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Year one: Dennis Lever sees much to be proud of in Puslinch

by Mike Robinson

ABERFOYLE - This is the second of a five-part series on first time mayors from the lower tier municipalities in Wellington County.

It may be only his first year in office but Puslinch Township Mayor Dennis Lever is pleased with the results and the progress he has made.

Lever said “The new council has settled in and are working well together.”

Four of that council (including Lever) are new to the political arena, and a couple of them really had not been regular attendees. Lever thanked township employees for their efforts working with the new council.

He said it was a big change for staff and he doubted they had ever seen that change to council in a single election..

“But I’m really pleased with the way that has gone too. They’ve been working very well with council - very cooperative. We’ve certainly made an effort to listen to any concerns they’ve had. I think they’ve been listening to us as well, and adapting to the changes. I’m particularly pleased with their effort that the employees have put in to move agenda items ahead.”

If Lever had a concern as a new mayor, it was to make sure issues do not stall.

“I was forewarned that things were going to take a lot longer in municipal government ... than what I was used to in the private sector. I was surprised, even then,” he added.

In looking over his first year in office, he looked at what councillors had committed to, and what was delivered.

Open access

“One of the things we committed to was more open access to council - and to the information around council,” he said.

Community forums were requested and held.

“We didn’t get the participation we had hoped for, but we did try it. Certainly there were some people at the community forums that I had never seen at other types of events.”

Lever added, “We have the complete council agendas now on the township website. The file is pretty big at times, but you can see all the information.”

Before they went on line, residents had to pay for copies.

“That was a big thing for me. I wanted everybody to be able to see the same information we did [where possible].”

Another change was having the administration office open all day.

Lever explained “When council was campaigning, it was a big issue that the office was closed from noon to 1pm. It may have been okay once upon a time, but not now.”

Another more recent move was the installation of a sound system in the council chambers. He believes that has helped address being able to hear what happens at the council table and at presentations.

He quipped, “I was at a committee meeting the other night where they didn’t use it. I was in the public gallery and it was obvious that we have to make sure we use it at some of the committee meetings, too.”

Accountability

Lever said accountability was a big issue during the campaign. “We have restricted what is funded by our taxpayers and we are working on a general code of conduct and expense policy.”

While those items do not exist yet, “We’ve started the rough draft. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel - but we need a document that everyone understands.”

Lever added, “The budget process has been dramatically improved.”

There is real consideration of the previous year’s actual spending - as compared to what that budget was. Plus, he said, there is the inclusion of five year planning.

“And certainly anyone has to justify any expenses.”

He anticipated starting the 2012 budget process in early January. “We want to be able to get it done earlier in the year.”

He cited the success of Wellington County in taking that approach. “They saw some real benefits from moving the budget process up, especially in the roads department.”

Lever said Puslinch is also undergoing a councillor salary review.

“The current system seems to be highly leveraged by variable amounts, based on meetings.”

A new financial reporting program beginning in January that will bring the township online with current practices.

“It will take a year to grow into this because there will be categories which will be difficult to budget for.”

He said the new financial reporting system will be closer to that used by the business community and Wellington County.

Aggregate issues

“We’ve made significant progress on aggregate issues,” Lever said of a major issue in Puslinch.

The Big Lake funding was a big issue last year, where the township had applied for  funds. “The township would have been on the hook for $100,000 to match that funding,” Lever said.

“We said ‘no,’ and because this is really a rehabilitation project for the aggregate companies. If it goes through, they should be funding it. We asked the Ministry of Natural Resources to meet with council at two former aggregate pit sites to talk about improving the rehabilitation approval process.”

He added, “We asked that the municipality be much more involved in any licensing surrendering in the future, to ensure any rehabilitation does take place in the way it was outlined.”

As mayor, Lever has joined a group of mayors representing the top ten aggregate producing municipalities in Ontario.

“We’re meeting on a fairly regular basis and trying to move ahead aggregate issues in the province.”

Lever said there are issues the Association of Municipalities of Ontario might not see as important as it deals with the needs of over 440 municipalities - but maybe only 50 have similar aggregate concerns.

“We’re also hoping to see an increase to the [gravel] levy, and have seen a commitment that it would be reviewed this year.”

He said the aggregate business and sandstone industry are also behind the move for an increased levy as a means to access more funds to rehabilitate abandoned pits.

“It might be beneficial to a lot of us, but it will take time,” Lever said.

Safety issues

“Stroy’s Bridge is a definite safety problem and we’re working through the program in place to get it out of there.”

He hopes to see that project completed in the not too distant future. “That was one of those projects that I thought would move ahead much quicker than we could.

He also noted, “Speeding on the roads continues to be a big issue for residents. We’ll continue to pursue what we can do to address that. We’ve come up with some ideas, but there certainly isn’t a one size fits all solution to that.”

Lever said “some of the township roads have become a commuter lane to get between urban areas. The highways are congested and people are looking for alternates.”

Community Centre

The community centre land purchase, when finalized “will give us an opportunity to look at that whole area, to expand and maximize the offerings there. It lets us step back and look at how we want to use the entire area for the future.”

