Strong town council candidates mixed on amalgamation

More than 200 people attended a Meet the Candidates event at the Sundridge Legion on Tuesday to hear where candidates running for Strong Township stand on the issues.

The health of Lake Bernard, medical services, roads and whether Strong should amalgamate with Sundridge and Joly were some of the issues the candidates discussed.

Coun. Jody Baillie is running for mayor and said she would have to look at the numbers first before supporting or opposing amalgamation.

Baillie says a committee representing the three municipalities has been formed to look into the merger and added the committee's findings “don't commit us to anything.”

Baillie also said the public would have a say in the issue but made it clear that if amalgamation wasn't good for Strong residents, then she wasn't interested in pursuing it.

Businessman Albert “Bert” Lilley didn't believe amalgamation was the way to go, adding there are more important issues facing Strong.

Lilley also said the money the municipalities are going to spend looking into amalgamation is money that “could be used for other purposes” and believes a merger will cost a lot of money.

Joly Mayor Tim Bryson is running for the Strong mayoralty in the current campaign and said the issue had to be studied.

Bryson said amalgamation will create a smaller town council overall and may result in fewer municipal employees.

Bryson said not studying the issue was like someone having “a closed mind.”

There are four people seeking the Strong mayoralty.

The fourth candidate is Councillor Jason Cottrell.

Cottrell didn't attend Tuesday's event and his absence was mentioned publicly by the organizers although no reason was given for Cottrell's no-show.

Seven people are running for the four councillor seats including incumbents Jeff McLaren and Marianne Stickland.

Both councillors said they opposed amalgamation but that it would be up to residents to help make that decision with Stickland saying further there would have to be compelling reasons for her to be convinced that “amalgamation is good for Strong.”

Kelly Maynard said the issue needed further study because amalgamation has “worked in some places but not others”.

She advised caution because not only would it cost a lot of money to amalgamate, it would cost even more to get out of amalgamation.”

Jim Ronholm admitted to being “on the fence” on the issue because arguments could be made for and against amalgamation.

Ronholm pointed to a shared services dispute South River and Machar are having over their fire and arena operations.

He noted in his example there would be no dispute under amalgamation.

Kevin Noaik suggested a study to determine the actual costs a merger entailed and once that was known “let the people decide.”

Randy Robichaud was “totally against it” saying Strong had more important issues at hand and that “amalgamation would create more headaches.”

Doug Leal said he was neither for nor against amalgamation because at this time he didn't know enough about it.

When it came to roads, the notion of the right leadership was raised several times.

Mayoral candidate Jody Baillie said there's been “no consistent leadership direction” for Strong's roads and her opponent Albert Lilley said it was important to have the right people in place to do road work.

With the councillor candidates, Kevin Noaik said the municipality needed a “good roads supervisor” adding this person won't be cheap, Kelly Maynard said she “couldn't count the number of roads supervisors who have come and gone in Strong” and also supported the notion of hiring a good roads supervisor.

Doug Leal, who's had a quarter century career in the roads construction industry, said if you “don't have a good leader then nothing happens.”

Jim Ronholm also said there's a leadership issue in Strong where roads are concerned.

“We have the equipment but not the personnel,” Ronholm said.

Stickland hinted the leadership issue may soon be resolved because the municipality has a consultant looking into the matter.

On medical services, mayoral candidate Albert Lilley suggested even though the area is back to two doctors, physician recruitment should continue and the hiring committee should look for a doctor who will stay for the long-term and not one who is looking to retire several years after arriving in the region.

Bryson said the newly renovated medical centre may make it easier to recruit healthcare professionals.

Bryson added since the Almaguin region is now part of the Muskoka and Area Ontario Health Team, it means doctors in this group may visit the Almaguin corridor.

Councillor candidate Kevin Noaik suggested bringing back the blood work lab to the Strong-Sundridge-Joly area, a service it once had.

Noaik also suggested attracting another eye doctor, something Stickland said could happen because the local medical committee is currently talking about this.

Stickland said “it would be a miracle” if the area could get its blood lab back and suggested this would once again need to be investigated.

Mayoral candidate Jody Baillie said it “would be great if the blood lab was back” because there has been speculation that the lab in Burk's Falls could close and many Strong, Sundridge and Joly residents use the Burk's Falls lab.

Baillie was also an advocate for continuing physician recruitment efforts.

Candidates were asked what they would propose as a solution to the Happy Gang seniors club dilemma.

The club currently occupies an area of the Sundridge town hall but has been at risk of losing this site because Sundridge has been provincially mandated to create an Emergency Operations Centre and it would take over the Happy Gang room.

Councillor candidate Kelly Maynard said the solution was for the municipalities to put their heads together and find the Happy Gang a home and Jim Ronholm said any new home for the club had to be in the built up area of Sundridge and not in a rural setting.

Stickland suggested that a possible option for the Happy Gang was to locate in the basement of the renovated medical centre.

However, Noaik said the seniors group should be allowed to remain at the Sundridge town hall.

Noaik's suggestion got support from quite a few of the candidates.

Councillor Jeff McLaren agreed with Noaik as did candidates Randy Robichaud, Doug Leal and all three mayoral candidates.

Mayoral candidate Jody Baillie also suggested perhaps Sundridge could share Strong's EOC meaning the Happy Gang could remain at its present home while her opponent Tim Bryson said if the three municipalities shared one EOC, then “the Happy Gang problem was solved.”

Candidates were also asked how to attract and retain small business, were they in favour of creating a dog park and how to improve the hours at the Sundridge Post Office.

How to keep Lake Bernard healthy also came up and several responses included educating the people on what they put down their drains, having good septic systems in place and keeping the lake free of the invasive plant phragmites which chokes out other aquatic life.

Strong's current mayor, Kelly Elik is not running in the election and is retiring from municipal politics.

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