Thursday, October 12, 2006

Montague Election 8 : The First All Candidates Meeting

The first all candidates meeting of the Montague Township election campaign was held last night. The meeting was very well attended and very well run. I’m not going to bore you with a blow-by-blow account, but some highlights are worth documenting.

The moderator was Paul Howard, a lawyer from Smiths Falls. Nobody present seemed to hold either of these things against him, however. He did a great job of giving equal opportunity to everyone to speak, handled audience questions well and made excellent decisions in a couple of cases where questions were not appropriate.

Candidates present were: Gary Doyle and John McTavish (for Reeve); Ken Hunter and Dave Schoular (for Deputy Reeve); Mark Baker, Bonnie Burson, Vince Carroll, Diane Coates, Bill Dobson, Bill Eckersley and Hal MacGregor (Councillor at large). Regrettably, Peter Kavanagh, a candidate for Deputy Reeve, was not able to be present – more on this later.

The opening statements were as expected, with each candidate describing their connection to the township, incumbents defending their record and challengers describing a need for change and suggesting new directions.

The challengers spoke of trying to unite a divided township, while the incumbents refused to acknowledge that there is a divide in the community. While the meeting was peaceful, divisions were all too evident. Members of the volunteer fire department sat en masse with their wives and families, snorting and muttering at remarks made by the challengers. A similar number of citizens from the other side were doing the same as the incumbents spoke. I don’t think any observer could deny the division exists; the question is what to do about it.

Gary Doyle spoke succinctly and sometimes forcefully, but appeared bored at times. John McTavish is older, and lacks the slick communication skills of Doyle or Schoular, but came across as honest and well-intentioned. Ken Hunter was amicable and solicitous, but failed to really get points across. Dave Schoular was polished and confident. Mark Baker came across as down to earth, honest and a ‘real’ person, with no act and no bullshit. Bonnie Burson also seemed genuine and to be running with the best motives. Vince Carroll was forceful in defending his record, but dismissive of other questions. Diane Coates was confident, articulate and honest. Bill Dobson’s genuine concern for the township came through at times, but at others he seemed bitter over the long running feud between the MRA and council. Bill Eckersley came across as honest, if unfocused and a trifle self-centred. There were some moments when I’m pretty sure Doyle and Schoular would have preferred Bill to say less than he did. Hal MacGregor seems honest and passionate about ‘his’ issues – he also provided the evening’s comic relief with an endless parade of non-working microphones.

In the question and answer session, discussion really focused on four areas:

  1. Fiscal responsibility and taxes.
  2. Development and growth.
  3. Openness and integrity.
  4. The Page lawsuit and resulting divisions in the community.

Fiscal Management

On taxes, all candidates essentially agreed that they favoured tight fiscal control, limited spending, and low or no tax increases. There was some difference of opinion over how big a surplus the township should run, and if that surplus should be used for increased spending or to lower taxes. There really wasn’t all that much to choose between the candidates on this issue, however. Hal MacGregor thought that seniors should get a break on some fees, such as dog tags.


On development and growth, the challengers were all interested in growing the township through business development – in particular, developing a township owned industrial park. The incumbents paid lip-service to this idea, but of course they can’t claim to have attracted any industry to Montague. Either they didn’t want to, or they tried and failed. So the challengers have a slight advantage here.

There was a lot of discussion on the development of recreational facilities, from pricey flights of fancy such as building a hockey arena, to more down to earth suggestions such as starting a youth group and organizing more recreational events. Again, there was broad consensus that more should be done within the bounds of fiscal restraint.

Openness and Integrity

There were several discussions that touched on these themes. In response to a question, Reeve Doyle, Deputy Reeve Schoular and Vince Carroll all stated that they lived outside the township. Asked if they felt any twinges of conscience when deciding matters for a township in which they don’t reside, all ruled the question ‘irrelevant’, citing their legal right to run and hold office – which the questioner had already acknowledged. Now, this makes me uneasy. I find it difficult to believe that anyone of real integrity could be completely and totally untroubled by the sense of deciding things for residents while themselves being largely unaffected. If I put myself in that position, I know it would occasionally bother me. I would like to think the three were simply being defensive here, but I think I would have been more impressed if they had answered the question instead of sidestepping it. I wondered what would motivate people who don’t live in the township to fight so hard to hold office; a possible motive hit me in a ‘light-bulb’ moment later on.

