Lack of ministers at the Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities conference disappoints Manitoulin reps

SAULT STE. MARIE—Although Manitoulin municipal leaders reported a general “good experience” at the Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities (FONOM) and Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing (MMAH) annual conference held last week in Sault Ste. Marie, the overarching comment was the disappointment at the lack of minister representation due to the recent election call.

“(The) FONOM (conference) was very interesting and enlightening,” Northeast Town CAO Dave Williamson told The Expositor following the conference, “but because the writ dropped there were no ministers present and the panel was lost this year.”

“The lack of ministers put a big damper on the conference,” added Northeast Town Mayor Al MacNevin.

“The conference was very good,” commented Billings Mayor and FONOM board member Austin Hunt. “There were a lot of municipal representatives in attendance. I think people were disappointed that there were no ministers due to the election, but that has happened before at a past FONOM conferences.”

“It was my first time attending the conference,” Gore Bay Mayor Ron Lane told The Expositor. “The sessions were quite interesting. It was too bad the ministers weren’t there. Myself and others had things we wished to have addressed, but all in all the conference was good.”

Central Manitoulin Mayor Gerry Strong said that he was also hoping to speak to ministry representatives from the Ministry of Transportation and the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services about issues in his municipality, but that “it was understandable because of the election.”

Besides the lack of ministry representation, most Island municipal representatives including mayors and councillors from the Northeast Town, Assiginack Township, Gore Bay, Billings Township and Central Manitoulin, reported that they found the workshops and networking with other Northern municipal leaders beneficial.

“The key for me is the networking,” explained Mr. Williamson, “having the opportunity to talk with other administrators from across the region.”

“The best part of the conference was having the opportunity to meet and talk with other colleagues about the issues small municipalities are facing,” said Assiginack Councillor Leslie Fields.

“I attended a workshop on Provincial Policy Statement changes that had an interesting exercise to help us get to better know the policy and how it applies to elements in our municipalities,” added Mayor MacNevin. “The workshop on legal issues municipalities commonly face was also very informative. I always enjoy the workshops and this year was no exception.”

Assiginack Councillor Paul Moffatt said that he found the Provincial Policy Statement workshop beneficial as well.

“I found a workshop I attended on homelessness in the North very interesting,” commented Northeast Town Councillor Michael Erskine. “It is an invisible problem in the North with people often living with friends or couch surfing, instead of on the streets. There is also a lack of emergency shelters in the North, especially in rural towns like ours.”

Councillor Erskine also noted how he enjoyed networking with other municipal councillors, as did Mayor Lane.

“In addition to networking, I got a lot out of a workshop I attended on creating additional forms of revenue for municipalities,” said Mayor Lane. “There were some really good ideas presented and we are always looking for ways beyond tax revenue to raise funds for community projects.”

A gap in the conference for Councillor Fields was a focus on issues facing larger municipalities.

“I felt the topics brought forward in the presentations and workshops weren’t as useful to small municipalities,” she explained. “I think there needs to be more in-depth discussion on issues facing small municipalities right now. Through speaking with colleagues, I got a sense that others would have liked this as well. FONOM needs to try and balance an agenda that meets the needs of both larger city and smaller rural communities. Small municipalities are having to stretch their tax dollars more and more to the limit and when some municipalities can’t even afford to come (to the conference), I think we are getting dangerously close to the line.”

Besides room where the conference could improve, Mayor Hunt indicated that Manitoulin could be a future host of the conference, as a number of the Island’s representatives expressed an interest to the FONOM board in being a host. Next year’s conference will be held in Sudbury, but the following year could see the conference return to Manitoulin, which previously hosted it several years ago in Central Manitoulin.