Too Many Questions about the Wiarton District High School Property

Where do you get most of your information about events in your world in a way that helps make it understandable? These days a growing number of people would likely include the Internet in the answer. Yes, indeed you can find a wealth of information on the Internet about just about anything. But I find myself wondering again if people realize what an important role the news media plays in their lives and the life of a democratic society, especially where the actions of government are involved. You have a right to know what’s going on, and the reasons why. 

My concern here is not Canada’s new Conservative government and Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s apparent disdain for the news media and his efforts to supervise the flow of information, even through members of his own government. It’s the nature of the political beast in general, after all, to want to control the message. But somewhere there’s a line that separates understandable spin-doctoring from something approaching virtual dictatorship; and this government bears watching by all Canadians in that regard, especially as it seems poised to win a majority in the next federal election.

But no, I’m more concerned here with the flow of information about the actions of local, municipal government to the general public in this area. I take it for granted that municipal residents who one way or another pay taxes and fees to help pay for the cost of local government want to know how and why their money is being spent. Most don’t want to make a career out of it; they don’t have the time, and there are other things in life after all. But they’d like to pick up a local newspaper, turn on the radio or television, and now the computer, and find out what’s going on. They don’t have the patience for bureaucratic-political bafflegab, and for that matter, columns like this that take too long to get to the point. They just want the straight goods, in clear and understandable language, and in a timely manner. And then, if they don’t like what they read or see, they can make their views known. In my experience as a reporter in this area, public input from a well-informed, sometimes aroused public has often played a crucial role in helping local officials make the best decisions, even though they didn’t always welcome it. Or, if well-informed people are satisfied with the way their municipality is spending their money, then they just get on with their lives, and municipal officials get on with their jobs.

Ideally, keeping the public informed about local municipal affairs involves a kind of informal, working partnership between local municipal officials and journalists: Municipal politicians and bureaucrats don’t get to write the news; but they realize it’s in their own best interest to keep people informed. It hasn’t always worked that way, of course. Even in the good old days – say 20 years ago – when there were far more print and broadcast journalists “covering” the Grey-Bruce area, the relationship was too often adversarial rather than cooperative.

Now more than ever, with local news media resources cut to the bone, a cooperative approach is important. Municipal officials need to be more aware of the need to keep the information doors as wide open and accessible as possible, to make a point of reaching out to the public and the media, rather than avoiding them. It’s not good enough anymore, if it ever was, to sit back and expect that interested people and reporters will just show up at council meetings, or read the minutes. Every municipality in the Grey-Bruce area should have some sort of public information-media relations’ strategy that aims to keep people well informed.

Those thoughts came to mind as I mulled over the persistent public confusion and the questions still being asked about the Town of South Bruce Peninsula’s purchase more than a year ago of the old Wiarton District High School property from the Bluewater District School Board. Municipal and school board officials I talked to this week couldn’t quite figure out what the fuss is about. After all, they understand it perfectly. But they need to step outside the office and put themselves in the general public’s shoes.

Jim Kerr, a South Bruce Peninsula resident went to council recently to ask why the town bought the property for $600,000 and is now in the process of selling it to a member of council for $230,000. Kerr has a sign outside his place of business south of Wiarton beside Highway 6 asking the same question. He has put up flyers around town.

Mayor Carl Noble and most other members of town keep insisting the $600,000 the town paid for the property was really a “donation” or an “incentive” to help make sure the board built a new school in Wiarton.

Mayor Noble told me last December, when I wrote in some detail about the property purchase issue, that if the board had decided to build somewhere else it would have been a devastating blow to the Wiarton economy. “We might as well have kissed Wiarton good-bye,” he said.

The future of both the high school and elementary school in Wiarton were indeed uncertain a few years ago. In 2000 the board was looking at several options for the high school during a Student Accommodation Review, including bussing students to West Hill Secondary School in Owen Sound. Alarm bells went off in the Wiarton area. The South Bruce Peninsula council of the day and other concerned residents went into crisis mode. For a while council seriously considered a proposal to donate $960,000 toward construction of a new high school if it was built in the Wiarton area and included “multi-used” community facilities. Council committed “in principle” to that concept in late 2001, but later had second thoughts. Instead, the town started talking about paying for the cost of providing services, like roads, water and sewers, to the site of the new school. However, there were concerns that such costs are normally paid for by developers, not the municipality. It might set a dangerous precedent. The former council passed no motion approving that approach.

The current council, with some new members, was elected in November 2003. A staff report at a “new council orientation session” said the town had “an informal financial commitment” to the school board to pay it “approximately $600,000” for services for the new school.

About the same time the board closed a deal to purchase a farm property just west of Wiarton where a new combined elementary-high school was to be built. The $13 million project was in its “final design stages,” the board was told, according to board documents made public for the first time this week.

The documents, which include portions of board minutes and staff reports, have been under wraps at the town hall for more than two months. Dean Currie, the board’s superintendent of business, gave the town’s CAO, Ruthann Carson, permission to make the documents public in a letter dated May 1, 2006. Copies were given to town councillors at their Committee of the Whole meeting that same day. Currie thanked the town for its help getting the new school built, and added, “clearly, the Municipality declared its desire to partner in the project with the initial attempt to provide the Board with a $1,000,000 donation to the facility, through the discussion of trading the existing property for municipal services and the final agreement to purchase the property.”

The documents show the board also understood as far back as April 15, 2003 that the town was willing to pay all the servicing costs. In return the board was to transfer the surplus high school lands and buildings to the municipality, and pay for demolition.

But complications arose. The two sides learned a “simple exchange of property for services” was not possible. There had to be a “legal Agreement of Purchase and Sale,” the board’s business committee was told in a closed session on Feb. 1, 2005.

By Feb. 15, 2005 that agreement was drawn up and signed, with the purchase price of $600,000. There’s no reference to servicing costs anywhere in it, though the board is obligated to pay for demolition costs.

I asked Currie this week where the money went. Did it indeed go to help pay for servicing costs? No, it went into a capital reserve fund, and will be used to help cover overall project costs, he said.

Is it any wonder some people are still confused, still asking questions? There’s more, too many to ask and answer here, in this space.

South Bruce Peninsula residents should have been given more information about this situation a long time ago. How about other people in other municipalities in this area? What are they not hearing about what they should know?

Originally published in The Sun Times in 2006.

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