Onerous questions about centralization and efficiency – in the face of challenging geography and limited budgets – have so far defined this term of Highlands East council.

In Oct. 2019, Savino Human Resources Partners recommended cuts to fire halls, the need for centralized administration and culling some municipal buildings. These ideas have yet to be acted on and council has not indicated a direction, with the pandemic undoubtedly curtailing progress. But a fraught process on fire halls has made it clear that centralization is no easy task. The uncertainty of council’s perspective on this has led to some mistrust and it is not clear how they will navigate this going forward.

Two years ago, Highlands East citizens maintained their faith in a slate of incumbent councillors – Mayor Dave Burton, Deputy Mayor Cec Ryall and councillors Cam McKenzie and Suzanne Partridge. Along with newcomer Ruth Strong, their experience is clear, and they have led the municipality with a steady hand for most day-to-day issues.

But The Highlander has highlighted the exploration around cutting fire halls, principally at Highland Grove. Despite efforts to not put the cart before the horse, our reporting shows there is some push from within the municipality for closures before all the evidence is gathered – whether from council, staff, or both. That may or may not be the right way to go, weighing feasibility versus safety concerns. But whichever way council leans, it should be frank and firm in its position, rather than the ambiguity to date.

That goes for centralization across the board, whether it be administration offices, or reducing the number of small library branches as recommended at the County level. Highlands East’s size is challenging. From observing council, it is hard to say where councillors lean on these issues. That can be positive. These are big decisions that should not be made hastily. But given how thorny these issues can be, letting things go unanswered for an extended period of time can erode public trust. At the earliest opportunity, council would be well-served to decide what direction it is going and commit to it firmly, even if it will take years to implement. If the vision of this council is to start centralizing, it would do well to convince the public of it sooner rather than later.

Despite that uncertainty, this council has buckled down and gotten a fair amount done. Most recently, it pushed ahead to fix the Cardiff pool – arguably a Bandaid given consultant recommendations to consider a $2.5 million replacement. But it is a good compromise and the project should keep the pool going for years to come. It also deserves kudos for pushing ahead on short-term rentals despite some outspoken pushback.

Although we have yet to see a bylaw, the township’s survey has shown there is a public appetite for municipal action. Other noteworthy achievements include: an overhaul of the clean and clear bylaw; progress on a new Herlihey Park; implementing needed fireworks restrictions and addressing outstanding septic issues at some properties.

Navigating a pandemic as a municipality is not easy, let alone with so many big decisions sidelined. This council has experience but that will be challenged to either convince the public about centralization, or figuring out how to avoid it.

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