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Gravel pits dominate Ward 3 race

Unlike the previous night’s meet-the-candidates event in St. Jacobs, it was standing room only in Winterbourne Oct. 19, proving that there’s nothing like a contentious issue to fill a room.

In this case, it was gravel pits that had more than 200 people overflowing out of the gym at Foundation Christian School.

Organized by the BridgeKeepers, opponents of a the aggregate operation proposed for a site immediately adjacent to the historic West Montrose covered bridge, the event saw the three mayoral hopefuls and trio of Ward 3 candidates square off.

It was a largely amicable affair, however, as the audience sat through a series of questions directed at all six candidates, from financial matters to food policy. The session ended with the issue topmost on most of those present, the gravel pit applications currently under review in Woolwich.

Even then, the crowd remained muted, nothing like the response at the council sessions where the issue was discussed.

All three ward candidates – Bonnie Bryant, Murray Martin and Doug Nichols – made encouraging statements about the fight brewing over the gravel pits, but it was Bryant who was the most direct, saying there should be no pits adjacent to the covered bridge or in cases where rivers and groundwater are threatened.

SOMETHING TOPICAL The topics were varied, but gravel pits were the big issue at a Ward 3 candidates' meeting Tuesday night in Winterbourne. From left, Ward 3 entrants Bonnie Bryant, Murray Martin and Doug Nichols, joined by mayoral hopefuls Todd Cowan, Pat McLean and Bill Strauss.

With the matter still before council, Martin said he won’t prejudge the outcome, adding he won’t hesitate to vote against any of the three big operations proposed for the ward if the impacts are negative.

“If it doesn’t fit, the answer is a simple ‘no.’”

The mayoral candidates offered up a mixed bag of responses. Incumbent Bill Strauss, noting the need for gravel, said he’ll concentrate on better communication with the aggregate companies.

Challenger Pat McLean, citing provincial requirements that gravel be extracted as close a possible to its place of use, noted aggregate can only be mined where it exists. She, too, said communication is key, especially if the township hopes to avoid a hearing before the Ontario Municipal Board, a likely outcome of the process.

For Todd Cowan, however, representing the views of the constituents tops the list of arguments in the gravel debate.

“You’re voting for us to be your voice,” he said. “We’re not the poor sister that has to take it from the province. You have to vote for someone who’s going to stand up for the township.”

On other issues, the tone of the meeting was a bit more subdued.

Ward 3 candidate Doug Nichols was at his most animated talking about fiscal policy, pointing out that there’s a “growing unrest” over increasing taxes and plans to spend even more money on projects such as the light rail transit system proposed for Waterloo Region.

In Woolwich, he added, a recent spending spree has left the township holding debt for new facilities, most notably the Woolwich Memorial Centre. He said council should reverse its decision on Victoria Glen park in Elmira, for instance, selling the land to help pay down the debt, suggesting the township hopes money from gravel pits will make up for the loss of that revenue.

“Ward 3 will never forget. The trucks driving down the narrow streets will be a reminder,” said Nichols.

Bryant called for a review of every department’s expenditures, suggesting the township should prioritize projects to get maximum return rather than maintaining the status quo as a matter of course.

“This is taxpayers’ money, and they should have a say in how it’s spent,” she said.

On the mayoral front, Cowan echoed those sentiments. He suggested a line-by-line review is necessary, saying he would push for individual councillors to be put in charge of each department, ensuring accountability for spending.

Both the incumbents – Martin and Strauss – said the budgeting process has been working smoothly to date, though Martin said he would like to see a return to the pay-as-you-go philosophy after the current debt is cleared.

“We have a very good track record,” he said.

“I’m very happy with our township,” added Strauss. “We have little to no debt … I think we’re on the right track.”

Following the event, many residents compared impressions of the evening, not surprisingly favouring those candidates who spoke out most strongly against the gravel pits. For Keri Martin Vrbanac of the Conestogo Winterbourne Residents Association, that means supporting Cowan’s run for mayor and Bryant’s bid for the Ward 3 seat, the selections endorsed by the group.

“We need someone who’s going to look out for the interests of the residents here.”

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