By Chet Greason
With the municipal election looming on Oct. 22, local candidates have been reaching out to voters in hopes of getting their messages heard. The St. Marys Independent has already run bios for all 11 candidates vying for the six seats on Town Council. Those bios can be seen in last week’s edition (Oct. 4), as well as online (stmarysindy.com).
The Independent, in partnership with the town, held a candidates’ debate at the PRC on Wednesday, Oct. 9. Moderated by Rev. Pirie Mitchell, the event presented all 11 candidates with an opportunity to offer their stances on various subjects, with questions submitted by members of the public.
The debate was broadcast via the Independent’s Facebook Live channel. Below is a brief synopsis of some of the issues discussed.
Heavy truck traffic through the downtown core has been a growing concern in town, with the current council forming a subcommittee on the matter and some residents erecting lawn signs on their property demanding change.
Marg Luna was the first to weigh in on the issue. She said she was able to see both sides of the matter, and noted there have been misunderstandings between the pro and anti-truck sides. No one, she said, wants to ban all trucks from downtown; what is instead needed is traffic control and the enforcement of existing traffic laws by police. It was Luna’s hope that the Stratford Police Service, due to replace the OPP on Nov. 5, would see to the matter more efficiently.
Both Rob Edney and Peter Vossen credited the subcommittee for liaising with industry and drivers. Edney said he would like to see the subcommittee become a permanent aspect of Council, while Vossen noted positive reinforcement for drivers who obey rules could help the matter.
David Cullen suggested having two separate speed limits for vehicles in town: one for cars and one for trucks. Doing so, he said, would cut down on noise and pollution and make streets safer. He also advocated for issuing tickets for what he calls “Hollywood Mufflers,” or mufflers affixed to pick-up trucks that increase noise rather than reduce it.
Richard Hughes said he had heard that St. Marys has a GPS issue where drivers are told by the devices that cutting through town is the fastest route. Hughes added that he had not looked into the claim yet, and wasn’t sure if it was true or not.
On that note, Fern Pridham suggested that lowering the speed limit through downtown beginning at the Queen Street railway overpass from 50 to 40 km/h would cause GPS units to reroute traffic around downtown, it no longer offering the fastest course.
Incumbent Jim Craigmile, who sat on the subcommittee, says the group made progress, but more data is needed to find effective solutions. For instance, it’s unknown how many trucks are downtown due to their GPS compared to trucks that are there for other reasons.
Former councillors challenged
There were heated moments when those who had previously served on Council were called out on their past decisions. Those who held a seat when the PRC extension was initiated in 2007- Edney, Luna, and Tony Winter (who was mayor at the time)- were asked whether they had any ideas on how to make the continued existence of the centre more affordable, given a cited programming deficit of over $2.6 million annually.
Edney argued that a realtor friend of his doesn’t sell the house to prospective buyers, but rather sells the town. He noted that, when he first moved to St. Marys, the closest thing residents had to a gym was dated exercise equipment available for use at the high school. Businesses and new residents look for facilities like the PRC when considering relocation.
“Organic growth will offset that tax eventually,” he said. “When? Not at all if we’re not moving forward.”
Luna said she had no regrets that her name was on the board in the PRC’s lobby, calling it a gem of the community. Winter took issue with a reference within the submitted question that mentioned a 2007 petition that demanded Council postpone construction until additional funding was found. That opposition, he said, ended up costing the town additional fundraising through grant money, raising the cost of the project.
Winter and fellow incumbent Lynn Hainer were further called out as members of the 2010-2014 Council (as was candidate Lorraine Heinbuch, who was the town’s deputy clerk at the time.) That Council voted to increase the severance pay of former CAO Kevin McLlwain from 3.5 months’ pay to 13, a total increase of $104,101. McLlwain resigned shortly after the appointment of the new council in 2015. (The full complaint, a result of a Freedom of Information request made by Andrew Atlin, can be found in the letters section of the Oct. 4 edition of the St. Marys Independent.)
Hainer questioned the timing of Atlin’s release of the FOI request, saying he was in possession of the information for almost a year. She said discussion surrounding the contracts was done in-camera and is therefore protected, but added that all steps were taken to resolve the resignation of the former CAO in a manner that was best for the town.
Winter explained that the decision was made on the last sitting day of that Council. He said he objected to the decision and didn’t attend the meeting.
“I didn’t think it was right. I didn’t think it was transparent,” he said. “It smelled to me then, and it still smells to me today.”
Hainer then interrupted Winter, saying she wanted to make sure “we’re not going beyond what we can say, because things were in-camera.”
Presumably, this was in regards to another reference in Atlin’s letter; one that notes a further clause in McLlwain’s contract that would cost the town three times the amount in severance (up to $423,303) if details unfavourable to McLlwain were released during the severance procedure.
Heinbuch only said that McLlwain’s departure was handled by the members of Council (not staff).
Richard Hughes also weighed in on the matter, saying the situation was not unique to St. Marys. He said the key was due diligence during the hiring process, and cited situations he was aware of in his career as an executive search consultant of people “getting paid a couple hundred thousand dollars- not in this municipality- just because they’re ineffective and they just have to get rid of them.”
Lastly, Hainer was singularly pointed out with a direct question that cited her low attendance record at meetings, asking whether she thought it was fair that she received full pay. In response, Hainer explained that she had suffered a concussion following a fall in 2016, and was still recovering. She added that, despite missing meetings, she still kept up to date on Council business, and appreciated the town accommodating her by dimming the lights of the council chambers and allowing her to take short breaks.
The Arthur Meighen Development
Those who are running for Council for the first time were asked what important parameters they would use in assessing the proposed development for the former Arthur Meighen School property in the north ward.
Peter McAsh said he was a firm believer in the town’s official plan. He called the proposal- that of an apartment complex for seniors- a good idea, but said there were too many requested variances from the official plan for him to support the development in its current form. Pridham likewise said she would follow the official plan in determining the final design of the site.
Cullen described the proposal as a “fortress with a parking lot in the middle,” adding that six storeys was far too high.
Vossen noted that the development is necessary, saying there’s a waiting list for senior accommodations at the Rotary Apartments. He said he hoped that the builder and the town can reach an agreement soon, as housing for seniors is something the public wants.
Another topic that’s been widely discussed on social media is the air quality of St. Marys, and whether the emissions released by local industries- specifically that of the St. Marys Cement Company- is having a detrimental effect on residents.
However, when the question was posed to the candidates whether they thought there was an air quality problem in town, only one- Peter McAsh- responded. He said that he had not personally had any difficulties with the air quality, but there certainly was a problem. McAsh said he had attended the recent meeting where the Cement Plant, PDHU, and Ministry of the Environment presented their data and thought they did a good job of investigating, and noted that everything that is happening right now “is within the legal limit of things, and it’s very difficult for us then to dictate to businesses what they should or should not do.”
Heritage Conservation District
An open question was asked whether the candidates supported the funding made available through the town’s Heritage Conservation District, which channels funds to property owners downtown through a façade improvement program, a tax rebate, and heritage grants.
Craigmile said he did not support the program at first but would consider supporting it should certain aspects change. For instance, he would like to see these opportunities extended to properties located outside the HDC, as it would be “only fair.”
Heinbuch noted she was working for the town when these three programs were put in place, and said she believes they are working well. Additionally, she feels they add to the heritage and culture of the town, which acts as a great marketing tool when promoting it.
There were a great many more topics discussed that evening, including new business attraction and retention, affordable housing, childcare, the ramifications of cannabis legalization, hospice services, VIA Rail, and support for the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame. The Independent encourages readers to view the debate in full on its Facebook page, facebook.com/stmarysindy.