Democratic tradition alive and well in Billings Township

Billings Township councillor hopefuls Bryan Barker (left) and Michael Hunt (right) listen during opening remarks by Paul Darlaston (centre).

KAGAWONG—Three mayoral candidates and seven nominees for four council seats presented their views to a packed Kagawong Park Centre at an all candidates meeting on Saturday, August 18. Moderator Jack Clark of Gore Bay welcomed everyone on behalf of organizers and the candidates. “In our democratic system,” he said, “probably one thing that is more important than most in voting is to vote both responsibly and intelligently and informed. Your presence here today suggests that you take your responsibility very seriously. On behalf of the candidates, we thank you for that; hopefully we will provide you with some information that will help you with that decision.”

Candidates were given three minutes for opening remarks and one minute for closing, with a 30 minute question period in between.

Mayoral candidate Ian Anderson was born 65 years ago in Havelock, Ontario. He was raised on a small farm and “from this very humble start I learned the importance of helping your neighbours and learning to get along with folks in your community.”

He spent 36 years as a conservation officer on Manitoulin. In addition, he has belonged to many organizations and advisory councils, all in a volunteer capacity. Mr. Anderson has lived 43 years in Billings and felt as a taxpayer, “I wanted good and safe roads, good fire protection, a reasonable tax burden, and certainly one competitive with our neighbours, and accessibility to our mayor and council and municipal staff when I needed help with a problem. I am happy to report that Mayor Aus Hunt and councils past and present delivered on most of my wants and needs over the decades. Life is good in Billings Township.”

Municipal candidates listen to moderator Jack Clark (not pictured) explain the rules of an all candidates meeting at Kagawong’s Park Centre.
photo by Lori Thompson

He sees the role of mayor “as the face of the municipality; a vocal promoter of the township; as a facilitator of the business of council to ensure council meetings run smoothly, effectively and efficiently. The mayor should try to maintain the balance between infrastructure improvements that benefit all citizens of the municipality and those improvements that specifically benefit either those that live in the village or in the outlying areas. Lastly, the mayor should participate in and foster activities that enhance the economic, social and environmental well-being of the municipality and its residents.”

Next up was mayoral candidate Barbara Erskine, who noted that Billings is one of the few communities on Manitoulin that is actually growing. “In fact, 10 percent of our population is 14 years of age and younger,” she said. “We have Bridal Veil Falls, one of the top two tourist destinations on the Island. We have welcomed new and expanded businesses. We have dozens of dedicated and energetic volunteers. In so many ways we are in a good place right now. But there’s another side to this coin. We have lots of miles of roads to maintain, a relatively small tax base, buildings and bridges that need a lot of attention.”

Ms. Erskine feels that openness, accountability and effectiveness are the main characteristics required of a mayor. “As a councillor, I put in time to listen, to prepare for meetings, to talk to people at events, all the events that I could attend,” she said. “As mayor I plan to meet with seniors and youth. Most importantly, I will take the time to communicate with you. Four times a year I will write a report. I will also work with staff and council to improve the township.”

“For the past four years council and staff worked to bring over $2.5 million in township grants for special projects,” she continued. “We need to hit the ground running because there’s money coming from the federal government through the province to municipalities. We can’t let funding opportunities slip by.”

“As councillor I initiated the gym makeover,” she said. “I’ve shown that I can work with people to get things done. As mayor I can bring focus to our meetings and planning by asking staff and council to review our progress on the strategic plan items and to set goals each year throughout the upcoming term.”

Mayoral candidate Margaret Tuomi, a sixth generation Haweater, cares deeply about the township she’s called home for the past 33 years. “I served on Billings Township council for seven years and in the second term I was deputy reeve,” she noted. “I’ve taken all the available training courses for both council members and heads of council, including the community emergency management coordinator course. While on council I served as the Western Manitoulin representative of the District Services Board. I served on the Sudbury and Manitoulin District Community Care Access board for three years. I served as treasurer for the Western Manitoulin Royal Canadian Legion for many years and still volunteer.”

