Magnetawan residents hear where town council candidates stand on the issues

The importance of volunteering, continuing tourism efforts, pursuing economic development and short term rentals were dominant topics at the Meet the Candidates event in Magnetawan.

All candidates were allowed opening statements and the event began with incumbent Mayor Sam Dunnett stressing the ongoing “need for volunteers.”

Dunnett said that when COVID-19 hit and shutdown almost everything, some volunteers never came back when the re-openings began last year.

Dunnett's challenger Michael Gebhardt was critical of the mayor for only speaking about volunteerism in his opening comments and likened Dunnett's statements to a public service announcement.

“We have issues that go beyond volunteering (but) thank you for the PSA,” Gebhardt said.

Gebhardt said Magnetawan is “known as not being business friendly” and this needed to change he told the crowd of about 100 residents at the town hall.

Several minutes later Gebhardt, who first ran for the mayoralty in 2018, apologized for the PSA comment when Dunnett explained why volunteers are important.

“You need volunteers,” Dunnett said.

“Without them events don't happen. They help keep the town healthy.”

Dunnett said if people needed proof of this they need look no further than the just completed annual Magnetawan Fall Fair which is organized by volunteers.

The fair has been going on for more than 140 years and Dunnett said it's because of the volunteers.

“I deserve that shot,” Gebhardt said. “I didn't mean to imply they aren't needed.”

After apologizing Gebhardt talked about the need to create micro businesses and that the local tourism industry needed to be boosted.

One area where both candidates agreed was that putting together an official plan was a priority.

The official plan is the guiding document that spells out how land in a municipality should be used.

The current Village of Magnetawan town council has been working on creating an official plan this term.

Dunnett said the draft first started out as 29 pages and has grown to a 54-page document which is now out for extensive consultations.

Dunnett didn't get specific but told the residents there are elements in the official plan he doesn't like.

The official plan is expected to address short-term rentals which has become a contentious issue in many Ontario communities and Magnetawan is proving to be no different.

Council candidate Jon Hind said the matter of short-term rentals was a pressing issue and council would need guidelines since some people have issues with this form of economic development.

Bill Bishop, another council candidate, said short-term rentals provide jobs and increase tax revenues.

He said they definitely need to fall under guidelines or a bylaw and stressed whatever method is chosen to govern them, that approach has to apply fairly to all.

Council candidate Julie Ferris-Lidstone said short-term rentals were a polarizing issue and agreed that while they increase local revenues, they also put pressure on existing services and infrastructure.

Incumbent Coun. John Hetherington noted that short-term rentals was one way to boost tourism. But he added the rules that would be necessary to oversee the concept of cottage owners renting their properties to other people had to be crafted carefully to ensure there was peace on the waterways and back roads.

An issue many residents raise about short-term rentals is that the visitors are very noisy and leave a lot of garbage behind.

The topic came to a sudden end when local taxpayer Bill Brown asked all the candidates what they would do to reduce red tape for the owners of short-term rentals so it's easier to run this type of business and what advice would the council members give to short-term rental owners.

Brown said he and his wife have three short-term rental properties in Magnetawan that help sustain jobs in the municipality.

In response, incumbent Coun. Brad Kneller told Brown right now he doesn't face any red tape because the municipality doesn't have any rules in place to oversee short-term rentals.

On the issue of economic development, incumbent Wayne Smith said better internet connectivity was one way to increase job opportunities.

Smith noted that although COVID-19 impacted many municipalities, it also showed it was possible for people to work from their homes.

Smith said many businesses won't move to Magnetawan because of internet issues.

He said a better internet service would attract businesses.

Smith said this meant more jobs and would also increase the chances that more young people could continue living in the municipality since they could work from home.

Council candidate Dean Butticci, who is a former firefighter, said the current fire hall needed a ventilation system to ensure firefighters at the station were protected and were not exposed to various carcinogens that could affect their health beyond what they are exposed to when fighting fires.

Butticci said Magnetawan was decades behind in building a new fire hall.

Kneller agreed a replacement fire hall was needed although he did point out the municipality has updated its fire equipment.

Council candidate Peter Gos equated Magnetawan to a diamond in the rough with all the lakes and all it needed was just a little tinkering to make it shine which he said would boost tourism and attract businesses.

Other points the candidates raised were from Bishop suggesting more recorded votes so it was easier to track how council members treated particular issues and Smith who suggested there should be an ambulance station closer to Magnetawan.

Smith said the closest ambulance teams are in Burk's Falls and South River.

He suggested Ahmic Harbour or Dunchurch as possible sites for another ambulance station. Bishop also suggested looking into building smaller homes or apartments for seniors because many prefer to stay but find their current living quarters too large.

He suggested a feasibility study on the matter.

Heatherington and Butticci supported the idea.

Nine candidates are vying for four councillor seats. Candidate Jennifer Watkins was a no-show for the event.

Three of the incumbents are seeking re-election, while Coun. Tim Brunton chose not to run this term.

Rocco Frangione is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the North Bay Nugget. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.

Rocco Frangione, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The North Bay Nugget