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New bylaw officer aims to be proactive and preventative

The 'community safety and well-being officer' is a pilot position that officially started in January
Downtown, and having a visible presence downtown, is a key part of the work that the community safety and well-being officer does, but it is important that the officer is approachable and adaptable

The City of Stratford has a new bylaw officer position, but it is unlike any other position in Stratford – or any other municipalities for that matter. 

“To tell you the truth, I can’t think of quite a replica on this,” Kim McElroy, director of social services with the city, said. “I know that other municipalities use bylaw in a more compliance related (way) to deal with downtown vacancies. That was not our intent.”

The “community safety and well-being officer” is a pilot position that officially started in January. As McElroy said, it is focused on education and awareness when it comes to the needs of the community, including both downtown vagrancy and youth behavioural issues in particular.

After a needs study was conducted last summer, both of those issues were identified and fell within the scope of federal funding that was awarded to the city. 

Knowing that they did not want to take a compliance approach, but rather a supportive approach, this new bylaw officer position was drawn up. 

“So in a typical instance, if there was downtown vagrancy, a police officer would be called,” McElroy explained. “We did not believe that was the best use of emergency services’ time. So we kind of looked at the larger scope.”

The position is taking a proactive and preventative approach, with the ultimate goal of diverting calls from emergency services and decriminalizing some of these activities, to use support and referrals for the people that are in need of help. 

“It's as simple as maybe going into a community housing building and talking about what bylaws are,” McElroy said. “It’s a proactive, preventative approach … They work with police, community, paramedics, fire, outreach, Canadian Mental Health Association, all of these are working together on this.”

Downtown, and having a visible presence downtown, is a key part of the work but it is important that the officer is approachable and adaptable, to best assist the various institutions in the city, such as schools. 

Additionally, Adam Betteridge, director of building and planning with the city, hopes that this position will provide some relief to a division that is currently backlogged. 

The bylaw enforcement division is small in Stratford, with two officers that focus on typical enforcement – things like property standards, for instance. 

With encampments and downtown vagrancy increasing in the recent past, bylaw officers were often being called to those matters, which wouldn’t traditionally be in their scope.

“Which is a good thing on one hand,” Betteridge said. “But on the other hand, some of our traditional bylaw enforcement matters were getting left behind.

“The short-term rental stuff is what's causing some concern … Our staff that are relieved from that day-to-day type of issues that the community well-being officer is dealing with now are focusing on researching and addressing how to best tackle our unlicensed short-term rentals.”

As to what this officer will look like in the future, that is still to be decided. There have been ongoing discussions on what the uniform will look like, whether it is a vest, a paramilitary uniform, whether it is dark clothing and ball caps like the other bylaw officers or brightly coloured and approachable. 

The position is a one-year pilot project, having been approved by city council in its annual budget deliberations to the tune of $118,000. 

The position has been filled by a Stratford bylaw officer who was a natural fit, Betteridge and McElroy said. 

Although grants will be used for the funding of this position, as noted in the expansion request, if continued the position will be covered by future grants, social services funding, the tax levy, or a combination thereof. 

“This is a big trial,” Betteridge said. “We expect it to be successful, but we are doing a lot of research, the person in that position is doing a lot of research in figuring out where there's quick wins, where more work might be needed.”