The man at the head of the largest changeover in Pelham politics in recent memory is ready to roll
BY DAVE BURKET
Marvin Junkin has lived in Pelham his entire life, operating a dairy farm of 100 cows in North Pelham before selling them in 2012 and continuing to cultivate cash crops. His four children grown, Junkin, 65, lives on his Roland Road farm with his wife, Candace. A brother lives across the way. Junkin was elected to Pelham Town Council in 2014, representing Ward 1. He resigned late last year, citing an unwillingness to cooperate in what he asserted was an active cover-up of the Town’s true financial status.
What a difference a year makes.
On December 3, Junkin will assume the office of mayor. An entirely new Town Council will takes its oath of office. A more thorough mandate from the electorate cannot be imagined.
The Voice caught up with Junkin late last week as he worked through his to-do list ahead of taking office. The following has been edited for brevity.
We’re speaking on Thursday, three days after the election. How are you feeling?
Very humble. When I think about the victory that the voters of Pelham gave me, especially the margin they gave me over two worthy opponents. It shows that they definitely wanted change and I believe that by voting for me and an all-new council we will be more than capable of giving them change. Change in the government, a more open—I’m not going to use that word “transparent”—so let’s just say a more open way of doing business. We will be keeping people informed about where the money is going, and I can’t wait to get started.
Why not use the word transparent?
I don’t think it worked very well last three or four years. Maybe it was a question of who was saying it. But no, I think the word we’ll be using will be openness.
How confident were you that you would win? Was there a point at which you thought, “I’ve got this in the bag?”
For the last three weeks, I was cautiously optimistic. I was very happy to see the response that we got from the people in Fonthill. I knew I had to do well in Fonthill to clinch it, and while we were handing out my fliers we were absolutely overwhelmed by the reaction we got, everyone telling us that I had their vote. It was just overwhelming how the people—everyone wanted change.
So you felt pretty confident about North Pelham and Ward 1. It was the more suburban wards that you had concerns about.
That’s right. The people, and no disrespect, but the people out in the boonies, which includes me, I think that they identified with me right from the get-go. The people in town, I can understand why maybe they had questions of whether or not I was capable or not. I obviously think I’m very capable of the job. I thought that it was the people in Fonthill that I had to win over. But as it was, they were already won over from just by realizing that I’d be the one guy that would open the books, and I think they responded to my honesty and my integrity.
During the campaign, we heard that another candidate was suggesting that because you’re a farmer—and you’re more of a retired farmer than a working farmer at this point— but the candidate was saying that during the summer you wouldn’t be available because you’d be out working on the farm, and this was somehow going to be to the detriment of the town. Did you hear this?
Yes. When we were handing out flyers in certain parts of Fonthill, we had various people ask that question of either myself or my people that were helping me. And I would just like to say that it’s totally untrue. I expect that I will give whatever it takes to run this town efficiently. My farm, unfortunately, is going to have to become second fiddle, but I’ve got enough help from family, friends, even numerous neighbours who have also offered to help. So I see absolutely no conflict at all there. I think it’ll be very smooth transition.
What’s the reaction, if any, that you’ve heard from the rank and file. Not so much management in Town Hall but Town workers.
The Town workers I have a very good rapport with. I see them all the time on the roads, working in the parks. They’re happy to see that I’m now in the office. I think they’re looking for some changes from the top down.
What are your immediate goals, say the first top-three priorities once you’re sworn in?
Well, obviously, I’ve got to talk with council on a third-party audit, it will be interesting to see how we can set that up. I’ve had numerous chartered accountants come to me and say that they will volunteer their time if we were to form some kind of a committee—they would love to be on it and work with the Town Treasurer going back to whatever council gives them, the terms of reference, and do this audit at a very, very low cost.
If you were to do an audit back to 2014, some of the estimates being thrown around—and I think these were somewhat alarmist by the current council—were $100,000, $150,000 dollars, something like that. So this would be a way to avoid that expense, or most of that expense.
Yes, exactly. And again, these accountants that I’ve talked to, they’re involved in municipal finances, so they know exactly what they would have to look for. I don’t think it would take them very long to do an in-depth audit. And because they’re who they are in the community, I believe that when they gave their report, it would be well-received and everyone would trust what was in that report.
When you were campaigning, going door-to-door, what were the top two or three issues that people mentioned?
The one thing, of course, and they achieved this on election night, the majority of people that I talked to wanted a clean sweep of council. They thought that we needed all new ideas, a new, fresh outlook on where this town is headed. They want development slowed down and, yeah, just get away from this us-against-them mentality. Earn the people’s trust again. Make going into the Town office a more friendly experience.
You’re the only one with any municipal government experience coming in. How long do you think it’s going to take for council to become accustomed to the routines and duties and demands of council meetings?
