Candidates want county offices out of Guelph – but no such plan exists

Two county council candidates have introduced the relocation of the county’s administrative headquarters from Guelph as an election issue – but it appears no such plan exits.

During a candidates’ debate at the Fergus Legion on Oct. 1, Ward 5 candidate Jean Innes brought up on more than one occasion the notion of moving county offices to Aboyne.

“It may take 20 years, but someday several hundred county jobs will relocate from Guelph. One day Wellington Place will be the heart, the hub of the county,” Innes told about 200 residents who packed the Legion for the debate.

The relocation was also championed at the meeting by Ward 6 candidate Shawn Watters.

Incumbents Innes (Ward 5) and Watters (Ward 6), who are facing challenges from Allan Hons, Rob Black in Ward 5 and Diane Ballantyne in Ward 6, said moving the administrative operations to Aboyne would make upper tier municipal government and services more accessible to county residents.

Noting that public attendance at county council meetings is “pretty sad,” Watters said, “The county is massive. Geographically, it’s absolutely massive. The county needs to get out of Guelph. It needs to be in the county.”

He added, “that’s the big idea in the room.”

Innes said, “There are committee meetings all the time and nobody goes … We could have a community more involved in its higher level of government, the work of which flows down to the lower level. It’s a very exciting opportunity.”

However, several senior county officials confirmed there are no plans for an exodus from Guelph, immediate or otherwise.

“There is no discussion about it,” one official, who preferred not to be named, told the Advertiser.

The county seat has been located in Guelph for over 150 years, and while the idea of relocating offices has been mentioned by several people in recent decades, it has never been seriously discussed in any official capacity.

“It would be quite a dollar figure to move,” said one county official.

Fellow incumbent Wellington County councillors Joanne Ross-Zuj and Lynda White did not mention the idea of relocation at the Oct. 1 meeting.

Innes, who noted her involvement with the Wellington Place (Aboyne) concept plan, said the process “offered an exciting opportunity to discuss relocating the county administrative functions to two buildings at the very centre of the county.”

Watters said the county has had a great partnership with the City of Guelph, which he believes will continue, “But the county facilities need to be in the county.”

He said that would give people more opportunity to meet their county councillors and attend meetings.

“It’s a big idea and it’s not something that may be popular but it is really important that we carry that forward,” said Watters. “If I get on for another four years, that’s the program I’m going for.”

The item came up again at the Oct. 6 candidates meeting in Belwood – though this time it was twinned with the spectre of single tier government, something else not being discussed at the county level.

Centre Wellington municipal council candidate Vinnie Green said he had heard rumblings about the proposed relocation of government buildings to the Wellington Place site where the Groves hospital is going to be built.

He asked whether the county administration would be located there as well.

“I would like to know your position on negotiating our position because I can see that down the road – the townships will disappear and everything will go straight to county,” said Green, “… and there will be no more townships.”

Ballantyne said, “I think there would be an uprising if that ever happened.”

She said the location of Wellington County meetings does not undermine what the lower tier of municipal government is responsible for.

At the same time, she suggested that the potential of relocated county offices “is a great idea.”

Watters said the current municipal arrangement is a “creature of the province.”

He explained “if there was any movement for a one-tier government it would come through the province and I’m sure a lot of local folks would have an issue with that.”

Watters was part of Elora council when municipal amalgamations happened in 1999.

As to potential relocations, “it would make some sense.” Watters added any potential move would have to reflect what is happening with county services.

He said he believes departments such as planning, economic development and engineering services should be located closer to more of the people in Wellington County.

“The logical place would be Centre Wellington for those types of services,” said Watters.

However, the county is also involved in providing social services, the vast majority of which are provided in Guelph, Watters said.

“It makes sense for those types of services to be located in Guelph.”

He advocated having at least one quarter of the Wellington County council meetings in Centre Wellington.

Watters said “it is a bit peculiar and sad that the only time the county council chambers are full is when new county councillors are being welcomed to the table … or unless there are special issues.”

He added, “A lot of people don’t even know where the county building is, which is really a sad state of affairs.”

Watters believed moving key service north would allow more public participation in the process.

A similar question on the potential of county office relocation was posed to the mayoral candidates.

Incumbent Joanne Ross-Zuj said Centre Wellington is predicted to double its population within 20 years.

As to the notion of a single tier government, she said that would involve seven municipalities coming together.

“What we have to recognize  in terms of growth is that most of that growth is going to be in Centre Wellington.”

Ross-Zuj said many of its neighbours do not have the sewage capacity to accommodate that amount of growth.

“Our partnerships with the county are extremely valuable.

“They recognize that if the growth is going to be Centre Wellington, they are going to be in Centre Wellington to help us with this expected population growth.”

On the idea of the administrative relocation, Ross-Zuj said it has only been proposed as a possibility, “although it is not a bad idea because it is going to be a central campus model design incorporating health care facilities and possibly other interests from the county.”

However, Ross-Zuj said the primary focus right now is the potential of attracting post-secondary institutions to that site “to provide our young people the opportunity to remain in Centre Wellington and get the education they need.”

Mayoral candidate Kelly Linton said he has not been privy to such discussions at the county level.

Similar questions were not posed by audience members to county council Ward 4 candidates Stephen O’Neill and Lynda White.