Mayor Murphy speaks out

What drives Muskoka Lakes mayor Alice Murphy? What has she learned in her three years on the job? And how much has the township spent in the tussle over the future of Bala Falls? Last week, the MLA sat down to ask Mayor Murphy the questions our members are asking.

Murphy was interviewed by MLA president Michael Langdon, Anne McCauley (Chair of the Political and Land Use Committee), and director Rick Spence. This is a condensed transcript of her remarks.

How would you sum up your experience as Mayor over the past year. Is it getting easer or harder?

The third year has been by far the most satisfying and enjoyable to date. We're starting to actually see the results of our work. We've laid the groundwork, we've set a very broad ranging and important strategic plan, and we now make decisions as council referencing back to that strategic plan.

If we turn back the page to 2010, there were 10 new faces around the council table - one of the councillors had a little bit of history with the previous council, so essentially, 10 new people. So it was really incumbent upon us to ensure that we had a framework with which to make decisions, and that we delivered on the promises we made when we were campaigning.

Compared to your first year, what's your experience been like? Where do you think you've succeeded?

One of the things that we had to focus on fairly immediately in our council was to ensure that we have the council/staff relationship working really like a well-oiled machine. And we have had the opportunity over the past few years to really bring a fresh and experienced face to the township staff, and we've layered in succession in those key areas. So I am extremely pleased with the depth of experience we have now. We have the real pleasure of having now the confidence, from a council experience perspective and a staff perspective, that we are able to deal with increasingly complicated issues.

Can you sum up the strategic vision that this council has for Muskoka Lakes?

When this term of council looked at the question, 'What is our vision for Muskoka?', it was pretty clear that the environment had to be the priority - that every decision first has to go through the prism of the environment, because the economy is completely dependent on the sustainability of the environment. So we need to ensure at all times that that environment is enhanced, protected and preserved. Muskoka really is about family; it's about multi-generational family experience. When you are part of Muskoka, you want that for your children, and for your children's children. So we really look at the framework of Muskoka, making decision as to how we are protecting that core environmental/economic relationship, that impacts generations to come.

And one of the things that we have put a renewed focus on, in our council, is heritage -- both the built environment and our natural heritage. We do so from a protection perspective, but also from an economic perspective, because heritage is part of our economic tool in bringing people through Muskoka. It enhances both the tourism and the cottage experience, and it brings us back to our roots. So I would absolutely argue that heritage is an investment in our future.

Can you give us an example of any council accomplishments that stem from this strategic vision?

The most expensive issue that has come to council is the resolution of the Milford Manor litigation. There you have a prime piece of land in the middle of a community; we did what we thought was most appropriate and responsible, we gave it back to the community. And we minimized the negative financial impact to all taxpayers. That cost, that liability, was out here [from a previous term of council], so it was the responsibility of this council to bring that to closure.

And that resolution was consistent with how we look at what's going on at Bala Falls, which would mean further ongoing challenges in the use of land. So, we have to listen to the community, we have to hear their concerns, we have to reference back to our strategic plan, and constantly ensure that the direction of council is appropriate.

You've often been identified as the cottagers' mayor, and your concern for the environment speaks very well to the cottagers. What [policies] speak well to long-term, permanent residents?

First of all, when I decided to run for mayor, I packed up my bags and I moved here. I know, like everyone else, about crawling under my house, in a parka, trying to get the furnace going again, after another power outage.

I think it's always dangerous to go down a path that says, I've been here for five generations, so I'm Muskoka. I think the prism is, Do you love Muskoka? Do you care for Muskoka? Are you part of the land? That's the framework we need to start making decisions for Muskoka.

When I ran for mayor, it was really the concerns that I heard from the permanent residents that resonated with me the most. We had a fire department that was in desperate need of retooling, and that has happened. We had a community that was so fearful that we were going to shut down community centres, and in fact that's what had happened. If you look at the budget, you see we have 6,500 permanent residents in Muskoka Lakes, and we spend about $650,000 on our community spaces, per annum. That's $100 per person, per year. That's an appropriate investment in terms of supporting our residents.

I think it's unhealthy to view Muskoka as the permanent residents vs. the cottaging residents. Muskoka is the land and the water and the rocks and the trees, and we are all obligated to protect it.

Let's talk about Bala Falls. You are probably best known for your opposition to the Bala hydro project. How much of your time do you think that has taken up?

First of all, let me clarify. I am on record that I seek a balanced solution for the Bala Falls project. To the extent that we use public land, it should serve the public's needs. And we have the broader policy objectives of the province of Ontario, vs. the very specific health and safety and heritage concerns of the community. So it is not that I or council or anyone have taken a position on Bala Falls, it is again the manner in which a development happens on an important piece of property.

