Phil Leonard conducts business from behind a desk in his garage. The house is across the courtyard from the garage and the grounds of his home outside of Harrowsmith are neatly tended and full of plants and flowers, courtesy of his life partner, Deb Bracken, who died earlier this year.
For Phil Leonard, the loss was (and is) acutely felt, but he is not one to dwell on it. Although he left municipal politics 11 years ago, he remains a key figure in the political life of South Frontenac.
I interviewed him back in September, a couple of days before the nomination deadline for last fall's election. He had signs for two of the candidates for mayor on his lawn, and I asked him if he would put up a sign for the third, if asked.
“I don't see why not,” he said, laughing, “it's not even up to me; the signs are on the road allowance anyway.”
Then when asked about a potential political comeback, he said, “If that's ever going to happen, you'll know pretty soon.”
Phil Leonard did not run for office last fall, but the candidate who won, Ron Vandewal - as well as everyone who has made a difference in South Frontenac politics in the post-amalgamation era - has spent time in Leonard's garage talking and listening.
“I ended up telling Gary Davison that he was welcome to come and visit, but not to talk politics anymore because he would sit and listen and then do whatever he was going to do in the first place,” he said.
Phil Leonard has municipal politics in his blood. His grandfather, Ray Babcook, was reeve of Portland Township five times, back when there was an election at the town hall at the beginning of January each year. His father was on the school board, and his uncle Keith was reeve as well.
“I've had uncles run against uncles over the years, that sort of thing; someone was always running for something,” he said.
In his own municipal career he sat on council for two terms and then was reeve of Portland Township for five terms, before becoming the first mayor of South Frontenac. Leonard served two three-year terms, between 1998 and the end of 2003. He also served as warden of Frontenac County on five different occasions.
And although he has been out of politics since 2003, he still remembers clearly the politics of the mid-90s and beyond, when the Frontenac townships were dragged into an amalgamation process that he describes as a “shotgun wedding”.
One of the key components to the entire negotiations, aside from working out how the Frontenac townships were going to amalgamate between themselves, were the negotiations with the City of Kingston.
“The City first wanted to expand west, to Loyalist Township, but when that didn't work out, they looked to the north,” he said. “But if they thought we would give them everything on a platter because we were country bumpkins, we showed them that wasn't going to happen,” he said.
The big prize for the City were Pittsburgh and Kingston townships. Typical of modern urban centres, the population was growing in the suburbs, but the work was in the City, as well as infrastructure costs so it was clear that those townships would have to become part of the new City.
“We negotiated payments for downloaded roads and we negotiated that the City had to provide service to the County at cost, because they were getting all that assessment from the two townships that they were swallowing,” Leonard said. “They didn't want that but they did want Pittsburgh and Kingston townships so they had no choice.”
One of those services that South Frontenac looked at, and the other townships may have been able to make use of as well, was policing.
“We had a big public meeting scheduled at Sydenham High School - this was after amalgamation. The City of Kingston Police Department was going to make a presentation, as was the OPP and we were going to decide which way to go, and we knew the City was going to make a lower bid. The day of the meeting I got a call from Gary Bennet, who was the first mayor of the new City, and he said the City was not going to bid on the contract. He told me why but I agreed not to repeat it,” said Phil Leonard.
The meeting went ahead that night, and Leonard recalls that he asked the OPP to make their presentation first.
“They made their offer and then we announced that the City wasn't going to make a counter-offer. It was a better deal than we would have gotten if the OPP knew they were the only bidder. I will say this, however; we have been really well served by the OPP in South Frontenac.”
“The Minister of Municipal Affairs, Al Leach, said we had to work something out or they would do it for us, but they also said something, and it was Premier Mike Harris who made the commitment, and I was at that meeting. He said that they were going to take the Education tax off the municipal roll, and that is a large part of the tax bill. They never did it, but that would have made it easier for us.”
As far as the horse trading that brought about South Frontenac, Leonard recalls that from the point of view of Portland Township, it was a risky business.
