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Joe McGuire Remembers Victoria County Councils, 1974-1999

January 29, 2023

Lindsay Council, likely 1976 - Top Chris Karkabasis, Jim Flynn, Brenda O'Keefe, Lorne Chester, Rhys Williams, Walter Stewart. Front - Joe McGuire, Dave Logan, Jack Lightbody

Joe McGuire grew up on a farm in Emily Township, where politics was constantly of interest. His father, Paul, had been a councillor and reeve in Emily Township, and chair of the County Board of Education. For his family, politics was about giving back. After leaving the farm, Joe was first elected to Lindsay Council in 1974. After serving two terms, he moved back to Emily Township, where he later served two terms on council in the 1980s, and was the final Reeve of Emily Township from 1998 to 2000. 

In Lindsay, Joe McGuire first ran for public office at the age of 29. Being young and ambitious, he dreamed of solving all the problems he perceived around him. One thing that really stood out to him was the condition of downtown Lindsay. A landlord owned a large portion of Kent Street, and there were birds flying in and out of the second storey of some of the buildings, with glass occasionally falling onto the sidewalks. “I remember I took it on myself to put some by-laws in place to make people improve their buildings. With youthful wrath I charged into it, and had the building officials propose some bylaws. One night, after a number of debates, a humble looking old man sat in the public seating and spoke calmly and gently about the problems that had to be dealt with on Kent Street. When I asked who it was, I was told, ‘that’s the guy you have been raising heck about for the past two years.’”

Joe learned that public issues are often complicated, and saw that there were many people in the community who were trying in many different ways to make things better. Little by little, downtown Lindsay began to improve itself. The business improvement agency worked hard towards downtown renewal, putting in interlock sidewalks that would last 50 years. There were many councillors with a vision for community improvement, such as Dave Logan, Jim Flynn, Lorne Chester and Chris Karkabasis. At the time, Lindsay was looking at where to locate public housing.

At the same time, Lindsay Council was overseeing the construction of the Aquatorium (RecPlex) and the Library extension. Joe served on the committee for the construction of the pool, with an initial plan to build an indoor pool for about $300,000 to $400,000. But as the committee continued to meet, it grew to include 2 pools (regular and therapeutic), squash courts and exercise room at a total cost of $1.3 million dollars. The committee included representatives of many service clubs and lawyer Don Warner, who had tremendous imagination. They found many sources of revenue: Wintario made a significant contribution; so the town would only have to contribute about $135,000. After a year of deliberations, Joe had the job of presenting the case to council, and remembered the “horror of telling them that the $300,000 project had grown to $1.3 million. But then one of the stormiest councillors stood up and said that they were getting over a million dollars of infrastructure at a fraction of the cost, so it was a great deal.”

In his second term in office, Lindsay’s deputy reeve passed away, and Joe was selected to replace him on Victoria County Council. “It was an era of mutual respect.” There were many passionate discussions about how to best allocate resources, “but the debates were on the issue and did not become personal.” There was no partisanship, each individual person was representing the interests of the community as best they could. Councillors loved to stand up and debate, there were many arguments at county council, but “then at 11:30 we would adjourn and go for lunch, get out a deck of cards, play Euchre and enjoy spending time together.” Back then, there was no fear mongering, nor any hatred of the other person, at either Lindsay or Victoria County Council. Councillors felt comfortable to change their positions when their colleagues made a good point. When they were on council, Joe had many vigorous debates with Lorne Chester, “and today he is one of my closest friends.”

Back in 1978, Victoria County Council considered restructuring, “because the system wasn’t working efficiently. There was a lot of squabbling over cost sharing, services, your territory vs my territory, and things that were not being processed as efficiently as they should have.” A consultant hired was to come in and look at options for a restructured county. The report was completed just before an election. “There were a lot of good proposals in it, but councillors weren’t going to do anything controversial just before the election, so they solidly voted it down.” Restructuring Victoria County was not considered as seriously again until the 1990s.

After completing his term on Lindsay Council, Joe had moved to Emily Township, where he later served two terms in the 1980s. There were stark differences between the two municipalities, Lindsay and Emily. In contrast to all the initiatives in Lindsay relating to public housing, recreation, and downtown improvement, Emily Township was much more focused on day-to-day matters, like grading roads, pot holes, drainage in front of farms (farmers were eager to have ditches deep enough to allow water to run off their fields) and snow plowing. Lindsay Council had nine members, while Emily had five. Emily’s employees were a treasurer, clerk, building inspector, secretaries and road employees. Only four actually reported to council, plus a dog catcher, who was occasionally called when a problem arose. It had committees for fire and recreation, with a fire chief and arena manager. In contrast, Lindsay also had departments of planning and building, police, fire and recreation.

In the nineties, as Reeve of Emily, Joe saw the same old issues arise regarding overlapping jurisdictions between neighbouring municipalities. Having been on different councils helped in seeing things from both sides. Emily shared a fire department and arena with Omemee, and “it was always a source of contention, what percentage each should pay for fire and the arena. Would it be based on population or assessment or distance from the service? One municipality might be looking to spend more on recreation, while the other was trying to focus on roads at the expense of recreation.

