The good ship St. Thomas doesn’t need two captains

Posted by Ian: Be it an ego the size of a Sterling truck or an all-pervasive paranoia, Mayor Cliff Barwick says this town ain’t big enough for his worship and a CAO. However watch for him to try and back-peddle by attempting to promote Wendell Graves to the position of city manager. Don’t be fooled … it’s not the same position, nor does it pack the same authority and stature. The mayor’s full year-end interview with Times-Journal reporter Eric Bunnell follows …

Cliff Barwick is a mayor with a secret.

With little more than 10 months remaining in his four-year term, Barwick says he decided two weeks ago whether to seek re-election on Oct. 25.

But the 65-year-old head of city council isn’t yet saying what that decision is.

“I have made a decision about 2010. I’ll announce it at the proper time.

He teases about that.

“According to the press it should be any time. But according to myself, I’ll do it when I want to do it!”

Traditionally, St. Thomas municipal politicians have waited until after summer to announce their intentions, although Barwick bucked that tradition when he announced in July, 2006 that he would seek the mayor’s office.

If he decides against a bid for re-election as mayor or, even, as an alderman, Barwick still will go down in city history as one of the longest-serving city politicians, whose political career began in the 1970s with his election as an alderman and, then, as mayor.

And, if he decides to retire, he won’t be the first mayor to leave office after having been elected in good times, only to see his city plunged into the depths of economic downturn. Most recently, Doug Tarry saw that happen in the early 1980s as St. Thomas was celebrating its 100th anniversary.

This past year was the year Ford confirmed long-standing rumours it would close the St. Thomas Assembly Plant.

It also was a year Sterling Trucks, which once ran around the clock, shut its doors.

Recalling the 1992 words of the Queen in a year in which Windsor Castle was struck by fire and her family by marital discord, Barwick says 2009 was the city’s annus horribilis.

But Barwick says the city is laying the groundwork for recovery, starting with a provincially supported study to decide what direction St. Thomas should look for its future, and how it should sell itself.

But he cautions the way back is a long one.

“This is a very slow process.”

And it’s a journey the city, as a lower-level government, can’t complete on its own. The feds and the province have their parts to play.

But the retired high school history teacher finds a parallel in the city’s past when dieselization brought an end to the railway era of prosperity. St. Thomas came back as a manufacturing centre — eventually.

“It took us a good decade or more for us to move to a manufacturing base from a railroad base. And we’re just barely a year into part of a global hit that’s we’ve taken very, very hard, It’s not something you change overnight, that’s for sure.”

But looking ahead to 2010, comeback is on Barwick’s mind.

“I really would like to see us land a significant, job-creating industry,” says the mayor, who is to deliver his annual state-of-the-city address Jan. 4 to council.

The city’s study suggested promoting the community’s potential as a player in agricultural industry. Food processing, possibly. Or bioenergy. Or other greenpower industry.

Barwick says there is hope for the future: he notes the city is responding to inquiries from industry.

“It’s not dead. There are all sorts of inquiries coming into us.”

Yet, he adds, “But it’s very highly competitive.”

Indeed, Barwick supplies an illustration which is both positive and negative: The city made a shortlist for a new industry, he says, but lost to another community.

And Barwick repeats a caution he has made in past. The days of the 1,500-job plant are gone, he believes. Future workforces will number 200, 300 or 400 jobs.

Curiously, while St. Thomas is pursuing economic development, the city deferred a request from Elgin county for money to fund county-led tourism marketing.

A former chairman of council’s finance committee, Barwick defends the city’s response.

“It was timing more than anything else.”

The request will be considered as part of the big picture of city budget deliberations in late winter, when council will deal with the city’s significant loss of revenue from provincial grants.

“It’s the only responsible way to attack a budget,” the mayor says.

“You cannot piecemeal yourself to death.”

Barwick maintains relations are good between the city and the county.

The Queen’s words aside, Barwick can point to highlights last year.

One was the announcement that the historic Wellington Street courthouse would be saved as the province’s choice for the city’s new consolidated court facility. The province is expected to ante up close to $100 million.

“I think one of the biggest things that we succeeded in doing, which has taken years and years and years, and we finally pulled it off, was we got the province committed not only to the courthouse, we got them committed to the restoration of the site on Wellington Street.”

As part of the deal, historic Wellington Street Public School — a symbol of railway-era prosperity — is to be preserved following its closure in December. The schoolyard will become courthouse parking; the building will be mothballed for future use.

