Something rather significant happened at a recent Committee of the Whole meeting of the NG Council. A recommendation was made that “a new fifteen year lease agreement with the Ferguson Forest Centre Corporation be approved. This lease agreement will be renewed every five years and extended an additional fifteen years”. Now this, in itself, was not the significant thing. No-one paid a great deal of attention to it, and it will pass without a problem at the full Council meeting.
And that is significant. For anyone who remembers the trauma and controversy surrounding another lease agreement between the FFC and the Municipality of North Grenville some years ago, it is a sign of a profound change that has taken place in the administration of the municipality since 2004. There was a time when the municipal Council seemed determined to close the FFC and sell the land to developers. I can remember vividly the stubborn resistance Terry Butler put up as a Councillor in 2004 of attempts by the mayor and council to end the lease agreement with the Ferguson Forest Centre Board. Working with the FFC Board, Terry fought long and hard to give the FFC a new and long-term lease that would enable the Centre to continue operating in the future, and continue to provide the people of North Grenville with a magnificent green space in the heart of their community. The previous work of men like Don Cameron and Owen Fitz’Gerald made it possible for us to even have that green space preserved when the Ontario Government closed its tree nursery in the 1990’s.
Not only did that previous council try to close the FFC, when it did agree to a new lease, it tried very hard to make it as short a term as they could, which would have denied the FFC the stability they needed to plan ahead in an industry where productivity has to be measured in years, not months. So to see the support Council now give to the FFC is an indication of something very positive about where we have come as a community.
To be honest, I would see it as a sign of maturity. After amalgamation in 1998, it took some time for the constituent municipalities (Oxford-on-Rideau, South Gower, and the Town of Kemptville) to come to grips with the new realities they faced. A rapidly growing population, changes in provincial funding to municipalities, and the need to upgrade not only services, but staffing levels and a more professional and qualified municipal staff. Senior managers have come and gone – two Chief Administrative Officers, as well as a number of Finance and Recreation Directors. There has been a growing awareness of the need for staff members who will form part of a team, rather than indulge in micro-managing and ego development.
The change in the character of Council has also been significant. For almost a decade, there was a sense that members of council, including mayors, were more concerned about their position and title than they were about serving the people who elected them. Mean-spirited responses to community criticism and concerns were too often seen on council, a sad lack of vision or ambition for North Grenville, as distinct from their own personal political survival.
Those of us who lived through that period remember only too well the resistance which existed on council to any public involvement in the running of the municipality – public microphones being turned off to deny free speech, appointment of councillors instead of accepting the election results of just months earlier. I was told quite clearly by one senior staff member that he took criticism of any member of staff as a personal attack – and he responded accordingly.
But perhaps the most lasting legacy of those days is the amount of basic clean-up which faced the current council when they took office. There are lawsuits to deal with due to inappropriate actions by previous municipal decision-making. There were staff that needed to be replaced, and updated administrative methods to be introduced which were long overdue.
Those were the days, all right, but I am glad to see the back of them. This current council and staff may not be perfect, of course, but they are paying attention to residents, trying to be more transparent and open to discussion. Morale in the Municipal Centre has improved significantly over the past few months, and there is a sense that North Grenville is heading in a more positive direction than before.
Of course, and this is my personal gripe, this modern, rapidly growing community has the same number on Council that the Village of Kemptville (population less than 1,000) had in 1857. It is smaller than the individual councils of the three amalgamating municipalities in 1998. Isn’t it time we had a council of a size proportional to the changes that have happened in the past 25 years, a council that is paid a fair wage considering the workload they face week in and week out? Things have improved enormously, and there will always be room for improvement in future. But let’s celebrate what we have achieved so far. These are the days.