Missing a Strong Voice
Last week the Grim Reaper struck again and again and again. I lost three friends in the twinkling of an eye; a stark reminder that we are not here for a long time!
One of those folks was Dave Russell. Most people who knew him called him Rusty. He woke up at home on Thursday morning in some difficulty and passed away later that day in Huntsville Hospital. He had been experiencing some medical problems, but his sudden death was unexpected.
Rusty and I were not close friends but we have lifted the odd glass together, had many pretty blunt conversations and attended social events on occasion with mutual friends. He had a successful construction business in town and was never shy about expressing his opinion about what was happening in Huntsville.
I really got to know Rusty when I was Mayor. For years there has been a table at Louis II’s Restaurant on Main Street, where the “boys” would gather early every weekday morning for coffee and gossip. Rusty barely missed a day. He loved stirring things up and he was not a great fan of politicians or government, at any level. He made no bones about it.
In particular, Rusty hated government spending. He believed that politicians spend tax dollars much too freely. During my time as Mayor, when we were renovating the Town Hall and building the Algonquin Theatre, he was a fierce critic. He thought it was all a waste of money and articulated that with a few well-chosen words! Only years later did he tell me in hindsight that building the theatre and keeping the Town Hall downtown was good for Huntsville.
For me, Rusty Russell was a good litmus test. We didn’t always agree but he would make you think twice about public spending. To say he could be crusty would be an understatement. The higher up on the political food chain you were, the more he would enjoy pulling your chain. I think most former Huntsville mayors in the recent past, would attest to that. He will be sorely missed in that regard.
I was thinking particularly about Rusty this past week when I heard about a couple of items coming from the Town council meeting. I would have loved to hear his reaction.
The first was news that the Muskoka Animation Studio, which has occupied space in the Waterloo building, skipped out of their lease last October, although we are just hearing about it now. The Town, of course, (read taxpayers) is left holding the bag.
The Waterloo building has turned out to be a colossal waste of money. The original concept, to bring post-secondary education in a meaningful way to Huntsville, was a good one. We could argue for eons about what went wrong but the simple fact is it didn’t work out. The building is quickly becoming a white elephant. While our current Council managed to negotiate a better deal with the University of Waterloo, it still covers only a portion of the funds required to maintain the building. Taxpayers are subsidizing it well into six figures, every year. The Waterloo building is not serving the public interest and the prospects of it doing so are not great. It’s time to bite the bullet and get rid of it. My sense is that Rusty Russell would agree with me but would express his viewpoint in much more colourful language than I have!
Another piece of news out of Huntsville Council this week is that they are considering a large renovation in the Summit Centre in order to create commercial rental space. The space they are stealing from is currently used for recreational programming and meeting space. Surely the Town has learned by now that the landlord business is a risky one for municipalities. It can also be unfair to the private sector. There are exceptions of course, such as the fitness centre, but generally speaking, municipalities are poor landlords. If renting commercial space in the Summit Centre is reducing recreational and other program space, this is a mistake and should be reconsidered.
On another note, but still staying with Council, it is good to hear that reconsideration is being given to the joint motion they passed with Bracebridge recommending one acute care hospital and one ambulatory site in Muskoka. Dr. Greg Stewart, representing the Huntsville medical community, spoke eloquently at Council last week about why the concept is flawed and why Huntsville should never settle for Site B, the so called ambulatory hospital.
Of course it is specious for the Mayor to now say that the proposal in the joint motion was simply put forward as a “discussion point.” The plain wording of the motion makes it clear that it was an endorsement of the Retention Committee’s recommendation. It is also unfair to suggest that the Huntsville medical community only became active on the issue of hospital and health care in our community after Huntsville and Bracebridge Councils took a stand. These folks have been sounding the warning bells long before Council got into the act.
Be that as it may, however, it is good to see the Mayor and Council supporting the position of the medical community in Huntsville and taking a proactive and positive stance for a fully serviced acute care hospital in North Muskoka.
End of rant. Rest in peace Rusty Russell.