Grey-Bruce is Long Overdue for a Municipal Leadership Shake-up

On second thought, and on balance, the proliferation of municipal election signs in some parts of Grey-Bruce more than three months in advance of the election date is a good thing: A sign, I guess I could say, that the municipal election process in this area has finally matured. Or, it’s at least heading in the right direction. 

So I take back that comment I made a couple of weeks ago about election signs “littering” the highways and byways of an area where seasonal home and property owners abound, with particular reference to the Town of South Bruce Peninsula. The signs are obviously meant to attract their attention while they’re here during the peak of the summer holiday season. I knew that. I did, really.

Municipal elections are the only time electors get to vote more than once, wherever they live permanently or own property. But you only get to vote once in any one municipality, no matter how much property you own. Incidentally, just to avoid any misunderstanding, you don’t have to be a property owner or pay municipal taxes directly to vote for your preferred municipal council candidates on Nov. 13. If you’re a tenant renting a home, apartment, flat or room, you can vote. You can even vote if you’re homeless, as long as you can show that you go back to a certain place on a more or less regular basis to lay your head down, like a hostel, or maybe even under a bridge.

(As I read them, Ontario Municipal Elections Act voter eligibility guidelines seem to make that possible. And, by the way if you don’t think there are people living under bridges, in the woods, or otherwise out in the open in Grey-Bruce, think again. Indeed, I don’t hesitate to say homeless people should make a concerted effort to get out and vote, as the cold days of winter approach, because elected municipal politicians can do a lot to alleviate the suffering of the homeless, if they so choose. Of course, that first of all means facing up to the reality that there are such people in our midst. Homelessness has become a national disgrace, in this, one of the richest countries in the world. Canadian society, including every level of government, has a moral obligation to reach out and offer help to the homeless. I would go so far as to say that every municipality should make sure there’s a place for homeless people to find refuge, a warm bed and a hot meal in a safe and secure place when they need and want it. There are many wonderful people among the homeless. Hang on, I’ll go further than that: They’re all wonderful people, because we all are. Every one of us, somewhere, right up front where it‘s obvious, or down deep where it’s not. But sometimes the wonder of who we are gets overwhelmed by the problems and stresses, and yes, the social injustices of life. There’s only so much a person can take. We’re not all supermen or superwomen. In fact, none of us are. Lives are wasted. Lives are lost. And every one of them is a tragedy. None of us were born to fail, whatever that means. The ability to overcome adversity – starting right from the moment of birth for many people, or even before – to be strong and tough, to pick yourself up, give yourself a kick in the pants, whatever, should not be the measure of anyone’s worth. There is a place, there must be a place, in this world for the most fragile, the damaged, even the regrettably broken among us, for the sake of who they are or might have been; and for our sake, to remind us of the wonderful depth and diversity of the human spirit. Apparent weakness in people can be deceiving. Take the time to look deeper, peel away the layers of pain and the harm done, and more often than not you will find, I believe, a human being who deserves a chance at life.)

Whew, I’m glad I got that off my chest.

Getting back to the municipal election maturation process and signs that it is moving right along in this area and elsewhere in small-town, rural Ontario: Not that long ago it was anything but healthy. As often as not there was a shortage of candidates at municipal election time to fill seats on municipal councils, especially in towns and villages with populations numbering in the hundreds. As a result acclamations were common. Decide to throw your hat into the municipal political ring for whatever good or bad reason, get yourself nominated, and you had a better than even chance of ending up with a seat on your local council. Serve a few two or three-year terms, and if the incumbent reeve who had occupied that head-of-council position for a generation decided to step down, you might even move into his chair. (It was called The Old Boy’s Club for a reason) Then you got to sit on county council, get appointed to committees, go to meetings and, ahem, conventions at the Royal York Hotel, make a little more money and, if you played your Old Boys’ Club cards right, move up the pecking order to the most lucrative and powerful committee appointments. And then, after a few terms on county council, you got your turn to be Warden. You maybe even got another turn or two to be Warden if you were around long enough. It all hinged on your being reeve of the local township, town or village. But once ensconced in that seat for a number of years, you were pretty well assured it would take a virtual earthquake to move you out. It was your fiefdom, until you chose in the fullness of your time to step aside.  In my view that was essentially the way the municipal political process worked in Grey-Bruce, and to some extent still does. Some may say I’ve over-simplified it. I invite comment.

At any event, the Old Boys’ Club style of municipal government is, thankfully, in decline. Such a proliferation of professionally printed election signs such as we now see in this area is unprecedented at any time in advance of a municipal election in this area, let alone so early. In recent years the trend has been steadily toward more than enough candidates, and election contests, rather than acclamations. Municipal restructuring has helped fuel the trend. When I first started working as a reporter in Grey-Bruce more than 25 years ago there were 60 municipalities, including the two counties. Now there are 19. So the pool of potential candidates is not spread nearly so thin. But mostly I think it’s a boomer thing: Some members of the aging post-war baby boom generation have taken up gardening; an amazing number are riding Harley-Davidson motorcycles, or Japanese-made Harley knock-offs. Others are getting involved in municipal politics, either as councillors, or ratepayer-watchdogs. Whatever, the reason, it’s a good thing. It‘s bound to lead to an overall improvement in the quality of municipal leadership.

Better late than never. The Grey-Bruce area has already paid a high price for a lack of strong, visionary leadership when it mattered most. The fiasco of the Grey-Owen Sound Waste Management Master Plan process more than 10 years ago, and Grey County Council’s failure at the time to take charge of the issue, means local garbage is now being trucked to Michigan, and the area is still looking for waste-management answers. Municipal restructuring, especially, in Grey, remains seriously flawed. There are still too many local municipalities, and several in Grey that make no sense other than to maintain the rural, political dominance of county council. Why, I will never get tired of asking, is the under serviced Sunset Strip still not part of Owen Sound?

Grey-Bruce is long overdue for a municipal leadership shake-up.

Originally published in The Sun Times in 2006.

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