Lorna Willis hopes to put leadership experience to work for Loyalist

Lorna Willis says the next four years will be filled with critical decisions for Loyalist Township as it addresses its strategic and official plans. Photo by Adam Bramburger.

Adam Bramburger
Beaver Staff

Lorna Willis came to Loyalist Township 15 years ago with a well established track record as a manager in the food services industry.

Then, she was taking charge of food services for Queen’s University. Now, she wants to take a bite out of the way the township operates in a run for mayor.

“When I think about the skills and experiences I bring, one of the key roles of mayor is acting as an ambassador for the township. It’s about providing vision. It’s leadership. It’s building relationships with other levels of government,” she said. “The skills I have are all about strategic planning, building teams, leadership and communications.”

The Amherst Island resident fell in love with her new community and became active in a host of volunteer activities. As work activities took her on the road across Canada, she yearned for the opportunity to become more entrenched with her adopted home. After watching council meetings closely the past few years, Willis decided she had something to offer upon her retirement.

“I left a council meeting one night and thought there has to be a different way. By the time I got home, I had convinced myself I would run.”

While Willis said she believes council has done some very good things, she feels residents believed they are being left out of the process. Concerns have been raised about closed session meetings and reporting lately. At the door campaigning, she’s heard people share frustration about engagements with the townships where no one has taken the time to return calls or provide answers.

“What I feel is lacking is a real kind of customer service feeling in the township. We need to be remembering the community is what we serve. The community are the people that pay the taxes. Our whole role is to provide services,” she said.

Looking ahead the next four years, Willis believes there are some critical decisions ahead. The township’s last strategic plan expired in 2015.

It has a business development plan she says has sat on the shelf in recent years and the official plan is up for renewal in 2020. Water and sewer capacity has been capped in Amherstview, Odessa, and Bath, leaving a critical choice about financing.

“This is a really important time of the township and we’re going to have some very important discussions,” she said. “We need to make sure we’re getting public input on those discussions.”

Perhaps the biggest decision ahead is the hiring of a new chief administrative officer. Willis said she feels the township has had “a couple false starts” with recent hirings in the position. When it comes time to hire in March, finding the right person will be essential.

“That is the person who is going to set the tone for how staff respond and behave” she said. What I’ll be looking for is that the person has competence — experience in municipal administration — and that we get the best possible person we can. The questions I’m going to be asking that person are more about leadership. How can they change a culture? How can they make staff and employees feel respected and valued?”

Willis said she believes strongly in transparency and she’d be in favour of seeing council meetings streamed and moved around the township.

“We don’t need to do things to make people mistrust government,” she said.

Economic development is also front of mind. Willis said Loyalist relies on residential taxpayers for 86 per cent of its base and feels its business and industrial parks have not really caught on. She’d like to have a discussion about how the township can support growth through small business and entrepreneurship. One example she shares is that of a Loyalist resident who wanted to bring a business employing 40 people back to the township, but located in Kingston when met with fees for studies and other red tape.

“We need to knock down the requirements that aren’t serving us,” she said.

Willis also said one of the challenges to economic growth is the idea that Loyalist Township has a number of strong, separate community identities. She said it could benefit from the creation of a Loyalist-wide identity to promote shopping locally.

On the topic of a community administrative hub at the W.J. Henderson Recreation Centre, Willis said she believes there must be more time for public consultation on facilities that suit the township’s needs. She said she was disappointed $200,000 has been spent on a feasibility study for a building that might not ever be built.

Composting is an issue Willis has adopted from her time on the campaign trail. She said several residents have asked for the service, which was last considered about five years ago. With more population and advances in technology and competitive vendors, Willis said it could be feasible.

Part of the reason Willis has been so closely monitoring council in recent years was the passing of the industrial wind project on Amherst Island. She said the construction period was difficult, but the community will now turn to healing itself. The ongoing concern, she said, is if other communities will have trouble finding municipal support in the future. Willis is also actively monitoring vibrancy funds, like the one on Amherst Island that stands to be over $500,000 a year. She’d like to ensure the public is aware of the windfall and involved in planning for its use.

“I hear about the need for public spaces and the need to have splash pads so kids can do something in the summer… We’re hearing about all kinds of nice-to-haves and I think these funds need to be part of that discussion.”

Talking about taxation, Willis said she didn’t think it would ever be reduced, but she promised to watch the bottom line closely.

“What I’m promising is when the budgets are done, you’ll have had public input, and I will challenge every line in that budget. In business, I’m very accustomed to having to account for every penny I spend and holding people to account for every penny they spend.”

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