Listen Up! Many years ago council differences were resolved over a case of beer in the old Fire Hall



Hugh Mackenzie
Huntsville Doppler


This week, Huntsville’s new Council will be sworn into office. In some ways it will be much like the last one. Scott Aitchison will begin his second term as mayor and seven of the eight councillors around the table have also been there before. Only Dione Schumacher is brand new, although Tim Withey sat out the last term of council. Ho hum.

For whatever reason, the new term of council set me to thinking of councils gone by. I don’t mean the recent ones. I am thinking of councils from 40 or 50 years ago. Things were different then. There weren’t nearly as many rules and regulations and you could actually get things done without a lot of fuss and bother.

I remember my first years on Huntsville council with a great deal of fondness. I was in my early twenties then. One of the first things I learned was what a bobblehead was. Every mayor is happy to have one or two, although few will admit it. We still have them today. You just have to watch.

Norm Goodwin was mayor back then. He was the first elected mayor of the newly amalgamated Town of Huntsville. He had previously been Reeve of Brunel and Mike Wain, by now a Huntsville Councillor for Brunel Ward, was a long-time friend and supporter of the Mayor. He was a character, short of stature, often wore a hat in council, always had a kind word for everybody and religiously supported Mayor Goodwin on every vote

This one time however, there was a very important issue on the table, I can’t recall which one, it could have been the Centre Street bridge. In any event, the Mayor called the vote and it was defeated, 5-4. Wain had voted against. Norm Goodwin sat there for a moment, then said, “I’m not sure I counted that properly, so I am going to take that vote again.” With that he looked Mike Wain straight in the eye and said in a loud voice, “Now I voted in favour of this motion Mike, how did you vote?”Why, I voted the same way you did,” said Wain. The Mayor won the day and bobbleheads were born!

It was also easier to do business in those days. I was Chair of the Finance Committee at that time, although the Mayor called me his “Finance Minister”.  One day he called me at the radio station and told me to get over to Town Hall. When I got there, he told me he had just heard that Gord Middleton, who owned a Transport business behind the Royal Bank, was in the process of selling it to another business. “I want that for a Parking Lot,” he said. “You and I are going over there and talking him into selling it to us.” So, he and I walked across the street and met with Gord for an hour or two; there may have been a little liquid refreshment handed around, and we had a deal that Council ratified a few hours later. You couldn’t do that today; too many rules, and approvals required. But we got it done and the parking lot is still there.

One of the biggest fights we had on Council was over the Centre Street bridge. It’s hard to believe now, what Huntsville would be like today, without the Centre Street Bridge, but at the time, it was a real cliff hanger. The Huntsville community was seriously split over whether it was needed and so was Council. Norm Goodwin was a solid supporter of the Centre Street bridge and Harold Bray, a long time councillor and local butcher, led the fight to have it built. Gord Snell and George Morrison led the fight to stop it. It was a real free-for-all, down to the wire fight, that ended with a split vote in Council and an unruly Ontario Municipal Board Hearing.

By the time the Centre Street bridge was built, every member of Council who voted for it, except for me, had been defeated in the municipal election. The only reason I escaped the same fate, is that I did not seek re-election but instead ran for District Chair of Muskoka. The irony in all of this is that the opening of the Centre Street bridge took place shortly after the election and was presided over by the new Mayor Gord Snell who had fought tooth and nail to stop it. He was also the first person to officially cross the bridge. I was there in my capacity as District Chair but Norm Goodwin and Harold Bray, the two men with the vision, were barely visible. Such is the nature of politics.

With the exception of the Centre Street bridge, serious issues, and some not so serious, were dealt with in a much different manner in those early days, than they are today. After council meetings, especially the more contentious ones, most of us would adjourn to the upstairs of the old Fire Hall which was directly behind the Town Hall. There the fun would begin, often with a case of beer, probably not legal at the time. But issues would be debated, fought over and resolved. It was worth the price of admission just to watch people like Lavern Reynolds and Bill Schell go at it. And they often did, until the wee hours of the morning, until one of their spouses would appear to take them home by the ear!

You can’t do that now of course and probably shouldn’t. In fact, it is now illegal for the majority of council members to be together in the same place except at a properly constituted Council Meeting.  A shame really. Today, the mayor and council have a much tougher job with much more public scrutiny, far too many regulatory hoops to jump through and no real ability for hard-nosed negotiations behind closed doors. All for the better, I’m sure.  As they begin their new term of council, I can only wish them well.

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  1. Right on Hugh, was true democracy and letting or venting your thoughts and frustrations . After the Fire hall was off limits the Station House became the place of the second Council Meeting of the evening and a lot of issues got ironed out and at times we had a majority of council there, however nothing was changed that I remember, however everyone went home feeling better, in many ways. LOL As you say can not do today

    But a lot of fun was had.

  2. Hugh;
    I have a suggestion for you for a retirement project: put together a book full of “behind-the-scenes ” stories like your Centre Street bridge story. As local history, it would be entertaining and would provide valuable insights into the history of Huntsville.

  3. Hugh, wasn’t that bit about Mike Wain the time he nodded off and missed the vote until Norm glared at him and started to say his bit about not getting the vote right. Ralph Parrot was sitting next to Mike and gave him a poke saying, “nod yer head Mike”. A half – asleep Mike then saved the day. I’d forgotten about that ’til now. My source was from Ralph himself as he regaled us with lots of stories like yours. – or it could have been a different time since I can’t honestly recall if Ralph was on Council when you were. Anyway, if you wanted something passed by Council and you were in a rush, just go upstairs and plead your case at the right time.

  4. valerie g corbett on

    So happy there are many of us “old folks” whose memories are still sharp and have stories to tell! Hugh, I agree on the idea of you writing a book!!!

  5. Edward Johnson on

    Fond memories, Hugh. Thanks for bringing them back.
    Puts one in mind of municipal government in the Village of Port Sydney, as it then was (before forced amalgamation with Huntsville and the District).
    We had a volunteer elected Council of about six. Tax on our family cottage was about $100; that’s the equivalent of about $850 today after adjusting for inflation over 60 years. Of course actual taxes today are many multiples of that.
    Back then we had our own village policeman for the summer, hired by the Reeve and Council. Today we very seldom see a police car. (Although one mustn’t fail to mention the raid a few years ago by two police officers shutting down our Wednesday night Bingo patronized primarily by about two dozen young kids and their Moms.)
    There was a dance in the Community Hall most summer Saturdays and lots going on there throughout the year. Today we need permission from Huntsville Town Hall to rent our own hall, and must obtain insurance.
    There’s lots more one could say…

    I guess that’s progress.

  6. Hugh
    You must have been on council in the period immediately after I was. Most of those same players you refer to were still there. I know the situation with Mike Wain very well because I had finally been able to convince Mike to agree with me on a particular motion (not the Centre St bridge) and it meant Mike had to vote against Mayor Goodwin. You describe what happened accurately but Mike stuck to his guns on this occasion and the motion was defeated. Mike and I went on to be great friends following that.
    Also, the Centre St bridge debate is very poorly understood by the majority of locals. This is not the forum to revive it but it must be noted that in the context of the day and of the other capital priorities of the day the people against it were not without sound arguments.

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