Mapleton candidates square off at election forum in Alma

ALMA – Candidates for township and county council and local school board trustee positions fielded questions on topics ranging from taxation to truck traffic at a meeting here on Oct. 6.

Hosted by the Optimist Club of Alma, the meeting was attended by about 150 people and included all six candidates for four positions on Mapleton council (incumbent Mayor Gregg Davidson has been acclaimed): incumbents Michael Martin and Marlene Ottens and challengers Amanda Reid, Bill Sipes, Martin Tamlyn and Erik Begg.

Two candidates for the Wellington County Ward 2 councillor, incumbent Earl Campbell and challenger Frank Carere, and four candidates for Upper Grand District School Board trustee position representing Mapleton, Minto and Wellington North were also present: incumbent Robin Ross and challengers Daniel Greer, Daniel Kelly and Natalie Breau.

The first question submitted from the audience to township council candidates revolved around a province-wide shortage of family doctors.

“What is your perspective on the best way to collaborate with other levels of government to ensure Mapleton residents have a primary health care practitioner that’s a family doctor or nurse practitioner?” read moderator Jim de Bock.

“Every time the doctor recruitment committee has come to council to ask for a contribution from Mapleton we have wholeheartedly endorsed that request and will continue to do so as far as I’m concerned,” said Ottens.

“It’s difficult for us as council to recruit doctors because we already have a great recruitment committee in place for the Minto-Mapleton Health Team and we will continue to support that,” she added.

Martin said, “I think it’s really important to distinguish the responsibilities for healthcare.

“Health care responsibilities lie with the federal/provincial government. Here in Mapleton, we’ve honoured the $10,000 annual request from the from the (Minto) Mapleton Family Health Team (recruitment committee). We certainly provide … a wonderful spot that the family health team rents from the township, I believe it’s pretty much paid off at this point.”

Martin added, “So essentially, we provide a great environment. And when we need to, we can apply additional political pressures to other level levels of government who are responsible for funding healthcare.” 

“We have seen in the past that we’ve been able to contribute through grants and things to allow for recruitment and the biggest thing is to advocate for residents to other tiers of government,” said Reid.

“But we need to be able to do that in a way that is positive to keeping doctors that come here to stay,” she added.

“Healthcare isn’t really a municipal domain. It’s more of a provincial and national thing,” said Begg.

“So we can pressure, with council, to lean on the provincial government to make sure we’ve got proper education, proper compensation for the medical sector. And we can incentivize graduates, from medical school to move to our community by building a strong, attractive community,” he added.

Tamlyn said part of the solution is having conversations with health care professionals “to see what their reality is.

“I spoke to one practitioner recently … and a lot of nurses were getting compensated for coming into an area and offered $25,000 to move to that area,” Tamlyn said, suggesting one reason professionals might go to other areas.

Wage disparity with other areas could also be a problem, said Tamlyn.

“The amount of money that they get paid in this region compared to Guelph, you can’t afford to live in our community. So actually, someone who’s been working here might have to move on,” he stated.

“So how, as a council, can we support that, in that individual case … make it more affordable for that healthcare worker?” he asked.

“As a councillor, I would be fully supportive of any and all efforts to improve access to health care for all. I think it’s very important. We’re very blessed in our community to have the healthcare service providers that we have here,” stated Sipes.

Candidates were asked about a North Wellington Community News report that Mapleton Township is trending toward a deficit of approximately $350,000 in 2022 and what specific steps they would take to put the township “on a firmer financial footing that does not involve raising taxes for its residents?”

“If the options are not to raise taxes, the only other way we can lower the deficit is by finding efficiencies and reducing expenditures,” said Begg.

“Part of that is, I think, fully costing what any of our plans are to find out what the intangibles are … if we lay out a full plan, where we put in contingencies, then we can look at cost overruns and reduce those wherever possible.”

“It’s a very difficult position, because when you think of the cost of everything, in our own personal lives, the taxpayer isn’t immune from that,” said Tamlyn.

“It’s a case of prioritizing, and maybe it is efficiencies. I have not been on council, I’ve not been to those meetings and if really hard decisions have to be made, then we’ll have to look at that if and when elected.”

