The Meeting Place in Wiarton was packed this past Wednesday evening for the first all-candidates’ meeting for the South Bruce Peninsula municipal election in a month. There must have been at least 200 people in what used to be better known as The Propeller Club, a name that hearkened back to the days when Wiarton was the home port of many a Great Lakes steamer, and many a mariner, including some who never made it home again but fell victim to turbulent winds and waters.
It seemed to me at least a likely venue for this meeting, given the turbulence that sometimes threatened to overwhelm and sink the current municipal council of this unlikely amalgam of communities that calls itself a “town.” Is that the problem, I found myself wondering as the meeting got under way? Is it the municipal vessel itself? Was it a mistake to put this disparate group together in the first place and expect them to work together in harmony, let alone become one community?
Someone in the audience during the question and answer session recalled the ward system was only supposed to be a temporary thing, for one term of office, presumably to ease the new, restructured “town” toward real, political unity; and then the understanding was it would be abolished. But it remains, and it was reflected in the fact that many of the candidates running in the South Bruce Peninsula municipal election were not lined up in the tables up at the front facing the electorate. The, five people running for Mayor were there, up on the stage, right under those framed photos of two old Captains of yore; and the five people running to fill the two Ward 4 seats on council were there, but not the 17 other candidates’ in the three other wards. Maybe just as well, at least from the point of view of running the meeting, and controlling it.
Oh, and yes, the four candidates running to represent the Bruce Peninsula as its trustee on the Bluewater Public School board were up at the front, waiting their turn to make their statements and answer questions. The school board has had its share of controversy and turmoil in the past couple of years especially, its own crises of confidence. But, with all due respect, they were a sideshow at this meeting. The big crowd, and the big slate of candidates for Mayor especially surely reflected heightened public interest in the South Bruce Peninsula municipal council, on account of the well-publicized problems that have wracked it for most of its three years. There was more than once occasion when the bickering and the name-calling, the allegations or suggestions of misconduct back and forth threatened to make it totally dysfunctional, like a meeting last December when Mayor Gwen Gilbert called OPP to remove a councillor from a meeting. The OPP came, but the councillor, Dan Kerr, remained, and somehow the business of council resumed after an hour of utter chaos. But it was clear after that meeting that this was a council that was never going to get along and stop wasting its time and energy in bad feeling, no matter how many leadership training sessions it took, or not.
There was, I thought, an air of curious expectation in the room just before the meeting got underway. The MC, or perhaps referee, Dave Middleton, pulled out a catcher’s mask and said he “didn’t want to have to use it.” He didn’t. There was surprisingly little reference from the candidates to the troubles of the present council, mostly just a few comments about “challenges” and “lack of cooperation,” and scant reference to it in the few people in the audience who got up to ask questions.
So, I did. I made some lame reference to “the elephant in the room” and asked the only two incumbents up front, Mayor Gwen Gilbert and Counc. Stan Hoath, want went wrong, “when did the bad feelings on council start and why?”
Gilbert talked about “personal agendas” that got in the way. She warned voters to make sure they know what motivates candidates so the same thing doesn’t happen again. During the meeting she said nothing that indicated she felt any responsibility for what happened. On the contrary she said she was ultimately proven right time and time again.
Hoath, a veteran of many terms on the old Wiarton and now this council, talked about “a multitude” of problems that just kept coming and a “lack of trust” going back at least two-and-a-half years. He said the lack of cooperation and bad feelings on council were the worst he’d seen in his many years of council experience.
“I’m sure not proud of how this council behaved. I’d like to see trust and respect come back to the council chambers,” he said later in the meeting.
That, in so many words, was what most council candidates said they wanted; that, and a new spirit of cooperation, openness, and a renewed interest in listening to what the people have to say.
Mostly it sounded like people just want to move on, to leave the old council and its bad history in the past. I overheard the expression “new blood” a few times in the audience. With several members of the present council already not running for re-election, change is definitely in the air for South Bruce Peninsula. And it can’t come a moment too soon
Originally published in The Sun Times in 2010.