New warden should rebuild, refocus

First published:
Dec. 19, 2001

The election of Cramahe Township Reeve Jim Williams as county warden marks a critical time in the history of county government in Northumberland. As Cobourg Mayor Peter Delanty draped the chain of office around his neck last week, so too was the yoke of responsibility at a key time when the county could crumble into further disarray or move forward to take its role as leader in the region.

Hamilton Township Reeve Fred Holloway is a political veteran in Northumberland, but often a loner on important issues. He is principled and likes to choose his own path. This was clear under county restructuring when other municipalities chose to join together. Only Hamilton Township, under Holloway’s leadership, refused to amalgamate with Cobourg. No doubt, this had something to do with his failure to become warden. One has to be a team player to become captain.

As Williams begins forming his agenda for the next 12 months, he must give credit to Haldimand/Alnwick Reeve Bill Finley. As warden, Finley got a stuck with one of the worst years on record. A number of brutal issues, including the mass exodus of senior county staff, forced major problems into the spotlight.

However, his tenacity and determination were abundant for the job. One only has to watch Finley on the county government floor during key debates like waste management or amalgamation to see his mule-headed approach. He does not give an inch without a fight and he can be stubborn. While this may not always serve him well, it was the right combination for 2001. Finley kept the county inching forward despite everything else.

With the release of consultant Michael Follett’s report on county staff problems, it is apparent how bad things were around the county offices. Lack of trust, low employee morale and significant problems created by micro-management were identified. When the staff is not happy, it is difficult to be a leader. Finley faced this in spades.

Now, Williams must rebuild. The hiring of chief executive officer Bill Pyatt is a key first step. As an outsider, it will be easier in some ways to rebuild. Since his position is temporary, while county politicians map out their internal structure, Pyatt can undertake some important restructuring without fear. His successor can have the decks clear for a new agenda.

But staffing is not the only front on which Williams must advance. For years, the county has represented a weak link in local government. The provincial government has downloaded countless responsibilities on the county and it continues to reel under the weight. Ambulance service, waste management and minor highways are only a few of the burdens.

Last week, county politicians voted to go back to the province for more money for roads. County Road 2, the former Highway 2, is one example of how abysmal the roads have become. It only takes an overnight snowfall to realize the lack of harmonious service. One drives through Cobourg or Port Hope on bare roads, only to be greeted by thick snow at the border. Passing through each jurisdiction is an adventure with some roads not ploughed and others half-done. There are mornings when traffic is heavy as people travel to work, when one does not even see a plough. Salt is used in some places, while sand in others and still others use none. And the lines have not been painted in years, making it all the more difficult to follow the road. At night, it is only the grace of St. Christopher; patron saint of travellers, that one arrives at home safe.

The county has also enjoyed a prolonged economic boom. This has lightened the load on the welfare rolls and job programs. But with this enviable position will soon deteriorate as the Canadian economy softens. Starting in the New Year, expect to see welfare rolls balloon, as local companies lay off seasonal workers and any additional staff in preparation for the hard times ahead. Construction of the new hospital and training centres in Cobourg might provide some relief, but other sectors may suffer, especially retail.

Williams must push forward on this and other battlefronts. Economic development, tourism, waste management, water management and other areas need to be addressed thoroughly. Also the issue of local governance is not dead. Northumberland must become more unified in its approach to provincial and federal governments. The county can be the single, powerful voice that should be heard at Queen’s Park and Parliament Hill. Otherwise, the squeaks heard from the smaller municipalities will be ignored and local taxpayers are going to be facing huge tax increases.

And this is the final area Williams needs to address. Northumberland taxpayers will once again face painful tax increases if the county does not try to integrate services more effectively. There are many areas of responsibility where the county could be a central provider. Its poor past record made it a lousy alternative to local services. But with a reborn civil service and solid leadership, a more centralized system could ease taxpayer’s pain.

Finely may have slogged through the stinking mess of the past year, but Williams still has some pretty dirty work yet to be done. Let’s hope he is the right man to get the job done.

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