No turbine talk at Premier Ford’s ‘sweet’ visit, striking sour note at North Stormont Council table

Nelson Zandbergen
Nation Valley News

BERWICK — Fallout from Premier Ford’s recent surprise visit to the township hit the fan — or the windmill blade — at the North Stormont Council table on Tuesday night.

Mayor Jim Wert and Deputy Mayor Frank Landry were at pains to explain why they didn’t press the premier on the hot topic of 33 industrial turbines set to be erected in the municipality this year, during Ford’s brief foray into a local maple syrup operation last Saturday.

The Seventh Council of North Stormont, with (in front) Deputy Mayor Frank Landry (left) and Mayor Jim Wert. In back, from left, councillors Randy Douglas, Steve Densham and Roxane Villeneuve. Zandbergen photo, Nation Valley News

The ‘Nation Rise’ project is the only wind-power farm slated for construction in the province, under the Ford government’s watch, in a Tory-held riding where the host municipality is officially opposed to such development.

Wert and Landry — the only two council members granted advance notice of Ford’s 20-to-30-minute visit — conceded they didn’t raise the issue of EDP Renewables’ project with the Ontario leader.

The mayor acknowledged that fact from the outset of an extended bull-pit session with members of the North Stormont Concerned Citizens’ group in the public gallery. “I did not speak about the windmill project,” Wert calmly said, adding he’s been immersed in the issue “for about six years now.”

“I know that’s not what you want to hear…. I made a decision that I was not going to bring up this project” with the premier, the mayor reported, also noting he was scheduled to meet on the topic the following day (March 27) with an energy ministry official in Toronto.

The township would be better off to “raise our concerns with this project if it goes forward,” Wert also asserted.

The admission didn’t sit well with members of the Concerned Citizens and raised the ire of Councillor Roxane Villeneuve, who consequently proposed a motion requiring all council members to be notified when a dignitary visits North Stormont. The councillor — whose proposal never went to a vote after failing to find a seconder — complained she wasn’t invited to Ford’s sugarbush sojourn.

“Very, very disappointed,” Villeneuve scolded the mayor at one point, after Wert confirmed holding back on turbine talk with the premier. “You had his ear,” she inquired, “and on the most contentious issue in the township, you never raised it?”

Villeneuve — who ran unsuccessfully in the 2014 provincial election as a Conservative candidate in Glengarry-Prescott-Russell — also wondered aloud about MPP Jim McDonell versus his caucus colleague, MPP Todd Smith, who nixed a partly constructed project in Prince Edward County. “Our project is not even built yet … so how come Todd Smith can cancel his, and Jim McDonell can’t cancel his?” she remarked.

Saying earlier that he was “past anger but definitely frustrated” by Nation Rise, Landry questioned the need to have queried the premier specifically on the project during the North Stormont visit.

But in his comments, Councillor Steve Densham remarked that “it never hurts to reinforce the message” of North Stormont’s status as unwilling host to Nation Rise. Densham commended the Concerned Citizens delegation for their “expertise” on the project, adding they “deserve to be heard … every chance we get.”

Some of the Concerned Citizens of North Stormont, from left, Ernie Courmont, Margaret Benke and John Irven, in November 2016. Zandbergen photo, Nation Valley News

The Citizens’ John Irven echoed the same message, adding it was wrong to assume Ford was aware of the project. “Don’t assume, always reinforce when you’re speaking to someone higher up,” he urged, in his turn at the delegation podium. The trio of Wert, Landry and SNC CAO Angela Coleman — also present during the premier’s visit — would have been in a “very strong” position to raise local concerns about the project with Ford, he unhappily observed.

Irven added he wanted to know everything township staff were doing in relation to the project, recently and in the past: “Is there any area they can dig in their heels in and fight a little longer?” he asked, adding, “And how far have we let them [the developers] get?”

Solemnly observing that Nation Rise had split the community, Mayor Wert agreed with the majority around the table on having township staff deliver a project update, from each department’s perspective, at every regular meeting. The new policy was enshrined in a resolution by Densham, seconded by Villeneuve, and passed that evening.

Councillor Randy Douglas opposed the measure.

“It’s up to the public to ask the minister to cancel the project,” Douglas said at one point, as he spoke to the motion.

Chronicling a slew of things the township had done on the Nation Rise file since his arrival on council in 2014, Douglas acknowledged  the “caring public … want us to listen, which we’re doing.
“But we’re completely powerless,” added the councillor, also reiterating his own personal opposition to the project. “I’m against this thing myself.”

“The premier comes for 10 minutes for breakfast and we chastise the mayor for not inviting council,” Douglas briefly observed, then continued, “But the thing is, we have professionals that are already doing reports. We’re going to have a building official who’s going to be very busy and under pressure, we’ve got the roads department, we’ve got agreements, we’ve got the codes.”

“To keep coming back with more motions and extra reports on administration when they’re already working hard… It’s a gesture and it’s sincere and it brings value, but I don’t know if we can provide any hope on this thing.”

The councillor concluded that staff reports are part of the process anyway, so he couldn’t support the additional requirement.

“We are elected to represent the people,” replied Villeneuve, “and if we can be as open and accountable as we can, especially on this subject, then that is all the better that our communication process at least begins to inform the public…. It’s just a method of keeping them updated of what’s going on, here at the township.”

Densham downplayed the impact of the change on staff, saying it would highlight or “call out” what they were already reporting, making for easier consumption by residents in the end. “My hope is that it will become a more efficient means of communication with the public,” Densham said, “rather than having four or five people phoning in the same question, over and over.”

The Concerned Citizens’ Rainer Penthke thanked council for including the delegation on the agenda and expressed appreciation for the work of township staff. “I admire what you guys are doing,” Pethke said to the assembled politicians, noting he had considered running for a seat at the table himself last fall. “I’m glad I didn’t do that,” he added.

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