In announcing his entry into the St. Thomas mayor’s race back in July, Joe Preston stressed municipal politics is “where rubber hits the road.”
Three months later as mayor-elect, after a 550-vote win over incumbent Heather Jackson, Preston isn’t waiting until the Dec. 3 swearing-in ceremony to get the gears in motion.
In a lengthy conversation with Preston yesterday (Oct. 26), he chuckled, “They’ve already started.”
Noting the increased demands on his schedule this week, Preston continued, “The election is over, now let’s get going. I’ve got a fantastic elected council, so I’m already talking to most of them. I already had a great meeting with (city manager) Wendell Graves about where we are and what I need to know. And with a lot of different community groups who want my ear at the moment.”
Four years ago, the newly elected council endorsed changes to the way business is conducted at city hall, is Preston anticipating building on those?
“I want to hear from the group,” he stressed. “I recognize I get to lead the group, but on something as crucial as how the committees are structured or even the reference committee, I’d like to hear from the group.
“I really want to hear from the four or five who have been there. And Steve Peters who has been there before. What was good and what was bad? I’m not the one to make this decision, I’m the one to gather the information so we can make a smart decision.
“During the election, I heard from each of them but I really want to sit down with them and make sure it’s not my decision, it’s ours.”
Many will agree over the past term of office, city manager Graves has been behind the wheel of the bus and mayor and council have enjoyed the ride. Does Preston see Graves’ input as an integral factor for the success of the incoming council?
“Of course it is. Our council is, in fact, a board of directors. There needs to be someone in the position we would call executive director or city manager. We have to have that relationship. It will always have to be that way. Collectively, we have to have a person we could go to that would be the executive director, in this case Wendell.”
At one of the all-candidates meetings, Preston expressed his desire to establish something akin to a mayor’s task force on volunteerism. With all the other demands of office, does he intend to follow through on that concept?
“We kind of have already started. There are two or three groups that are reaching out right now. One of them on needle clean up. I’ve attended both of their meetings to say this is a fantastic volunteer effort.
“We can’t really count on our police to have to be out there policing this. Or even city works people. But if we can train and help people on this. It’s the tip of the iceberg, if you will, on what I think volunteerism can be in our community.
“And how valuable a contribution it can be. Not replacing, but in addition to what the city already offers. Sometimes there are a lot of service groups who get short shrift . . . whether they’re running a rib fest or the Iron Horse Festival. I really want those volunteer groups recognized for what they do offer our city . . .”
Something this present council was never able to fully resolve was the establishment of an effective system for distributing grant money.
Preston agreed there needs to be clarity.
“We have to separate them. We have to have what might be community grants, if there is such a thing. And then what is a line item (in the city’s annual budget).
“Let’s differentiate between the two. Many of our community groups are in as a line item and never have to fight for their life. Others are in as a grant structure and every year they have to come and do their song and dance. I would like to differentiate between the two, to a degree.”
“This is a culmination of a lifetime of community involvement and I am so much looking forward to what can be done as the cheerleader for our community.”
Having worked through the rigid party structure as MP for Elgin-Middlesex-London, even at this very early stage, Preston is finding municipal politics “liberating.”
He elaborated, “I’ve already had conversations with a number of the regional mayors, Mike Bradley from Sarnia, Dan Matheson from Stratford and my good friend Ed Holder from London and the other ones closer to us, our neighbouring communities.
“Because I think we have to work together there too. And there’s a freedom to say, ‘Hey, look St. Thomas is here for advice, for help, to be part of an overall group, whichever way you want it. Let’s all work together for southern Ontario.’
“And, that always hasn’t been the case, either. I don’t know the political stripes of all these people, but I know they are pretty good politicians.
“When CAMI came to Ingersoll and Magna came to St. Thomas, that was a benefit to all of us. Let’s smile because we all win. I think that is the right way for us to do it.”
That philosophy can equally be applied to neighbouring communities, suggested Preston.
“Like Central Elgin, Southwold and the County of Elgin, we have to be best friends . . . where we are working together for the success of the whole area and not our individual communities.”
