Councillor candidates prepare for the Oct. 15 all-candidates night at the Verdi Club. The event was hosted by the Amherstburg Chamber of Commerce.
By Ron Giofu
Approximately 400 people attended the Verdi Club last Wednesday night to hear what the councillor candidates had to offer.
Michelle Maluske of CTV News Windsor served as moderator for the Amherstburg Chamber of Commerce-sponsored evening. The event saw 21 of the 22 councillor candidates attend, lay out their platforms and answer questions that had been submitted by the public or written by a Chamber of Commerce member.
Larry Amlin pointed out his background in Essex-Windsor EMS, from which he retired as a district chief, as well as being a founding member of the House of Shalom Youth Centre. He stated he has made tough decisions in managerial roles and in roles that are in direct contact to people that were being served.
“My roots are in Amherstburg,” said Amlin.
The town’s flooding problems need solving, he stated, and suggested the town look to other municipalities to try and find solutions. He added there is a need to attract new businesses to town as well as retirees to live here. Clarification on what the debt is should also be a priority, Amlin added.
“I insist on a common sense approach,” said Amlin, adding that while he will devote a lot of attention to the town’s financial situation, he won’t dwell on it at the expense of other matters. He believed the current council bears some of the responsibility for the current financial state of affairs.
“Something that glaring, I don’t know how it got by,” he said.
Amlin added: “I assure you I will ask tough questions, I will find answers and give Amherstburg my full attention.”
Amlin believed the hiring of a new CAO should have been deferred to the new council and that more should be known about how the contract of current CAO Mike Phipps was negotiated.
When making decisions, he added, council members should “leave their egos at the door” and once a vote is taken, it’s done.
“There’s too many personality conflicts,” he said, in response to a question.
Chad Barrette noted he has been on the Amherstburg heritage committee for six years and pointed out he is a vice principal at Catholic Central High School.
“I have the skillset to help turn Amherstburg around,” said Barrette.
Attracting business and residential development is key, he added, and added the town should be working closer with the Windsor-Essex Economic Development Corporation.
All departments in Amherstburg should be looked at in order to turn the town around, he added.
“To right the ship, there should be no sacred cows. Everything should be examined,” said Barrette.
Barrette wants to see the recommendations from the Deloitte report implemented, reports on the town’s finances come to council every two months and the establishment of a finance committee. He also wanted to see the town investigate switching police services from a municipal force to the OPP, stating that Tecumseh is saving $2 million this year.
Publishing the town’s goals – goals established with the help of the residents and administration – should also be done, said Barrette, as well publishing “our victories.” He defined accountability as “doing what you say you are going to do” and that includes the publishing of the town’s goals for all to see.
Barrette was asked whether he was willing to spend an additional $100,000-$200,000 for a full audit or whether the town should just move forward with the Deloitte recommendations.
“I think we should just move ahead,” said Barrette. “We are far behind as it is.”
Barrette said there has to be confidence instilled in the town and that council should just implement with the 41 recommendations. He also believed town staff should be surveyed and working groups established to tackle some of the issues, including that of staff departures, noting that was done with the Windsor-Essex Catholic District School Board. He believed that could allow the town to find ways to retain staff.
“It costs us a lot of money to replace all these people,” he said.
Frank Cleminson said he wants to continue giving back to the community and that is the main reason he is running for council. Cleminson pointed out he spent six years as a provincial appointment to the Amherstburg Police Services Board (APSB) and another four years as a town appointment to the APSB.
“We are one of the most cost-effective police services,” he said.
Cleminson said he wants to use the skills he has learned on the APSB, including budgeting, at the next level and vowed to be well prepared for meetings. If elected, Cleminson said he plans to contribute in his first meeting.
Getting finances in order is important as well as prioritizing levels of service. He would be open to “thinking outside the box” for ways to reduce the debt and would want to sit down with administration to find ways to do that.
Cleminson, who described himself as “a very hands-on person,” stated he wants to have regular town hall meetings so there is a “direct line of communication” with citizens.
