So, who really is behind the wheel of the city hall bus? It may not be who you think.

city_scope_logo-cmykQuite the surprise this week with the announcement City Manager Wendell Graves plans to retire next March.
Hard to imagine he began his public service 41 years ago as a student in the Municipality of Central Elgin planning office. That’s according to the city hall media release, however Central Elgin was not established as a municipality until 1998 and as reader Dave Mathers correctly points out it would have to be a planning office in Belmont, Yarmouth or Port Stanley.
Also, surprising is his rationale for the long lead time up to that date next spring.
“The next few months will fly by and I want to ensure city council has the opportunity to plan strategically for its next leadership,” advises Graves.
In commenting on the announcement, Mayor Joe Preston notes, “With our city positioned in such a strong, strategic direction city council appreciates the fact that Wendell has provided a good planning horizon so that we can thoughtfully recruit and put in place the next leadership for the City.”
Did you catch the common theme here?
Leadership for the city is provided by the city manager.
Most residents of St. Thomas are likely under the impression the city is led by the mayor and council.
After all, isn’t that why we elect them?

However, this corner has strongly believed our past and current mayor have willingly handed over the steering wheel of the bus to the city manager.
And, we’re sure many city hall employees would concur.
Wendell GravesThe position of city manager or CAO has had a checkered history over the past 20 years.
For a period of seven years through to 2011, the city did not have a CAO. In April of that year, Graves was promoted to the post from city clerk, a position he had held since 2004.
Former mayor and alderman Cliff Barwick was strongly opposed to the CAO position, fearing abuse of power.
For a possible example of that, you need to read about what is known as the Dobbie Report and was the full report withheld from council of the day by the city manager?
You can read about that possible highjacking here
Can we presume Coun. Jeff Kohler is still opposed to a city CAO?
The city’s previous CAO, Roy Main, was fired on Jan. 7, 2004, one of the first moves of new Mayor Jeff Kohler and council.
At the time, Kohler would confirm the firings were the result of part two of the McCarthy Tetrault Report. Authorized by members on Sept. 22, 2003, Part 1 of the report characterized council as “dysfunctional” with an inability to operate in an atmosphere of sniping and internal power struggles, while the second part dealt with hiring practices and “violations of human rights” at city hall.
You can read a summary of the McCarthy Tetrault report here
It’s a fascinating report on council of the day.
Kohler opted for a management board in lieu of a CAO, something municipal advisor and author George Cuff warned: “is an unmitigated recipe for disaster.”
The management board was scrapped when Graves was appointed CAO.
So, in the next eight months, there is much to be dealt with.
Including the micro-apartments above the transit centre, the emergency shelter around the corner, Phase 2 of the social services and housing campus at 230 Talbot Street (see item below), hiring a chief and deputy chief for the fire department and of course dealing with many grievances and settling a contract agreement with that department.
And, let’s not forget the former Wellington Street School, a personal project of the city manager.
Except for a handful of city employees installed in the non-airconditioned building, it is a forlorn edifice in need of a purpose.
An expensive one to maintain, by the way.
It should prove an imaginative challenge for the new city manager.

Related post:

As expected, Wendell Graves announced as city’s first CAO since 2004


At the July 12 meeting, council received the fifth report of the 2021 Site Plan Control Committee with one item dealing with the owner receiving approval for “the proposed 4‐storey building containing 45 residential dwelling units and a municipal fire station.”
To pinpoint this, we’re talking about Phase 2 of the social services and housing campus at 230 Talbot Street. In this case, a four-storey structure that will front Queen Street (see photo).
230 Talbot Street rearjpgIn the 2019 municipal budget, it was noted the projected cost of the second phase is just over $7 million, although there will be minimal to no impact on ratepayers as the childcare portion of the facility will be financed by the province and the apartments are being funded through the sale of some of the city’s existing housing stock.
Well, the landscape has changed rather dramatically and we talked to city manager Wendell Graves about this yesterday (July 23).
He noted the details be formalized later this fall, “But the ultimate vision is it (Phase 2) will be an Indwell project.”
Let’s backtrack for a moment.
In January of this year, the city signed a memorandum of understanding with Indwell Community Homes to develop supportive housing projects.

“Everybody is sort of reviewing final drawings. Hopefully, in September to the first of November that will be clear. It would be nice to get concrete work done before the winter sets in.”

Indwell is a Christian-based charity that has built supportive housing for more than 700 individuals in London, Woodstock, Simcoe and Hamilton.
The first joint effort with the city is the construction of the 16 micro-apartments on the second floor of the downtown transit building.
Graves continued, “Once we get into construction (of Phase 2) it will be their project.”
As to a start date for the project, Graves advised, “Not yet. Everybody is sort of reviewing final drawings. Hopefully, in September to the first of November that will be clear. It would be nice to get concrete work done before the winter sets in.”
In place of the childcare facility, a third fire station will be incorporated into the ground floor.
“That area of the city was identified as to where to strategically put that asset (firehall),” confirmed Graves.
“For the immediate future, as that building is constructed, it is our intent that the actual fire station portion of it will just remain as a shell.
“We didn’t want to give up the location and as the new (housing) developments come on stream in the northwest corner of the city then that’s when we will pull the trigger to then build out the rest of that firehall.”
Graves predicts the new fire station is three to five years down the road.
He advised that will likely be the final development on the large tract lock of land.
“There’s going to be some green space internally in that block and with the density, there is a fair bit of parking required.”

