Huron East's Knight reflects on lengthy career in the community
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
This week, Huron East Chief Administrative Officer Brad Knight said goodbye to a municipal career of over 35 years, the vast majority of it with Grey Township and Huron East.
Growing up in the area and attending high school in Seaforth, Knight said in an interview with The Citizen, that he never imagined he’d have a hand in working to improve services for the betterment of the community in his later years.
He said he didn’t necessarily grow up with an eye on the municipal world, it was some audit experience that led to an entry-level position on a joint contract with the County of Perth as a planning technician and with the Town of Mitchell in tax administration.
Knight earned a degree in economics and political science at Wilfrid Laurier University and had returned to Grey Township. Only when he was hired in Perth did he move to Mitchell, which is where he would live for the next three decades. (Though in retirement, he and his wife Christine are now moving back to the Brussels area.)
Not long after Knight moved to Mitchell, a vacancy in the Grey Township Clerk’s office came up. Former Brussels Clerk Bill King was filling in there and Knight got the job, working with him for a few weeks before hiring a part-time assistant: Rhonda Fischer.
Apart from returning to his home township, Knight said the appeal was that he was coming into a full-time position, rather than the contract he was filling in Perth and Mitchell. Grey Township took a chance on him, he said, and he’ll be forever grateful.
On that note, Knight said that he and Fischer really came up and learned the ropes together. Thankfully, Grey Township Council was very understanding and trusting, and gave the pair a lot of room to grow into the position.
Learning on the job, Knight said it took him a few municipal “cycles” to really get his feet under him. That meant preparing a few township budgets and running his first municipal election, which he says was an eye-opening experience.
In his early days with Grey Township, Knight said a councillor had joked with him about his salary, saying he wasn’t getting paid too much because council didn’t really expect him to stay that long. Knight said that while part of him may have agreed with that assessment at the time, being in Grey Township really seemed like a perfect fit for him. Not only was he familiar with the surroundings and cared deeply about the community, but he was working with people who made it easy for him to do a good job.
He said with the Grey Township office being such a small, self-contained entity, it was really easy to know the employees and the work that was happening in the municipality. Another aspect of the job Knight said he brought to Grey Township, which he aimed to continue in Huron East, was a personal touch when it came to assistance.
Knight said that he wanted to ensure that everyone who walked into the office looking for help, even if it wasn’t necessarily the office’s department, came away with as much help as they could get. Whether it was a severance application or something to do with their taxes, Knight said he and his staff worked with those kinds of things every day and if they could help people, they always tried to do it to the best of their abilities.
Soon enough, Knight was teamed up with Leona Armstrong as the reeve of Grey Township. Armstrong was well-respected throughout Huron County as a long-time politician and its first-ever Warden, and Knight said working with her was a treat and that he learned so much from her.
He said Armstrong was always prepared and she always treated everyone with respect, which is how Knight tried to work in the municipal world for the rest of his career. She was truly an example of dignity in the position, he said, and she set a very high standard for the rest of council. He also said she went out of her way to be involved in the community outside of the council chambers. Knight would work to do this as well.
Despite living in Mitchell, whenever there was a community celebration or major initiative, Knight was always keen to roll up his sleeves and chip in. Whether it was a Grey Township anniversary or renovations at the Ethel ballpark, Knight tried to put in time on evenings and weekends to make the community a better place away from his office.
In the 1990s, when Premier Mike Harris’s “Common Sense Revolution” looked to be forcing smaller municipalities to amalgamate with one another, Knight said it was a tough time in Grey. It was hard to imagine that office scaling down and becoming more efficient with a total of just six full-time staff members.
“We were a pretty tight-knit group. Dave Hastings, Larry Keffer, Gary Earl and Dave Beirnes were public works and Rhonda [Fischer] and I were in the office,” Knight said. “You had an idea of what public works was doing every day and, as a group, we worked closely with council developing priorities.”
Fischer would pursue a new opportunity with Hullett Township, just before amalgamation, which led to the hiring of Shelly Pryce, who was a shared employee by the two townships.
Amalgamation then came and Grey partnered with four other communities - McKillop and Tuckersmith Townships, the Village of Brussels and the Town of Seaforth - in what would eventually become known as the Municipality of Huron East. Knight said there was a lot of uncertainty going into the new era, but that Grey Township was unofficially tethered to Brussels, figuring that where Brussels went, Grey was likely to follow, and vice versa.
After about 15 years with Grey Township, Knight said the final Grey Township Council meeting hit him quite hard emotionally, which he hadn’t been expecting.