Asked whether the town should purchase the Duffy’s property to expand Navy Yard Park or build a marina, Cleminson said the only way that could be done is with a private partner. He said the town could not afford the cost and that kind of money should not be spent at least until the “books are in order.”
Cleminson said he was not opposed to assistance for homeowners whose basements flood in heavy rains but wanted to see the report on the matter first.
Joan Courtney said she has won seven elections as a Catholic school board trustee since 1991, and believes many of the issues facing the town are similar to those she faced as a trustee.
“I firmly believe my expertise on the board will be invaluable if I’m elected as a councillor,” said Courtney. “I feel confident I can work with council to set the finances on a straight course.”
Courtney also wants to keep a close eye on infrastructure projects and would like to see any changes in work orders brought back to council for approval. Courtney said more answers are needed on the town’s finances and that while the Deloitte report has good answers in it, there are more questions to be asked on how the town’s debt got to where it is.
“I believe in letting things go eventually but in this case, this is more than a sleeping dog,” she said.
Courtney also vowed to keep a closer eye on in-camera sessions, stating those meetings are only for legal, personnel and property issues.
“There should be no subjects kept behind closed doors,” she said. “Our taxpayers deserve to know the truth.”
In reference to a question about cutting the debt, Courtney said she would like to have a committee created of council members and community members – including students – to sit down, go over the Deloitte report and discuss the matter. She also believed a hotel was necessary as people might come to Amherstburg “and make a weekend out of it” but she added the town should not put any money towards it.
John Dupont pointed out he has 35 years of financial experience, 13 of which came as an auditor for Caesars Windsor. He believed staffing levels are a major issue for the town, believing there are too many directors, managers and secretaries working for them.
“There’s too many people working for the town,” said Dupont. “It’s top heavy with too many people.”
Dupont said there used to be reviews of the budget and believed that should be brought back.
“I don’t recall any reviews of the budget now,” he said. “That, to me, is a must.”
Getting the right information on a topic before he addresses it is something Dupont also pledged.
“I’m a facts person,” said Dupont. “I’ll seek out the facts before I speak.”
Dupont was questioned over what experience he had to oversee the budget and he emphasized his 35 years of financial experience, adding he has a good idea of what can be done with the money the town has. He believed there are enough personnel on staff that can find out that same information an audit would uncover “or elect me and I will.”
Dupont believed an independent search for the new CAO was a good idea but that council had the final say was a better idea.
Rick Fryer said he has been hearing a lot about good roads, sewers, flooding, good sidewalks and bike paths while out campaigning. Fryer told the crowd there has been a tax increase every year since 2011 and noted the “poison pill” clause is still in the police contract.
“Amherstburg is at a crossroads,” said Fryer, who was on council from 2006-10.
Fryer added he will keep residents’ interests in mind first and will give citizens “black and white” answers to their questions. Fryer said he wants to give residents a chance to address council via an “open mic” session that would last one hour and occur right before regular council meetings.
Other than his prior council experience, he said he has organized a bicycle race in town and has worked with the United Way.
Calling the former General Chemical lands “a hidden gem,” Fryer said he would like to see more commercial and industrial growth in Amherstburg.
“Amherstburg was once a place where you could find a job,” he said.
Fryer said when he was first on council, a consultant guaranteed $300,000 in revenue if they were to run the Libro Centre, but that was turned down. He said municipalities don’t make money on arenas but the town should look for further efficiencies on running the facility.
“They are a necessary evil although they never make money for a municipality,” he said.
Asked about the possibility of Canada Post eliminating door-to-door delivery, Fryer said he was “totally against” the large multiple-person mailboxes and said “Canada Post makes money.”
Pauline Gemmell pointed out she is the executive director of the Essex County nurse practitioner-led clinic, a clinic that has grown to over 2,000 patients in four years with locations in Essex and Windsor. Gemmell said she prepares monthly financial statements for the board of directors and quarterly reports for the Ministry of Long Term Care.
