Communication hot topic at mayoral debate

While the topics ranged from economic development to community services, the need for better communication with the public—and between mayor and members of council—clearly was an issue for mayoral candidates Roy Avis and incumbent Dan Onichuk during a forum last night at the Civic Centre.
“Over the past three years, I’ve learned a lot and represented our town in the best interests of the majority, not the chosen few,” Mayor Onichuk said in this closing remarks.
“I believe in public consultation on all matters that affect our day-to-day living. I do not believe in backroom dealings and I have been frustrated by certain members of council who prefer to work behind closed doors and avoid informed public input,” he added.
“Although I’ve been attacked personally, publicly, and behind closed doors with lies and false rumours, I continue to wish to represent our community with the many challenges that we face around the corner,” Onichuk continued.
“When I am elected your mayor, honesty and integrity will be the two priorities I will work with, as will communication with the public, keeping you informed,” pledged Avis.
“You are the ones who put us here and you are the ones we have to be accountable to,” he remarked. “I will make sure you’re informed of every step this council will take.”
Avis added if a mayor does not communicate with his or her council, “it will become regressive,” adding there should “no secrets” and that a mayor has to build trust with not only council, but town administration and the public.
He noted that many times over the past three years, “what has happened is not reflective of the wishes of council.”
If elected, Avis said he’ll provide a message from the mayor’s office monthly that will reflect the position of the entire council, as well as encourage every councillor to have a chance to talk to the press.
Onichuk said he’s made communication a primary goal since he came into office in 2003, whether it was answering questions on the radio, hosting “Talk of the Town” for Shaw Cable, lobbying senior levels of government, or making extra effort to have open discussions with First Nations.
He added the town still needs a better website, and also has to get more input from local youth—noting none of the candidates in the municipal election are under 30.
Onichuk also said better teamwork between mayor and council has to be established in the future, but conceded it hasn’t been easy this past three years.
“You can’t have good communication with a council if they’re against you from Day One,” he remarked, adding that being a mayor isn’t like being the coach of a team—if a councillor is “going in a different direction, you can’t bench them.”
Mayor Onichuk noted when he was first elected, some members of the administration had told him they’d quit. “How do you develop a team with that?” he wondered.
The topic of communication was brought up by Marlene Deschamps of the Westend Weekly, one of the five media representatives who asked questions of the mayoral candidates.
< *c>Accountability
The Fort Frances Times asked the two mayoral candidates a hypothetical question as to what either would do as an employer is one of their employees was using a company credit card for personal use (such as making repairs to their personal vehicle, Internet gambling, etc.), or they were getting a cash advance for travel, lodging, and meals and then using the company credit card to cover those same expenses while on company business.
“If anyone was using funds for Internet gambling and stealing money, obviously they should be deal with accordingly,” said Onichuk.
“Some of the other issues you asked about depend on what the policy of the company are and the intentions,” he added. “Every time you deal with a situation as it relates to an employee’s honesty and/or integrity, it depends on what the intent of the individual was.”
But Avis had a different response.
“If a senior management employee who was entrusted with a company credit card and used it for personal use without authorization, or with authorization and did not acknowledge the need to pay it back, I would ask that individual to resign immediately,” he replied.
Onichuk noted when it comes to leadership and accountability, he demonstrated those qualities when he came into office three years ago and worked to fix problems which had been without solutions for several years, such as a new Couchiching water and sewer agreement, unsold condo units, and deficiencies at Rainycrest.
Avis countered it was Onichuk who did not show accountability as a Rainycrest board of management member, only giving to council one set of meeting minutes from 2005 when allegedly the board held five such meetings.
“I think there was a lot of secrecy,” he said, adding a mayor can’t act on his or her own, but must act in co-ordination with the rest of council—like a quarterback with his team.
Avis noted that at one point when the Rainy River District Social Services Board had submitted a proposal to take over the management of Rainycrest, not even the town’s DSSAB rep, Coun. Tannis Drysdale, knew about it.
< *c>Economic development
Brian Kahler of Fort Frances Today asked Avis and Onichuk about the need for more secondary industry in Fort Frances, and what economic development “successes” either of the candidates have been a part of the last three years.
Onichuk said the town’s current economic development “is not effective at all,” with some decisions being made by individuals working in their own best interests or those of their friends.
He added that despite the fact the Downtown Core report was made with input from parties including the BIA, Chamber of Commerce, and Abitibi-Consolidated (and after a public meeting, local residents), “council killed it” after recommendations came forth stemming from a quick meeting of the core committee which the mayor himself could not attend.
Onichuk noted Fort Frances has a lot to offer to potential investors, with an enjoyable way of life and cheap power, but no one is selling these ideas.
And the answer lies in the fact the Rainy River Future Development Corp. only has one economic development officer working for the entire district.
Onichuk added the town needs its own economic development officer, and this is in the process of being investigated.
“What’s good for Fort Frances is good for the rest of the district,” remarked Onichuk.
“In the last three years, this council has done nothing for economic development,” agreed Avis. “We are in a changing business climate and Fort Frances needs to change its attitude.”
He added he will bring forward a resolution to reaffirm the town’s relations with the RRFDC and “direct our focus on developing a plan to attract new industry and small business to Fort Frances.”
“What’s good for the district is good for Fort Frances,” Avis remarked.
As for the Downtown Core report, Avis noted he didn’t feel the town should be trying to purchase property in the downtown area, and especially shouldn’t close down Central Avenue—the latter of which was supposed to be reconstructed this past year with the provincial “Connecting Link” funding before the majority of council ended up turning down that funding in anticipation of the closure.
< *c>Community services
Bill Buchburger of B93•FM asked the mayoral candidates what they felt were the most important community services and why.
“We must continue to offer first-class services,” said Avis. “They’re all as important as the other for a vital community.”
He noted a community trail system is a project the town’s looking into right now, adding that if citizens bring forward any more ideas for services, they will be considered.
One crucial service Onichuk wants to see is seniors’ housing, with on-site nursing for assisted living, adding there are waiting lists not only for Rainycrest but for seniors’ apartments in town, and that need must be addressed.
Though not as important as seniors’ housing, he also said he’d like to see an expansion to the pool area of the Memorial Sports Centre, including a therapeutic pool for seniors, a shallow pool for young children, and improved handicap access.
< *c>Infrastructure
Leigh Ann Cameron of The Wolf 92.3 fm noted many roads in town are in desperate need of repair and an embarrassment if the town were, for instance, giving potential investors a tour.
She asked the two candidates how they plan to fix them.
Onichuk said the town needs a long-term plan to fix its roads—similar to a plan the town has for water and sewer infrastructure.
He added a truck bypass also would reduce wear on roads currently used by tractor-trailers and other heavy vehicles.
Avis said the “roads are deplorable” and agreed a long-term plan is in order.
But he reiterated the town should never have turned down provincial grant money to fix Central Avenue this past year in anticipation of its closure under the proposed Downtown Core report.
Last night’s forum also saw those running for the six seats on council spend four minutes each delivering their reasons why the public should vote them.
They included, in order of their presentations, Andrew Hallikas, Tannis Drysdale, Todd Hamilton, G. Paul Ryan, Rick Wiedenhoeft, John Albanese, Ken Perry, Nick Wihnan, and Sharon Tibbs.
Neither Neil Kabel nor Allan T. Bedard could attend the forum. Kabel was ill while Bedard was out of town.
For more information on all these candidates, see their profiles elsewhere in this edition of the Times.