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Year One: Long term look at services one goal of new mayor Bruce Whale

by David Meyer

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

Of the five first-time mayors elected to lower tier governments in Wellington County last fall, only Bruce Whale had even been sitting on his municipal council.

Whale was elected seven years earlier, being part of a three-year council, and then at the start of the longer four-year term he was one of five who were acclaimed, so he worked with the same five people for all seven years.

Whale said in an interview one of his main priorities came from being on the previous council and overseeing several large projects that had yet to be completed. One was the expansion of the sewage lagoon, which turned out to be trickier than he had thought, thanks to some data errors council received. Another, the Alma Optimist Hall, had a happier ending, with a successful opening last fall.

“The big issue was the wind farms,” Whale said. “We were struggling.”

That issue has not gone away, and council has yet to make a decision if it will take the recent approval of the NextEra Energy wind farm to court for a judicial review.

He took a serious look at turbines himself when they first came on the market, but ultimately rejected turbines as a business opportunity on his farm because he felt they would be too close to too many people.

He is hopeful the province will ultimately relent in its move to take over the entire approval process for green energy projects.

“I hope as the Green Energy Act moves down the road, they [the provincial government] pull us back into the discussion.”


Whale said after he was elected, “My big objective was to not take too many steps back - knowing we were going to be facing huge expenses for roads and bridges.”

He sees such infrastructure as a major challenge for all municipalities. While sewer and water are paid by the people who use them, roads are the responsibility of all taxpayers, and Whale recognizes there are limits to what taxpayers can afford.

He said it is up to council to determine “how to justify” the expenses, “how to maintain them” and “how do we do it with the standards now set by the province?”

At one time, a municipality could set its own standards, with some having higher ones than others. Today, with litigation coming at councils on a regular basis, the province has set standards determined by the amount of traffic.

“There’s a benefit to having those standards because then you have a target set out by people who hopefully understand driving safely,” Whale said.

That means if there is a lawsuit over a traffic accident, “If you show you meet the standards, it puts you in a better position. It’s a tool in our toolbox - to defend what we’ve done.”

But high costs are trumping  nearly everything these days, and Whale said it is possible townships such as his will have to take a harder look at how they spend. He said balance is “the big challenge even the upper tier is facing,” and that is difficult to explain to people who want great roads but howl at tax increases.

“If there is no assistance from the federal and provincial government, we’re going to have to accept lower standards of roads than we have in the past,” he suggested.

Whale said councils will have to consider gravel roads versus paving, and consider capital and maintenance costs. A few decades ago, municipalities were told there were savings from paving roads because maintenance costs could be made up within five to 10 years.

“Now, we have to check those numbers,” to see if they still work, he said.

Whale said rural roads were built over 100 years ago for horse and buggy, but council will have to consider what is “realistic. Maybe we can’t afford to keep every side road.”

He noted in making such decisions, considering which roads have bridges and worn out culverts might be a factor.

Whale, looking well down the road and remembering many of those roads and bridges were built when he was in his teens, said council will have to come up with a cost for “20 to 50 years of upgrades.”

Head of council

Whale worked with the same five councillors for seven years, but after the dust cleared from the last election, he was in the mayor’s chair and two of the remaining seats had changed hands. With two new and two veteran councillors, he had an interesting first year.

“I think it’s great,” he said. “There’s really an advantage of having turnovers on council. Different ideas are great, as long as people are willing to listen to the facts. I don’t mind the difference of opinion.”

There have been several of those in the past few months, leaving  Whale to cast the deciding vote. He admits, “I prefer having a majority” coming from the council itself “rather than breaking a tie, which I don’t like.”

But, he said, there is no group causing dissension, and he noted in some cases one new and one veteran councillor have voted together, opposing the other new and veteran councillors.

He added if every vote is unanimous, there is always a question “if you’ve looked at every aspect” of an issue. “A split forces you to look at every angle.”

One thing he would like to see staff improve is orientation for new councillors and mayors. Since his previous term had all acclamations, there was little in place to help everyone get started, and Whale said, “I struggle a little bit how long it takes to be comfortable with issues. What is really involved in making policy? It’s quite different than other organizations. Political structure is more complex and doesn’t move as quickly.”

He concluded when it comes to getting new people up to speed, “We can make that smoother. I’d like to get it out of the way in the first six months.”

He added he encourages staff and council to take every opportunity they can to educate themselves. “I’m a great one for training.”

Whale said he is always interested in how other councils operate, and if his council can incorporate some of their ideas to the “benefit of the municipality.”

County council

While Whale was a seven year veteran of municipal council, he was brand new to county council, which comes with being mayor.

“I was expecting in the first year to learn a lot,” he said with a smile. “It is very different from the lower tier.”

For one thing, the county deals with issues (other than roads and planning) that lower tier governments do not: libraries, social services, wider planning issues, policing and seniors’ care.

Whale has spent his first year particularly in the planning and land division committee and social services committee - and he said the latter is particularly fascinating.

“The complexity of it overwhelms me,” he said of looking after such diverse services as welfare, child care and even dental care for the poor.

“It’s depressing in a way that in a country like this, that much is spent on those essential services. I’d like to see a better way than taking it out of the county budget.”

But, he added, there are things at the county that please him.

“I’m impressed with the professional approach they take to managing the county,” he said.

Still, Whale wants to take a serious look at reducing expenses. “We have to take a look at bringing down costs five per cent or two per cent a year.”

He said of regular increases in expenditures, “That’s the danger of government spending other people’s money.”

He would like to see the county take back some services where it can, and he said there might be efficiencies by having, say, one equipment buyer for all local government.

Whale noted at least one controversy of the last term seems to be fading - awarding of contracts to companies outside of Mapleton. That was an issue when the Drayton medical centre was being built, with people complaining local groups lost work to companies from outside the municipality.

It has not arisen in the past year. “We look more at the county as our area of doing business,” as one reason.

The other is, under law, there is no choice for council but to award a job to the lowest qualified bidder.

“People understand it a bit better, too,” he said.

January 13, 2012


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