“I speak to the communities we serve,” said Gemmell. “I make it my business to find out what the community thinks of the clinic.”
Gemmell, who stated she has 30 years of management experience, said she has always been willing to get feedback from people such as patients at the clinic. She added she is a former business owner who chose to live in Amherstburg, a decision she has never regretted.
“Amherstburg residents want answers to the state of the finances,” said Gemmell. “We need real solutions to the challenges facing Amherstburg.”
Gemmell said there have to be “checks and balances” and the town has to take “a structured approach” to dealing with it. She said she doesn’t know the debt because there have been so many different figures floating around the community.
Regarding a question on regional transit, Gemmell said it is “an important service to pursue” but there is always the question of affordability. A long-term financial plan would be needed should the town choose to pursue that issue.
Gemmell also opposes high-rise development on the west side of Dalhousie St., saying that the waterfront lands should be protected for this and future generations.
Ken Grant pointed out his community involvement, including playing a “significant role” in the building of the Libro Centre. Grant said the town’s money needs to be managed better and that reserves need to be repaid and debt needs to come down.
The town’s financial plan must include zero-based budgeting, he added.
“We can’t have a budget based on last year’s spending,” said Grant.
Grant added he would work for fewer in-camera meetings if he were elected. He also believed it is time to create a bold, new vision and build on the strengths the town has.
The town needs a hotel, Grant said in response to a question, but “I don’t think the town should put money towards a hotel.” Rather, the town should try and entice a hotel to come to town through other means.
Grant was asked about Texas Road and he believed it needed to be repaired but the town also has to consider the current state of finances. He disagreed with the repaving of Sandwich St. and that a mid-range $6 million option was preferable for the road.
“The residents know it is a pothole heaven,” said Grant.
The sharing of services should be looked into, he said, with Grant stating he is open to looking at the sharing of services with other municipalities to reduce costs.
Scott Kendell stated he wants to be part of a team that brings “positive change,” first class municipal services and new industrial and commercial development to Amherstburg.
Kendell said the town needs a long-term financial plan and “cuts across the board.” He said the current council is largely to blame for the town’s financial situation and emphasized that all costs need to be looked at in order to find a solution to the problem. He believed the town needs to focus on infrastructure maintenance and improvements. The town should also focus on attracting baby boomers to live in Amherstburg in addition to attracting commercial and industrial development. He added the town needs to get the word out they are the best in the region.
“It’s time for change,” continued Kendell. “My business and infrastructure experience will prove valuable for the challenges ahead.”
Kendell said tourism is “very important to Amherstburg” and believes attracting tourists should still be pursued.
“We’ve got a good thing going in Amherstburg,” said Kendell. “Let’s keep going with it.”
Regarding policing, Kendell said officers he speaks to would welcome a switch to the OPP and senior management is trying to “protect themselves.”
Jason Lavigne said he is “very passionate” about issues and that he always tries to keep the best interests of the community and his family first. He told the crowd he is glad his parents chose to live in Amherstburg and that the town “has molded me into the person I am.”
Lavigne, who has taken the town to the Ombudsman over in-camera meetings and appealed Mayor Wayne Hurst’s campaign finances from the last election, said he checks into what he is doing before he does it.
“I’ve always researched what I’ve done,” said Lavigne.
Flooding to homes in Amherstburg is “unacceptable” and is one of the issues that Lavigne believes has gone on for too long. Another issue that the town has had “long enough to deal with” is the mosquito problem in Fraserville. He noted his children go to Stella Maris School and sometimes have to stay inside at recess because of mosquitoes.
Having voters know the issues and educating themselves on them is also important, Lavigne added.
Questioned as to whether rural residents don’t get the same level of service that residents in the core area of town do, Lavigne said he has heard from residents who do feel that way. He said Sandwich St. should not have been done and that money should have been devoted towards Texas Road instead. Projects should be decided on the basis of what is needed the most and not in what part of town it is in.