“A balanced budget, I think, is a very important thing,” said Sipes.

“The next four years are going to be very financially challenging for many communities. I think that some of the situation we’re in right now is the way I understand budgets are set. If you come up with a budget, you plan it off for the next three or four years and, as you all know, the last three or four years things have increased in cost. And you can set a budget, run it out three years, have the same general revenue coming in and the thing that you were you budgeting to do actually costs you more.”

Sipes used the example of the Drayton water tower, which he said would probably cost double the original estimate.

“And you have no control over that. The water tower had to be done. And so those are types of hard decisions that are going to be have to be made going forward … Nobody wants your taxes going up. I don’t want my taxes going up, but they’re probably going to go up. But you have to make some tough decisions in terms of what services you provide, and what you do going forward,” Sipes continued.

“If people had read that Community News article beyond the headline, they also would have noted that the municipality ran a surplus for the previous two years and that that would undo the deficit that was running in the year three of our three-year budget. So ideally, barring any great financial surprises, it should balance,” said councillor Marlene Ottens.

Ottens continued, “Municipalities are not allowed to run a deficit. So we would have to find something to cut … if we still needed to make up for that deficit. We’d have to find something to take off our capital project list perhaps. But ideally, because of the surplus in the previous two years, it should work.”

“When I joined the council in fall 2014, we were doing year-over-year budgets, operational and capital budgets,” said Martin.

“It was doable at the time, but things have certainly changed. So we’ve adopted more of a long-term capital budget. We budgeted like 25 years out. So we plan 25 years out on capital stuff,” he explained.

“This past term, under finance director (John) Morrison, we adopted a three-year budget process. And he’s been introducing philosophies of sustainable and stable funding processes … these pillars to ensure long-term sustainability financially for the township. And it certainly comes at a cost, but it creates a path that everybody knows where we are on it,” Martin added.

“I think if anyone that was sitting up here promised that we couldn’t and wouldn’t raise taxes, that would be a red flag to me,” said Reid.

“Because a municipality has to be able to, obviously, take our taxes and spend wisely. And that’s the most important thing I think about when I want to be on council. I want to know that I could walk up to somebody and they can say to me – ‘Where did our tax dollars go, Amanda?’ – and I can have an answer. I can say, ‘Look, we have this capital project coming up. This is what we’re forecasting,’” she explained.

“And having a long-term plan – like Mike had said – 25 years of capital and a four-year plan for council, is so important because we need to be able to prove to residents and to the people who brought us to these positions that we are doing everything we can to spend your dollars wisely.”

Candidates were asked how they would handle community concerns related to a “truck bypass” through Alma. The question refers to a alternate truck route running through Alma that was created when the County of Wellington posted signs suggesting truck traffic from Highway 6 use Wellington Roads 7 and 17 to bypass Fergus.

Tamlyn, the first candidate to address the question indicated he was not aware of the issue. “News to me,” he said.

Tamlyn indicated his approach to such concerns would be “to listen.

“I think that’s one of the one of the most important roles as councillor is to listen to the community and also be available to the community,” he said, noting he recently went from full-time to part-time teaching “in the hope of being elected and to treat this actually as a job.

“So just to be available for those concerns and help the community advocate for them and for their need,” Tamlyn added.

“I’m not familiar with the truck bypass,” said Sipes, who asked “if someone can provide some more details as to what it is and what’s going on with it.”

De bock offered an explanation, stating, “the traffic running on (Highway 6) runs through Fergus, and people in Fergus don’t like the interruption. So the planning board then for the county decided to find a bypass.”

The moderator pointed out the situation has caused concerns about pedestrian safety in Alma and trucks backing up through the village from the intersection of Wellington Roads 7 and 17.

After de Bock’s explanation, Sipes continued, “Certainly if there’s a diversion of trucks and traffic through Alma because the people of Fergus aren’t happy about it and it’s affecting the quality of life for people in Mapleton Township, that’s something that the council should obviously be concerned about, listen to, and see what can be done. I don’t know enough about it to know what the alternatives are, but certainly if you’ve got a lineup of trucks … that’s probably not a great, great, great thing.”

