Huron East's McRoberts offers observations, recommendations
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
Huron East Chief Administrative Officer Brad McRoberts has created somewhat of a to-do list for himself for the next 12 months that some councillors feel could be a good foundation for the strategic planning process.
McRoberts presented an extensive report of “consultations and observations” since his hiring several months ago at council’s Dec. 7 meeting, complete with a number of recommendations for reviews, studies and further reports. He told council he’d like to take a closer look at a number of things, including the municipality’s committee structure; area-rating for street lights, waste management and taxation; a comprehensive service review; the possible renovation of the Huron East municipal office; recreation administration; enforcement and compliance bylaws and council composition.
He also said he’d like to investigate potentially housing the Seaforth division of the Huron East Fire Department and the southern public works operations under one roof and amalgamating the Brussels and Grey divisions of the Huron East Fire Department and housing that department in the same building as the north public works operations.
McRoberts said he completed his report for council after extensive consultation with staff, councillors and various committees. This process was undertaken, he said, in an effort to better understand the community and its workings, identify issues or concerns, note weaknesses or threats and to highlight strengths and opportunities within the community.
“The report speaks to these consultations and observations.... Recommendations are made for consideration, but no direction is being sought at this time,” McRoberts said in his report. “The observations are not criticisms of staff, former staff, council or any of the board/committee members and should not be taken as such.”
McRoberts told council that putting fire departments and public works under the same roof makes a lot of sense, as they have similar needs, but would easily be able to maintain their own spaces in a shared building, which is why he’s suggesting that in both Seaforth and Brussels/Grey. However, McRoberts made a point of saying that any recommendations regarding the community’s fire departments would require extensive research and consultation with members of the department before any recommendation or final decision could be made.
One of his recommendations is to “consolidate [the] Grey and Brussels fire departments under one roof while simultaneously consolidating public works facilities for the north under the same roof.”
Because Huron County is proposing an addition to the Brussels fire hall to accommodate emergency medical services (EMS) bays and staff areas, McRoberts suggested that evaluating this alternative should be done sooner, rather than later.
“Considering the value of the disposition of assets, including the Brussels fire hall, Grey fire hall and Grey public works shop, Huron County contribution to EMS facilities, and the reduced operating costs of the collective facilities, the capital investment may be substantially offset,” McRoberts said in his report.
He added that a more detailed and comprehensive analysis of his suggestion should be undertaken, which would include consultation and eventual consideration by council.
In regards to the Seaforth fire hall, McRoberts called it “old and dated” and said there would be an opportunity to consolidate the department’s operations with the Tuckersmith, Winthrop and Seaforth public works facilities. He also said, similar to the Brussels hall, that the county is hoping to incorporate EMS service depots at the Seaforth hall as well. As a result, McRoberts suggested that capital costs could be offset, similar to his Brussels building suggestions, by savings and effective use of resources.
McRoberts also suggested an overhaul of the municipal office in Seaforth. He relayed a personal story when he was considering taking the Huron East job, being very impressed by the exterior of the building, but being underwhelmed with its interior.
He said that, as a beautiful and significant building, both historically and archeologically, it should be maintained as a community building, but the interior is dated and a third of the building isn’t being used. He also noted that the office layout is disconnected, the floors are uneven and soft in spots, there is inefficient energy use, safety concerns and significant clutter and accumulation of items.
In terms of safety concerns, McRoberts said that, with offices on either side of the building, but a stairway to the council chambers in the middle, members of the public can easily access the upper levels of the building without staff knowing, which is a major concern for him, especially when it comes to staff closing up at the end of the night.
Renovating the interior of the building would require a significant investment, he said, but there could be an opportunity for additional revenue through the leasing of commercial office space.
McRoberts has also suggested taking a closer look at the composition of council, noting that the size of council is large. He said that council should review the structure in the near future - though Mayor Bernie MacLellan noted that, because the next municipal election is less than a year away, any changes implemented by council would not take effect until after the 2026 municipal election.
He suggested that council consider whether to retain the ward system, elect the deputy-mayor at-large, to reduce the number of representatives per ward from two to one and establish a public committee to review council compensation for consideration by council for the 2022-2026 term and beyond.
He also suggested potentially moving closed-to-the-public portions of meetings to before the regular meetings to accommodate third-party experts, which will reduce wait times for consultants and legal advisors, which will directly reduce legal fees for Huron East. In addition, McRoberts suggested implementing audio and video equipment for council chambers so meetings can be recorded, which he said would ensure openness and transparency.
