It is no wonder that Champlain Township Mayor Gary Barton seems to know everyone. He has been involved in municipal politics for 46 years. As he prepares to retire from politics, he says he can look back on his career with no regrets.
“It’s super-difficult to handle all of the changes today,” said the mayor of Champlain Township, in an interview with The Review recently. He underlines what many local municipal representatives have been saying for some time now: changing and increasingly stringent rules and regulations are presenting municipalities with challenges as they have to find the funds to enforce and maintain new regulations, most of which are dictated by the province.
Now that he is stepping back from politics, we asked him if he thought that municipal mergers, which took place in 1998, were, in the end, a good thing.
“I’m not so sure we gained anything,” said Barton, who can see municipalities having to grow to meet all their obligations to the public.
“It was probably a good thing from the province’s point of view. They went from dealing with 1,600 municipalities to having to deal with only 445 municipalities. But we are all still competing with each other. When we apply for a grant, there are 445 municipalities applying for the same money,” Barton said.
An exacerbating factor in the rising-costs dilemma is that many municipalities are facing dated infrastructure, much of which was installed at about the same time. Barton cited the example of the village of L’Orignal, which has an outdated storm sewer system which will need replacing. Barton said that will be “big money” to replace. This year, the Vankleek Hill wastewater treatment system, which includes several lagoons, will be updated.
Barton may be known for his diplomacy and for keeping his cool at meetings where citizens are unhappy, or upset about something, but he confesses that there is one thing that gets to him.
“If someone accuses me of dishonesty, or accepting money to see some project go forward, that’s it for me. I don’t lie and I don’t steal. I know that people get upset about different things and different projects that they don’t want to see happening,” Barton acknowledges, but accusations of that type, although rare, bother him.
Some would say that the job of a municipal politician is a thankless one. But he has never done the job for accolades or gratitude. During the interview, the conversation quickly turned to other people. A good listener, he is not one to go on at length about himself.
“I like to get things done and move forward,” Barton said, adding that in times of crisis, such as the Ice Storm of 1998, the explosion in Vankleek Hill in 2006, or the flood conditions in spring 2017, volunteers who help — and the sense of community spirit — are always uplifting.
“We (local government) do get in there and help but there is always a huge amount of support from the community.”
Barton recalled the Ice Storm conditions in 1998. Municipal mergers had gone into effect on January 1, 1998. There were no emergency protocols in place, no emergency plan and no generators on standby. Today, command centres are always at the ready and detailed emergency plans exist.
“But back then, we had nothing. At that point in time, we were just trying to get up and running as a new municipality,” Barton said.
One thing he would like to see is more members of the public attending municipal council meetings.
“I know people come and attend one meeting, or they come once in a while if something directly affects them, but I give kudos to Jim Walsh who attends all of our council meetings and even our budget meetings. He has a bigger understanding of the issues because he has been attending meetings for a few years now,” said Barton of the L’Orignal resident.
After his retirement from politics, the 74-year-old Barton says he hopes to make some of his time available to volunteer in his community. He loves history and was involved in the Higginson Tower restoration and is a member of the Vankleek Hill Historical Society board.
“I don’t want to run anything, but maybe I can help out if I am needed.”
Barton’s political career overlapped his lifetime career as a teacher and school administrator, serving as Vankleek Hill Collegiate Institute principal in his last role before retiring from the Upper Canada District School Board several years ago.
He has been mayor of Champlain Township for three terms, following John Wilson. Prior to that, he sat on Champlain Township council and prior to that, was a councillor for the Town of Vankleek Hill, serving his first term as an elected official in 1972.
He has served as warden of the United Counties of Prescott-Russell, ending his second term in December of 2017.
Gary Barton and his wife, Jean, have four children, three of whom are married, with children.
Two of his three sons live in Vankleek Hill with their families.