One issue that stuck with Joe was a deadly intersection on a boundary road. To address the problem, two municipalities would have to agree, but it was much more of a priority to one than the other. Quite reasonably, the one municipality might worry about where they could find the funds in their budget, while the other believed it was a necessary improvement. “There were similar problems all over Victoria County; councils were frustrated that they couldn’t find common solutions with neighbouring municipalities. That made me believe that there had to be a better way, and that some kind of amalgamation was necessary.”

By the 1990s, the political climate had changed drastically. Mike Harris was elected with his Common Sense Revolution, intended to produce tax cuts at the provincial level. The implications for grants to municipalities soon became clear. Over a short period of time, the level of funding from the province was cut in half, while simultaneously downloading services like social services, police and roads. Harris expected municipalities to amalgamate—“get the job done or we will get it done for you.”

Joe had been briefly out of office when the bulk of the downloading took place, “the council at the time didn’t make much fuss about it, and I thought that someone had to get in there and fight this. But by the time I was elected it was already done. Those huge cuts in transfers were hurting. Something had to happen, but as a reeve of a township you are just one voice in a din.”

The County brought in facilitators to lead discussions among the various councils about how the County could be restructured. A ‘Who Does What’ Committee was struck. “We came very close to coming up with a solution, based on having four areas with independent governing bodies. A lot of people liked that idea.” But it was not quite able to produce a consensus. There were some officials who just wanted the status quo.

With Victoria County Council unable to reach a consensus, Emily Township asked the province to appoint a Commissioner to prepare a report on amalgamation. Harry Kitchen, a Trent University Professor who had previous experience with amalgamation, travelled around the Kawartha Lakes interviewing councillors individually, and held public meetings. In some locations the meetings were terribly controversial. But not in Emily-Omemee. “I thought that the community centre would be packed. But there were just 30 or 40 people there. They said very little. We presented them with the options for change, or: stay as we are? These are the problems we are having: what are the solutions? Should we amalgamate into 4 or 5 municipalities? We encouraged people to make their comments, but there was very little feedback.” The public was encouraged to vote on which option was best for them. The result was mixed, and only two people wanted a single-tier municipality. The results of that meeting were relayed to Harry.

Harry Kitchen’s mandate from the province gave him final say on the structure of the new municipality. A single-tier municipality was what the province wanted, “so to say that Harry Kitchen forced it on us is a bit strong.” He conducted meetings, he had access to all the relevant debates, he could look at how things were working on the ground. Whatever he recommended, would be implemented—“that is part of the reason that people were so angry. Some people passionately hated Harry because of the report. I think that a lot of the problem was how it was done politically.”

“I didn’t believe for 10 seconds that it would save money,” but it did deal with boundary clashes, looking after municipal fire and recreation facilities. “Fire facilities have been improved immensely. Now there are fire stations located near communities, and it no longer matters whether they were built in one township when they are needed just over the boundary in the next.” Amalgamation has made planning and zoning much more practical. It took place just as the area was beginning to face significant development pressure. “There would be a lot of demand for subdivisions, in urban centres or maybe in a field somewhere. Without a long-term plan those developments could have taken place in a haphazard manner.” Amalgamation made possible taking a long-term perspective for the region as a whole. “In 20 years, Lindsay is going to look a lot different than does is now. There will be a need for long term planning for parks, recreation, trails, infrastructure, protecting farms and wetlands, and those needs will only be amplified moving forward.”

Joe had hoped that amalgamation would make a greener municipality possible and allow it to better plan for liveable communities. Amalgamation brought a lot of changes that were necessary, but expensive. “Some of the landfills had been deplorable. There were areas where garbage was just being thrown in swamps and we needed to do better for our environment.”

While on the whole, Joe believes in the positives that came with amalgamation, but something was lost in terms of the connection of communities with their elected representatives. “There was a lot value in having a council that people knew, and I think the City of Kawartha Lakes made a mistake in subsequently cutting council in half…. I learned early on that solutions do not have to come from the top.” When communities can come together to solve their own problems, they can often find solutions that are so much better than when government does it for them.

Joe perceives a significant change in political discourse, “I am really saddened by the level of acrimony and personal attacks. It saddens me when I drive down the road and there is a sticker on the truck ahead of me to ‘F-Trudeau.’ …. I wouldn’t want to see anything like that about any leader. …. Council, too, should be about problem solving and vision. But, it often doesn’t pay to have long-term vision. People want to reduce the budget now, but taxes are investments in the future.”

“In the last year of the township, we held a celebration of the 150th anniversary of Emily. In the last meeting we discussed our small surplus and the future of our employees; they were going into new work scenarios, and they had served the township well. A few quit.” At the end of last meeting of Emily Township, it adjourned as was customary; it was over. And so the municipality of Emily Township quietly passed into history. And a new chapter began.

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