“I remember the last council meeting we had in Grey - we had it in late December at the Cranbrook Hall, we had several former reeves speak and the meeting was well-attended. We retired the township seal and took it out of circulation,” he said. “We had really been rushed in that last month to wind things down and we put together displays on the history of the township and emotionally it caught me a little off-guard. That meeting was well-attended with a lot of people who had served on various committees over the years who were part of the municipality, and here we were winding down 146 years of history.”
Knight said that feeling has returned in his final days in Huron East. He is ready to retire and feels it’s the right time, but, unexpectedly, emotions have flooded in. Knight says his life will be different now and he’ll miss all of those he’s worked with over the years.
Amalgamation became official on Jan. 1, 2001 and Knight said that walking into the newly-minted Huron East Town Hall in Seaforth on Jan. 2 felt like he was on the first day of a new job.
Knight served as the treasurer of Huron East, working with Jack McLachlan of Tuckersmith as the clerk-administrator, who was really the only other person he knew there as he entered this next phase of his life.
McLachlan was the perfect person for the job, Knight said, and he learned a lot from him over the subsequent 10 years. He also said the two worked well together, with both of them having financial backgrounds, complementing one another.
“Jack McLachlan was the right person to be the clerk-administrator of the new municipality. He had a wealth of experience, a very even disposition and was well-respected by the councils.... Jack was also very instrumental in developing this collection of five municipalities into a single municipality and developing a mindset of Huron East being one municipality,” he said.
Knight says he feels that attitude has persisted over 20 years later. While ward representation does crop up from time to time, he feels councillors truly treat Huron East as if it’s one collective municipality, rather than five wards joined together.
He also said that the municipality’s first-ever mayor, the late Lin Steffler, was also instrumental in moving that attitude forward.
He said he had plenty of challenges when it came to administration right off the bat, including bringing five different systems and sets of books under one umbrella. The computerization of the systems, however, had helped, which is one of the biggest changes Knight said he encountered during his time in the municipal world.
In 2011, when McLachlan retired, Knight faced a decision as to whether he wanted to step up and apply for the chief administrative officer position or remain the clerk. While he was happy as the treasurer, Knight said he was intrigued by the new challenge and applied and he was lucky to be the successful applicant.
That then led to the hiring of Paula Michiels as Huron East’s new treasurer. He said both he and the municipality were lucky to find someone with the calibre of Michiels.
Upon reflecting on the past 10 years, Knight said they have gone by rather quickly. He says they have been filled with frustrating times, such as the imposition of the Green Energy Act and the conflict over industrial wind turbines and the Seaforth Foodland fire of 2014, but there have been many fulfilling projects as well. Knight said that during the past decade council has worked aggressively to upgrade the municipality’s infrastructure and facilities. There have also been the main street reconstructions in both Brussels and Seaforth, as well as upgrades to the town hall, the Brussels Library and the Vanastra Recreation Centre.
Leaving on a high note, Knight also said that the recently-approved grant to improve and expand the Brussels, Morris and Grey Community Centre is another success story for the municipality.
“We also have a level of development going on in the municipality that was not envisioned a few years ago,” he said.
At Knight’s retirement gathering, which was held on Friday, Mayor Bernie MacLellan even highlighted a land purchase in Brussels that will lead to the development of a number of homes for that community.
As for his retirement, Knight said he began seriously considering it last year, but was reluctant to think about it too hard. He felt as though he was always in the middle of an important project or that there was always more work to be done. However, he and his wife Christine wanted to have more time together and do some travelling, without having to work around council meeting schedules, and it became clear that now was the time to call it a career.
He and Christine plan on catching up with some travelling, once it’s safe to do so, and simply have more time to themselves after all this time.
“I have been fortunate to have worked with very dedicated staff - the success that we have had has been from a team effort,” Knight said. “It has been a rewarding career for me. I grew up in the area and went to high school in Seaforth. While I knew the community, you really get to ‘know’ your community by working for a municipality that provides so many of the everyday services that people use. It has been gratifying working to improve services for the betterment of the community. Both municipalities have been good to me and I hope I have been good for the municipalities.”
Knight’s career was celebrated on Friday with a drive-through celebration at the Seaforth and District Community Centre. There was a small outdoor gathering for friends, family and staff members before the drive-through event began, with addresses by Huron East Mayor Bernie MacLellan, Treasurer Paula Michiels, Director of Public Works Barry Mills and Knight himself.
While there were plenty of jokes about Knight being cheap, or frugal, as MacLellan corrected himself to say, everyone spoke of Knight’s extreme dedication and care for his community and his staff.
Knight thanked all in attendance and thanked the first Grey Township Council that hired him for “taking a chance” with their decision. He said he’s been lucky to work with so many great councils over the years, singling out the current Huron East Council especially for their kindness, understanding and co-operation in his decision to retire.