A hotel is needed to bolster tourism, he added, but noted the Duffy’s land is expensive for the town to acquire. He said he opposed hard cash being used to acquire the land but would be open to discussing a private partnership.
Lavigne said the new council has to take a close look at Libro Centre operations and that answers are needed as to the impact of moving three town departments there.
Darryl McLean pointed out his 17 years with Unifor Local 2027, the last 13 of which being financial secretary.
“I believe Amherstburg needs to have a CAO and director of finance long term,” said McLean.
McLean believed the turnover at town hall has been a hindrance in having financial documents prepared in a timely fashion and that timely documents assist the municipality in getting government funds.
The town needs a “pay as you go” strategy for infrastructure projects, he added, and while the town can’t dwell on the past, they need to find savings in the future. He said there must be a plan in order that money is spent wisely and that a consensus on council must be obtained before money is spent.
“Our town is a gem and we need to promote it as such,” continued McLean.
McLean said a ward system is something that should be looked at as well. As for the sale of the Essex Power shares that was shot down, he said he believed the sale could have just “masked problems” the town had but if the $12 million were to have been earmarked for paying down debt, he may have been for it.
Leo Meloche said his background is in accounting and finance. Debt management and economic development are keys to his campaign, he noted, and said a 10-year debt reduction plan is required.
“Our debt, although elevated, is manageable,” said Meloche.
A first step is reducing expenditures, he continued, including cutting expenses that have no value to the town. If need be, he said he would consider staff cuts.
Meloche stated his economic development plan is “ambitious” and will need federal and provincial assistance but addressing the “catastrophic” loss of employment the town has suffered over the last number of years is key. He noted that a lot of young people have to leave the area to find work and that has negatively impacted local growth.
“There has been no real growth in Amherstburg for some time,” said Meloche.
While setting up his economic development plan would require funding, there are housing development projects that are in the works as soon as a forcemain is installed to the wastewater treatment plant.
Meloche was asked about the selling of assets, with the Essex Power shares being mentioned specifically. He said it was wise to hold onto the shares and the town “controls its destiny” in relation to the shares.
Steve Mickle said he is meeting too many people who can’t make ends meet and believed the town needs a clean slate of council members.
“I’m committed to doing things differently,” said Mickle. “I’m determined to get results, not in four years, but now.”
Mickle said he wants to give “equal opportunity” to everyone in the community, as “everyone needs proper representation.” He said he believes in bringing a ward system to Amherstburg.
Mickle added that reductions should occur across departments. Many of the Deloitte recommendations are the law, he added, and “why we weren’t following the law is beyond me.”
The public has a right to see what is being spent, Mickle added, stating “our public deserves to know that.” Town council should see monthly reports on the finances, he further stated, and that “we need to lower our spending.”
On the subject of tourism, he said “tourism is fine but we have to get our house in order. Amherstburg has always been a destination and it always will be.”
Lora Petro noted her past work with the AAM Volunteer Ambulance Service and her current work as a nurse practitioner in Leamington and in working with high school students.
“I have always been a problem solver,” said Petro, adding she is willing to collaborate on issues but not capitulate.
Petro said firm plans are needed to ensure the debt is repaid and reserves replenished and that the town should increase transparency and accountability by having no in-camera meetings unless they are absolutely necessary. Noting she was one of the many flooding victims in town, she stated finding the root cause of the flooding is required as well. She was asked about flooding during the question and answer period, and added that the “town needs to step up with a detailed plan” so that homeowners don’t lose the value of their homes due to flooding.
Petro added she wants to be the “voice of hope” and has a vision for the future. She also doesn’t believe the former Anderdon and Malden townships get the same levels of service the core does and would like to see that taken care of.
Asked about the difference between a review and an audit, she said she is reviewed in her job all the time but an audit goes deeper. An audit of the town’s books finds out who spent what and who signed what cheque.
