Retiring Armour Township mayor reflects on his political career

Township of Armour Mayor Bob MacPhail chaired his last council meeting with the Nov. 8 session.

After reluctantly getting dragged into municipal politics in 2003, MacPhail is ending a career as a municipal politician that saw him serve as Mayor for 16 years which was preceded by one term as a councillor for three years.

MacPhail told the Nugget how he got involved in municipal politics is a story he rarely tells because prior to his entering the municipal field, Armour was broken into two factions.

On one side were members of the local cottage association and on the other side were the year round residents.

At times the interests of both parties didn't line up and in the 2000 election the cottage association decided to do something about it in an effort to tilt the decision-making process its way.

Armour is represented by a five-member council.

In 2000 the cottage association ran three councillor candidates who defeated three incumbents and subsequently controlled town council.

As MacPhail recalls, the losses were contested with allegations of election irregularities.

The courts got involved and eventually ruled there were no improprieties and the results stood with the cottage association councillors in control.

During this period MacPhail was running his campground resort at Doe Lake Park but he wasn't oblivious to the tensions on the new council and in the Township.

“I didn't like what was going on,” MacPhail said.

“We had two factions that were not getting along.”

In 2001 the situation was serious enough that several residents, including MacPhail, met to see if anything could be done to end the bickering.

It was this fateful meeting that set the stage for MacPhail to enter the political arena.

“I wasn't even interested in politics,” MacPhail said.

“But at the meeting I made the mistake of opening my mouth, made a few suggestions and left the meeting as the chair of the newly formed group we called Township of Armour Concerned Citizens Association.”

TACCA was formed to keep year-round residents engaged and kept homeowners informed of the decisions of the local council over the next two years.

When the 2003 election arrived, TACCA ran a slate of candidates.

Among them were MacPhail although he was hesitant about entering the campaign because his business kept him busy and he was also the President of the Ontario Private Campground Association.

The election was a clean sweep for the year-round residents and the cottage councillor incumbents were turfed.

But the cottage association was back with four candidates in the 2006 election with three running as councillors and the fourth as Reeve after incumbent Reeve Richard Thomas died as a result of a highway collision the year before.

MacPhail also ran as Reeve and the entire slate of cottage candidates lost.

It's not something he said out loud but MacPhail's goal if he became Reeve was “to mend fences” between both sides. It took time, but with council members willing to listen to all points of view and with MacPhail at the helm, hatchets were buried “and we all became one again.”

MacPhail turns 69 next month and when asked why he's retiring at this time he said “it's time.”

“My time has come to pass it on to younger members who do things differently than me,” MacPhail said.

MacPhail leaves behind several legacies including replacing eight very old bridges.

“These bridges date back to the 1930s,” he said.

“So for the next 20 years we began replacing them and our legacy will be that we re-built eight out of ten bridges with no debt.”

MacPhail says thanks to the projects being shovel ready, each time the federal and provincial governments announced infrastructure projects, Armour applied and regularly received two-thirds of the required funds with the Township putting up the remaining one third.

MaPhail adds council avoided incurring debt because over time it strategically put money in a reserve account and drew from it when constructing the bridges.

MacPhail says another major accomplishment was the ability of Armour, Burk's Falls and Ryerson working together to renegotiate a shared services agreement.

“That took 10 years,” he said.

“The old agreement was very antiquated and people barely understood it. Now we have something everyone can live with.”

MacPhail has a couple of personal achievements.

A number of years ago, the retiring mayor was behind the formation of the group Almaguin Saving Huntsville Hospital which helped keep the hospital in Huntsville.

Also, over an eight year period MacPhail was largely responsible for helping to bring about cohesiveness within the five fire departments shared by the seven surrounding municipalities.

The firefighters are all trained to the same standard, each department has similar equipment and the departments have an Automatic Aid Agreement.

What it all means is there's no learning curve for any firefighters responding to a fire in a nearby community because they are all familiar with the firefighting tools and each has been trained to attack a fire in the same way.

The one thing MacPhail wasn't able to achieve was a Regional Fire Board which was to include municipal council representation in addition to the fire chiefs and the fire training officer.

But being the optimist that he is, MacPhail says that's maybe a task for the new Almaguin councils.

If there was ever a trying time for MacPhail and town council it was during the spring flooding of 2019.

“We had cars already underwater and homes in four feet of water,” MacPhail said. The event forced MacPhail to declare a State of Emergency.

“This was never on my bucket list of things to do but I don't regret doing it,” he said.

MacPhail said during the flooding some people stayed in their homes to protect their property and emergency services got to their houses by boat or canoe regularly to make sure they were alright.

MacPhail says fortunately no one died or was injured.

Looking back MacPhail told the Nugget he never felt his time on council was “a thankless job.”

“That's because at the end of the day we always came up with a solution,” he said.

“We persevered and we would get to the end and that was always gratifying.”

However, MacPhail admits if there was one thing no one liked about serving on council it was that "everything took longer than you hoped it would take and that could be frustrating.”

MacPhail and his wife no longer own their campground and once he hangs up the council gavel it's onto other interests he's delved in over the decades.

MacPhail will likely do some volunteering and is ready, if asked, to provide advice to the area town councils with ongoing issues because he has that past corporate memory.

MacPhail is a former military officer having spent 20 years in Canada's military and retired as a major.

Although the Nov. 8 council meeting was his last, he had one final function to perform and perhaps fittingly coincides with his military past.

On Remembrance Day, along with several other dignitaries, MacPhail's final act as mayor was to lay a wreath on behalf of the Township of Armour at a ceremony in front of the Burk's Falls Post Office.

Rocco Frangione, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The North Bay Nugget