North Frontenac Mayor Ron Higgins is a retired consultant who ran for the position of Mayor when a vacuum was created in North Frontenac politics after the sudden death of former Mayor Bud Clayton. None of the people who were on council at the time, and no former members of council, stepped forward to run for mayor. Higgins had already put in his nomination for council, and he decided to run for Mayor instead. He defeated the only other candidate, Claudio Valentini, who had also never served on council.
Higgins is also relatively new to the township, having retired to Malcolm Lake, but he had been active in lake association politics for a few years before running for council, and was the founder and President of an umbrella group, the North Frontenac Lake Association Alliance.
When he was elected he brought his experience as a consultant and the perspective of a retiree who had purchased a home on the water on a quiet lake.
He has been mayor for two and a half years, and will be the warden of Frontenac County next year. His take on the role of mayor has been different than most, if not all, of the other dozen or so township mayors who I have covered over the last 15 years. This is partially because, save for Ron Maguire, he is the only one who did not have at least four years experience dealing with township business as a member of council.
He took on the role of mayor with a bit of the misconception that a Mayor is something like the executive director of a corporation. In fact, while an executive director can make any decision they want to as long as the Board of the Corporation doesn’t stop them, a mayor is simply the head of Council. The mayor chairs meetings, but is only 1 vote of 7 or 9 when it comes down to spending money or setting out policies for township staff to carry out.
The mayor also has another role, as the political face of the township to the outside world, and Higgins had been very active in that role, both in person and on social media. He is a frequent tweeter, passing on township information about road washouts, etc. but also expressing his own opinions on some matters. And this is where the grey area comes in. He tweeted out his support for Maxime Bernier during the final days of the election for leader of the Conservative Party of Canada. This is the kind of thing a lot of people do on social media, of course, but Higgin’s twitter account has the handle “Mayor Ron Higgins”.
Early this summer North Frontenac Council held a meeting in Calabogie, as a gesture of support for a small number of township residents who can only access their properties from the north. We did not cover the meeting since it was such a distance away and took place on the Friday before Canada Day. Since this was the first North Frontenac meeting the Frontenac News has missed in a pretty long time, I assigned reporter Craig Bakay to interview Mayor Higgins. We thought the interview would be about the Rural Mayor’s Forum that he has been instrumental in setting up, whose activities we have not covered in a while. The article that Craig submitted was not about the mayor’s forum. Instead, it was about some economic development initiatives that Higgins is taking a role in facilitating, and had brought to Council’s attention at the Calabogie meeting. Since then there has been a push back from Council saying Higgins was not clear enough that he is alone in pursuing these initiatives, and we have seen some back and forth in our letters pages and an Op-Ed from Ron Higgins about his plans.
I have no idea if these plans will lead anywhere or not, and I am also not that concerned about any breach of protocol on Higgin’s part, because no township money or staff time have gone into any of this. Many small time mayors are involved in promoting development by talking with potential investors and using whatever pull they have to bring opportunity to their municipality. The township’s Official Plan and Comprehensive Zoning Bylaw, the authority of Council and the procedures of the bureaucracy are not subverted by this.
What is unusual, however, is that Higgins had brought a related series of initiatives that are all well out of the norm (including an earth ship community and an energy generation project that uses a still unidentified source of power) and that he put them out to the public before they were fully developed proposals for Council and the public to consider. This is the risk that Mayor Higgins has taken. He has tied his own political future to these initiatives, and if nothing comes of them or if they turn out to be wildly unpopular to North Frontenac residents for some other reason, he will pay the price in the 2018 municipal election.
If he had kept a lower profile that might not have been the case.
One thing that is clear, and this is true for both North and Central Frontenac, revenues are not keeping up with costs, the permanent residents are poorer and older when compared with other municipalities in Ontario, and the tax rates are some of the highest in Eastern Ontario.
The two townships are working together more and more, combining departments and sharing resources, and an amalgamation might be a logical outcome somewhere down the road.
Nothing can substitute for new initiatives and new energy for the future of both townships, and while Ron Higgin’s is unorthodox and might be too willing to share information and ideas that are not yet fully realised, you can’t fault him for trying something, anything, to try and reverse a long decline.