Ottens said the question would be better answered by candidates for the county council position.

“The bypass roads, it’s my understanding these are county roads, so I’m sure from a municipal standpoint, Mapleton, we can support it as a municipality, of course with letters of support if we have concerns but I would direct the question like that to the county councillors’ debate that is coming up after this,” she stated.

“I’m not going to be that guy to say that, you know, the mayor of Centre Wellington is also the warden of the county, but … I’ll be that guy,” said Martin.

“I think what’s important is that we do need better communication between the two tiers of government. The reality is that Wellington County takes the majority of your property taxes, and operates on the most anonymity of the all the entities,” he added.

Martin said Mapleton council discussed the issue but, “we really can’t do anything about it for the reasons Marlene already noted, that it’s county roads. But certainly it’s a county issue that’s impacting residents of Mapleton, to the benefit of people and Centre Wellington, so there’s a disconnect there.”

“I am in Alma and walk these roads myself too and I’m probably one of the people that came and stomped my feet to council a little bit when it went in,” said Reid, who was a spokesperson for a concerned citizens group that opposed the bypass when it was announced last year.

“But it is a county road and that’s what I learned from it, being able to understand which part of the government almost, in a sense, failed our residents,” she added.

However, Reid continued, “making sure that we do what’s safe in our municipality, along with the county, to make sure that the roads are safer is important, whether that be safety, checking the roads for different safety things we can put in, but also … directing it to the county and having them be able to keep us in the loop when these kind of changes are being made is so important, because if not, we’re left with nothing.”

“It’s not necessarily at the municipal level, it’s more of a county thing,” said Begg.

“The question I want to pose to the county is why would you run a bypass through a community? It makes no sense to run through Alma or through Salem, when we could take perhaps take one of the gravel sideroads, pave that out and route the truck traffic away from the communities.”

County candidates

County council candidates were also asked about the truck route.

“Alma wasn’t a popular decision across parts of the county,” said Campbell.

“But they are two county roads that have been there. It was approved by 16 people with county council, so the comment that the mayor was from Centre Wellington, or the warden, doesn’t quite fly because they don’t carry enough votes to push something like that through,” he added.

“If you take on a job like this, the first thing you learn is that you’re not going to please everybody. You’re going to make a decision that’s in the best interest of all of your ratepayers, whether they be in Mapleton or the rest of Wellington County,” Campbell stated.

“While being I’m not familiar with this, the best thing that we can do is get all the facts,” said Carere.

“That’s the most important thing, to get all the facts so that you can make a good decision.”

Another questioner noted the county was still listing a requirement to be vaccinated against COVID-19 in job postings, asking, “Why is the county not recognizing previous infection as equivalent to vaccinations?”

“I think lockdowns and mandatory requirements for employment and firing, especially nurses, over an unproven medical procedure, to me is a bad idea,” said Carere.

“I had no problem with the technology, but it’s unproven for human consumption and is a bad idea. The benefits and risks do not balance out,” he added.

“Fathers and mothers are essential workers. These mandatory requirements need to be recalled the same as faulty airbags in cars and I will not be promoting such bad ideas,” Carere continued.

(All COVID-19 vaccines undergo clinical trials and over 90 million doses have been administered in Canada. The evidence shows they help prevent serious illness, hospitalization and death. Serious side effects are extremely rare.)

“We’ve just come through a two-and-a-half-year global pandemic that we’d all like to think we’re out of, but nobody’s called it off yet,” said Campbell.

“The county, in the interests of its ratepayers and its employees, of which it has a little over 1,000 between full-time and part-time, came out with a vaccination policy that was required for all existing employees. It was put in for all new hires as well.”

He added, “And you may think that’s a little bit harsh and a little bit draconian but there was a comment earlier about the crisis in the health care system and long-term care. Wellington Terrace (the county’s long term care facility) has 178 residents and we’ve lost exactly three to COVID, which is a miracle if you look at some of the numbers that are going around the country in different homes. I think that’s something we can be proud of. As a councillor, I support the policy and I will continue to support the policy until somebody declares this pandemic over.”

