The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.
Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.
Celebratory events are already in the schedule for 2004 to mark Wellington County’s 150th anniversary.
One theme that is likely to be glossed over is the long tradition of dissatisfaction with the way the county government operates.
A book could be written on the subject. At the very beginning, residents of the north criticized the placing of the county seat at Guelph, at the southern end of the county. Later, in the 1870s and 1880s, dissidents tried to organize some new counties. When it was formed, Dufferin County took three townships from Wellington. Less successful was the drive in Minto and Arthur to form a new county with adjoining townships in Grey and Bruce Counties.
One effort at reform was the dividing of the county into wards, with county councillors elected directly by the voters. To give a stronger voice to the larger municipalities, county council eventually included deputy reeves as well as reeves, when populations passed a threshold.
Not all the complaints about the county came from the north. Fergus and Elora each sued the county over road expenditures. Feelings in Fergus were particularly strong. Several times that town tried to leave the county and exist as a free-standing town. There is a small handful of municipalities in this category in Ontario, St. Marys being the closest to Wellington.
The liveliest barrage against the county came in 1927 and 1928, and Fergus editor Hugh Templin started it. County council, in the years after the First World War, received only minor newspaper coverage. Several papers had reporters at the county council meetings in the pre-war period, but cost pressures after 1920 forced them to cut back.
County council became accustomed to conducting their meetings entirely out of the public eye. Occasionally a reporter would show up for a few hours or even a day, when business pertaining to a particular municipality was under consideration.
Sometimes, a reporter from the Guelph Mercury or the Herald would drop in when there were no exciting stories in the city. But then the Herald closed down, and the Mercury slowly phased out its weekly edition, which circulated extensively through the county.
In 1925, Hugh Templin of the Fergus News Record began covering council, which then met five times per year for four or five day sessions.
Templin, then in his late 20s, struck many of the councillors as a brash upstart, always ready to criticize their work, or at least report it with words dripping in sarcasm. He was also critical of his own profession for not covering the meetings. He even tried to organize a pool or reporters from the various papers in the county, but his journalistic colleagues would not accept the notion.
In 1926, W.O. Mendell of Elora stirred up a fuss over the salaries and benefits granted to councillors. Mendell overstated his case, but it had enough merit to arouse Templin’s interest. He began doing a little digging himself, and making comparisons with other counties.
Templin’s criticisms became more pointed in late 1927, when he led off an editorial as follows: “Without wanting to be disrespectful to the County Fathers, it does seem that some of the sessions are just a grand holiday with pay at $5 a day as an added inducement…”
He continued by stating that the work day there was never more than three hours, and that councillors spent most of their time playing euchre. The $5 per diem received by councillors was about double the average wage paid in Wellington back then.
The tension between Templin and the county council had been building steadily throughout the year of 1927; that editorial merely raised the stakes a couple of steps. Early in the year, Templin had made much of the problems with equalized assessment formulae across the county. These figures determined what proportion of county expenses would be paid by each municipality. Reeve Udney Richardson of Elora pressured his colleagues into appointing a special committee on the matter. The matter became a major issue, with Fergus and Harriston councils particularly upset with the status quo. Despite some glaring errors and problems with the report, county council hurriedly adopted it without revision, and without making the full text public, in October 1927. Warden D.J. Sinclair of Erin termed it a “splendid report.” Templin was the only reporter present when that happened.
The result was a furor. County council rescinded the bylaw, under threat of lawsuit from Fergus, by a vote of 23-2. During November, county officials reworked the figures, and eventually admitted that there had been errors in the amount of $337,000 in the original report. Not one of the new figures was the same as the old. The total assessment for the county was then about $37 million.
When county council met for its final session of the year, both Fergus and Harriston had their full councils present as delegations. Even though their assessments had been lowered in the new formula, they were still unhappy. As well, for the first time in memory, the gallery overflowed with spectators and a dozen reporters. Templin’s constant harping over the previous two years had pushed county council into the limelight.
That session would have been a splendid cure for insomnia. Only three matters of importance filled the five-day agenda. Nevertheless, the conduct of the councillors, and the pace of the proceedings, only confirmed what Templin had been saying for almost two years.
The first major item was the appointment of a new county constable in place of George Green of Drayton, who had resigned. There were 17 applications, but councillors dithered over the matter. Then someone stated that the position could be filed by the county judge, the crown attorney and the sheriff, if county council did not make an appointment within three months. In the end, they deferred the matter.
Next was the new assessment report. It raised the share of nine municipalities, and lowered those of the others. Fergus and Harriston had their share drop by $98,000, but they still were not happy. Their delegations voiced protestations, which, in the end, were futile.
The third item was the assumption of the road from Elora along the south side of the Grand River to Inverhaugh and the Waterloo County boundary as a county road. That was approved in short order.
It was not a lot to show for five days work by 23 men. Templin commented dryly, “to those who view this body for the first time, there is always something of a shock, but one gets used to it in time.”
One reeve admitted to Templin that he had played 10 games of euchre one day between the ample catered lunch and his first meeting of the afternoon.
At year end, Hugh Templin took some slight satisfaction with his labours. His exposure of the assessment irregularities had saved Fergus taxpayers $800, and the close scrutiny of personal expenses and per diems produced the lowest totals since 1923. As well, people in Bruce, Grey and Dufferin Counties were aware of his crusade, and they were starting to look closely at the workings of their own county councils.
It wasn’t a new order, but it was a start.
Fergus councillor Wes Ham, who was an executive with Beatty Brothers, picked up the ball from Templin. He started another drive to take Fergus out of the county, though he worried that such a move might be too costly if Fergus had to assume the county roads running through the town. As an alternative, and a more radical one, he suggested that the whole county structure could be abolished across the province, with functions either moving down to local municipalities or up to the provincial level.
But Templin wasn’t finished yet. In his youth he could be as tenacious as a terrier, and he had a sarcastic streak as well. In late January the new warden, R.J. Holtom of Minto, received a small parcel. Inside was a trophy in the shape of a silver-plated cup, six inches high and on a black base, bearing the engraving, “Euchre Championship, County Council.” He told the warden that he attached no strings as to how it was awarded, but hoped “it will be received in the spirit in which it is sent.”
At the January 1928 session of county council, most of the councillors were furious to see Templin sitting in the gallery. Some thought he had a lot of nerve showing up, and a few wanted him barred from the sessions. The trophy was not mentioned during the proceedings, but the next week, Warden Holtom returned it to Templin, explaining that county councillors did not have time to play euchre, and hoped that Templin could make use of it “in a competition nearer home.”
The tale of the trophy received wide publicity across Ontario. At that point, Templin pulled back a little from his reform crusade. Other editors, particularly Rixon Rafter in Arthur and W.D. Sampson in Elora, picked up the cause, and the print media covered county council constantly. That, in itself, had a reforming effect on the worst excesses of that body. And no one there had an immediate desire to tangle with Templin again in the near future.
Warden Hotom did not abandon his love of euchre. On Feb. 13, 1928, he staged, at his own expense, a dance and euchre event at the Harriston arena. Hugh Templin was not among the invited guests.
*This column was originally published in the Advertiser on Oct. 17, 2003.