He left office 14 years ago, but former Pelham Mayor Ron Leavens seems to be as plugged-in as ever on local goings on. Leavens served as Pelham’s mayor from 2003 to 2006. Then, as he says, he was “voted out of office.” The issue that killed his re-election was the municipal purchase of the acreage now known as East Fonthill. In part, Leavens sought to protect it from developers bent on making a quick buck with cheap, slipshod construction. He wanted the Town to determine how, and when, the tract was developed.
Now 74, he tells anyone who asks that his days in politics are done. A teacher in Niagara schools from 1975 to 2000, he sold his PetValu franchise in Fonthill awhile back, although he continues to work there, part-time, after 23 years and counting.
The occasional Leavens reality check is a useful way to stay grounded, and I realized a couple of weeks ago that it had been over a year since I’d had the pleasure of an extended chat about Town politics with the curiously pro-business NDP stalwart. We met at the Voice office, keeping our masked distance. The following has been edited for brevity and clarity.
BURKET: It’s been awhile since we last talked, so let’s get right into it. We're a year and a half or so into the mandate—what are your impressions so far of how things are going.
LEAVENS: I think overall positive, because there aren't any great controversies related to the Town itself. There are controversies that involve personalities, but that shouldn't be here nor there. Overall, I like what's happening. I mean, the development is going to happen and it seems that it’s taking place in an orderly fashion, so that's good. You know, I don't have anything negative to say about the Mayor at all, really. I mean, he got himself into some hot water and I think it was unintentional. I don't think there were any nefarious motives or anything. It was just a mistake.
When you see Junkin’s fundraising efforts for the Bandshell, is that different in any material way from the previous mayor's Mayoral Gala, when he was fundraising for different organizations?
No, I don't see it as different. As mayor you do have to be careful, and I think the thing that got [Junkin] into trouble was who approached him to contribute funds when they already had an issue with the Town at that point. It probably would have been better for him to say, “You know, I don't want to go there.” I think it was a mistake on his part but it wasn't a critical error by any means, and it's something that any of us might have done— here's the chance to get some money for a volunteer group in town. I didn't see it as a great problem and apparently the Ethics Commissioner and the Ombudsman didn't see it as a great problem either. I think there's animosity between certain members of council and so they look for any opportunity to go after each other. You got to put that aside when you're at council meetings. That's why this whole thing was totally blown out a proportion, totally. It was just personalities that were involved. On my council there were councillors that I didn't get along with but we respected each other at meetings and gave each other the opportunity to voice our opinions with respect to Town business, do what’s right for the people of the town.
What do you make of the fact that Councillor Kore decided to pursue this at all?
I think there's personalities involved and that's all it is. I know that Councillor Kore and the Mayor don't see eye-to-eye on many issues, and there's some personal animosity there, for whatever the reason is, and it's one of those “you got me, now I'll get you games,” and I think it's totally inappropriate.
Was council’s decision to penalize the Mayor the way it did appropriate?
It was petty. That's exactly what it was —petty. I was quite frankly surprised by some of the people on council that voted to go along with it. I think it was absolutely unnecessary. He got his hands slapped by the Ombudsman and the Ethics Commissioner and that should have been the end of it. It’s like in the court system the Crown appealing of sentence because they didn't like what the judge handed down—rather than the guy getting two years, let's give him life. That's what it amounted to and I thought it was totally inappropriate.
So beyond that.
Beyond that there are a couple of things that I really— and it's not this council's fault—but our downtown, for example, looks like hell again. Half the trees are dead in the downtown area. My wife and I walk down there all the time. The interlocking brick is like a war zone, it’s all up and down. If you’re going to do improvements, you need to make sure you put money in the budget for maintenance. Both my kids live in Burlington—and I know it’s a big city compared to us—but we go down to the lakefront quite a bit when we're up there during the summertime, and they'll have a festival on the weekend. The lakefront gets messed up. But Monday morning, they've got crews in there everything's put back into pristine condition. I know there's a difference, but when you look at doing improvements in the town, look at the long range, okay? Putting in interlocking brick in the downtown, if you don't have the funds to maintain it, is stupid. Why don't you put something like stampcrete, or something in that doesn't require a lot of maintenance and can look good, because it looks terrible right now, absolutely terrible. I know that's not this council's fault, it was done by the previous council, but those are the kinds of things that you need to take a look at. The whole idea was to make the downtown look better for businesses. Well, the businesses have done their part, because there's a lot of better looking buildings that have been completed since then, but the streetscape is just terrible.
