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Len Thornbury Remembers the Village of Woodville

April 17, 2023

Woodville Council – Len Thornbury (reeve), Ron Trebelco, Heather Muir (clerk), Jeff Braund, Andrew Veale, Dave Thompson (town crier)

Up to the 1990s, municipal government in Victoria County still in many ways reflected its nineteenth century roots. Then, in 1995 Mike Harris became Premier of Ontario and his Common Sense Revolution included fundamental changes to the relationship between the province and municipalities. Ontario made clear that they wished to drastically reduce the number of municipalities, as they reduced provincial expenditures by downloading services onto the municipalities, while at the same time cutting funding. For better or worse, the Common Sense Revolution forced municipalities to become far more involved in the lives of their residents—gone were the days when they largely just looked after local roads. It was justified by claiming that it would save money, which may have been true for the province, but could never have been true for the municipalities. Some councillors believed that action needed to be taken on restructuring, and there was much discussion of amalgamating (into to either a single municipality or alternately four municipalities) or maintaining two-tier government. In the end, County Council was not able to come up with a resolution to the question of whether or not to restructure that satisfied all parties in the face of a clear expectation from the province. It defeated a motion to ask a commissioner, but Emily Township made the request and Harry Kitchen was appointed. The final outcome was the creation of a single-tier municipality, the City of Kawartha Lakes in 2001. In so many ways, it brought far-reaching changes to local government and how it interacted with local residents. From the beginning of the process until today, it was extremely controversial and there remain many different perspectives on amalgamation—many issues are quite complicated.

More than twenty years have passed since amalgamation and this series presents the memories of people who were involved in the process at the time. Given the very different meanings that amalgamation had to the historical actors involved in the process, it is hoped that this series will provide a variety of perspectives, that when read together will explore this pivotal time in local political history.

Len Thornbury grew up in Woodville, the Friendly Village, in an era when it was a very close knit community. As a child, his family knew who lived in every house in town. Len and his friends would ride around town on their bicycles, pretending they were the Hell’s Angels, and enjoyed playing baseball in the summer. Len especially loved being at the old arena, and visited seven days a week, whether it was for public skating or hockey. He never imagined that one day he would become the final reeve of the village.

When Len was little, the old arena still had natural ice. “We used to clean the ice off for the arena manager. They just had 3 flat shovels welded together to clear the snow and a 45-gallon barrel on wheelbarrow wheels, that would flood the ice, while dragging a cloth. It was fast enough that the ice could be resurfaced after the second period of a men’s league game… maybe twenty minutes. Sometimes we would get two shovels going at once.”

In 1968, the community came together and the Woodville and District Lions Club was formed to raise the funds needed to install a concrete floor and refrigeration pipes to install artificial ice—before these upgrades, he had to play minor hockey in Cannington. Before long, Woodville had a Junior ‘D’ team that would pack the arena for the playoffs. Every day after school, Len and his friends played street hockey and his love of the game translated into a chance to play Left Defence for the Junior ‘C’ Port Perry Flamingoes, Aurora Tigers and then a full hockey scholarship to St. Lawrence University at Canton, New York in Division 1, E.C.A.C.

When his hockey days ended, Len returned to Woodville, a community that has always felt like home. He settled into a career selling real estate. Though he never aspired to have a political career, he noticed that after the snow was plowed, there were huge snowbanks on the main street, and it was difficult for many people to get through to shop. So, he decided to run for council to help solve that problem and was elected in 1994. Three years later he became Reeve.

Woodville was one of the smaller municipalities in Victoria County, with a population of about 900 and an annual budget of about $100,000. It had a council of five, plus three employees, Clerk Heather Muir, an assistant, and a clerk who looked after the village’s hydro utility. Councillors also sat as the board members for the utility, and were paid for the meetings they attended—Reeve $90 and councillors $65. As Reeve, Len received about $3,000 for what was in all practicality a full time job. Only someone who had a flexible schedule like a real estate agent or a retiree, could serve as reeve. Everyone who was working for the Village of Woodville was there because they cared about their community. Needless to say, since the village operated on such a small budget, no one was adequately compensated for the amount of work that was actually involved.

Being on council, Len quickly “learned what the village could and could not do.” In government, some tasks were the responsibility of the village, others the purview of the county, and with such a tight budget, others could not be contemplated at all. At the time, municipalities were required to run balanced budgets, and they only raised taxes once in the five years he was on council. To operate the arena, Woodville partnered with Eldon Township and split the cost 50/50—the village had a strong relationship with its neighbouring municipalities. For more than 20 years, Gordon Murray was the arena manager. A farmer, who lived on the edge of town, he was very publicly minded, volunteered to support many community activities, and saw to it that Woodville had the land to build the new arena in 1977. Much of the arena’s operating cost was covered by the revenues from minor hockey and figure skating.

Woodville’s fire department had one truck and one pumper—for any house fire the surrounding municipalities would have to chip in to help. Approximately 20 volunteer firefighters served the community. For many years, Ed Davies was fire chief, and Jim Bolan was another long-standing fire chief. The Woodville fire hall looked after the south end of Eldon Township and north Mariposa, receiving a contribution from both municipalities.

Road work and snow plowing were contracted out to local construction companies. Plowing the roads cost about $8000 per year. The Eldon building inspector came to Woodville one afternoon a week. People could walk right in and talk to him. “They would get an answer quickly, it was streamlined compared to the red tape that exists today.”