Bob Pillon, one of the two incumbents seeking re-election, told the audience that the town is positioning itself to attract new industry and development. The wastewater treatment plant will give the town more capacity in order to grow and touted the water tower and Libro Centre as other positive developments.
“Yes, we have a debt,” said Pillon, stating it was $46 million. The debt, he added, includes $13.5 million on taxes and the remainder in water and wastewater rates.
Pillon pointed out he is the chair of the traffic committee, a board member on the Essex Region Conservation Authority (ERCA) and said he prides himself on helping residents in town and farmers in the rural areas.
“The town is moving ahead,” he said, using the Families First Funeral Home construction and redevelopment plans for the Echo building as examples. “This will add to our tax base and create new jobs.”
When a vote is taken, council members need to “move on” and said he votes his conscience and what he thinks is best.
“I will not be influenced by personal agenda groups,” said Pillon.
Pillon faced a question over policing and whether he would investigate switching to the OPP. Pillon said he would be open to looking at OPP policing but believed if there was a change, a regional venture with LaSalle would be preferable.
“I think we need to expand our police service,” said Pillon. “I’m always willing to look at cost savings no matter what. I’m serious about going up the shore. I believe that is our avenue.”
Pillon added that while he morally supports the town being a heritage community, he said the town can’t force people to put money into their heritage properties and that the owner of a building has a right to do what they want with it. He noted he didn’t see the historic value in keeping the St. Joseph Church rectory and doesn’t believe in forcing people or groups to keep buildings that aren’t suited for them.
Diane Pouget, the second of the two incumbents seeking re-election as a councillor, said she “was your voice” and constantly asked the tough questions. When she couldn’t get answers, Pouget said she contacted the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing. She said she participated in the Ontario Ombudsman’s investigation over closed meetings.
“We have so much to offer but we also have a significant problem called the debt,” she said, stating it is $46 million with $14 million in unfunded liabilities.
Pouget said some on council and in administration believe the debt is not that bad but “I believe differently.” She said some on council and administration will try to sell voters “a bill of goods” and say that assets outweigh debt, but she said assets include the south gateway flooding in heavy rain and a “crumbling” town hall.
“We all know assets don’t pay the bills,” she said. “The more assets you have, the more money it takes to maintain them.”
Pouget said the town has no reserves and lack the industrial base other towns have, so comparisons are not valid. She added residents pay “backdoor taxes” in sewer and water rates.
“Yet, some of us just don’t get it,” said Pouget.
Regarding how to attract new business and industry, Pouget noted the town has an economic development officer and that it is “absolutely essential” that investors be sought out to invest in the town. She said it has to be advertised that the town is open for business.
Facing the question of senior staff turnover, Pouget told the crowd she believes some CAO’s left town due to “mayoral interference” and that administration was “caught in the middle” when council members tried to get answers to some questions.
“We had some excellent CAO’s leave and I can’t blame them for leaving,” she said.
Pouget added that council runs the town and not the CAO.
Regarding the Sandwich St. realignment, she stated she opposed it and that it hurts businesses as business owners “begged us not to take parking away.” She believed the liability factor was “minimal.”
Roxanne Qussem said she chose to move to Amherstburg because it is a safe community. Noting she works preparing audits for the purposes of free trade, she decided to offer her expertise as a councillor candidate.
“I felt it was my duty to offer my services,” she said.
Qussem said she “could no longer watch the disconnect between council and the residents” and decided to run.
“Amherstburg very much needs a cohesive and professional team,” said Qussem.
Not only must debt be paid down, she added, but also revenue must increase and not on the backs of the taxpayers. She noted the increase in development charges and she added that non-essential assets should be sold as well. The taxpayers should see value for their money, she said.
Questioned on the subject of regional transit, Qussem called it “a wonderful service” but noted the size of Amherstburg. She said the town couldn’t provide it themselves but would have to look at partnering with other municipalities.
Qussem believes in the sharing of services with other communities is something worth investigating and that other municipalities should be contacted about doing that.
“Everyone wins when we work together,” she said.