Ms. Tuomi has a degree in business management majoring in accounting finance and has been self-employed for the past 25 plus years. “I am an excellent money manager,” she said. “I am extremely budget oriented. Now semi-retired, I have the time and energy to focus on the needs of this township, effectively representing ratepayers while encouraging fiscal responsibility. I believe council and the mayor as a team must be fiscally responsible to our ratepayers. We must be honest and open and only hold in-camera meetings when absolutely merited. I believe I have the abilities, qualifications, education and experience to devote to being the next mayor of Billings Township.”

Sharon Alkenbrack has been a member of Billings council for approximately 10 years. She spent 25 years with TD Canada Trust, finally as bank manager with the Little Current branch. Ms. Alkenbrack spent two years as a board member with the Owen Sound Transportation Company and three terms as president of Manitoulin Tourism Association.

“Someone from Gore Bay said people in our community are visionaries,” she told attendees. “I guess we are but as we change, because change is inevitable, we need to ensure we move forward with wisdom and do not relinquish the essence of who our community is. We have to be good stewards of the environment but we also have to protect our financial base. The upgrades to the marina and small craft harbor are important and money has been saved for that project. We need to replace the holding tank at the marina as new regulations will impact that in the future. From 25,000 to 35,000 people visit our community, and in the case of Bridal Veil Falls that leads to parking issues and our continued efforts to alleviate or help it function better.”

She would like to establish better communications through a better and user friendly updated webpage. “We are reaching the limits of our footprint with the landfill and we have hired an environmental engineer to help us with an extension,” she concluded. “I’d like to look more at efficient recycling ideas as long as it’s cost effective.”

Bryan Barker was an instructor at the Ontario Police College following a 31-year career in law enforcement. “I’ve been a member of Billings Township for a relatively short period of time, but let me assure you, that does not diminish my commitment or connection to my community,” he said. “I chose to retire in Billings Township. My connection to the Island goes back many years.”

Mr. Barker feels his 31 years as a police officer has given him the tools and knowledge necessary to take on the challenge of running for office. “I’ve been responsible for the preparation of budgets and setting policies and procedures,” he explained. “I was a facilitator for the development of our services’ future business plan where a mission statement, vision and goals and objectives were set. I believe in open and positive communication and if elected, promise to keep members of our community informed and will make myself accessible and available. I pride myself on my integrity and promise that decisions that are made will be in the best interests of Billings Township.”

Paul Darlaston has lived in the community for 12 years with his wife of 49 years, but knew the community for many years prior to that. His career has been in information technology; he was involved in building the first version of the Bank of Montreal online banking system. “I am retired now which means I won’t be spending too much time off the Island which means I will be able to devote my time to services if elected,” he said.

“I have a number of items, keywords. The first word is continuity. If elected I hope to be part of a council team that completes those initiatives already started. I’m going to focus on efficiency, to improve the management of our limited dollars. I’d like to focus, to stick to the plan.” He concluded by noting, “We should set priorities include popular services like the Billings Library, which seems to suffer whenever budgets are set.”

Michael Hunt has lived in Kagawong his whole life except when attending Laurentian University in Sudbury where he studied geography and political science. He is the son of Billings Township’s current long-serving mayor, Austin Hunt. “This allowed me to see firsthand how to work with community projects in a way that brings in as many people of Billings as possible,” Mr. Hunt said. “As a member of council I would like to work with all of you in order to bring about all of our objectives. We need to keep our taxes low. Many people are living a precarious existence and we need to keep our expenses low. We need to keep our government structure as streamlined and efficient as possible. We need to keep our town office open on Fridays and the administration at the town office is to be kept relatively small. We do not need to sell off more town property. Town property belongs to everyone. It should not be sold to private interests.”

Mr. Hunt spoke about how his father as reeve, with the help of Joe Brown, worked to acquire the land for the falls on both sides of the river and the lakefront in the seventies. The goal at this time was to establish a park and connect the falls with a trail. The trail was completed and is still widely used today.”

