With a provincial election on the horizon, MPP Jeff Yurek reminds, ‘The people who elect you should be your focus at all times.’


city_scope_logo-cmykEarlier this month, Jeff Yurek celebrated 10 years in provincial politics as MPP for Elgin-Middlesex-London.
Now a decade employed in the same field may seem fairly insignificant, however in the world of politics – at any level of government – that can feel like a lifetime.
Moreso of late with the transformation of the playing field into a highly divisive, confrontational and threatening battleground.
We talked at length this week with Yurek about his political career to date.
As we jokingly asked Yurek, what would possess a successful and popular downtown pharmacist to throw his hat in the political ring?
He admitted he has always had an interest in politics.
“I think it was the combination of being involved with the government of the day dealing with pharmacy issues. Everyone always looks back and wants to do better for the next generation.
“Opportunity arose and I thought I would put my name forward.”

His interest focussed on politics at the provincial level rather than the broader picture federally.
To enter the field, he would be following in the recent footsteps of a pair of very popular MPPs in Peter North and Steve Peters.

Yurek Belmont school announcement“Both did a tremendous job of looking after their constituency and the people who live there and that’s what I’ve tried to do over the last 10 years and will continue to do.
“The people who elect you should be your focus at all times.”
And just zeroing in on our last three provincial representatives, illustrates the political stripe of the candidate doesn’t seem to matter with voters as all three of the major parties are represented.
“Since I was young, I started following Brian Mulroney. I was more of a Progressive Conservative-leaning fellow and that’s the route I wanted to take.”
When first elected in 2011 – after beating out North to win the PC nomination – Yurek says he just wanted to make sure people at Queen’s Park knew where the riding was.
“My goal at the time was to displace the current (Liberal) provincial government, which I wasn’t satisfied with.”
In his early years in Opposition, he started as an auto insurance and transportation critic, ultimately moving to health critic for three years.
With the PC party now in power, Yurek has spent time with three very varied portfolios in transportation, natural resources and his last posting as environment minister.
Bouncing from one portfolio to another – usually with less than a day’s notice – is the ultimate in turnover process.
“When I became minister of transportation, they didn’t call me until 11:30 at night to be in Toronto by seven (the next day).
“I remember when I was named environment minister, three days later I was in Halifax meeting with all the environment ministers of the country and the federal environment minister. And I had to be up to speed on all the issues.”

“That was my goal. I always look on the positive. I’ve learned a tremendous amount doing those various ministerial roles and I think that helps benefit the entire community.”

Yurek credits his hard-working staff in St. Thomas with making those transitions as painless as possible.
“And I let my ministry staff know that constituency always came first. And always ensured I was available to be in the riding for meeting with people and making sure I was able to attend the events that I needed to attend.”
Having experienced cabinet shuffles, we asked Yurek if that leads to frustration in understanding his role in the big picture?
“It’s a difficult situation at the time. I’ve always tried to accomplish as much as possible immediately. Especially after the first shuffle when you don’t know when the second, third or fourth shuffle would come along.
“That was my goal. I always look on the positive. I’ve learned a tremendous amount doing those various ministerial roles and I think that helps benefit the entire community.”
With no ministerial post at this time, Yurek noted he now has more time to focus on the riding and getting things accomplished.
“But the experience has made the operations of my office and myself more efficient and be able to pinpoint where we need to deal with the government to get the assistance we need.”
Being left out of a cabinet posting in the last shuffle led more to a feeling of disappointment than discouragement, advised Yurek, in that there are priority items you will not see finalized.
“I’m there as a good support for the entire cabinet with my experience and help them through all their policies where they need support.
“And I’m more than happy to deliver that, as needed.”
Looking back at his early days at Queen’s Park, Yurek conceded it was a steep learning curve.
“Walking in, I had minimal knowledge of the day-to-day workings of the provincial government. And, what I know today is just immense compared to where I was 10 years ago.
“The confidence level has really gone up over the 10 years as you get to learn the job and the people. And you really understand the issues.”
And he vividly remembered his first Question Period with the heckling back and forth.
“I can’t believe this is going on,” recalled Yurek, adding it was an eye-opening experience.Ryan Gibbons
Looking back on those 10 years, Yurek agreed the adoption of his private member’s bill in 2015 that became known as Ryan’s Law, named in honour of 12-year-old Ryan Gibbons (pictured at left) who died in 2012 after suffering a severe asthma attack at Straffordville Public School.
It required Ontario school boards to develop standardized asthma management plans.
“It was the most significant piece of legislation I’ve had to deal with. It was a rewarding experience working with (Ryan’s mother) Sandra Gibbons.
“That was a hard-fought battle that took a number of years. It felt such an accomplishment at the end of the day.”
To get a sense of that accomplishment, keep in mind Ryan’s Law was a private member’s bill from the Opposition side.
And he has a somewhat similar opportunity after recently presenting St. Thomas resident Dennis Kalichuk’s petition to the Legislature calling for an overhaul of the mental healthcare system.
Yurek also spent a considerable amount of time and resources to ensure a new school will be built in Belmont with a scheduled opening in time for the 2023-24 school year.
In the process ensuring a secure future for schools in New Sarum and Springfield.
With a provincial election looming on the horizon, Yurek sees his political career flowing into a second decade.
“Willing that the folks re-elect me, I will do four years at a time and just see what we can accomplish.
“We had a lot of investment in our hospital and saved two schools from closing. There’s one more item I want to accomplish and that is to get that MRI for the hospital.
“And, it’s always with what the family is doing as Number 1 and their advice on whether or not to keep my name going forward or not.”
It will not be a typical provincial election with COVID-19 continuing to dominate the headlines.
“It will be pandemic-based, one hundred per cent,” acknowledged Yurek.