What do you make of the arches? First, should they be rebuilt, and second was the design that was submitted the one to go with?
I don't want to comment about the design because that's one's personal preferences, but I think the arches were a drawing card. They were something of note that you could hold your Summerfest around and I think they added something very positive to the downtown. When you've got a volunteer group that wants to go and raise money to put in a permanent structure for you, as long as you can maintain it in the future, yeah, go for it.
Given your description of the maintenance of Pelham Street, you wonder whether the arches would fare any better in five or six years.
That’s something to consider, yeah. I noticed in the Voice over the last few weeks there's a lot of commentary about trees, and I know where people are coming from, but one of the problems with having a tree policy is there's no timelines on it. So, when it comes to budget time what gets cut first is the discretionary stuff—we're going to plant two trees for every tree that gets taken down. But when are you gonna do it? Fifteen years from now? Thirty years from now? There should be a timeline. The Town should have to replant those within, let's say, six months of the completion of the project. They just took four trees down on Pelham Street in front of our residence, and I understand why they had to come down, but I would like to see replanting done before wintertime, you know, after the construction crews are out of there. We have these policies but no money to make them effective, so they're just a bloody waste of time.
In general, I think some observers would look at council’s performance so far and wonder whether they're getting too far down into the weeds on some things, and not relying as much on staff and the professional opinions of staff as maybe would be advisable. What's your opinion on that?
From what I've heard, and this is only second-hand information, I totally agree. It doesn't matter what council, what government level it is, you have to depend on the expertise of your staff to run the day- to-day operations and provide you with information and advice that's going to help you to make sound decisions. Your job is not to get down into the nitty-gritty, like, “Well, I want this building to be this color, or they're not going to get a building permit.” That’s not their job. I remember a few years ago we had a controversy over the business in the old CIBC building at the corner here. They had this yellow awning. It was a terrible color, it was, but it was a corporate color. Why do we even concern ourselves with it? Let your staff give you sound advice and if you decide you're not gonna go with that advice, that's fine, but don't get it involved in the nitty-gritty of day-to-day operations.
One recent example that I can think of is the new townhouse project coming south of the community centre, right there by the roundabout. There was quite a bit of discussion about parking, and entrances and exits. Did you follow that at all?
I understood that some members of council wanted more parking spaces when the developer had already complied with the number that's required by the Act. And you know what? It's right adjacent to the community centre. Was council looking for additional parking for the community centre that wouldn't cost them a cent? I don't always agree with developers but if a developer abides by the rules and does what they're supposed to be doing then why do you change the rules on them in the middle of the game? This is the kind of thing that councils can't do. Don't go changing the requirements every time somebody else comes along.
At their [July 27] meeting, council opted to send a Pelham-specific face mask bylaw back to staff for further review, with the Mayor the lone objector to that. He maintained that because the Region had its bylaw in place that Pelham didn't need one.
I totally agree with Marv on that. I think the Region was slow in getting off the mark. They had an opportunity a few weeks ago to pass a bylaw and for whatever reason they held off on it, deferred it. It doesn't make sense for each individual municipality to have their own mask bylaw. Region-wide, province-wide is better for everybody in the long run. My niece manages a business here in town. Most of her clientele come from the GTA. She said you wouldn't believe the problems her staff have had dealing with people. Their business has had a policy for quite a while that you have to wear a mask when you come in, but [customers] don't want to do it.
I’ve been left almost speechless the last couple of months related to this mask debate—this silly, stupid, fake debate. I think we're going to look back in ten years, 20 years, and historians are going to look at us and say, “What were you idiots thinking? What's wrong with putting a goddamned mask on?”
Exactly, exactly. You know, I hear these people, “You're infringing on my rights.” Well, I'm going to print off a copy of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms tonight, and we’re going to have it by the front door [at PetValu] tomorrow, and if anybody uses that line I'm going to ask them show me the clause in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms that gives you the right to infect me with a deadly disease. And then you can come in without a mask on.
