Time for a change

If the Centre Wellington Chamber of Commerce intends to continue with its Awards of Excellence, it really needs to do some soul searching on its rules of engagement. What happened with the Citizen of the Year choice should never happen again.

To be clear, there is zero animus between the recipient and this publication. Over the years we have been happy to meet with deputy mayor Neil Dunsmore, thoroughly appreciated his time coaching our twins’ soccer team and think he is a good guy generally. In that sense there is no joy holding out this example of why a sea-change in thinking is needed.

The Chamber of Commerce has long held itself out as the champion of business, which remains a noble and appreciable mission. Over the duration of the pandemic it proved a lifeline for many small businesses seeking information on regulations and how to navigate a timeframe no current ownership interests had seen before. Opportunities to network and learn about others in the business community has proven itself indispensable over the years and its current CEO Sally Litchfield certainly has done a commendable job bringing business together in such a trying time.

One of the great benefits of being around for a long time is also a curse. Trends not necessarily evident to the actors involved emerge and there is a point where something needs to be said. 

Over the past two decades we have watched as the lines have blurred between for-profit, non-profit, community service and tax-funded entities. The champion of business seems to have adopted a mindset of champion for anyone. On the face of it that might well prove a good strategy for enhancing reach and membership, but it blurs the lines between those who practice risk and reward and those who get a government cheque. 

There is a significant difference between a small business owner investing in their business and a tax-funded operation fulfilling a budget item. Quietly that concern has been pointed out time to time, but has never been fully resolved. That really needs to happen if the community is to correctly celebrate award recipients for their particular contribution.

The chamber does its very best in its call for nominations, encouraging people to submit a name of a business or person deserving of recognition in select categories. And to be very fair, submissions can be slim, hence the need to cultivate and suggest suitable nominees. Some categories allow self-nomination and while that may happen, lots of people, businesses and organizations prefer to be recognized because residents or fellow members notice their truly good deeds and accomplishments.

We do however live in different times, where self-promotion and adulation leave the humble in the backseat. As a community we need to do a better job recognizing and appreciating special people and businesses or else the exercise will be viewed as a popularity contest of and for an exclusive clique. That assessment has already seeped into casual local conversations, which is unfortunate.

A total of five citizens were nominated in 2022 for Citizen of the Year. From what we understand two candidates were part of the process for a second year in a row, after failing to secure the honour last year. Barb Evoy, (former Citizen of the Year winner in 2014) is an elected Upper Grand District School Board trustee and deputy mayor Neil Dunsmore is a first term council member with Centre Wellington. 

Most communities or chambers tasked with a Citizen of the Year challenge specifically exclude elected officials from getting such an honour to avoid perceptions of bias. Common sense would also suggest if given the honour one would not seek the limelight a second time – there are nearly 29,000 people here after all.

The City of Brampton, as an example, has its own Citizen of the Year award and notes clearly under its terms of eligibility that it “Cannot be an elected official, a resident planning to run for municipal/regional council, or be staff of the City of Brampton.” The rule is there to stamp out the potential of currying favour with the political class.

According to a Centre Wellington Chamber official, no such written rule noting the distinction between citizen and politician exists. There is also no rule that once granted the honour of Citizen of the Year, a person should graciously abstain from chasing it again. While it would be our contention that any politician with a smidgeon of common sense would walk away from such a nomination rather than run to it, this absence of rules allowed the nominees through to the adjudication panel. 

In order for that panel to fairly adjudicate, Mayor Kelly Linton, who provided a letter of support for Dunsmore, had to absent himself. Councillor Ian MacRae was called on to judge the township-sponsored award. Read that again: the township-sponsored award. The four letters of support for Dunsmore are all extensions of his work as an elected, paid member of council. Each author of those letters could stand to benefit at some point from moral and/or financial support at council. It becomes a ticklish situation, best to have been avoided.

Mulling this over since the announcement, we remain perplexed that no one within this circle of events thought better of this prestigious citizen accolade being awarded to an elected person, particularly in an election year.

It’s a poor look, for all involved.