Key bat­tles of the ‘Hen­der­son Era’

The Recorder & Times (Brockville) - - NEWS - RON­ALD ZAJAC City hall re­porter Ron­ald Zajac can be reached at rza­jac@post­media.com.

This is the end of the Hen­der­son Era.

When one phrases it that way, it seems need­lessly grandiose. Mea­sur­ing a com­mu­nity’s his­tory by the tenures of its rulers is an ar­ti­fi­cial met­ric: It was valid when mon­archs ac­tu­ally ruled, but mat­ters a lot less when a city’s mayor is one of 10 votes, or nine.

Still, the mayor, even in a so-called “weak mayor” sys­tem, does have some power of moral sua­sion, and can set the tone at city hall – es­pe­cially when, in Hen­der­son’s case, he is now the city’s long­est-serv­ing mayor.

So how will lo­cal his­tory re­mem­ber the dozen years dur­ing which Hen­der­son, who last week an­nounced he is not seek­ing re-elec­tion, presided over coun­cil?

Oddly enough, he might just be re­mem­bered for two epic bat­tles, both of which – ar­guably – he lost, and both of which gave Brockville a chance to de­fine it­self as a com­mu­nity.

The first of these hap­pened near the end of Hen­der­son’s first term, in 2010, when the Aquatar­ium was still known by three con­tro­ver­sial ini­tials, MDC (Mar­itime Dis­cov­ery Cen­tre).

In the years be­fore the Tall Ships Land­ing tower changed the water­front land­scape, Hen­der­son was squarely in the skep­tics’ cor­ner about the MDC, and that skep­ti­cism would carry for­ward into the fall 2010 elec­tion.

I have vivid mem­o­ries of the ac­ri­mony that per­vaded the 2010 cam­paign, in which for­mer mayor Ben Te Kamp sought his old job back, flanked by coun­cil can­di­dates David Beatty and Mary Jean McFall in a tri­umvi­rate run in de­fence of the MDC.

Bad blood be­tween Hen­der­son and Tall Ships/MDC de­vel­oper Si­mon Fuller added drama to that elec­tion, but Hen­der­son was out­gunned. The 2010 elec­tion re­turned him to power, but also saw the pro-MDC Beatty rocket to the top of the list of nine coun­cil­lors elected and brought McFall to coun­cil.

Shortly af­ter the elec­tion, Hen­der­son reached an un­easy peace, of sorts, with Fuller and the MDC pro­ject ticked along, very slowly, un­til its even­tual open­ing in 2016 as the Aquatar­ium.

Hen­der­son’s role in that 2010 MDC de­bate fo­cused an im­por­tant lens on the trans­for­ma­tion that was al­ready hap­pen­ing here, as global eco­nomic pres­sures trans­formed Brockville from a “For­tune 500” in­dus­trial town to a more com­pli­cated econ­omy, one where tourism plays a much greater role.

That de­bate has been set­tled, out of eco­nomic ne­ces­sity, in favour of tourism, with Hen­der­son now ar­gu­ing we have to make the Aquatar­ium work for us de­spite its on­go­ing fi­nan­cial chal­lenges.

The sec­ond bat­tle saw Brockville rally around its iden­tity as a dis­tinct com­mu­nity in an era of in­creas­ing con­sol­i­da­tion and ra­tio­nal­iza­tion.

It would be tech­ni­cally wrong to place Hen­der­son on the los­ing side of the de­bate over the On­tario Provin­cial Po­lice cost­ing; from the mo­ment he first asked for it in Oc­to­ber of 2012 to that drama’s end in early 2017, the mayor in­sisted he was only look­ing for a cost-com­par­i­son, not favour­ing the OPP.

Sup­port­ers of the mu­nic­i­pal po­lice force nonethe­less con­sid­ered the mayor a pro­po­nent of its dis­band­ment, in favour of an OPP ser­vice con­tract.

The cost­ing process ended when it be­came clear, once the num­bers came out, that an OPP ser­vice con­tract would be more ex­pen­sive than the cur­rent mu­nic­i­pal force.

While the num­bers ended up driv­ing that de­ci­sion, the pro­tracted de­bate was about more than those num­bers.

While Tall Ships Land­ing and the Aquatar­ium changed Brockville in sub­tle ways, the move­ment to pro­tect the mu­nic­i­pal po­lice force was about the city’s iden­tity.

Un­der­neath the vis­i­ble cam­paign was a de­sire to de­fend an in­sti­tu­tion, now 186 years old, bound up in the city’ s own his­tory. It was a stead­fast re­fusal to take some­thing unique to B rockville and re­place it with some­thing stan­dard­ized across the prov­ince.

In a strange way, the anti-OPP cam­paign re­sem­bled the anti-M DC cam­paign in their ex­pres­sion of a sim­ple mes­sage: What oth­ers call“progress” comes at too high a price.

In the case of the Aquatar­ium, a ma­jor­ity was will­ing to pay that price.

But with city polic­ing, were the lit­eral price not too high, the fig­u­ra­tive price might still have sunk an OPP con­tract.

Much more will be said about the “Hen­der­son Era,” but in these two episodes our city came to a clearer un­der­stand­ing of what it is.

FILE PHOTO

Brockville Mayor David Hen­der­son sits in his of­fice at city hall, af­ter an­nounc­ing his in­ten­tion not to seek re-elec­tion, on Fri­day, July 6.

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