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.
Don’t miss out on Doppler! Sign up for our free newsletter here.