Richmond Hill city council has left local organizations reeling after voting to cancel all grants to community and cultural groups — against the recommendations of its own staff.
At a meeting on January 22, city council postponed voting on the funding recommendations. That in itself was unusual. The city’s community services department had recommended a total of $64,820 in funding for 20 organizations on the short list.
The maximum proposed for each group to receive this year was $5,000, already a proverbial drop in the bucket when it comes to the costs of presenting professional level arts performances and education, providing services for disadvantaged groups, or other goals of the organizations involved. The diverse group of organizations includes the Alzheimer Society of York Region, Opera York, Richmond Hill Symphony Orchestra, and Richmond Hill United Church, among many others.
At the January 22 meeting, Mayor Dave Barrow was the only council member to vote for the grants approval to go forward immediately.
Representatives from the recommended organizations were requested to meet with city council to answer questions on the morning of February 12, a Wednesday. After all the organizations had made their pitches to justify funding, council voted to cancel all funding for culture and community groups.
The move left the organizations — and the individuals who took the time to prepare for a meeting — frustrated and disappointed.
Ingrid Taheri, Artistic & Executive Director of High Notes Avante Productions Inc. was at the meeting, and published a lengthy post on Facebook about the experience. High Notes is a choir for singers who have had mental health challenges.
“More than being frustrated that we didn’t get the money, I am frustrated that so much time and resources were wasted. Why make the grant available if nobody is to get it?” she writes.
Local filmmaker Sean Cisterna wrote a post at the Council Accountability Group (CAG) website. “Today, however, I am ashamed to be a resident of the City of Richmond Hill,” he begins.
In his post, he points out that it was a small grant from Richmond Hill city council that allowed him to write the first draft of a script in 2015. That script went on to become From the Vine (2019), starring Jo Pantoliano in a story about the world of Italian wine. It kick started a career that has gone onto further heights, including directing and producing the acclaimed drama Kiss and Cry in 2017.
“It proved to me that culture does not matter to this council. That the arts do not matter to this council,” he writes.
Councillor Greg Beros forward the motion to postpone. According to a report in the Richmond Hill Liberal, he commented that city council should not “hand out tax dollars” to community groups.
Regional Councillor Carmine Perrelli blames a politicized arts community for the cut in funding. He is also quoted in the Richmond Hill Liberal. “One or more of the organizations have deviated from their core missions and have become a political lobbying group,” he said.
The meeting also provided evidence of a rift within the city council itself. Councillors David West and Karen Cilevitz had to recuse themselves from the grants approval process. Both declared an “indirect pecuniary interest”. In the case of David West, that involves a volunteer seat on the board of directors of one of the arts groups on the short list.
Councillor Cilevitz declcared an association with a number of the organizations, and went on to clarify her position in a council meeting on February 6.
“I in no way ‘profit’ from any of those associations and affiliations, nor do I receive any monetary compensation from them whatsoever,” she said, while making reference to “derogatory insinuations” she claimed had been made by other councillors at the meeting.
The funding cut comes after years of using the $65,000 Richmond Hill Community and Cultural Grant to fund a wide variety of community based arts and other groups.
The move follows a year that has been described by some media observers as one of turmoil and division within Richmond Hill city council, and the rise of citizen’s groups like the Council Accountability Group (CAG).