“I think that was of tremendous significance, not only for the administration of justice but for the fact we finally did get the province to commit themselves to significant heritage restoration.”

Sadly, the loss of Alma College in 2008 to arson may have been part of that cost. Barwick agrees. While the province argued it gave the city the tools to save the derelict property, the city replied the province failed to provide cash.

Another highlight was federal and provincial infrastructure funding to rebuild Wellington Street, itself. The roadway west of Princess Avenue has been described as a cowpath; its condition led to the city being named last year by the Canadian Automobile Association as one of the province’s municipalities with worst roads.

The city also closed a deal on the railway lands, preserving the Elgin County Railway Museum.

Looking to the year ahead, Barwick, who gives the current council good marks for its ability to work together, also hopes to see the role of city clerk broadened to reflect the job incumbent Wendell Graves currently performs.

The mayor is not speaking of a chief administrative officer, need for which was hotly debated in the last municipal election, but a city manager who co-ordinates government but who doesn’t come between department heads and council.

Barwick, whose council experience includes municipal government both with and without a CAO, is forthright in his assessment of the need for a chief administrator at city hall.

“There’s only one captain,” he says.

Editor’s note: And the corporation awaits the leadership and vision that position of authority demands.

4 thoughts on “The good ship St. Thomas doesn’t need two captains


    The “captain” analogy has resurfaced reminding me of Captain Joseph Hazelwood who was reportedly asleep at the helm on the Exxon Valdez when it struck a reef and spilled 11 million tons of crude oil into the Alaskan waters.
    Our disaster was job loss and our “captain” was a nowhere to be found. Barwick’s knowledge of the potential for dire job losses dates back to his 2006 run for the Mayor’s office. In November 2006, then mayoral candidate Alderman Cliff Barwick and Mayor Jeff Koehler participated in an editorial panel hosted by the Times-Journal to share their views on key issues. “Topics of discussion included the mayor’s role on council, the merits of a chief administrative officer, a code of conduct for council, dealing with divisiveness amongst members of council, accessibility issues, and the possibility of significant job losses in St. Thomas and area over the four-year term of council.” It appears someone was mindful that staggering employment issues could be on the horizon.
    Then-Alderman Barwick responded to the panel, “No, we don’t have any plan in place… but you have to take a proactive stance now”.
    Three years later, and the captain is still “laying the groundwork for recovery.”

    In February 2009, London Free Press Norman De Bono’s article, “Firm hired to help St. Thomas fix its economy” noted that the Bob Wheeler of the St. Thomas Economic Development Corp. had engaged a Hamilton consulting firm, Miller Dickenson Blais for $87,413 to produce a consultant’s report – a strategic plan that “Wheeler hopes will be completed before June”, so where is it?

    As for the highlight claims, it is said that success has many fathers but failure is a bastard. On the courthouse, I know what the late Bob De la Penotiere did with the Save the Courthouse campaign, understand the political weight that the Hon. Steve Peters, Member of Provincial Parliament for Elgin-Middlesex-London brought to the cause, and I suppose Barwick takes credit for what exactly?

    In 2009, Barwick the “captain” and his shipmates on council proclaimed that a new police station the #1 priority for St. Thomas. This is not even remotely connected with the priorities of the constituents they were elected to serve.
    Council members’ individual responsibilities can generally be grouped into three categories; representation and accountability, governance and management. None of these can be described as a current strength and perhaps Alderman Chapman captured the essence of the problem when she informed me that;

    “Things are not going to change until there is someone in charge at City Hall”

    Bill Sandison
    Advocate for a Better Municipal Government
    STR8TALK in St. Thomas


  2. Reminds me of Captain Queeg of the U.S.S. Caine.


  3. Interesting parallel David:

    “It quickly becomes apparent that Queeg is prone to eccentric behavior. Queeg displays an oppressive command style and is prone to unprovoked angry outbursts. From the first, he begins to make mistakes that endanger his ship. After refusing the assistance of his predecessor in command, he grounds the Caine on a muddy shoal his first time underway. He panics in a fog and nearly collides with a battleship, and passes the blame to his helmsman…

    Queeg neglects to order the ship to stop turning while distracted in reprimanding a crew member for having his shirttail out, and so the Caine steams over its own towline, severing it. When called on the carpet by a superior after this incident, he refuses to acknowledge that it even happened, much less admit blame in any way… ”



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