‘You’ve got to have an election; you can’t have...
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Sep 22, 2014  |  Vote 0    0

‘You’ve got to have an election; you can’t have people acclaimed’

St. Marys Journal Argus

Stew Slater

St. Marys Journal Argus

For the 2010 municipal election, there were nine candidates for seven positions on Perth South Township Council. Three Downie Ward councillors were acclaimed; there was a two-way race for Mayor; and Blanshard Ward voters faced a choice of four names to fill three positions on Council.

Leading up to this year’s Oct. 27 vote, the Perth South ballot is decidedly more crowded, with 14 candidates vying for seven seats.

The surge in interest is not in any way surprising, however, to anyone who has been either actively or passively involved with Perth South municipal politics over the past four years. Particularly over the first two years of the present Council mandate, there was councillor-on-councillor and councillor-on-staff strife of almost legendary degree, coupled with a widespread perception (if not reality) that very little was being accomplished as a result.

“It has definitely been much better over the past two years,” offered former St. Marys hardware store owner Sam Corriveau, a first-time Blanshard Ward candidate who lives just north of St. Marys town limits and has served for about a year on the township’s Economic Development Committee.

The two years previous to that, by contrast, could not be described by anyone as harmonious.

The year 2010 closed with judicial action launched by defeated mayoralty candidate Roger Fuhr of St. Pauls, based on allegations that victorious Mayor Bob Wilhelm (the two are once again facing off in a two-person mayoralty battle this year) — as well as other Perth South candidates — failed to explicitly follow rules regarding campaign bank accounts. Although minor wrongdoing was eventually uncovered, there was never an order to have the results revisited.

In subsequent months, the St. Marys Independent newspaper began publishing weekly columns by Fuhr, exclusively offering his take on the goings-on at Perth South Council. Through this forum, Fuhr highlighted a series of activities and what he believed to be shortcomings at Council and in the township’s administrative headquarters — including a months-long investigation by Perth County OPP into a computer hard drive that had gone missing from the township offices, and the establishment of dollar-amount thresholds below which staff is not required to seek Council approval for purchases. (The column is no longer being published.)

Around the Council Chambers and between Council and staff, meanwhile, personalities clashed on a grand scale. The Ministry of Labour was called in to investigate allegations by a staff member that they were the victim of harassment by a councillor. Blanshard Ward Councillor Cathy Barker resigned in early 2012, citing “the dysfunctional nature of the Council.” At the time, Barker didn’t say too much publicly, although at least some level of evidence to support her “dysfunctional” claim was being brought to light on an almost weekly basis.

Speaking to the Journal Argus last week, however, Barker — who has resubmitted her name for re-election on Oct. 27, citing a wellspring of support from fellow citizens urging her to try again — was frank in her recollection of her 2012 decision.

“I was feeling very intimidated,” Barker said. Voting at the time — and, to a lesser degree, through the entire term — almost continuously fell with Liz Armstrong and Don Henderson on one side and Stuart Arkett, Jim Aitcheson and Wilhelm on the other. Barker and Bill Adams were infrequent swing votes.

“I felt I was being pushed into being the fourth vote on one faction,” Barker continued. “The third time that I felt my safety was threatened, I decided I needed to leave.”

Barker was replaced by Melinda Zurbrigg — through a Township Council selection process that once again drew the published ire of Fuhr. The young St. Marys-area mother never publicly complained about experiencing the same pressures as Barker, but at one bizarre 2013 meeting, Henderson was asked to leave the room while other councillors considered a demand by Arkett that the fiery former truck driver and farmer apologize to Zurbrigg for language directed her way.

Henderson, who was serving his first term representing Blanshard Ward, passed away in July of this year. At the time of his death, he received praise from both friend and foe for his passion, particularly for the work he did over the years fighting for stronger regulations on the spreading of municipal sewage sludge on farmland, and for his commitment to the St. Marys Public Library.

Not surprisingly, his perceived indiscretions around the Council table are not something any current candidate is willing to discuss. On the other hand, the willingness Henderson displayed to take on concerns raised by ratepayers is something more than one first-time Perth South candidate has cited as at least part of the inspiration for the large slate for this year’s election.

“I was in the same profession as (Henderson),” commented first-time Blanshard Ward candidate Bill Haynes of Rannoch. “I think he did a wonderful job, and that he cared deeply about the people he represented. I would have loved to serve with him (on Council).”

“He couldn’t stand the waste of money,” added Harmony farmer Bill Jeffrey, another first-time candidate running for Downie Ward.

Arkett cautions that, even if an entire new group of people is elected on Oct. 27 (actually, based on numbers, it’s impossible to have an entire new Council; with three incumbents among five candidates in Downie Ward, at least one of those incumbents is guaranteed of re-election), that’s no guarantee of smooth sailing.

“If somebody comes in there thinking ‘we’re going to clean up Council,’ they should remember they’re one person, and one person isn’t Council. You present your arguments, and sometimes you win and sometimes you lose.”

The veteran Downie Ward councillor adds, however, that despite the struggles of the past four years around the Council table, one of the positive outcomes is a renewed interest in serving an elected office.

“You’ve got to have an election. You can’t have people acclaimed,” he said.

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