If a local resident had a concern or wanted to make a suggestion, it was as simple was walking into the village office, which was open 9-5 Monday to Friday. Heather Muir would carefully note their feedback and keep council informed. It was unusual to contact councillors directly, though practically everyone knew some of the people serving on council. “Very seldom did people sit in on our meetings, which to me was a sign that we were doing something right. Usually a deputation means that people are unhappy. It was very unusual to have someone call me to complain.”

Woodville Council was hard at work in the late 1990s to keep up with the evolving needs of its community. They put a new roof on the arena, and when the elementary school made a significant addition, the building permit generated enough revenue to pave the street out front. They also addressed the high levels of nitrates in local drinking water by digging a new well, which was actually in Mariposa Township. “It was pretty hands on,” but council worked together as a team, and all the decisions were made by consensus, there never was a formal debate or vote as long as Len served. To be a councillor in those days, was a lot like being a jack of all trades—helping to preserve the old town hall, then helping to plan municipal drains. “I remember spending weekends going over proposals from different consultants.”

When Mike Harris’ Common Sense Revolution swept the province, and ushered in an era of amalgamation, Woodville was busy looking after their own affairs. Although they recognized that working together with Eldon made a lot of sense given the extent they already worked together, thinking through the structure of a larger municipal government was not on the community’s radar. As Woodville had to pay the OPP for policing services, and built its new water plant, it became clear that “it was not sustainable. Several of us were feeling burned out, especially our clerk.”

Emily Township asked the Province of Ontario to appoint a commissioner to restructure Victoria County, and in due course Harry Kitchen was given the job. Throughout the process of amalgamation, it became clear that Harry had a very different perspective than many of the long-serving councillors and reeves he met. All of the years he had spent studying structures of government, made him think about things differently than the people he was meeting who had spent years trying to solve the practical problems that they faced. Few had thought about the differences between a single-tier and a two-tier municipality—what it would mean to no longer have both the local village and township councils and county council, each with their own mandate.

As it became clear that Harry Kitchen favoured creating a single-tier municipality, Woodville was in favour of the change. “It would benefit a small municipality like us. Villages had a smaller tax base, but were providing more services. Many of the townships had a lot of money in reserves, that they had carefully saved up over the years and were afraid of losing them. Some councillors would also have a hard time imagining that the municipalities that they loved and had served for years would no longer exist.” If instead of having Harry make the final decision, if County Council had been given the chance to vote on the various options, it is hard to know what they would have decided.

Once it became clear that amalgamation was going to happen, Woodville, like many other municipalities, saw that the time had come to sell its local utility to Ontario Hydro. “Our staff was excited about being part of creating the new municipality.” There was not a strong movement in Woodville against amalgamation. There were concerns that the community would lose its identity, and many people did not like having ‘City’ in the name—a lot of people lived there because they didn’t want to live in a city. But there was not a strong sentiment one way or the other about the changes that were to come.

Nothing special was done to mark the last meeting of Woodville Council, it just looked after the practical business at hand. Len had made clear that he had no intention of running for council again, and as a supporter of the new municipality in the face of all the public controversy at the time, Harry Kitchen asked him to chair the Transition Board.

“The other transition board members were very professional, and everyone wanted the best for the entire County of Victoria. A lot of work needed to be done to determine how services could be delivered by a single municipality—fire, roads, libraries, waste management and recreation. It really helped that the interim Chief Administrative Officer, Hugh Thomas, had experience of a similar process in Chatham-Kent. There were a lot of decisions that needed to be made: Should the smaller libraries remain open? Where should the municipal service centres be? They had to hire directors to oversee all the new departments. In 4 or 5 months, they had to figure out how all the services, offered by all the municipalities could be managed by the new City of Kawartha Lakes. “The big picture of the structure of the City of Kawartha Lakes has not changed much since then.”

“As much as I enjoyed the work of being on the Transition Board, I thought I had paid my dues and it was time to retire. I didn’t think it was right to serve on the new council after being on that board—it might be a little harder to stay unbiased. It would not have been the same to represent a large ward, compared with the small village that I lived in.”

The transition to the City of Kawartha Lakes meant that staff would be paid a reasonable wage for the work that they were doing—“sometimes Heather Muir was working 14 hours a day, just because she wanted what was best for the community.” The transition to the City of Kawartha Lakes has allowed infrastructure funding that the Village of Woodville could never have afforded. The City has repaved the roads and put in new sidewalks. “The million-dollar arena upgrade is something that Woodville could never have paid for, without a major grant from the province—and that was being cut in the 1990s. Today we have a lot higher level of service.”

“The one thing we have lost is local government representation. It is a lot harder for people to go to the council chamber in Lindsay and ask to make a deputation to have an issue brought up—it is certainly intimidating. When council was reduced to 8 members, it made it less accessible. The whole city is a big geographic area for eight people to cover. We have lost the connectivity between the residents and the councillors.” Today, very few people would feel comfortable walking into City Hall to talk to the clerk about their concerns.

But as the structure of municipal government has changed, so too have the people of Woodville. Many of the old residents who grew up in the community have now passed away. In place of the families that have lived in the area for generations, many residents today commute to work, and have little time to devote to the community. Woodville Minor Hockey, Figure Skating and the Lions Club still carry on the good work that they have for generations, but it is no longer a community where practically everyone knows each other. People today have much higher expectations, and many find a community of like-minded individuals on social media, rather than in their own back yard. “Like so many places across the country, the fabric of the community has really changed.”

This story is a memory and nobody’s memory is perfect. Sometimes details get a little mixed up, things get forgotten or overlooked, and the perspective is inevitably subjective. If you notice something that not right, have something you would like to tell us, or a memory to share the museum would be happy to hear from you: curator@maryboro.ca

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