I was thinking about this a couple of days ago because I remembered [former Mayor] Ralph Beamer’s advice when I was elected in 2014. His advice to me was that for the first four or five months on council just sit there and take it as a learning experience. Keep your mouth shut and your ears open, and then after about three or four months you’re used to it. Then start to speak your mind. Obviously, if that happens this time around, it’s going to be pretty quiet around the council chamber. But I think that this group of people that we’ve got coming on, honestly, I think they’re going to get into it within the first month, I’m sure they’ll pick up the routine, and I am going to give them the benefit of my experience and just tell them to make sure they go over the agendas, take notes. If they have any questions, phone staff Monday morning to get a better idea of what the agenda is. I’m sure that within the first month or two they’ll all be up to speed.
We have sort of a situation here where staff is a permanent bureaucracy. And on the one hand that’s good—there’s the institutional memory that incoming councillors will benefit from. On the other hand, they do wield quite a bit of authority and control. Are you concerned about that relationship being problematic?
No, I don’t think that’ll be the case at all. I’ve got a feeling that maybe the staff that are there, I think they’ll welcome new ideas. New people to come in, talk to, new discussions. I hope that staff are as anxious to meet us as we are to meet them and just to get on with running the Town at peak performance.
We sent out a survey to all council and mayoral candidates a couple weeks before the election. We printed the results in our last issue before Election Day. It was headlined, “Change Versus the Status Quo.” Interestingly, for someone who campaigned on a platform of change, as did Carla Baxter, your ranking in that survey was right smack in the middle, as was Baxter’s. [NOTE: Gary Accursi, the third candidate in the race, declined to answer the survey.] What did that tell you, when you saw the results?
Well, I’m not as radical as people thought I would be.
Let’s look at your answers to some of these questions that might have been surprising. Let’s see. Public input at council meetings. You were neutral on that.
Yeah. Again, my own idea, my own feelings on that are, I would love to see the last five minutes of council dedicated to members of the public who want to bring something to council, I have nothing against that, and if the rest of council agreed with me on that, yes, I would enjoy that.
Five minutes? That’s pretty tightfisted.
Well, by the time they get up and talk, I mean, five, maybe ten minutes, but I’m afraid that if you make it unlimited, I know that there’s a lot of talkers in the town that can stretch out 30-second conversations into five minutes.
I don’t think anyone wants to see an unlimited—
No. Five or ten minutes.
You mean per person, or total?
The total thing would be 15 minutes. And then if they didn’t get on, well, come back in two weeks and we’ll do it again.
I think part of the objection to the current policy is that you need to submit your questions in advance, which seems a little bit authoritarian.
Well, I talked to [Town Clerk Nancy Bozzato] about that and she was afraid that there would be questions asked at the end of a meeting that we weren’t prepared for, and it could make council and possibly staff look bad if we had to say, “We don’t know.” But I don’t have a problem with that. If somebody asks a question and if nobody in the room knows the answer, that’s fine. We’ll do the digging and we’ll get back to you.
Just be honest.
Yes. Exactly. Exactly.
Maintaining the arches. You were neutral on that as well, and that’s even after Mark Shoalts, the engineer who was involved in constructing them, sent in a statement both to the Town and to the paper that trying to salvage them in their current form would basically be a fool’s errand. What’s your feeling about that?
Oh, after reading his report, I definitely would not spend any more money on them. If they can stand for another year or two years safely, I would have nothing against that. But as soon as they’re deemed a public hazard, they have to go.
Summerfest. Moving Summerfest from Pelham Street, where a fair number of businesses, if not the majority of businesses, have said that it’s disruptive, and some local residents aren’t all that keen on it either. You were neutral on that.
Yes. And I still am. It’s something that definitely has to be talked about again with everyone concerned, and if the downtown merchants continue to be against it or the majority think it should be moved, then I think council will have to listen to their voices. It’s definitely become a big event, but would it be the same atmosphere if we took it someplace else? I don’t know. Maybe it’s a case of tweaking it and making it more acceptable to the people where it is.
Another question is whether it’s genuinely a revenue-raiser for the Town or whether it’s an expense. The Town has maintained that it brings in big dollars to local businesses, a claim that we didn’t find credible. Does it cost more to the taxpayer to put this event on than it brings in to the town?
I’ve always questioned when they bring in the final figures for Summerfest, I’ve always questioned just the dollar value that does come in. Obviously, if the merchants were making the money that the Town staff says they’re making, I’m sure they would be happy to have it where it is.
Allowing Town ex-employees to speak. This was related to the nondisclosure agreements that virtually every high-level Town staffer signs on their way out the door. You were neutral on whether you would support the voluntary rescinding of these agreements. In other words, you wouldn’t be forcing these people to speak. It would be a voluntary thing on their behalf if they had something to say about their experience working in the Town.