Infrastructure like Texas Road needs to “be taken care of,” she added, with Qussem stating the town has to find money in the budget to do it.
“I believe it can be done,” said Qussem. “If there is a will, there is a way.”
Marc Renaud stated his involvement as vice president of Unifor Local 200, which represents 4,800 active workers and retirees, and the fact he has been involved in four separate contract negotiations. He also stated his involvement with the Amherstburg Minor Hockey Association, including the last six years as president.
The Deloitte recommendations should be implemented as soon as possible, said Renaud, and town council should receive quarterly financial updates. More answers are needed with regards to the town’s finances, Renaud believes, and that he would like an investigation done on the “actual amount of debt” the town has.
Showcasing the town’s parks should be done, he added, and the town also has to focus on creating more jobs.
“I have the knowledge to ask the tough questions and I will get the answers,” stated Renaud.
The hiring of new CAO John Miceli was a good one and was happy to see politics taken out of the selection process through the use of a selection committee.
Joshua Rene also noted the importance of job creation, pointing out “ a lot of residents have to commute out of Amherstburg.” He said he can’t bear to see his children grow up and have to leave Amherstburg because there is no work for them. In his opinion, he said youth “is our forgotten generation.”
Rene said residents know who made the financial mistakes and doesn’t want to run a campaign where he lays blame.
“It goes without saying Amherstburg is in tough shape with an undetermined debt load and empty reserve accounts,” said Rene.
Under the Q&A portion of the evening, he defined a budget as “a pre-planned outline on how the town’s money is going to be spent for the year.”
Rene added he aims to be part of the team that leads to Amherstburg’s resurgence.
“Amherstburg won’t be known as the town that went broke but the town that reshaped itself in the foothold of history,” he said.
Regarding his experience for the position, Rene said he is 24-years-old and the youngest candidate running.
“I do have life experience,” he said, stating he works two jobs and has a wife and two children. He is also involved with the national organization called “Threads of Life,” an agency that aids families who have loved ones killed or injured on the job.
Rene also responded to a question about the hiring of the new CAO by stating he believed it should have been referred to the new council.
Bob Rozankovic said once he started attending council meetings, he learned how dysfunctional they had become. He said some on the current council have disrespect for the will of the people. Rozankovic called the 4-3 split on council “real” and that Mayor Wayne Hurst ruled “with an iron fist and made sure decisions went the way he wanted them.”
“Amherstburg is at a crossroads,” said Rozankovic, believing his work experience could prove to be handy to the community.
Rozankovic said he has 30 years of experience in management, budgeting and sales and has gone on several international trade missions with the provincial government.
“It all comes down to people and finding common ground so we all can move forward,” he said.
Rozankovic added he wants to limit in-camera sessions the town has.
Asked about the number of employees the town has lost, he said top talent leave for a number of reasons but there is an issue if they are leaving because they are not comfortable here. He said senior staff have to get through to employees and find out what their comfort level is but “some people you get through to and some you don’t.”
Rozankovic was also asked about enforcing a heritage bylaw if the town wasn’t contributing to help the owner keep up their property.
“If you are not willing to contribute, you should not enforce it,” he said.
Scott Shuttleworth believed better communication is necessary in town. He pointed out his business and community involvement and said he has an accounting degree as well. Shuttleworth stated he has won a pair of Amherstburg Chamber of Commerce awards for community involvement.
“I want to contribute back to the community again,” said Shuttleworth.
Shuttleworth cautioned the debt won’t be a “quick fix” and that more answers are needed on what the number is. He added there is a need to bring more jobs and businesses back to town. Spending on necessary projects should be done but the town can’t overspend, he added.
Asked about the relining of Sandwich St. to three lanes, Shuttleworth said he was against it because businesses in the downtown core need parking.
“Parking is a big issue right now,” he said.
On the question of whether he would support high-rise development on the west side of Dalhousie St., Shuttleworth added he would likely oppose it though it would depend on what exactly was proposed.