Related posts:

Childcare spaces disappear as the result of a ‘soft’ business case

A caring environment in a stable, permanent home is the foundation for transformation in people’s lives


On a related matter from that same site plan report, Coun. Steve Peters raised a question many residents – in this case, those along Erie Street – have pondered.
We’ll let him table his concerns.
“When you have a neighbourhood that is predominantly single-family homes or duplex houses . . . how do you find this balance of trying to preserve this neighbourhood-like atmosphere and then suddenly a large project like this is introduced to a neighbourhood?”
Coun. Peters is referring to the approval given to construct a six-unit residential apartment building at 92-94 Erie Street.

“It does seem as though it is a stark use. A six-plex next to singles or semis . . . It does provide a good fit in the neighbourhood and a good opportunity for new housing within this area.”

He continued, “The whole question of servicing. All that site had on it was a grocery store for years with a family living in the back.
“And all of a sudden now, you’re introducing a large project with a multiple increase in sewage capacity and how does this impact on the neighbourhood?
“How do we find this balance of infilling but not having, in my opinion, a large-scale impact on a neighbourhood?”
“It does become a challenge,” responded Lou Pompilii, the city’s director of planning and building services.
“This application did garner some interest from members of the public. What we relied on in terms of reviewing this site plan application were the regulations that were in the zoning bylaw.”
This applies to most of Erie Street and does permit single-family homes through to a six-plex, which can be accommodated on this larger, vacant lot.
“It does seem as though it is a stark use. A six-plex next to singles or semis . . . It does provide a good fit in the neighbourhood and a good opportunity for new housing within this area.”
Justin Lawrence, director of engineering added, “If it didn’t have sufficient sewage capacity or if it made a road impact, then the developer would be responsible to pay for that, using the concept growth pays for growth.”
So, if there is a large, vacant lot in your neighbourhood, you may be impacted in a similar fashion as the residents of Erie Street.


Deb Hardy has this point to ponder regarding last week’s item on a new childcare facility.

“So they believe the price of supplies will freeze or go down if they wait it out?”

Opprobrious comments from Leith Coghlin on childcare, something he feels is a “nice-to-do-project” that is certainly not a priority for the city. Young families should be outraged by his remarks. Here they are in full with our comments to follow.

“1. The Mayor is correct: childcare is not a municipal responsibility;
2. At over $48,000.00 per space, the economics are wildly inflated;
3. St. Thomas struggles with several basic responsibilities before adding additional. My tax bill has gone up appreciably in the five years I’ve lived in the city with no obvious or tangible increase in the level of services to those paying; and
4. Until the City gets what it must do up to better than 90% across several metrics, nice to do projects are not a priority.”

Well, let’s start with the first premise. No one is arguing whose responsibility it is except Mayor Joe Preston. This council agreed to proceed with the childcare facility in its original home at 230 Talbot Street more than two years ago.

As for the cost per space, shame on you for trying to float this claim. Yes, the $4.3 million projected cost divided by 88 spaces does come to just over $48,000. But a percentage of that floor space is not directly devoted to child care. And, let’s not forget the original cost was much lower. Obfuscation at its best. Click on this link to see the original cost of construction per residential unit in Phase 2 at 230 Talbot Stree was projected to be “fairly high” at $290,515 per unit. A “soft business case” according to city manager Wendell Graves and that’s how we got into this predicament with the province in dealing with childcare.

If your taxes have gone up, Leith, your frustration should be directed at Mayor Joe Preston and council. They give the thumbs up to the budget every year. Let’s just double-check: the revised 2021 municipal tax levy increase of $856,000 works out to 1.5 per cent, exactly as requested by council. And, check back a couple of years. The 2020 municipal budget had $3.6 million on the books for the childcare facility at 230 Talbot Street.

And finally, if childcare is strictly a “nice-to-do-project,” why has the province kept the money on the table for more than two years while allowing the city to change locations and completion date over that time? Seems to be childcare just might be a bit of a priority with this Conservative government, Leith. Moreso in light of the post-pandemic reality.

It is important to remember this comment from the city manager in May of 2018. Graves noted the city does not have to match the province’s $2.6 million financial gift.
“The unique thing about this,” continued Graves, “is we actually have the money in the bank. It will certainly cover the cost for the child care space.”

Questions and comments may be emailed to City Scope

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And a reminder, I can be heard weekday afternoons as news anchor and reporter on 94.1 myFM in St. Thomas. As always, your comments and input are appreciated.


2 thoughts on “So, who really is behind the wheel of the city hall bus? It may not be who you think.

  1. Incredibly naive for anyone to think that a municipality of this size can be operated without a manager or CAO. Council’s role should be long term strategy and oversight of the manager. Direct management by council or committees will always fail. Always.


  2. Your article re Erie St. Is a sore point here. We have lived next to this lot for 56 years. The developer took us to court over the driveway which we have had sole use. The neighbours and us are not looking forward to this ugly structure.


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