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WHEN IS A CHIEF NOT A CHIEF?

The powers to be at city hall have yet to confirm it, but Kevin Welsh sure believes he is on his way to St. Thomas.
And, a lot is riding on the outcome.
Welsh is currently the fire chief in Renfrew, a position he has held for just shy of three years.
Before that, he had been a captain and acting platoon chief with the Kingston Fire and Rescue Department.
St. Thomas has been operating since the summer without a fire chief or a deputy fire chief with the retirement of Bob Davidson, and Central Elgin Chief Ray Ormerod – passed over in 2017 to fill that position in St. Thomas after the death of Rob Broadbent – subbing in until the post is filled.
Davidson joined the department in January of 2018 and abruptly announced he was retiring in July.
That brings us back to 58-year-old Welsh who has resigned as chief in Renfrew because of the 60-and-out policy in that city’s fire department.
In an interview with myFM in Renfrew, Welsh noted, “There’s a requirement in the municipality to end my employment as fire chief here at age 60.”
Welsh explains mandatory retirement for fire chiefs at 60 is mostly backed by the rationale it’s a physically demanding job.
However, Welsh says at the fire chief level, he isn’t as involved in the operational side and would like to continue his career.
So he adds, “I’ve had to take the opportunity to search out a new adventure to take on and that has resulted in the opportunity to go and work in the City of St. Thomas as the fire chief there.”
Could this possibly be a classic case of a false alarm?
Perhaps a bit more of an adventure than Welsh anticipated.
If his status here is in doubt and he resigned in Renfrew as of Nov. 12, could there be a three-alarm legal blaze a-brewing?
Of note, both the Renfrew and Kingston fire departments are composite operations. That is the service is made up of career and volunteer firefighters.
If, as he admits, Welsh is no longer as involved in the operational side of firefighting, is/was he being considered to explore a composite fire service in St. Thomas?
With dozens of grievances already filed against the city by the St. Thomas Professional Fire Fighters Association, is more fuel about to be dumped on the fire?

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NOT A CREDIBLE RUMOR . . . OR IS IT?

Indwell Phase 2 artist renditionLast month we briefly touched upon the rumour fire trucks may experience difficulty maneuvering out of the future substation onto Queen Street?
The substation in question is to be incorporated into the affordable housing complex to be located at 16 Queen Street.
Surely the city and Indwell, which will operate the facility, have already included the fire department in preliminary design discussions.
That’s a gimme.
Isn’t it?

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A CASH ADVANCE

With no need for debate Monday evening, city council unanimously voted to advance almost $800,000 to Southwestern Public Health (SWPH) to help tide it over until the province makes good on reimbursing health units across Ontario for expenses incurred in combatting the coronavirus.
In total, SWPH requested four million dollars from the municipalities it serves to help with its cash flow problem.
The question now is, will the health units be fully reimbursed or will the Doug Ford government ultimately download some of these payments onto municipalities.
There are precedents for such a tactic.

POINT TO PONDER

Restaurants, bars and gyms can now offer in-house service for fully vaccinated customers.
Sports venues can fill all of their seats, again with fully vaccinated fans.
As of Monday, the COVID-19 restrictions will be further eased.
So when is city council going to return to conducting its business in the council chamber, with fully vaccinated residents and media in attendance?

THE ECHO CHAMBER

We heard this week from a couple of readers voicing displeasure with the request from Southwestern Public Health requesting temporary funding from the city. We’ll comment on both in a minute.

Dave Mathers suggests the health unit should cut back on staff.

“Regarding the health board – maybe it’s time for them to take a page out of private sector guidelines!
Running short of money?
Cut back on expenses such as excess staffing!!
Problem solved.”

The comments from Kevin Smith are far more derogatory and conspiratorial.

“Let me see here. Thousands of people across SWPH have lost their jobs during this pandemic and are about to get fired because of the policies of these health units across our province.
“I say let the health units sink. In this way, they will know how “we the people” feel, when they are losing their jobs and homes etc.
“SWPH doesn’t follow valid science. They can’t answer simple questions. After 19 months and counting, they still can’t show me proof that the virus has been self-isolated.
“The lack of an answer to this question is the reason why the flu and cold virus has disappeared.
“These health bureaucrats and our gullible politicians are only serving themselves and their rich elite masters.
“Their policies have nothing to do with keeping people safe. If it did they wouldn’t allow tens of thousands of people into a hockey arena and at the same time punish restaurant owners etc.”

Not to defend Southwestern Public Health but the request for temporary financial assistance is not for day-to-day operating expenses.
Instead, it is to facilitate their COVID-19 response – including the hugely successful immunization program – as mandated by the province.
These expenses were not initially in the health unit’s budget two years ago and all COVID-19 expenses incurred were to be reimbursed by the province.
That has not happened and SWPH has twice had to increase its line of credit to continue to operate these programs on behalf of the province.
You would be wise to direct your vitriol in the direction of the provincial government.
And, let’s hope health units across the province are fully reimbursed and this does not become another case of provincial downloading on the backs of municipalities.

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.

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