The Township of Armour will have a new mayor after October's municipal elections. Mayor Bob MacPhail has announced he is not seeking re-election after 16 years as the municipality's top elected official. MacPhail first ran for councillor in 2003 and spent one three-year term on council before running for mayor in 2006 when the terms were extended to four years. With MacPhail stepping down, Coun. Rod Ward was the first off the mark to seek the mayoralty. Ward is wrapping up his first term as a councillor and said MacPhail started dropping hints last year this would likely be his last term as mayor. MacPhail's decision started some behind the scenes discussions on who would be interested in taking over from the four-term mayor. Ward says Armour council is a well run elected body and all the members talk to each other. “We talked about who might be interested in the mayoralty and out of the conversation it came out that I was the one most interested,” Ward said. “The other councillors were happy to see that and wouldn't run for mayor themselves.” However, before officially submitting his nomination papers earlier this month, Ward checked with MacPhail. “I called Bob one more time and asked him ‘are you sure about retiring?’” Ward said. “I also told him I was more than happy to run again as a councillor if he wanted to seek another term as mayor. But Bob said he hadn't changed his mind.” The Ward family moved to Armour Township in 1999 and lived in a fixer up cottage on Three Mile Lake. From the moment he arrived, Ward took an active interest in municipal politics, but for the time being he remained a spectator. He was president of the Three Mile Lake Community Association for about 16 years until the Wards sold the cottage in 2016 and built the home the family lives in today. In 2011 he became a volunteer on the board of the Almaguin Highlands Health Council (AHHC). “The lack of health care for this area has always been of interest to me,” Ward said. “It's a major issue that got me into discussions with residents and politicians in the surrounding areas.” When he successfully ran for Armour council in 2018, Ward was the logical choice to represent the municipality on the AHHC board, which had representation from the 10 area councils. A year into his first term Ward became chair of the AHHC after former chair Bruce Campbell stepped down. Ward said he decided to run for council in 2018 not because he had an axe to grind with the council of the day or that taxes were too high, but he believed he could make a positive contribution to the residents of the municipality. Ward says a major accomplishment for not only Armour council but all the municipal councils that fall under the AHHC board was ensuring the Almaguin region was represented on an Ontario Health Team. “We took a big hit when the Ontario Government announced the OHTs,” Ward said. “We were ignored in the announcement and weren't aligned with anyone. We had to correct that. All 10 councils got the ball rolling, we made connections and eventually got a seat at the table of the Muskoka and Area Ontario Health Team.” The significance of being part of an area OHT is that it gives the Almaguin Highlands a voice where it can advocate for health care needs. On its own the AHHC has helped to attract physicians to the area and late last year also secured physiotherapy services. “We're happy with how this all turned out,” Ward said. At the council level, Ward worked with his colleagues to build an outdoor rink and basketball court and “these are all positives that make people feel good”. As he prepares for his run at the mayoralty, Ward is keeping an eye on several major issues. He says health care will always be an issue and in the near future a new hospital will be built either in Huntsville or Bracebridge. “That's good news but they're also going to be looking for money,” he said. Ward says another looming issue will be the effects of COVID spending by the federal and provincial governments. “They will have to deal with the (financial) impact and to manage their budgets they could push stuff down to us, leaving municipalities stuck to deal with the spending.” Ward says these are matters to watch for in the short term. Another major expenditure that's expected to come up in the next council term is a new fire hall shared by Burk's Falls, Ryerson and Armour. Under a tri-council shared services agreement Ryerson oversees the management of the fire station, even though it's centrally located in Burk's Falls. He says the challenge will be to find a new plot of land because there's no room for expansion at the current site. The new building will also have to be much larger because the equipment barely fits in the existing fire hall. On the plus side, Ward says the EMS in Burk's Falls may be looking to relocate in the near future “and maybe we can work with them and put everything all in the same footprint. “It just makes sense to do ambulance and fire as one project,” he said. An issue Armour and many Almaguin communities face is housing. It was once affordable to build homes in Almaguin, he says, but that's no longer the case. As people have difficulty buying into the housing market, that's also impacted area businesses. “How do you get a business to operate if they can't get people to work for them because the people can't afford to live somewhere?” asked Ward. Ward says these issues need to be addressed. Ward says he doesn't oppose amalgamation of local municipalities, but prefers more talks on shared services between Armour, Burk's Falls and Ryerson. If future shared services agreements work, potentially they could better prepare the municipalities for amalgamation if there's interest. Ward describes his working relationship with MacPhail as “great. “He directs the conversation and wants everyone to be heard,” Ward said. “He has a calm approach and listens. I like that.” Ward says he may copy some aspects of MacPhail's approach to running a council meeting, but would also make changes since he has his own style. And should he become mayor, Ward isn't shy about asking MacPhail for advice. “But I wouldn't inundate him because, after all, he is trying to retire,” Ward said. Professionally, Ward has had a 37-year career in Information Technology. Nowadays he operates his IT business from home and is engaged with teaching courses, one-on-one coaching and also takes on projects where he teaches other companies IT best practices. Because running for politics involves a major commitment, Ward first discussed the mayoralty with his wife Tammy, a retired teacher, who gave him her full blessing. Municipal and school board elections take place Oct. 24.
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