Sandi Hurcomb began by praising the community. “We are among the most fortunate people,” she said. “We live in a stunning community The neighbours we know well and we care for one another. We live in an engaged community with social events, community spirit and we feel safe in our homes. I would not choose to live anywhere else but here.  I would like to point out the candidates who sit with me, these are the folks that put themselves out there, who care so much about their area they putting themselves forward.”

“I served four years on council previously and learned lots as a newby,” she continued. “This time round I feel I am more prepared for the commitment and I am seeing much more of the awareness of the community and its issue. I want to be a part of Billings moving forward and see people who are part of this community move forward in the same general direction.”

Ms. Hurcomb believes in hard work, honesty and compassion. “We transplanted here 20 years ago and rescued and refurbished Dodge Lodge. It was a fantastic project and made us want to do it again. Our next project, which is now our home, was Boo-Bah-Lou.”

Haweater Sharon Jackson was born and raised in Billings Township and is proud to call Kagawong home. “It is also home to each of you in this room, whether it is year round, two weeks of the year or eight months of the year, you each have a voice,” she began. “Billings Township is more than the village of Kagawong. Each of us here are interested in concerns of people from Maple Point to Rainbow Heights to Main Street to Lakeshore Road and everywhere in between. When I people I live in Kagawong, the response is always, ‘I love Kagawong. You have such a forward thinking and fun community and work together to be a success’.” She thanked volunteers for their impressive contributions to the community.

“Over the past four years, our council, office staff, public works have taken on a strategic plan, a very ambitious task” she said. “They have checked off many items on the list, including hiring an economic development officer and creating additional safe parking for Bridal Veil Falls visitors and shoppers. One of the top priorities was updating the township website which now has regular posts including a recent well water order, municipal fire ban along with minutes for council meetings. The strategic plan for 2018-2021 is also available online.”

Ms. Jackson does not have plans to make changes, concluding, “I am here to listen to your concerns and work together to build on our community’s strengths, implement solutions for improvements and explore opportunities. We have to work within financial parameters in order to move forward with ambitious and realistic goals. I doubt there is anyone among us in this room who would want to see our village transformed into something unrecognizable but to maintain its heritage and environmental integrity.”

The final candidate, Eric Parsons, has been married 42 years to Anne, “who is a local Kagawong girl.” Mr. Parsons retired in 2016 after a 48 year career largely financial related. He wants to be more involved in the community and finds it encouraging to see “a full slate of candidates.”

“I understand the township has secured funding for the waterfront development project and would like to be very much involved in that project moving forward,” he said. “I want to be involved in financial business to ensure the maximum use of revenues and to obtain maximum funding available for the township.”

He believes in an open door policy and that “open minds and open discussions” make decisions easier and lead to more tolerance.

Candidates were asked questions about their involvement in Billings township activities; zoning and preservation of community heritage; and improved communications with ratepayers, with all three mayoral candidates agreeing there was room for improvement.

All mayoral candidates were equally open to investigating the livestreaming of council meetings, depending upon Internet speed and availability as well as cost and community interest. Further waterfront development was also an issue supported by mayoral candidates. Questions were asked about municipal staffing and legacies. The final question was directed to all candidates and referred to the current council’s purchase of the 100 acre bluff adjacent to the river.

Ms. Erskine and Ms. Alkenbrack both noted that although there was no clear plan for the property, the idea was to protect the natural character and maintain public access to the water; they also noted the possibility of adding to the existing trail system in the future. All candidates agreed that public consultation would be necessary before any plan was developed.

Mr. Hunt added, “The same issue was raised years ago when the township purchased land from the falls to the bay. Back then nobody could understand why but we had visionaries like Aus Hunt and Harold Tracey. I imagine we could do the same thing there; there are areas of karst and some caves. Who knows what the possibilities are?”

Following closing remarks from candidates, Mr. Clark again thanked organizers, attendees and candidates, noting the level of participation is “a sign of a healthy township.”

Organizer Ted Kilpatrick reminded attendees that voting will be by mail-in ballots that will be sent out the last week of September. Those returning the ballot by mail must have it in the mail by October 11. Voters have until 8 pm on October 22 if they are dropping their ballots off at the town office. Billings voters have much to think about prior to their decision making for election day.