There are a number of big, chewy issues that require a lot of time and focus: Milford Manor was one, the comprehensive zoning bylaw is another, and the financial framework of the township. The area of my job that probably takes the most amount of time is the relationship with the District of Muskoka. I view that as an extremely high priority because the District accounts for by far the biggest component of everyone's tax bill. So to the extent that needs to be managed and minimized, and that we have the knowledge and comfort that if we are spending a dollar, we are getting that value back to the township, or an appropriate share thereof, I believe that is a highly appropriate use of our time.

It's very difficult, as you know, because we [Township taxpayers] pay about 40% of every dollar spent in the District, and in some areas, particularly planning, we get a much lower percentage of that value back.

What do you say to people who believe that the Township would have been better off to accept the `Option 2` site for the Bala Falls hydro project, rather than try to resist the development and ending up with the less ideal Option 1?

When the Option 2 alternative was on the table, Council was provided with many unresolved concerns from the community. Certainly Council expected to have a dialogue with the developer as to the resolution of those issues. The developer, absent of any consultation with the Township, determined that they were no longer desirous to pursue that opportunity. There was never a discussion of royalties or any revenue stream; what there was was a proposal that would significantly disrupt the town of Bala, from a construction perspective, that had many concerns from the safety and public-access perspectives that had not yet been addressed. So we can't answer the question as to which is better, when an option that was not fully explored was removed by the proponent. They have since brought forward an alternative option that has different concerns to the Township, and those concerns still include safety, impact from a heritage perspective, and protection of the portage route.

Many people are concerned about the costs of dealing with the Bala Falls. Has there been a reckoning of these costs?

Absolutely, and I share those concerns. From a legal perspective we spent about $175,000 over the past three years, and I think another $11,000 in consulting fees. So let's say about $186,000. That's an order of magnitude less than we spent in Milford Bay. Of course no one wants to spend the money, but in the framework of making decisions that are multigenerational, you have to defend what is important, and you have to listen to the will of the people.

Do you believe that the public's concern about Bala Falls remains strong?

That would be my sense. This really goes to the thrust of how communities can protect land that is important to them. It is much broader than that particular site.

It's interesting how many emails I get from people that say, `Stay the course. Please be strong, and don't let these folks get you down.` And that message comes through loud and clear, whether I am at a barbecue in Torrance or a breakfast in Minett. It is very strong: `Please stand tall. Please protect our land.`

Do you think the Township has the resources to deal with the increasingly sophisticated development proposals we are seeing in Muskoka today? 

Council's decision-making needs to anticipate the trends that are impacting future generations. The redevelopment of resorts is an area where a transition is happening now - where we have large tracts of land zoned resort commercial that hearken back to a past era. We're in a different ownership paradigm now, and we need to recognize that we are likely going to have a variety of solutions on this issue. Each of these land parcels is unique. Some are very important from an employment perspective, and some perhaps have a better alternate use that is more in harmony with the neighbouring land uses.

We need to have an Official Plan framework that supports appropriate decision-making, and appropriate tools to make those decisions on those tracts of land.

Do we have those tools in place now?

It's in process. At this point the District Council has endorsed receiving a report from the consultant on resort tourism, so I believe the Township has a lot more work ahead of it, because we have concerns with the direction of District Council and the District Official Plan with respect to this issue. We need to retain our very focused attention on this issue to ensure that the District Official Plan does not drive decision-making that we believe is inconsistent with the strategic values and direction of the township.

My concern is that the direction is development-focused, and development-sympathetic, without the qualifiers of 'responsible' and 'appropriate'. I am absolutely supportive of development with the proviso that it is responsible, appropriate and sustainable, and in keeping with the broader landscape.

You had a very successful career in the business world. Do you ever ask yourself if public service is worth all the trouble?

This is a real opportunity I have in my life to make a difference. It was not something I ever imagined myself doing. I had tremendous success in the business world. I loved my roles as chief financial officer. But I had this opportunity. I saw issues that were of tremendous interest to me in the Township. There was a pattern of decision-making at the Township that was of concern to me, and it really had to do with land-use decision-making. From a multigenerational perspective, I was concerned about what the outcome would be if that type of decision-making kept repeating itself.

I was enormously gratified to receive the support of both the permanent and seasonal residents of the township, across all the wards [in the 2010 election]. It's been so much work, but every day I enjoy it more, and every day I am personally gratified to see that we're making a difference. I wouldn't change anything. To know that I have lived a life that has had great commercial success, but now I have a real opportunity to make a difference in a community and a place that I love -- that's living the dream, really.