Analysis By John Swartz
Monday afternoon the current Orillia council concluded its business for the last time. Immediately following the meeting SUNonline/Orillia asked outgoing councillors and mayor Steve Clarke what they thought their long-lasting achievements are and what they’ll miss about being on council.
Spotting the gavel on his desk, it was pointed out there was no recollection of him ever using it. So he picked up the hammer and rapped the gavel 6 times, startling everyone still in the room.
“I just wanted to use it once in 8 years. Sorry,” Clarke said.
The hallmark of a good leader, from this perspective, is having the ability to get a joke, and then take it one step further. It shows the humanity, in the easy times and even in times when things are tough going. On the accomplishments:
“I have two answers. One is there’s obvious things, the downtown community improvement plan we implemented and is paying dividends for numerous businesses throughout the City; that hopefully will be a bit of a legacy. The waterfront redevelopment transformation which is well underway, certainly the rec center and Hydro One, those things are something I can drive around with my kids in ten or twenty years, or my grandkids, and point those things out,” Clarke said.
“The things at the moment that are most special to me are the relationships on council, the relationships with staff and in the community that I’ve been part of the last 8 years,” He continued.
Kind of like herding cats in the same direction?
“It’s everybody helping to do that is what I’m saying. When you get to work with a lot of people who give, who care, that is wonderful and it’s meaningful.”
Life is hectic for councillors, more so for mayors. They attend far more meetings – with council, with staff, and with people gathered for advice, or just meeting to a pitch a good idea, or complain. They attend events, sometimes many on the same day, even it’s just to give some official greeting, hand out an award, say Happy Anniversary, or see half a concert by a community group before having to bug out for the next event. Then there’s the trick of enduring a one hour meeting turned into five hours, or a long one ending quickly in time to watch a play-off game. The reality is officials are at the beck and call of everyone around them more than they are in control of their daytimer. So what will he miss?
“It will be the daily interactions with staff, council and members of the community. I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to be very involved in the community. It will be a different form of involvement, there’ll be different relationships, but it will be those people I’ve come to know and really respect and who have become a significant part of my life that I won’t see on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis and that’s what I’ll miss,” Clarke said.
Counicllor Ted Emond had two terms representing Ward One, but was previously the Mayor of Orillia. He had an interesting perspective about his tenure and last public duty.
“I closed the (community) centre when I was the mayor. As a councillor, I opened the rec center. That’s a bracket that’s important. I succeeded a McIsaac as mayor, I’m leaving council with a McIsaac coming in as mayor. Whatever goes around, comes around,” Emond said.
“I think personally, two highlights for me; the work we did on the Dougall Canal where we got 100% of a community to come together and agree on how to manage a City asset – to their advantage, but to manage the asset. The other is the work we did on the economic recovery task force where we worked really hard to find ways to assist our local businesses accommodate, cope with and survive the pandemic and we were very successful in doing that.”
He has things he’ll miss, and believes he’s leaving on a high note.
“(I’ll miss) the involvement of my colleagues, the energy of spending time almost every day on City issues. After 13 years of serving our community, I feel good about what I’ve done,” he said. He’s also not entirely done. A short vacation will set him up to continue to, “find a niche or two that I can continue to have some say, some impact in our city.”
Counicllor Pat Hehn, like the others not returning for another term, also had eight years on council. To her, there was more than the big, shiny objects of the rec centre and the waterfront of value she’ll remember.
“To be able to make a difference to help people. It’s not the big ones, it’s the small ones. Things like the warming center and physician recruitment,” are the things she’s proud of, not to mention keeping Terry Fox Circle open for vehicle traffic. “Absolutely.”
Counicllor Rob Kloostra said, “I’m going to miss my council colleagues and staff.” He’s happy to have been a part of the big projects council set out to do when he was elected 8 years ago, which in both cases took almost the entire time to make reality.
“Well, we have the rec center in Orillia, there’s just so much, revitalizing the water front,” Kloostra said.
Councillor Mason Ainsworth declined to comment.
Almost everything of scale took longer to see through than anyone thought it would. The majority of councillors elected in 2014 were sent to the chamber in order to get the recreation center built at the previously intended West Street site. None of them saw Hydro One in the picture, waterfront development had been a thorn for many councils before them and a new issue, climate change, landed on the municipality’s table in a serious way – in that council, urged by very concerned citizens, decided they could and had to act. The snowball of actions gathered heft when councillors Fallis and Campbell joined in 2018.
Each of those had its own hurdles, twists and turns, but the councillors not continuing can go home knowing they made those things happen in a way the community will benefit for years to come. One of the less visible things they accomplished was improving the state of the City’s reserve funds. It was a daunting task to add tens of millions of dollars to the balance sheet in black figures instead of red. Careful budgeting and a commitment to replenish the accounts previously tapped into is paying dividends. The same goes for creating a ten-year capital plan, a roadmap of what major investments need to be done, at what time, and figuring out a financing scheme to do it. A few years ago when the matter of what projects loomed, council took reconstructing Laclie Street off the list as unaffordable, then as the plan developed put it back on the list. It’s the next road project to be done once Centennial Drive reconstruction is finished.
On Hydro One, council took the wise step of placing the sale money in long term investments, theoretically so it can’t be spent, which are already paying dividends to the City. Your tax bill is about 2% lower because of this. In a few short months the main structure of the Hydro One complex will be open and two more buildings will be erected. Hundreds of jobs will be rippling their financial effect through the City, and spin off jobs will be created. Hydro rates are lower here because of this deal and will remain so for many years. We haven’t lost a dime on this deal and in fact will be picking them up for some time.
Then there was the pandemic; it was not on anyone’s to-do list. This council leapt into action, declaring a state of emergency on the heels of the province doing so. Council created a $1 million reserve fund, based on assumptions of what wouldn’t be spent from the 2020 budget because the City was shut down. They almost immediately realized, when things would begin to open up it would be in small steps; they created the downtown pedestrian mall concept understanding we would all need a relatively safe place to meet and enjoy a sense of community. To date, less than 20% has been spent and a proposal to use some of the fund to cover costs dealing with mental health issues has been floated (arguably because the mental health crisis escalated dramatically during the COVID emergency and shows no sign of anyone else attempting to deal with the fallout.)
Almost every item, large or small, appeared to be taken on with the attitude of how can we make this outlast us. Not everyone agrees with everything this council did and that is to be expected. Most get their gripes up when tax bills arrive. We are not an island, even though we have two inside City Limits.
This council did great work, when one stops to think about it, keeping Orillia positioned firmly in the middle of the pack regarding property taxes people pay compared to communities of the same size. Coupled with the health of the day-to-day bank accounts, and the investments from Hydro One (which will pay a return of investment equal to what the City received from the former OPC) and the fact the only debt on the books after this year will be for replacing all the street lights (paid for by 2026 out of electricity cost savings) it isn’t even worth trading slightly lower property taxes comparator municipalities have for ours. It really doesn’t help those struggling to pay their property taxes, but knowing things are better here than almost everywhere else one can look takes some of the sting away.
This council wasn’t perfect, and that depends on who you ask, but even detractors could acknowledge they didn’t set the community back and were generally good stewards of the City’s affairs.
(Photos by Swartz – SUNonline/Orillia) Main: The Last Orillia Council Meeting Of The 2018-2022 Term