If there’s one thing that comes across clearly from a conversation with our new Mayor-elect, Nancy Peckford, it is that she intends to make sure that things are going to be different this time. On one level, of course, that is inevitable: none of the five new members of Council have served in municipal government before; so that, in itself, makes this Council different.
But Nancy’s approach is based on more than that. As she told the Times in a conversation we had a few days ago, she and those she is calling her “Council colleagues” are determined to see good things happen as quickly as possible after they are sworn in at the beginning of December. The budget, for example, will be one of the first items on the new Council’s agenda, and they will be looking closely to see where there might be savings in the discretionary spending available to Council. Is the annual 2% rise inevitable?
The fact is, however, that only about a third of any municipal budget can be described as “discretionary”, meaning spending not required under various provincial laws and regulations. The police budget, for example, takes up about one-third of North Grenville municipal spending every year, and that is something that is beyond Council’s authority to change. The OPP contract is set in stone, at least until 2019. And it is highly unlikely, given North Grenville’s growing population, that policing costs will remain at current levels under a new contract. It is, actually, almost guaranteed that they will rise.
These are the kind of things any new Council will have to face, but Nancy Peckford is very optimistic about the ability of the newcomers to make a difference. After all, she notes, this is a Council that has a unique balance of skills and experience within itself. Each new member is bringing their own contribution to the whole in an unusually balanced way. Nancy promises that she will be happy to use those skills and that expertise in the best possible and productive way, as she allocates to the four Councillors their area of responsibility.
She herself is bringing a special set of talents to the Mayor’s office. For ten years now, she has been the Executive Director of Equal Voice, a national organisation with a mandate to encourage women to take part in electoral politics at all levels of government. This role has given her a rich background in making budgeting decisions, where, as she says, it’s a fifty cent dollar – every penny counts in running a not-for-profit organisation. The need to make every dollar stretch as far as possible will certainly be a demand placed on our new Council, and Nancy believes that the five people who will make the decisions are well equipped to do so.
There is a commitment on the part of all five to actively and seriously consult the people of North Grenville on the direction the municipality will have to take in the next four years. This is, we know, a promise made by every new Council in the past, and has, most often, turned out to be merely window-dressing. A public meeting might be held to inform and consult the citizens; but then Council would go ahead and do whatever had been determined beforehand. It was very often a farce.
That was clearly one of the most important elements in the defeat of the last Council: voters wanted them out, because they felt they had been ignored and patronised by those they had elected to serve them. Nancy Peckford has given assurances that this, too, will be different. A more collegial approach to leadership is one that has served Nancy well in Equal Voice, as has her ability to network, create good working relationships, and get things done. No such organisation can survive without someone like that at the helm.
But there is also a determination on her part to make decisions, as a council, and take responsibility for those choices. You can’t please everyone all the time, and the willingness to be open and transparent about the decisions made is essential in a healthy democracy; a trait that was noticeably lacking before this. That is one of the most encouraging things about talking to our Mayor-elect: there is a clear strength of character, a firm resolve, but also a collegial and open attitude to working with her Council colleagues, staff, and the people of North Grenville. As she says: she, as Mayor, in cooperation with the four Councillors, will lead. Municipal staff will be a valued asset in providing the support staff is there to provide: but Council, led by Mayor Nancy Peckford, will provide the leadership, direction and tone of this new era in North Grenville’s history. If all goes well, if there is no retreat into the usual Bubble, this will be a fascinating four years.