Anger, accusations and acrimony over learning centre

Deputy mayor accuses mayor of conflict of interest

By Kristen Shane


Weeks of tensions over how the Lake Huron Learning Collaborative aims to bring a learning centre to Kincardine erupted last week in a heated council meeting in which the deputy mayor accused the mayor of a conflict of interest, and council members questioned the learning collaborative’s proposed use of the former Westario Power building.


The fiery meeting concluded in mayor Larry Kraemer and deputy mayor Laura Haight each slinging mud at each other, calling the other “deluded.”


Mayor Larry Kraemer points his pen at deputy mayor Laura Haight amid tense discussion at last week’s council meeting about the Lake Huron Learning Collaborative’s proposed learning centre. (Kristen Shane photo)


It didn’t start out that way, although the stage was certainly set for what happened.


John Smallwood and Myles Murdock, the chair and a director on the learning collaborative board, made a presentation to council about the not-for-profit group and its plans to find a permanent Kincardine base at the Westario building.


The group started out in Goderich six years ago, running post-secondary courses on everything from English to photography. It doesn’t grant credits, but facilitates instructors from local post-secondary institutions such as the University of Western Ontario to teach in Huron and Bruce counties.


It’s been funded from an Ontario Trillium Foundation grant, membership and course fees, and private donations from individuals and unions, but hasn’t had much long-term funding.


That is until last month, when Ontario Power Generation offered the group $500,000 over four years to help pay for rent, utilities, staffing and programming costs associated with starting the Kincardine learning centre at the Westario building.


The learning collaborative is proposing that council lease the facility to it for four years under the municipality’s current terms.


Kraemer, who is both Kincardine mayor and a volunteer director on the collaborative’s board, said council had agreed for the last two years to foot half the building’s rent, $25,000, and receive the rest of the rent from OPG, toward the creation of a learning centre. Although the provincially-funded eLearn network took up space in the building last year, the centre Kraemer envisioned has yet to take off because a pharmacy and health records moved in while the medical clinic was being rebuilt. Now that they’re scheduled to soon return to the clinic, the building is once again mostly up for grabs.


Several council members questioned the collaborative’s desire for the Westario building.


“It appears that for whatever reason you’ve assumed all the way along that the Westario building is yours,” said Haight.


She asked why the group doesn’t start small by sharing space at the high school or another public building.


“A school is its own place,” responded Smallwood. “Our schedule often conflicts with what’s going on at the school (in Goderich, where the collaborative offers some courses).”


The Westario building is an ideal space because the eLearn network is already there, he later said. The collaborative could start by turning the upstairs into two classrooms and eventually take over the main-level garage bays.


Lake Huron Learning Collaborative board of directors chair John Smallwood explains to Kincardine council last week the group’s vision of running a learning centre in Kincardine. (Kristen Shane photo)


Councillor Guy Anderson recalled that council had originally talked about the Westario building learning centre housing other education-related groups as well.


“I would hate to lose the ability of (accommodating) these other people, if they came back to participate in a training centre,” he said.


Councillor Marsha Leggett said council could decide to give the collaborative a piece of the building. “And if anybody else wants to rent, we lease and we make the money,” she said.


Other groups are interested in sharing space with the collaborative, said Kraemer. But no leasing or subletting partnerships can be made before a building is secured.


Kraemer later said that if council nixes the collaborative’s use of the Westario building, “then the whole process is over.” He ruled out leasing other space in town.


“I’m not sure we wouldn’t have sold that building if the pharmacy wasn’t there the last couple years,” said Haight.


She questioned why the municipality would tie up such a lucrative asset, which she estimated is worth close to $2 million.


“If we want to know what the building is worth, let’s have it evaluated,” said councillor Ron Hewitt.


Even with the keys to the building, several council members questioned whether the learning collaborative would be able to sustain the learning centre in Kincardine after the OPG grant dries up.


Smallwood said students have been granted 160 credits from taking courses run by the collaborative over the last six years.


“There’s no guarantee of the amount of people,” said councillor Gord Campbell.


“There are some risks,” acknowledged Smallwood. “It will be a challenge to be sustainable after four years; but, certainly it’s an endeavour worth getting involved in,” he said.


The community would be advantaged by having a better educated population, he said.


Haight disputed why the municipality should be involved in funding education when it is the provincial government’s responsibility.


Smallwood said the provincial government is putting priority on e-learning spaces in rural areas such as Kincardine, while the collaborative believes face-time with instructors is crucial.


The learning centre is an opportunity to give students the chance to go to school close to home, he said.


Whatever the merits of local post-secondary education are, council members said there were too many questions to support the learning centre proposal that evening.


Deputy mayor Laura Haight states her concerns about the proposed learning centre at the former Westario Power building. (Kristen Shane photo)


“I really feel we’ve been left out of the loop on the whole thing,” said Haight.


Kraemer said he’d answered every question asked of him and communicated to council about the issue throughout the last three years in which he’s worked to fulfill a key part of his 2006 election platform by bringing post-secondary education to Kincardine.


Council has twice passed resolutions giving support, in principle, for the development of a learning centre at the Westario building.


Councillor Ken Craig asked that council be given a copy of the agreement inked between the collaborative and OPG.


“Council didn’t see or hear any of the discussions or negotiations leading up to that. I believe it’s time we had a very in-depth discussion about what was done to secure that funding,” said Craig.


Both Kraemer and OPG spokesperson Ted Gruetzner have said the $500,000 is related to two clauses in an agreement the municipality and OPG signed in 2004 to compensate Kincardine for being the host community of the deep geologic repository (DGR).


The vague sentences state that both parties recognize the importance of vocational schools and that they agree to support the concept of a centre of energy excellence.


“It could be that council as a whole doesn’t decide this is where the DGR funding needs to go,” said Craig.


“If you don’t think this is the right path, then don’t do it,” said Kraemer.


Haight worried that OPG could consider the learning centre deal to have satisfied the clauses.


“Council hasn’t said it satisfies it. I haven’t. And OPG hasn’t,” said Kraemer after the meeting. The company was not obligated to give the money, he said, and there was no “negotiation.”


“OPG suggested that this is what they wanted to do,” said Kraemer.


Haight spoke of a letter Kraemer wrote as mayor in November 2009 to an OPG official in which Kraemer referred to previous meetings with other company representatives about supporting the learning centre through the municipal DGR agreement. In the letter, Kraemer requested that OPG consider giving $500,000 to develop the collaborative’s learning centre goal.


“I had no clue you were writing to OPG and saying… ‘Fund the Lake Huron Learning Collaborative using the DGR.’ And, I’m sorry, I think we are entitled to know,” stressed Haight. “And whilst we’re out here in the open, because we all got the former mayor’s letter, I think you do have a conflict of interest.”


Former mayor Glenn Sutton was sitting in the public viewing section of council chamber taking notes. Haight later said that he had also accused Kraemer of a conflict of interest, in a letter received by council.


Kraemer cut Haight off.  

“If you’re going to make some accusations like that, you had best be careful…You know full well that such words should not be spoken in here by a councillor unless you are willing to make something from it. You know better,” he said, in a defensive tone.


After a few more back-and-forth blows between Haight and Kraemer, council cut short the hour-long discussion. But it’s not about to die. Council agreed to discuss the issue again at future corporate services committee meetings, which involve all council members and happen once a month. The next meeting is set for May 12.