South Dundas - June 13, 2013 - Regardless of what level of government you look at, federal, provincial or municipal, optics matter. How the public perceives the motives and timing of decisions made by government are just as important as the decision itself. Recently we've seen how optics have played out at the federal and provincial levels, but optics are apparent, even in a rural area like South Dundas.
A municipality, by any other name?
With South Dundas opening their new municipal building in the coming months, the Township of South Dundas renamed itself to the Municipality of South Dundas. So the township isn't a township anymore, it's a municipality. Which is what a township is, a municipality. Confused yet?
This name-game decision was made, according to council, due a number of factors. The township, er I mean municipal, offices are relocating from Williamsburg to Morrisburg which means new stationary. Council approved new highway signs for all of the entry points to South Dundas and to the various villages and hamlets within. Council is purchasing new vehicles which will need graphics and logos added. All those factors make it the opportune time, according to the administration, to change the name of the township. Better now than when a consultant tells us to and we have to redo everything again. But it is a change to which no consultation was made with the residents of South Dundas.
The optics of this look simple. A lot of factors are going on, so do it now. Here's the other side of it though, everything that currently says "Township of South Dundas", that wouldn't have to be updated had the township kept the name "Township", will now have to be changed to be consistent with the new "branding". A simple decision now leads to more cost to the taxpayer as everything has to be redone. Existing trucks, signage on parks and facilities, existing printed materials, all redone, with the bill footed by the taxpayer. What will the cost be associated with these changes? And still, no consultation was made with the public about this. That leads this writer to ask, who was pushing for this change? A groundswell of unknown residents asking for this name change, or administration?
The ongoing saga of the Williamsburg Library
A few weeks ago, when South Dundas was still a township, council voted unanimously to support keeping the Williamsburg branch of the Stormont, Dundas & Glengarry Library (SDG Library) open. Ever since the SD&G Library board announced plans in December 2012, without public consultation, to merge the Williamsburg branch of the library with the one located in Morrisburg, council has had six months to state their support. While opposition to the closure within the community started immediately after the announcement, publicly council remained silent. Only after the township agreed to lease the entire soon-to-be former township administration building, including the space for the library, to TR Leger, an adult-alternative school, did council as a whole publicly support the branch.
Supporting the library branch, only after you evict it is very poor optics. If council truly supported the library branch, it would have kept the building for use as a community center and asked for the library to remain. After all, if council and the administration are supporting the rebuilding of a community center in Dunbar, a hamlet in the north-eastern part of the township, that was used 10 times in 18 months, they could do so for the third-largest population center in the municipality, right? A population center that has seen community groups have to go out of the village as there is an ever decreasing amount of public space available.
Grain bins on the water
Since the St. Lawrence Seaway opened in 1959, there has been a small port or terminal on the shore of Lake St. Lawrence, located halfway between Iroquois and Morrisburg. It was the home of Universal Terminals, a small "tank farm" where fuel, oil, calcium chloride and road salt was stored. In the past decade, this small swath of land has been used mostly for salt storage. Meanwhile, upstream and downstream, the area has grown up with residential houses. It is one of the highest valued residential property are in South Dundas. Already you can see where this is going.
Feasibility studies are now underway by the owners of the terminal, to build large grain storage bins in at this facility. Area residents are already organizing and preparing for a battle. This battle will not be about what the property owners can do with their industrial property. It will be about public opinion or optics, a battle that has been fought many times before with mixed success.
Residents in nearby Brockville fought to have the horns from passing trains silenced sighting the excessive noise. However, the railroads were there long before the residents, as early as 1855. People who chose to move close to the railroad tracks shouldn't be surprised then that trains make noise. A compromise in that community was reached which no one was happy with, but it has not been an issue since.
In the case of the grain bins, the argument can be made that residents chose to buy or build houses near an existing industrial site. Therefore they should not be shocked that industrial activity would or could happen at an industrial site. It's a valid point.
Furthermore, if the residents are opposed to this activity, then they should be making efforts to acquire the properties in the industrial zone, so as to control the fate of those properties. In that zone, the former roof truss plant is for sale. I suspect that if the right offer was made to the owners of the facility in question, they would sell. In business, everything is for sale for the right price.
The optics of this battle will be messy and divisive, jobs vs residential peace. Using the land as zoned vs interest of residents adjacent. How the council navigates this one will be interesting to see.
Optics in politics is a high-wire balancing act. Get it right and you live on to walk that tightrope again. Get it wrong, you fall and everyone will know. More times than not, political optics errs on the side of getting it wrong.