Editorial; Huntsville council lacks hustle, courage and vigor for genuine resident satisfaction

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Agatha Farmer

It's hard to know where to start with the town of Huntsville council and staff crowd. Let me begin with the adage that rings true of this particular collaboration; "Because that's how we always use to do it or it's his or her turn to sit on council or mayoral seat." They play it safe and internal or so they think but that didn't stop the rotating circle of public works directors through the town hall doors for a number of years between 2011 to 2015. They finally plugged the hemorrhage by assigning the role to the Huntsville Fire Chief who then had two positions in one. Seems just slightly odd. It was just recently announced that in 2020 he will be parting with his fire chief hat and keeping the engineering based position of public works director.

When I began covering politics in Muskoka I started with the highly dysfunctional council of Muskoka Lakes in late 2017 early 2018, which was only assigned to take up maybe 30 percent of my time and in reality consumed a better part of my political coverage as Don Furniss always added excitement to his meetings. When you're dealing with the largest tax base in the district there are always highly charged issues on the floor. However, at the same time I was also reporting on Gravenhurst which was lead by Paisley Donaldson who didn't enjoy drama and ran a fairly tight ship. These two councils at that time couldn't have been further opposites in councillor and mayoral personality.

I also once in a while popped into the district meetings to get a sense of the whole governance of Muskoka. So after having covered different councils and worked with various municipal staff members from across the region Huntsville's vibe was simply different. When I was assigned to cover town politics a few months before I resigned from Metroland to open Muskoka Post I was surprised and struck by how little participation went into a council discussion in Huntsville. Coming from covering the 2014 and 2018 Muskoka Lakes and Gravenhurst councils I was accustomed to robust conversations. This council was more of a one man show with a very heavy reliance on staff for most decisions it seemed. To be perfectly honest it smacked of political and personal cronyism. I very quickly discovered that this town doesn't like dealing with to the point accountability questions, in fact, they don't like being questioned all together on issues which they don't believe should be made public to the public paying their wages. Go ahead and request the RFP for the sale of the train station - completely redacted. This attitude and behaviour are often revealed at public meetings, such as the one held following the 2019 flood. The newsroom would joke that the Huntsville mayor was "broken" during this time as he was missing in action publicly unlike Graydon Smith. His public appearance during a flood emergency is less of an issue than him and town hall in general being unavailable to their constituents while the town was flooding. I attended a post emergency public meeting and it was clear residents were disappointed in the lack of response during an emergency situation. Huntsville's counter part municipalities simply appeared to be more organized and efficient; overall and not just in the emergency management department.

It's evident this corporation has a very difficult time coordinating and truly serving their public. Upon the departure of the former mayor councillor Karin Terziano was appointed to the seat because let's face it, it was "her turn." Nevermind that Terziano is not crazy about sitting at the district council table and has been vocal about having a hard time taking off the Huntsville hat and wearing a Muskoka one. Nevermind that there was still two years remaining in the term. Yes appointment is an option but so is democracy. I'm a fan of the latter as were other residents, and yes I realize there are costs associated but I'm willing to add to that bucket as long as my freedom to choose my representatives in government remains. There is also something about having walked through that campaign fire to earn that position. From an observational standpoint the transition in mayors, however, has lightened the chamber mood and seemed to have lifted the veil of councillor silence in Huntsville.

With Terziano in the mayor's chair the candidate appointed to fill her empty seat ran in 2018 and lost after declaring that he would not be returning to politics. But alas out of a vibrant tapestry of new and fresh candidates who had submitted their names for yet another Huntsville appointment, to no surprise his safe councillor counterparts - Nancy Alcock, Dan Armour, Brain Thompson and Jonathan Wiebe voted for Bob Stone. Perhaps future council appointments could exclude candidates who lost in the last election, I believe at that point the public had spoken.

When I teased this editorial last week Stone wrote in and said my argument is flawed. Perhaps because it's simply my opinion but the point is he still lost and waved good bye to politics. But not really, he was just kidding that time.

"As I am the subject of your upcoming report I thought I’d give you my perspective.

Your premise that, persons who ran and lost in the last election should be excluded, is flawed. If we had an “At Large” voting system you may have a point, however with the Ward System you are comparing apples and oranges. Having lost the “Town and District” race for 3 seats is very different than if I lost the Huntsville Ward seat. I will remind you also that I was the only person of the 11 candidates who had actually been elected by the people of the Huntsville Ward by a strong majority in 2014.

Another flaw that many people overlook is that ALL processes and by-laws in the public realm must apply to everyone who meets basic criteria (i.e. over 18 years old, Huntsville resident, etc.), and you cannot arbitrarily make exclusions."

Perhaps we could pass another bylaw to allow that exclusion, and while he won in 2014 in 2018 the residents did not choose him but two years later our councillors did. Interesting thought process within the public service arena.

That same thought process seemed to have applied with Stone now included, with the exception of Tim Withey and Dan Armour, when council voted this week to inconvenience 260 properties, with an unknown number of residents impacted, instead of the original estimate of 490, as a triathlon route runs passed their front yard and blocks them in for four hours instead of the original six planned. This council exploited constituency over tourism but did give these tax payers the privilege to park their vehicles away from the closed road; the closed road which their property and driveway are adjacent to. The reasoning is that Ironman benefits the Huntsville tourism industry, yes it does, and no one is arguing this point. However, in this case neither the councillors who voted for this nor town staff did enough due diligence. During a public meeting on this issue a Huntsville resident questioned staff on the recommended route, her impression was that the general attitude was "Do you have a better idea?" Well see here is where the disconnect is clear. She doesn't get paid to do that. Staff and councillors, however, do. Do better, find better solutions which don't leave tax payers and town home owners barricaded even if it's just for four hours.

This ran longer than I anticipated so if you're still with me, thumbs up! I'm friends with politicians and respect the job because between the media and the public they get beaten down on the regular for decisions they feel are right. So on that note I guess I just don't understand how anyone would feel right informing 260 property owners and area residents that they can't use their driveways for part of a day or not checking in on residents who were flooded during an emergency, or dismissing the public right to vote, or selling a train station not to community groups who where willing to put effort in and fundraise to truly make it a community hub but to private investors, or not investing more in the Huntsville men shelter; the only one in Muskoka. I could go on. But you see that's my job and I like to perform it to the best of my ability because I also serve the public and they have the right to know what their money is paying for. Huntsville has a loud rumble of dissatisfaction these days.

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