The swearing-in ceremony for Preston and the rest of council will take place Dec. 3, an evening seen as a springboard for what may be his final chapter in the public spotlight.
“This is a culmination of a lifetime of community involvement and I am so much looking forward to what can be done as the cheerleader for our community.
“How much more can we raise St. Thomas up with this strong a group of council and all of them so prideful in their community.”
You cast your vote for mayor and council on Monday, however you feel your involvement in the city’s growth and development demands more than filling out a ballot once every four years.
Well, the city is inviting applications from residents 18 years of age or older for various committees, beginning Jan. 1 of the new year.
Here is just a brief sampling of city committees seeking applicants: Canada Day; Environmental Stewardship; Horton Farmers’ Market board of management; St. Thomas Public Art; St. Thomas Police Services Board; and Municipal Heritage.
Application forms are available here or from the clerk’s office at city hall.
Deadline for submission of application forms is 4 p.m., Nov. 16.
TAKING STOCK OF LAKE MARGARET IS NOT WHAT YOU THINK
A media release sent out Thursday under the heading “City Set to Take Stock of Lake Margaret” had this corner wondering whether Coun. Steve Wookey’s desire to fish in that body of water had gained traction with staff.
Quoting from the release, “The City of St. Thomas, in cooperation with the Kettle Creek Conservation Authority and the St. Thomas Environmental Stewardship Committee, has contracted Natural Resource Solutions Inc. to undertake a fish inventory at Lake Margaret.”
The release goes on to note knowing what fish species are in the lake and how abundant they are will help inform future management decisions.
Like re-opening the debate on fishing?
Not at all, stressed Ross Tucker, the city’s director of parks, recreation and property management.
Speaking with Tucker on Thursday, he explained “The environmental committee has been working for the past few months and they have set some objectives. One of them was let’s do a fish count to see what’s in that lake.
“I’m really looking forward to the results of that. The fish will also tell the health of that lake and also whether we need to do some stocking programs. There’s a chance it could lead to that.”
Tucker pointed out routine water sampling has been undertaken, however a fish count has never been conducted.
“We’re also trying to do some kind of thermal imaging of what the bottom of the lake looks like.”
The lake is spring fed with aquifers running all through the area, advised Tucker.
The lake is also a turtle hotspot.
“I think from an environmental perspective, the committee will look at that next year,” suggested Tucker. “They’ve tossed around ideas on bird counts and butterfly counts.”
Lake Margaret needs to be promoted, he stressed.
“Now that we own it, it’s time to enhance it and maybe, with help from the field naturalist club, get some of the neighbours involved with counts. There are a ton of bird species in that area.
“There is a group of really enthusiastic people that is interested in the possibilities of enhancing the lake.
“I would really like to see an observation deck out there one day.”
CYCLING ON CENTRE
The redevelopment of the west end of Talbot Street is not the only major rebuild of a city street now underway.
A block south, Centre Street is being rebuilt to re-establish “an east-west connection for pedestrians and cyclists in the downtown,” according to a media release issued Oct. 24.
The work includes installation of separated cycle lanes, with the first stage – from Ross Street to Princess Street – scheduled to open this week.
A map of all current and planned trails in St. Thomas is available on the city’s website.
THE READERS WRITE
With regard to our Oct. 24 story on the acquittal of John and Brett Hueston on charges of obstructing police, Steve Thomas posted on Facebook, “Seems to me the big question is why assistant Crown attorney Celia Jutras agreed to prosecute in the first place. Maybe she felt that she had no choice or maybe she is not the sharpest tool in the box, I don’t know, but it never should have gone to court.”
Ed van der Maarel added, “What a waste of time for the Huestons and for our tax dollars!”
And Susan Gerry simply responded, “Mark a win for the good guys! Congratulations!”
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
“In a free country like ours, the police are there at our behest. It shouldn’t be adversarial and I guess it’s one of the things I’m seeing with policing in this country. It seems to be coming much more confrontational than it used to be, and that’s not my idea of good policing.”
Aylmer Express Publisher John Hueston following his acquittal Monday (Oct. 22) at the Elgin County Courthouse on a charge of obstructing police.
Questions and comments may be emailed to: City Scope
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