ELORA – Centre Wellington councillor Steven VanLeeuwen can keep his seat at the horseshoe, but it appears he will no longer be deputy mayor.
Mayor Kelly Linton said in an interview on Feb. 11 that he will be introducing a motion at the Feb. 16 council meeting to remove VanLeeuwen as deputy mayor and replace him with another councillor.
“It’s important to our community that we have strong leadership and that the mayor and deputy mayor are on the same page,” Linton said.
“There is way too big a difference to be able to reconcile this.”
In Centre Wellington, the position of deputy mayor is not filled via an election. One of six councillors is appointed to the role by council members and serves as head of council, and as the township’s county councillor, in the mayor’s absence.
Last week VanLeeuwen joined the “End the Lockdowns Caucus,” a group of politicians generally opposed to the public health response to the pandemic and especially to the province-wide lockdown that took effect Dec. 26.
The caucus sees the lockdown and stay-at-home order as a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and is urging the government to lift restrictions and allow businesses to reopen.
Several members of the group have been criticized by public health officials and fellow politicians for spreading misinformation about the pandemic and COVID-19 vaccines.
Linton, who initially refused an interview request on the matter, said he learned of VanLeeuwen’s move through a Facebook post “and it was a total surprise.”
He said he checked with the Integrity Commissioner to understand his own legal rights and responsibilities and to find out if VanLeeuwen had contravened the Municipal Act.
“I found out councillor VanLeeuwen had not contravened the Municipal Act, and as head of council, legally, I had no role to play,” Linton said.
Councillors can launch independent complaints if they believe VanLeeuwen broke council’s code of conduct, he noted.
Each Centre Wellington councillor was invited to speak to the Advertiser. Stephen Kitras said he supports VanLeewen’s move, while Kirk McElwain and Bob Foster said they do not. Councillors Neil Dunsmore and Ian MacRae did not respond.
Linton said VanLeeuwen “has been a really good councillor and we’ve worked together on many projects.
“But at the end of the day, it’s important that the deputy mayor and I are on the same page. And we’re not.
“I’m disappointed that we don’t see eye-to-eye.”
In a follow-up phone interview on Feb. 12, VanLeeuwen said he’s not pleased with Linton’s decision to remove him as deputy mayor.
“I’m disappointed with his decision. I don’t see why he would need to take such an action,” VanLeeuwen said. “I guess it fits in line with cancel culture.”
VanLeeuwen agrees that despite their long friendship, he and Linton are far apart on how government should respond to the pandemic.
The role of deputy mayor “doesn’t have anything to do with COVID,” he said. “That’s mostly at the county level anyway.”
VanLeeuwen recalled that last year he stepped into his deputy mayor role when Linton was in hospital, “and we worked through the daily business.
“But this is his decision and there’s not much I can do about it,” he said.
VanLeeuwen said he was buoyed to learn that Kitras supported his move to join the caucus.
“To see councillor Kitras come on board is very encouraging to me,” he said.
“He’s willing to have the discussion, which is more than others are willing to do.”
Linton said as mayor of Centre Wellington and Warden of Wellington County, he has been following the advice of various local health experts, including:
- Dr. Nicola Mercer, Medical Officer of Health for the local public health unit;
- Stephen Street, CEO of the Wellington Health Care Alliance, which operates the three county hospitals; and
- Helen Fishburn, CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association, Waterloo Wellington.
“They really know what they are doing,” Linton said of the local health partners.
“You can’t blame government for taking a stand to save lives.”
As warden, Linton said he also has the full support of the other six mayors in the county, which has allowed the county to respond quickly and definitively as the pandemic unfolded.
“We’ve been completely unified,” Linton said.
“In fact, we were the first in Ontario to support the public health mask order. We were also very aggressive in giving $1 million in low-interest loans for businesses.”
Linton said reopening the economy is “hugely important” and pointed to numerous ways both Centre Wellington and Wellington County have provided support for businesses in the past year, such as grants and low-interest loans.
The economic development task force has been very active, he said, “and councillor VanLeeuwen was part of that. And he played a valuable role.
“I just don’t like his view on the pandemic.”
Linton added, “The number one concern has to be the health and safety of people.
“Number two is the health of the economy. And that’s just how it is.”