We have several candidates running to fill Mike Ciolfi’s Ward 1 seat. What's your impression of their platforms as far as you know them, and their qualifications for the job.
All I know is what I’ve read in the paper. How should I put it. I don't think qualifications make a great deal of difference. I think common sense and intelligence do.
By qualifications you mean—
It doesn’t matter whether you've been a chartered accountant or a school teacher or a physician. Those are qualifications that are unrelated to what you're going to be doing on council. But the ability to take a problem, analyze it, and make solid decisions that are to the benefit of the people of the municipality, that's the important thing. That's why I think public presentations for candidates are so important, because you get to know a little bit about their thinking process. It's great to look at their background and that in the paper, but to have them answer specific questions for you that you're interested in, that relate to the municipality—
That they've not seen in advance. In other words, to problem- solve on the fly.
Yeah, and also in this day and age, to listen and take in sound, expert advice. My son's always on about how the age of experts is gone, it's disappeared. We discount them now. We've got all these people with all this training that we've hired to give us advice on the best course of action, and then we discount it. We do it everywhere, everywhere, it's not just in politics.
Because some disaffected dropout is able to design a polished looking meme on Facebook.
Yeah, and it doesn't mean that you always have to go along with what the experts tell you. But you better be prepared for the consequences when you don't, and you better be able to own them when you don't take that advice, when it was the correct advice.
A huge example of that is occurring south of the border right now with their pandemic response, or lack of response.
It's just unbelievable. I mean, that is the epitome of the death of expertise, what's going on in the States right now. You go from an organization like the CDC, which has a world-renowned reputation, and then you just discount everything they tell you. And I really get upset with the powers that be in the CDC, because they go back and revise [their advice] so it fits the political tune of the day. Don't. I gave you my advice, here it is, and it's based on scientific data, take it or leave it.
If expertise isn't as useful as common sense, who among the candidates seems to have more than others. Should we be concerned about racial diversity in Pelham? Is that in council’s purview?
I knew you were going there [laughs]. No, it’s not, as far as I'm concerned. You know, we are primarily a white community because that's what we've always been, but we're becoming more and more diverse as time goes by, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. That's great, but it's not something you have to force. It'll happen on its own. I think we should be a warm and welcoming community for anybody that wants to live here. Race and diversity should have nothing to do with it. You’re a human being living in this country, have a right to live here, so we welcome you.
So I'm not going to get you to comment on any favourites—
I don't have any favourites—out of my ward anyway. But here's another thing I've thought about over the years. The way we elect our councils. I'm not so sure anymore that I agree with the ward system.
You think council should be elected town-wide?
The only person that is actually elected by the entire town is the mayor. So the mayor has legitimacy to speak for the town, you know, whereas the other members of council really don't. The more I think about it, the more it disturbs me that these people represent Ward 1 or 2 so they really shouldn't be concerned about the rest of the wards. I'm not sure that I buy that anymore.
I'm not sure anyone is making that suggestion, though. I think if anything, this council has shown its willingness to get its fingers into multiple ward pies, not just their own ward’s. And I might even push back a little farther in the sense that particularly in Ward 1, which is largely rural, does it not make sense that they would be best served by someone who lives in their ward and who understands those issues?
But the ward system doesn't require that you live in that ward.
Right, so should living in the ward be a requirement?
I would go so far as to say I think it should be, yes. If you’re going to have a ward system.
I was really surprised a couple years ago when I learned that you didn't have to live in the ward to run there—
Well, you don't even have to live in town.
Right. Then this year, you know, innocent naive me, further shocked to learn that you don't even have to live here at all, as long as you rent something that's on the tax rolls, even just a room in a house, or commercial space.
If you stop and think about it—you know these landlords that own buildings in multiple municipalities? I know most of them don't bother to vote in municipal elections, but look at the power that they could have if they actually applied it, not just in electing but their ability to contribute to election campaigns.
How’s the new CAO doing. He’s been here just over a year now.
You know, there was something that he said that was very interesting and I totally agree with him. At one point he was asked if there was anything new he'd experienced here, and he said—I forget his exact quotation—“There are a lot of new things I’m experiencing here.” It really does explain a lot of what goes on.