School board

Candidates for the Upper Grand District School Board trustee position were asked for their views on police in schools, a reference to a cancelled program that saw police resource officers stationed in secondary schools across the county.

“I was actually one of the trustees chosen to be on the committee to review police in the schools and I voted to remove them,” said Ross.

Ross said she voted to end the program because “the police were in the schools and they were talking to children, minors, without their parents present. And they can use that any information any way they want.”

Ross said when the board inquired about the type of programs being run and what data was available, most of the police services involved did not respond with information.

“I was very happy that the Wellington OPP did answer these questions and did provide that. But as a system, we had five different police services working in high schools, and many refused to answer any of these questions,” Ross stated.

“So, I can’t make a decision if police forces won’t give me any answers. Wellington County did. They told us what they were doing. They told us what the programs were and how they use the information. Other places did not.”

“I think there’s a place within the schools for police,” said Greer. “I believe that the programs that were running a few years ago, as much as they were voted on and stopped, I think that there’s a big need to reevaluate them and think about a better process to get in place to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

“I think that children of all ages need to learn about police and what their positive roles are. I think that the security these days that a police officer can put into the schools, just for peace of mind for the staff and for the students, is beneficial. It’s just making sure that it’s established in the best way, and that it’s not abused,” Greer continued.

“I believe that the police do have a place within the school system,” said Kelly. “I think in the last number of years, the police have had it pretty hard. They have hard jobs and special interest groups that have demonized them and we need to support them,” Kelly added.

“Now, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t communicate with them or have talks or sit down with them. No, I think we need to do that. But I believe they do have a place. And also to teach our children to respect to law. We do have laws in place in Canada and children need to grow up realizing that to have a proper country and community it’s based upon laws,” Kelly stated.

“Education involves the community and as a police service is part of the broader community, then I think there could be an place for them in the school system,” said Breau.

“I do think that decisions like that need to be evidence-based, like a lot of decisions that need to be made in education. So what is the impact that’s expected by having police there? Are they there for protection or safety? Are they there for education? And, is there … evidence, that their presence has been successful, and that it can be repeatable?” Breau continued.

Trustee candidates were also asked: “Where do you stand on the issues concerning curriculum that involves the sexualization, or support of these issues, in classrooms of younger children?”

“Why is it we’ve been pushing to be teaching sexualization of children? … I just can’t figure that one out,” said Kelly.

Kelly expressed concern about a voluntary student census sent to UGDSB student parents.

He said the question “that bothers me the most … deals with sexualization.

“And the question asked here is what is your child’s gender identity? Select one that applies: boy, man, gender fluid, gender variant, girl, woman, non-binary, questioning, trans boy or man, trans girl, two-spirited, gender identities that are not listed, or not sure, or I do not understand the question,” added Kelly before he was cut off due to a time limit on responses.

Greer said, “I think the first thing to remember is that curriculum is not established by school boards. Curriculum is established by the ministry. The role of the school board in the schools is how that curriculum is implemented. So the trustees are kind of bound by what’s decided at provincial level.”

Greer continued, “That being said, as a trustee, it would be, in my eyes, the responsibility to listen to what constituents are saying, and if they have concerns with things, to run that back up, and make sure that the powers that be are aware, so that they can start to evaluate and the people that can actually make the changes are aware and deal with the concerns or the positive comments, whichever way they may flow.”

“The role of trustee is unique in Ontario politics in that the Ministry of Education can remove an entire board of trustees if we do not do what they want,” Ross pointed out.

“Peel Region is currently being run by the Ministry of Education, because they did not like with the board of trustees did. 

“So when you ask the trustees to go and fight the Ministry of Education, you’re asking for your advocacy role in your area to be removed. So what you have to do as a trustee is be very creative and work around [that].”

“I’ll just echo the other candidates that that’s a Ministry of Education decision, that trustees don’t have rights over that area,” said Breau.

“Both in my professional life, and in this capacity, how I expect to operate is to have an open door … listen to concerns you have … to make sure I’ve been listening and advocating for what I can advocate.

“It might not be for this issue, but definitely to have an open door and listen to the concerns from the township.”