Elora’s W.O. Mendell revived attacks on county council

Earlier in 2013 this column carried a two-part account of the attacks on the conduct of county council by Fergus editor Hugh Templin and sometime Elora councillor W.O. Mendell which took place back in 1923 and 1924.

Both men had serious concerns about the inefficient way business was being conducted, and at the refusal of county councillors to countenance any sort of criticism. Templin’s editorials had resulted in his being banned from council sessions. That only infuriated him more, as did the approach of other editors in the county who were reluctant to criticize county council.

When Templin’s campaign for reform and a change in attitude went nowhere, he moved on to pursue his many other interests, but his opinion of Wellington County Council did not change.

Templin’s loudest supporter was W.O. Mendell of Elora, a foreman at the J.C. Mundell furniture factory, who divided his spare time between horticulture and politics.

The issues of extravagance and accountability had been dormant for a couple of months when Mendell handed Templin a long letter reviving those matters at the end of 1924. Templin was only too happy to assist Mendell: instead of placing the letter on the editorial page, as was the custom, Templin ran it with a prominent headline in the upper right corner of the front page of the News Record’s Dec. 4 issue.

Mendell, who was being provided with some inside information by an unidentified county employee, reiterated the fact that a special audit had revealed that extravagant spending was worse than he had originally charged. He went on to note that the majority of county council expenditures were authorized by only a couple of county councillors, while the council as a whole dealt with smaller and inconsequential matters. For example road expenditures, which constituted the majority of council spending, were authorized on the signatures of only the head of the roads committee and the road superintendent, and further, the road superintendent carried a pad of blank forms signed by the head of the roads committee.

On another matter, Mendell noted that the clerk and treasurer were paid $5 per day and travel expenses to attend committee meetings, even though their job descriptions indicated that those meetings were part of their duties, and that county council had never authorized such expenditures. Both were paid $1,800 per year in salary. The per diem payments amounted to another $317 for the clerk in 1923.

Other expenditures were routinely made without the approval or even the knowledge of county council. As well, Mendell noted that the county auditors had been employed by the county on other matters during the year, a clear violation of the Municipal Act.

In conclusion, Mendell noted that if there was clear extravagance in the items that could be verified in the county accounts, the same must surely be the case in items which county council did not see or vote on. He called for a complete and thorough audit of the county books, to be conducted by a firm of chartered accountants.

Hugh Templin, in the same issue, leapt in with an editorial supporting Mendell. He summarized the controversy from earlier in the year which revolved largely around per diem expenses of county councillors. At that time it was revealed that J.A. Thomson of Maryborough, the warden in 1923, had received $2,487 in payments, more than triple the income of an ordinary working man. At that time county councillors responded with the defence that the payments were all legal. Soon there were revelations that some of the payments were dubious at best. Rixon Rafter of the Arthur Enterprise News thought a royal commission be asked for to investigate. County council later, with reluctance, agreed to issue an annual statement of payments to councillors.

Templin observed that Mendell’s latest letter contained charges that had not been brought up before, and he noted that Mendell had sent copies to all the papers in the county and to county councillors, who were then in session at Guelph.

County councillors were livid. Mendell had portrayed them as self-serving grafters just as the annual elections approached. They trembled at the thought of having to answer to tight-fisted voters, with the annual municipal elections only weeks away. Councillors took the unusual step of striking a special committee of seven, headed by A.B. Farrell, charged with supplying answers to Mendell’s assertions.

Their report, issued on Dec. 6, was vague and general. It claimed that county council “never spent more for supplies or labour than were proper,” and went on to claim that council committees “have attended to their duties faithfully and well.”

The committee stated that the procedures for making payouts had evolved over time, and worked well, and that necessary work “was done expeditiously and in the best manner possible,” but acknowledged that “no system is infallible.” The report continued by dealing with details but always in a general manner, citing precedence and convenience as a defence for the status quo. The report ended with a demand that Mendell prove his charges or withdraw them. He had, in fact, already done so.

Overall, the report denied some of the charges made by Mendell, but ignored others, and it paid no attention to some of the specific procedural matters referred to by Mendell. Public reaction, as might be expected, was mixed. The councillors from what is now Centre Wellington were all at the bottom of the list when it came to submitted expense claims. Big spending county councillors claimed that those men, from Fergus, Elora and the adjoining townships, simply wanted greater control over county council, and were attacking councillors from the North and West in order to carve a more prominent place for themselves. The complaints, they noted, were originating from Fergus and Elora.

Those defending county council actions insisted that everything they did was done legally. To Mendell and his supporters that was not the question. He thought the principles of fairness and reasonableness should prevail, that councillors should act out of service to the public good, and that the pocketbook of the ratepayer should always be kept in mind. 

Mendell succeeded in placing the issue of accountability into the municipal elections that year, but it would seem that he had little overall effect in changing either the composition of council or its basic policies. For his part, Hugh Templin endorsed the sitting reeves of Fergus, Elora, and the adjoining three townships. That move seemed to indicate a move on his part to support the status quo.

In succeeding years county council did introduce more accountability in its financial procedures, and the weekly press, led by Hugh Templin, stepped up their reporting of county council activities. Still, Templin remained wary of the body and retained his suspicions that too much was decided upon behind closed doors. His feelings both led and reflected opinion in Fergus. In succeeding decades that municipality would tangle several times with county council, insisting that Fergus was contributing much more to the county than it was receiving.

The problems Mendell exposed are undoubtedly inseparable from a body that is only elected indirectly. County council was composed of reeves of the various municipalities.

Most had long experience in public life, and over that time had developed a contempt for anyone questioning their motives and actions. Only an infusion of new blood was likely to effect major change, and that was virtually impossible with a body composed of the senior politicians in Wellington County.

Stephen Thorning