I think it was, “I've been experiencing a number of professional firsts in Pelham.”
Yeah, yeah, I thought that was very telling. Probably the worst job in public service, at any level of government, is at the municipal level, because the turnover now is so great, the turnover amongst senior staff. And it’s not just in Pelham. It happens all over the place, and again it goes back to not valuing experts like we used to. You don't want staff members that are going to agree with you on everything, or take your side in every argument. You want staff members that are going to give you valid advice—
Independent of politics.
—Yeah, don't tell me what I want to hear, tell me what I need to hear. The CAO we hired when I was there, Anne Louise Heron, we had this conversation in my office a couple days after she was hired. She came in and she said, “Mr. Mayor, what do you want from me?” I told her, “Anne Louise, I want you to tell us, council, what we need to hear, not what we want to hear.” And quite frankly, that's what got her let go by the succeeding council, because she continued with that.”
So for the second half of the mandate, what are the top priorities, in your view, that council should be addressing?
I think we have to start planning for two years down the road now, because I believe very strongly, and some of my contacts in the business community tell me the same thing, that two years down the road we're going to see huge amounts of infrastructure money coming out, from the province and the feds. We have to be ready to jump on that. We have to start planning now for projects that we might want to implement two or three years down the road. The business community is telling me that you won't see it in the next year and a half to two years, because we have to get over this deficit that we've run up now. But business is really going to feel the effects of the pandemic a year and a half, two years down the road. That's when it's really going to hit them and that's when the infrastructure money is going to start coming from the feds and the province to start doing things.
When you say infrastructure you mean roads and bridges—
Roads and bridges, all kinds of municipal projects. It'll help the construction business and supplying materials. We're going to see money going into hospitals, and schools, senior care facilities, hopefully, if they've learned their lesson. There'll be lots of money flowing to the municipality and we need to be prepared for that. We can't fly by the seat of our pants like we have in the past and say, oh, there's money there. I mean the last time around, with the infrastructure money, we missed it because we weren't ready. That was the whole idea of getting this land in East Fonthill, so that we would be able to take advantage of that infrastructure money, and we missed the boat. The last money came out, I believe it was in 2009, and we weren’t ready for it. So we ended up paying the full cost of the community centre. If we'd been ready, we could have had funding in the neighborhood of probably two-thirds of the actual cost. And then where would we be financially?
Obviously a lot better shape.
A lot better shape. To be fair to this council, they've had a lot to deal with, as far as getting the finances straight. It's unfair to expect them to be carrying out a lot of projects when they're trying to get their financial house in order.
What else would you prioritize—cannabis?
I think it's a legitimate concern that people have had over the cannabis business—the lighting and the odours, and all of that—but it's still a valuable contributor to the local economy. I can't for the life of me understand why in this modern age, with the technology we have, why we can't control the odours and dampen down the lighting so it doesn't bother people. My own impression is that the cannabis industry hasn't done their homework.
Well, they may have done their homework and decided that the teacher in Pelham didn’t really care—or didn’t care before—whether the homework was done correctly, because certainly the technology does exist. It's just not being implemented here. Anything else we should cover?
I really would like to see an effective tree bylaw, I really would, with timelines attached to it.
Speaking of trees, any thoughts about our old nemesis the gypsy moth?
I'm really against using insecticides where they don't need to be used, if you can control it with spot-spraying. I don't agree with past councils that this is something that individual homeowners should pay for, because if you don't do it sooner or later it's going to affect everybody. It's for the benefit the of the entire town. Don't nail individual homeowners with the cost, because a lot of it's coming from public lands anyway. It's like anything else. I mean, if you've got potholes on Haist Street and you go and repair them, do just the people on Haist Street pay for it? No, the entire town does, so why should this be any different.
Yeah, it's difficult to rationalize socializing road repairs or street lights, sewers, and water, but not saving the trees.
A couple of the people that have written to the paper in the past couple weeks with respect to the trees coming down, I disagree that the public should have to review every tree that comes down. I think again, you've got experts that are telling you this tree needs to come down. If the Town needs to get a second opinion from another arborist that's fine. But at the same time, I agree with them that our tree replacement bylaws are totally ineffective.
Okay, I appreciate your time. Thanks.
Thank you. ◆