Reeve Doyle defended his record of holding many in-camera sessions of Council, saying that such sessions were only used when personal matters were being discussed, and were not unusual or indicative of secrecy. Just for interest’s sake, TDPC researchers spent a sleepless 10 minutes last night to read the last 6 months of council minutes from both Montague and from Smiths Falls. The results are summarized below.

CouncilNumber of In Camera Sessions
Montague8 (Eight)
Smiths Falls0 (Zero, Zip, Zilch, Nada)

No secrecy; no excessive use of in-camera sessions? Uh huh… It would be nice to believe. Believing in Santa Claus is nice too.

One questioner, who did not appear old enough to vote, asked what seemed like a well-rehearsed question of Diane Coates; she accused Coates of having ’lost control’ in council meetings and asked what Coates would do to restrain herself in meetings if elected. The moderator looked very uncomfortable, as well he might with such an inappropriate question, but Diane answered honestly, saying that she did not recall having seen the child at any meetings, had in any case spoken little at council meetings and therefore could not answer the question. Whether the question was genuine, or planted, it was a dirty move that was handled superbly.

The question of how much time councilors put into their work was asked, with special reference to the Lanark county council commitment required of Reeve and Deputy Reeve. All candidates indicated they have the time it takes. It hit me at this point that perhaps being on Lanark county council has its uses, and maybe that’s easier to achieve through Montague than through other municipalities – could this be a motivation for the people who don’t live in the township to want to hold office in Montague?

The Divided Township

On the question of the Page lawsuit, a questioner invited the incumbents to say what they had learned, and to indicate how they would act in a similar situation in the future. Reeve Doyle was completely unrepentant, going as far as to state that the Council would have won the suit if not ‘blindsided’ by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Darn that Charter, eh? He painted the suit as protecting employees, and (in the words of Peter Kavanagh) again wrapped himself in the fire department. Deputy Reeve Schoular also indicated he would take the same actions again. Bill Eckersley was at least honest enough to indicate that he felt he’d done the best he could based on advice received and that the citizens should judge him come the election. He also indicated that since the case had established the law in this area, council could not take the same action again even if they wanted to.

Doyle made a big deal of protecting township employees and council’s responsibility to them; Bill Dobson pointed out that council was also responsible to citizens, the subtext being that perhaps the balance between these two had not been correctly struck in this case.

Vince Carroll voiced what I felt was the mood of a lot of people in the room, that the matter was closed and we should move on.

Nobody really answered the question of what they had learned, but the implicit answer was simple: not much.

In the discussion there were still claims and counter claims about who said what when and to whom, about who was willing to talk and who wasn’t. Doyle said that council was open to talking to the MRA, but only about positives. Bill Dobson said that the council clearly still hadn’t learned they could be subject to criticism. Hal MacGregor indicated that while people might not agree with what Page said (and some members of the MRA didn’t agree with all of it) we should defend his right to say it.

In response to a question, Reeve Doyle indicated the cost of the lawsuit was about $45,000. In the midst of the general disapproval this provoked, one lady with a loud voice asked Doyle what the fire department had contributed to the township. Doyle took this easy pitch and whacked it out of the ball park, with the answer $200,000. Of course, the question is irrelevant. The $45,000 was lost, no matter how much anybody raises through volunteer work.

As an observer, I think the issue means different things to different people. For the firefighters and their families, it’s clearly deeply personal and this is very regrettable, because it should never have been so. If there was an issue with the fire department, it should have been a matter for the leadership of that department and for council to address. Whether Page or Doyle or the fire chief dragged the individual firefighters into the matter, I don’t know, but it should not have happened. One firefighter spoke up in the meeting to reassure residents they were there for us 24/7 and I think that was greatly appreciated, as is all the work they do. As an uninvolved resident, I would like to think that the fire department operated openly and efficiently and that in turn we gave them the best tools to do that.

For Doyle, Carroll, Eckersley and Schoular, the issue is about keeping power and whether council made a good judgment in choosing the courts rather than other means of resolution.

For many of us opposed to the lawsuit (but not necessarily in full agreement with Page) the issue is about freedom of speech and open government; it’s a principle issue, not to do with the specifics of a fire or a fire department. I think this should be the position of the MRA; they should no more be making it personal or about the firefighters than should council and the Reeve.

As to ways to re-unite the township, incumbents refused to acknowledge the divide, even though it was palpably in the room in front of them. Challengers all suggested working together on recreational or other projects, with committees struck from all groups involved. At this point it was greatly regrettable that Peter Kavanagh was not present, as I think he is one man who has the respect of all parties and would probably have had something very interesting to say.

All in all it was a fascinating evening, and we look forward to the next one.