If someone came to us and said, “Listen, I would like to tell my story, but I’m held down. I’m held back by this agreement.” And they wanted us to rescind that, then that is one thing. I think that if council agreed to it, I would have no trouble if that person had a story that everyone could gain from. I would definitely say, “Yes. If you want us to take this agreement and cancel it, I would be for canceling that.”
Have you had any former employees come and provide some information during the campaign?
Yes. I obviously won’t name any, but I’ve had many emails from former employees and other forms of contact with other employees. Yes, former employees. Yes.
There’s a 10-storey apartment building proposal—I’m not sure how far along in the approval process it’s gone but it’s a residential building that’s planned for East Fonthill. This came as a surprise to a lot of voters in Ward 2 I think, as Wally Braun, one of the candidates there, made it an issue in his campaign. He said that many residents had no idea that something so huge was approved for East Fonthill. In our survey, you said that you would be open to rescinding that approval. Is that still the case?
Yes. As soon as I’m in office, I want to sit down with the Town planner and see how this happened, because I remember when they brought forward the proposal. It was nowhere near 10 storeys, and I was surprised as everyone else that all of a sudden it’s that tall. I’m also worried about the safety factor as far as our present firefighting equipment goes.
Apparently it’s not adequate. We’ve heard that it’s at least a million dollars to buy a new truck that can reach a 10-storey height, or is legally certified to fight a 10-storey fire.
There’s something about putting standpipes in the last two storeys. And I don’t know how safe that is, using these standpipes for fire suppression as opposed to actually having a ladder truck that can up that high and firing the water in windows if need be.
What do you think’s going to be the biggest challenge you’re going to face in the next year or two years?
That’s an interesting question. I don’t know. I don’t see any challenge that’s going to stand out above the rest—one thing that definitely needs to be addressed are the drainage issues in this town. The new East Fenwick development, they’ve got a stormwater pond there that after a moderate rainfall floods over the road and floods the landowners on the south side of Welland Road. That has got to be readdressed, re-calibrated. Also, over in the Singer’s Drain in East Fonthill there was some discussion there a year ago and they haven’t resolved that to some people’s satisfaction. Drainage might even be the hidden dark horse in this town.
And you have a situation out in Fenwick, on Canboro Road there, where the property owners put up a sign criticizing the current mayor for what they describe as his inaction on a drainage issue, which, in fairness, predates his taking office, dates back to the ’90s. Is there a solution there?
That family has been battling the town for whatever, 15, 20 years, and I think that whole situation—if it had been tackled as a one-on-one a long time ago—I think it could have been quite easily resolved. We’re quite a ways down the road now. I think we have to sit down with them and instruct Town staff to take a fresh approach and come to a resolution with those people fairly quickly.
The Town has placed pretty much all its eggs in the community centre basket at this point, leaving little cash for anything else. Even so, are there any projects that you might have in mind that wouldn’t cost an arm and a leg? Something that would, as you were saying, bring people together for a change?
I was talking to Gayle Baltjes. Of course, she’s on the Bandshell Committee, and she got thinking how nice it would be if we could make terraces for where people put their chairs out at the Bandshell, because a lot of the people have—
This is for the concert series in the summer?
Yeah, in the summertime. You can see a lot of the seniors have two by fours at the front of their chairs to level them out. And of course the Bandshell was built all on community volunteer help. So I’m wondering if we can’t have some plans drawn up for terracing that whole hillside, and do it on a couple of weekends. People come out with wheelbarrows, little backhoes, and maybe do half of it, do it in sections. Try to get so many Saturdays in, and then have it all done. I can’t see drawing up the plans as a big issue. As far as the actual work of hauling the dirt away and hauling in stone, I think it’s mostly going to be—we could do that manually. I think that would be a heck of a community project, to be honest with you.
Would this be maybe something that a citizen committee could undertake?
I’ll throw this idea at council. If people want it to happen, then we will form a committee, and we’ll see just how much traction it gets with the community. If it goes really good, maybe we can do this in the spring.
The only statement in our survey that had virtually 100% agreement among all candidates related to Town communications. The statement was, “I support a comprehensive review and overhaul of the Town’s communication strategy with residents.” How important is that to you, and what do you anticipate that looking like?
It’s very important to me. I think we’ve done a lousy job of communicating, either with people that walk into the office or as far as disseminating information from the Town to the population. We have to re-engage the Voice with the Town again, with Town staff, and get a working relationship with the Voice, council, staff members, and get the information out that way. Also, Town Hall meetings, I think that if we could have one of them maybe every four months—
This would be like general informational sessions, “Come on out. Ask us questions.”
Yes. Exactly. Exactly. The people could tell us either what we’ve done wrong or where we should be. Certain issues that perhaps council should be addressing. Yeah. Just meetings like that, giving people the opportunity to be heard I think is something that they haven’t had a lot of in the last three or four years. The main thing is to treat the residents with respect, and not treat them like a bunch of 10-year olds. I think that’s the main thing. ♦