should only ever direct their concerns, anger or protestation at council and administration and leave employees and their family members alone.

“We welcome feedback because that’s how we grow,” he explained.

“That’s how we know what issues are out there and then we can deal with them. The most effective way to provide feedback, or register disagreement with council or administration, is to contact those who actually make the decisions, and that’s mayor and council or the CAO of the municipality. This can be done with a phone call or letter or email or they can even do a deputation to council and appear at council and speak directly to us.”

On the topic of suspended programming at the pool, both Hallikas and Town of Fort Frances CAO Faisal Anwar said that administration is doing what they can to address the issues at the root of the problem, namely that there are no staff members who are currently certified to offer the various program types, nor train other employees to be certified as well. Anwar stressed that the town is actively trying to solve the problems, but that there are currently no quick ways to do so.

“We are currently looking into it, and we may have some answers within the next few weeks, because it is not something we can do or fix right away,” Anwar explained.

“We are still facing a shortage of lifeguards, which is not just our community but it’s a nationwide issue. To keep all programs running, we need to find creative ways [to do so] especially the Aquafit programs, which require a certified trainer, which are even more difficult than finding a lifeguard. We are currently exploring our options and we will definitely get back to council and community with our recommendation.”

Anwar noted that the town does factor in training when it comes to budgeting each of their departments, but that the pool is a difficult entity to figure out due to the different levels of employees who work there.

“There are training budgets, but we need to look at the recreation industry as a different one, and there are some industrial standards,” Anwar said.

“There are different components into it. It’s not just ‘train your full time staff,’ but we have casual and part-time staff, we have trainers who are casual, not full-time employees. It’s industrial practice across the nation that trainers certify themselves, they pay for their certification, and then towns and communities hire them for their services, and those are basically add-on services. Currently we are exploring what the best option is for us to bring those programs back into action.”

Of course, training takes time, and Anwar noted that even if they could source a trainer tomorrow, it would still be weeks to months before any additional employees were trained to run the programming. The town is doing what it can and will keep both the public and media informed of what progress they make in that area. That being said, Anwar did share that programs like Tai Chi and yoga classes at the senior centre have been cleared to resume for Monday, February 13 as the requirements for someone to lead those programs were easier to achieve than what is facing the aquatics programming.

On the topic of cancelled or non-renewed memberships due to the lack of programming at the pool, Anwar said that the town doesn’t have data to track those specific metrics, but the overall membership numbers have held steady, suggesting that whatever number of individuals who have cancelled their memberships due to this issue have been made up by others purchasing a new membership.

Hallikas shared that he understands the frustration people are feeling when it comes to not being able to access their preferred programs at the pool, noting that he himself is a regular using of the Sportsplex facilities, and he urges the public to have patience as they try to sort out the issues and work to resolve them.

“Understand that no one wants to postpone programs,” he said.

“The only reason why these programs got paused is because there were circumstances that we discovered that basically led to unsafe offering of programs, or no liability if there was a problem. We always want to err on the side of safety, especially for our seniors, of which I’m one, who are taking advantage of programs. If I’m taking a program or working out in the gym, I want to know there’s somebody who has qualifications in first aid, and also to know maybe the kind of things I shouldn’t be doing. Those are our real concerns.”

Hallikas also said the town is currently undergoing a revision of programming at the sports centre, using the expertise of newly appointed staff to come up with a new recreation plan that will help to guide the town in the future, but that those same staff members are discovering there is a whole heap of unexpected work ahead of them.

“We’re really fortunate in the new manager that we have, who is extremely qualified in aquatics and public recreation, we’re really excited to have him,” Hallikas said.

“But what’s happening is he’s also finding out that there’s a number of policies and procedures  that are missing or never got written. Those are being looked into. We’re finding out that we have user groups that have been using the facility for a long time, but we don’t have any written contract, or it appears some of these were contracted on an oral basis. You just can’t do business that way. So we’re really trying to revamp the whole thing… so we do ask for patience, but this will all get sorted out and we’re hoping to come out with a much better, stronger program.”