“We were in a strong position in Portland. We had reserves, paved roads, a dump, everything. Loughborough was in debt, and Storrington had money, but they had no dump because the City of Kingston had filled it up. Bedford wasn't sure where they were going to go. At one point the boundary was going to be Westport Road. South of the road was going to go be in South Frontenac and north was going to be in Central. But as I said it was a shotgun wedding; a lot of things were being negotiated.”
In the case of South Frontenac, the solution to the vast differences in financial standing and levels of service in the four townships was to institute an area-rating system whereby each would have its own tax rate and service standards set.
“We needed that until we could bring all of us to the same level,” said Leonard of the arrangement that lingered until 2010 when it was finally eliminated entirely.
As far as setting up the Frontenac Management Board in place of a full-fledged county, Leonard said that the idea was that the townships would run their own show and things would stay pretty simple.
“We talked about running it as country townships. We keep a small staff and hire locally when we needed work done. That was what we all wanted to do. But now there are more people working for South Frontenac than there were for all four townships combined. That wasn't supposed to happen,” he said.
In fact, the amalgamation order, which was signed on January 7, 1997, stipulated that the budgets of the new municipalities being created as of January 1/1998, including the new City of Kingston and the Frontenac Management Board, had to be lower than the combined 1996 budgets of the former municipalities that were being amalgamated to form them.
The stipulation did not extend beyond 1998, however, and as any resident of Frontenac County can attest, the 2014 taxation is a measure higher than it was in 1996.
When the first election for South Frontenac Council was held in 1997, Phil Leonard was elected as mayor, and what he was greeted with at the start of 1998 was something that no one could have envisioned - an unprecedented natural disaster, the ice storm of 1998.
“We had some people in place, and even a disaster plan from Portland, but we certainly weren't ready for what happened. No one was. Thank God for our volunteers and volunteer firefighters.” he said.
Leonard stayed at the Keeley Road Public Works office until late into the month as fire crews and volunteers led the effort to make sure everyone in the township was safe and the roads could be cleared and power lines restored.
“We were the fifth municipality in Ontario to declare a state of emergency. At one point the minister came in a helicopter, with Adrienne Aresenault from the CBC, and they asked me to go with them because I knew the territory. All you could see was ice everywhere you looked, and a lot of trees down, and those wild turkeys, because they were black. They wanted to see one of our emergency centers so I called over to Burridge and asked Arnold Quinn, who was the chief back then, if there was a place there big enough to get the chopper down, and he said yes. As luck would have it, just after we got there a call came in that a lady up the road had had a heart attack. So the helicopter left us standing there, and landed in her back yard and took her on to Kingston. We had to phone the road crew to come and get us.”
With all of the changes that have taken place in South Frontenac since amalgamation, Phil Leonard is no longer sure that as reeve of Portland he shouldn't have stood his ground and refused, as his friend Bill Thake had done in Westport, which never joined with any others and remains an independent village to this day.
“I just think that we have moved too far towards an urban service model, which was never necessary. We should have remained a country township as far as I'm concerned,” he said.
However, he does not regret changing Frontenac Management Board back to Frontenac County because, “The province never recognised the Management Board and we were being bypassed for grants, so we had no choice there."
He also thinks that bidding, and winning, the contract for ambulance service, was necessary and important.
“Do you think, if the City had it, they would have paid attention to the rural areas and built bases in Sydenham and Ardoch Road? No way. We have to look after the City but they wouldn't have had to look after us in the same way.”
But he thinks adding four more members to Frontenac's County Council, which happened in 2010, was a bad idea.
“All that can do is cost money, and make it harder to make decisions, that's all,” he said.
In the end, the amalgamation process, the ice storm and the first few years of South Frontenac politics took its toll on Phil Leonard, and that's why he walked away in 2003.
“The only time that I could get work done, at the office was between 2 and 6 in the morning, and between 10 and 12 at night. It totally exhausted me after a time. That's why I left when I did.”
And Phil Leonard will stay away, at least until 2017.