Lever noted, “The population of the community has gone up and a lot of investment has taken place.”

He cited the recent construction of the Optimist Recreation Centre and the Aberfoyle and Puslinch branch of the Wellington County library.

“There’s a lot there, and if you go over there on a Saturday, it’s a pretty busy place.”

Biggest disappointment

“Probably my biggest disappointment is that we haven’t resolved the technical issues with the Optimist Recreation Centre.”

He was referring to problems with noise from the ice compressor and neighbours complained about the aesthetics of the building from one view of it.

“We’ve been working on that for over a year now. We’re getting closer, and again this is something that has taken way longer than I ever imagined to sort out.”

He added, “We’re not there yet, but the facility is being used - I’m happy about that.”

He anticipated the centre would see considerable use over the holiday season.

Biggest achievement

“I don’t think there is just one,” Lever said when asked about his biggest achievement in the past year. Instead, he suggested it is a culmination of various accomplishments.

“I’m pleased that we’ve gone as far as we have.”

Surprises?

Lever said he has found being mayor much as he’d expected. He attended council meetings for three years before deciding to run for office.

While he was familiar with the public process, he had not seen what happened at the extra council meetings.

“But I’m retired, so I’m as committed as I can be to this. It does take up a lot of time, but I was prepared for that as well. My wife and I had a lot of discussions about this before I decided to run.”

Running for mayor was his first foray into municipal politics, but he is hardly a novice in the field of public involvement. Lever retired six years ago after working for a scientific instrument company for 33 years. Because of that workload, he did not have as much time to take part in the community as much as he’d wanted.

Once he retired that changed. “I was happily retired when I became involved with a local residents’ group. I started to come to a couple of council meetings” and a neighbour told him about a gravel pit application - the Aitkensville Pit.

“I got involved with the citizens’ group and ended up leading that group, which was committed to trying to stop it. It was not in the right place in our minds, and it was not a good thing for the community.”

He became president of CARRA - Cranberry Area Residents and Ratepayers Association, the group opposing the pit.

“It took a long time, but we won. It went all the way to the [Ontario Municipal Board]. To our knowledge, it was the first time a gravel pit had been turned down,” he said.

During that process, “I got close to what was happening in our local government and I wasn’t happy with what I saw.”

He said, “It came down to I either had to live with it, or do something about it.”

Once he decided to run for mayor, Lever talked to friends and others who had been involved in local government.

“They were the ones who said it would take a lot longer to do anything than I’d anticipate ... They were right.”

Even as he campaigned, Lever said there was no specific issue, “but rather that the township had not kept up with what was expected in current times in terms of openness or accountability.”

Could more have been done?

Lever said Puslinch is a relatively small municipality and there is not a lot of administrative staff, and council has to be cognizant of that when assigning a workload to staff who have regular duties to perform as well.

As for the reaction from residents, “The feedback I’ve had has been very positive,” Lever said.

He receives email and talks to residents regularly.

“They are very pleased with the progress we’ve made and feel we are headed in the right direction.”

Future goals

Lever said prior to being sworn in, the new councillors did met to talk about what each person’s goals were. “We realized we couldn’t accomplish everything in year one, so we set things out over three years.”

As Lever looked back, the majority of those items are either in process or done.

One issue that will affect Puslinch for some time is the proposed Highway 6 bypass of Morriston. He has requested a meeting with new  Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Bob Chiarelli.

Lever added, “I’d like to establish some communication with the surrounding municipalities.”

He has met North Dumfries Mayor Robert Deutchmann,  a member of the top 10 aggregate municipalities group.

He had met Halton Hills Mayor Rick Bonnette once at a meeting with Wellington Halton-Hills MPP Ted Arnott.

While he has talked to Guelph Mayor Karen Farbidge on the telephone he has not spoken to her in person.

He also has yet to meet the mayor of Cambridge.

Lever also wants to begin process of vendor reviews. He is uncertain how long it has been since the last one, but said such reviews should be done on a regular five or ten year cycle.

He said Puslinch might be getting the best service from its current providers, “but if you don’t look, you don’t know.”

He also anticipates starting strategic planning late in 2012.

“It’s a big undertaking and there are still other issues which need to be dealt with.”

He also wants to see renovations to the council chamber completed. The work, he said, is more of a refresh than a major overhaul.

“There’s certainly a lot of planning needed to deal with accessibility issues - especially at our community centre. We also need to start reviewing some of our bylaws. Some of them are pretty old and out of date.”

He said that is a big job, but needs to be done.

Economic development

Lever said there is a big move afoot at the county level for economic development.

“I want to see us get involved in the economic development of the township.”

Lever said Puslinch has a big feature that can be marketed for economic development - Highway 401.

There are also some areas of development where Puslinch has been very successful, “but I don’t think we have enough.”

He explained about 75% of the municipality’s tax bas is residential and farmland, and 25% comes from commercial and industrial.

“A substantial portion of the industry tax base is the aggregate industry - and that will not always be there,” Lever said. “We need some other sources of revenue other than the residential tax base to pay the bills.”

He plans for the municipality to get more involved in economic development to improve that situation.

January 6, 2012

 
 

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