As previously reported in The Citizen, McRoberts has already expressed his intention to further examine unifying waste management throughout the municipality, calling it “complex and not uniform” in his report, referring to different levels of service and service providers for different wards. He also said that waste management should not be managed by the chief administrative officer when 90 per cent of the service is contracted out and portions of service delivery are managed by the public works department.
He also suggested an operational review and financial model assessment for the Walton landfill to ensure it is financially viable for the municipality. He also added that current observations of the landfill indicate that its current operation is below the standard expected by the province.
McRoberts says that the public works department’s proactive approach to capacity for water and wastewater upgrades is what has allowed residential growth to occur in Huron East. However, he did say that a service review should be completed, alongside a transportation master plan to address service levels of roads and bridges. That plan, he suggested, could become a guidance document for the department and council that drives the type of surface necessary for each road and assess capital financial, equipment and staffing needs.
The municipality’s three recreation centres, McRoberts said, largely operate independently of one another and that lack of co-ordination can act as a barrier to continuity in service delivery.
“Co-ordination of recreation can be challenging for community users, as there is not a single point of contact to make inquiries, book facilities or co-ordinate with, which leads to a degree of confusing messaging and co-ordination,” McRoberts said in his report. “For example, if someone is looking to book a ball diamond, they may have to call multiple people to find availability and then deal with multiple people in co-ordinating and booking a facility.”
He also stated that service fees should be reviewed in order to be “consistent, competitive and complete” across Huron East, adding that one person should be managing all the facilities, parks and recreation.
McRoberts also reiterated his previous sentiment regarding carry-forward deficits at community centres, saying they should be cleared up at the end of every year.
While McRoberts offered a number of focused recommendations and suggestions, he also offered a number of more general observations based on his short time in the municipality.
• He said that the community is still heavily entrenched with the identification of the former townships, villages and towns, even two decades after amalgamation. He didn’t say it was good or bad, but just that it was worth noting, saying that identity is stronger in Huron East than in other communities in which he’s worked.
• The municipality needs to improve its wayfare signage, McRoberts said, saying that, even as the chief administrative officer, in his early days on the job, he had a hard time knowing when he was entering Huron East, even on some of the community’s most major thoroughfares.
• In Huron East there is strong residential growth and opportunity for strong industrial growth, as well as a strong transportation system throughout the municipality. He also said that Huron East is along some key travel corridors, which opens up opportunities for commercial and retail development.
• He said the communities within Huron East are strong, vibrant and active and that the municipality relies “very heavily” on volunteers and service clubs. He said that while that arrangement is cost-effective for the municipality, it may not be sustainable in the long term. He suggested a transition plan for the operation and management of certain facilities to municipal staff.
• McRoberts also said that the municipality needs to increase its contributions to reserves in order to fund five-year capital plans (which McRoberts said should also be updated for planning purposes). He said the municipality’s bridge reserve appears to be “reasonable and sustainable” but that very few other reserves have been established to manage capital assets such as roads, equipment, facilities, buildings, etc.
• McRoberts suggested a service review in order to assess the current level of service provided by the municipality and determine the service level that council wishes to achieve. He said then, council can assess the appropriate amount of resources needed to effectively and efficiently deliver that level of service.
• He said the municipality relies heavily on employee-owned vehicles, which results in high mileage expenses. McRoberts suggested that there could be potential savings in municipally-owned vehicles.
• Several of the municipality’s bylaws need to be rewritten or updated, McRoberts said, including bylaws pertaining to animal control, noise, ATVs, property standards, clean yards, pool fences, signs, taxi services, open air burning, parking and zoning. This process, he said, would ensure that all of the municipality’s bylaws are defensible and that loopholes are addressed.
• McRoberts noted that, while the retail and service sector in Seaforth is relatively strong, Brussels continues to struggle and needs a catalyst to initiate a change, whether that be an anchor business or a community champion or the implementation of a new policy, like a community improvement plan.
Mayor Bernie MacLellan and Councillor Ray Chartrand lauded the report, saying it showed a tremendous amount of work and investment on behalf of McRoberts. They said it is a great document to have for work in the coming years.
Deputy-Mayor Bob Fisher also appreciated the report, but suggested that McRoberts take a “slow and steady” approach to many of the topics discussed. He also hoped that there would be minimal involvement from consultants and that much of the work could be done internally. McRoberts said that was his intention, perhaps with the notable exception of the service delivery review. He said he’s capable of completing it, but if upper-tier funding could be secured, that would be one area that could use third-party intervention.
Council accepted McRoberts’ report for information, taking no direct action on any of the suggestions contained in the report.