Mayor Tim Johnston said the meeting he held with Justice Minister Andrew Swan on Aug. 16, which resulted from a letter he wrote to Premier Greg Selinger on July 28, was one of the most productive sessions with the Department of Justice that he's been involved in as either a councillor or mayor.
"I really felt very energized and positive coming out of that meeting," said Johnston. "I was pleased that the letter resulted in a meeting and I'm very pleased that the meeting has resulted in what I believe is a better understanding and a mutual desire to move forward."
Among the items that Johnston and director of development and community planning Gary Ceppetelli discussed with Swan were the establishment of a detox centre in Thompson, bylaw enforcement, homelessness, the city's relationship with the Manitoba Liquor Control Commission and Thompson's recent high ranking for violent crime and overall crime in Statistics Canada's Juristat Crime Severity Index for 2010.
Johnston says that long-term solutions for issues surrounding Thompson's downtown core will not be solved unless a detox facility is established and notes that the city has displayed a willingness to make such a facility a reality, by offering land at a reduced rate and being prepared to contribute financially.
"My understanding is that that currently is at treasury board at the province and largely tied up in some discussions regarding operating as opposed to the capital end of it," he said. "I see a timeline for the detox of hopefully within the next 18 months that we'll see the start of construction. I really believe we have to pressure ... whoever is the government after Oct. 4. We're going to push hard for that facility."
On the subject of bylaw enforcement, the mayor learned that the province wasn't on board with the previous model in Thompson, in which enforcement was contracted out to Prairie By-law Enforcement. Still, he says he wished the city hadn't ended that enforcement program before finding something else to replace it.
"I supported council in terms of discontinuing the service," he said. "I think that was a mistake. A mistake in terms of the impact it's had on our community. I don't believe we were ever going to be able to get to where we wanted to get to so we needed a different model. I'm just not convinced we should have ceased that model until we had the replacement ready to hit the streets."
Evidence that that was the wrong decision is frequently provided to Johnston.
"I hear it from many people that the situation is worse today than when PBLE was first introduced and worse than when PBLE was on the street," he says, outlining how he thinks bylaw enforcement will look in the future. "I've raised the issue of a local city force and one of the first questions was is this in place of or in conjunction with the RCMP and I made it extremely clear that from my position and I believe the position of the majority of council - this is in conjunction with the RCMP. I will push hard to see the establishment of a city - I don't know what the term is, whether it's a force, a detachment, whether it's a group - of bylaw officers in 2012, so that would have to take place in the budget discussions."
The mayor says he also told Swan that the city is looking at various options to deal with long-standing issues downtown and that those solutions may include trying to get some businesses and organizations out of the city's core.
"The role of the Manitoba Liquor Control Commission is back on the table," said Johnston. "MLCC has been a very strong partner of the city but we've just got to do more, we've got to go further and nothing can be off the table in terms of discussion, including the location [of the Liquor Mart]."
Another organization that may be in the wrong spot is the homeless shelter.
"I've championed that people have to understand the downtown issues are not solely related to the homelessness issue or the shelter but I understand that when you look at that situation, boy, I'll tell you we've got a lot of elements that perhaps don't work well together," he said. "I want to see a facility that provides the supports like transitional housing, day programs, those types of things, connection to health care, connection to programming. I know we can't do that at that current location and so we've got to work hard to try to establish a facility and I don't believe it can be in the downtown area."
However, he says, a move in itself isn't a solution.
"That may include the relocation but only if it's a relocation to the correct facility not just relocation for relocation purposes," Johnston said.
Thompson's ranking on the Crime Severity Index is not likely something that the municipal government can improve on its own, the mayor admits.
"Do I believe we can drastically reverse the Crime Severity Index in a short period of time?" he said. "I don't know but I want to ensure that we certainly work on the perception of public safety for our residents. I know that perception of public safety is impacting people's decisions to stay in this community. It's impacting people's decisions to come to this community and again, it's just not acceptable. We have to do better. It's a big issue for us."
Included in that issue is the fact that Thompson has been the site of several high-profile, unsolved crimes over the years that Johnston's been mayor.
"One of the real nagging underlying issues is the number of unsolved serious crimes in this community, especially the homicides," he said, questioning the reasons behind it. "Is it a resource level, is it a commitment, what is it? We need to make sure that the resources are there because that leaves a very disturbing element ... in the community that we have ... the number of unsolved serious crimes."