Thursday, February 22, 2024

Debate is Healthy so Long as the Truth is Respected

By Stephen Vance, Editor

Former MPP Bill Murdoch is one of those politicians that I rarely agree with. He and I approach life from opposite ends of the political spectrum, and there is nothing wrong with that – that is the beauty of a healthy democracy.

Even though I often find my own views at odds with those of Murdoch, I have always respected his direct approach, and his speaking out in defense of what used to be his constituents, and what is now his community, even if it cost him politically.

This week Murdoch had some harsh words for Meaford’s council. Some very harsh and direct words that were accompanied by a call for the resignation of the entire council. While Murdoch’s frustration, and the frustration of the rural Meaford residents that Murdoch spoke on behalf of when he contacted The Independent this week are understandable, the comments of agitated people, even seasoned politicians like Murdoch are bound to contain unfair insults, and even some less than accurate facts.

Murdoch called out every member of Meaford’s council as being either stupid or arrogant. That Murdoch feels this way is fine, and he certainly has a right to express those thoughts, though I would argue that members of Meaford’s council are neither stupid nor arrogant, but are instead in the less than enviable position of trying to manage three very distinct communities, each with their own set of needs and expectations, and while none of the councils since amalgamation have not done a fabulous job of managing the needs of those distinct communities, our members of council aren’t stupid. At worst they might lack an understanding of where the angry sentiments from rural residents come from, and perhaps it could be argued that this council lacks the proverbial backbone.

Another comment from Murdoch was that Meaford’s staff is running the show while our council follows along like a well trained lap dog.

I hear this a lot from readers, and more often than not, I hear this from people that never attend council meetings, and have had no actual dealings with municipal staff. True, our previous CAO early in this council term seemed to want to run the show, and to control council, the same can’t be said of our current CAO.

In her first year on the job, what has struck me time and again is that our current CAO seems to understand, and is quite comfortable in her role as an adviser to council. The current CAO also seems to have directed her senior staff to follow that very approach – to advise council. Her performance at council, and any dealings I have had with her personally haven’t shown any sign of her wanting to control council, and the accusation that Meaford’s staff are steering the ship can only come from those who have little or no intimate knowledge of this municipal administration.

Murdoch isn’t alone in his feelings, and many people throughout the municipality, urban and rural, have plenty of things to say that aren’t factual.

We have received and rejected letters to the editor that spew hatred and quote inaccurate numbers as though they were fact. We’ve received letters from Meaford residents stating that Meaford’s CAO earns $300,000 per year, or that the municipality purchased her BMW for her. Both “facts” are not only untrue, they are wildly inaccurate. You can’t look at the budget line for the CAO’s office and assume that the entire amount is the CAO’s salary. There are many things included in the CAO budget from support staff to municipal advertising – that budget line is not the CAO’s salary.

When people are angry however, the truth often suffers.

Time and again, throughout the two public meetings held recently in Woodford and Bognor, we heard that Meaford has a hugely bloated staff which includes a whopping 80 part time employees. This is also not true. Meaford employs roughly 50 part time workers, mostly seasonal summer staff, who carry out tasks associated with things like harbour operations, Memorial Park summer staff, cutting grass in the parks, operating the public swimming pool and so on.

Similarly frustrating is the comparison of Meaford’s staff to other municipalities of similar size. There are no lies in those comparisons, however what is missing is the fact most of those “comparable municipalities” don’t have an urban centre, and that is truly like comparing apples to oranges.

Has Meaford’s staff grown a little top heavy during a time that has supposed to have been a time of financial crisis? I think that could be safely argued, but it can be argued without misleading or indeed inaccurate facts.

Has this current council performed well? In many areas they have. Meaford’s financial position is stronger than it has been in years, many municipal operations have been streamlined, and documented procedures for municipal staff and for delivery of service have been established in recent years as a result of council direction. Under this council’s direction, long term debt has also been reduced. A huge feat for which this council should be praised.

If this council has failed at anything it has been a failure to communicate appropriately with, and to adequately represent the very people they have been elected to speak out for in their role as councillors.

That is a huge failure, though it is one that can be highlighted and debated without misleading facts or false interpretations of municipal budget lines.

It can be argued that council has done a poor job, it can be argued that Meaford needs to reassess the services it delivers, or the size of its staff, and it can be argued that this council has failed to address the needs and concerns of our rural residents, but these things can be argued with the truth, with no need for embellishment or falsehoods.

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