As an avid pilot, John Burrows spends a lot of time at the Whitecourt Airport. A few years back, through conversations with friends, he found himself encouraged to run for Woodlands County Council. "At the time, I had said that the airport is just one issue, and it's not enough to run and get involved in a council. On a council, you are running the whole municipality and making decisions for the whole municipality, so if you aren't engaged on the rest of it, and you are a one-trick pony, then it's not enough," explained Burrows.
He then noticed that issues at the airport were in other places too. "As I had discussions on things happening at the airport, like lack of planning, spending money that wasn't well allocated or well thought out, I would talk to other people. They would say, oh, that sounds just like a road that was ripped out three times, and it still wasn't right, or it sounds like that culvert. It needs to be over there, but they keep putting it here."
Burrows said that he came to realize that the problem was more far-reaching than the airport. "I came to realize that we had a systemic problem in the municipality, and because of that, I could get involved because if you get the systemic problem fixed, then the airport fixes itself." From there, Burrows jumped feet first into the campaign. "I knocked on every door. I had signs and flyers. I recently read my flyer, and the only thing in there that I haven't gone through with is the tax cuts."
Burrows said that those running for politics typically run on the idea that taxes are too high and need lowering. "The reality is that with 12.5 million dollars not being paid to the County in the last three years by oil and gas, and the timing of everything, you can't as a business, let that happen. You have to react to it. Part of the reaction was a restructuring around the organization and admin side to reduce the budget and bump up the mill rate a bit."
Burrows said that one of the areas he is immensely proud to have been part of in his first term on Woodlands County Council, and as the current mayor, is bringing in asset management. "It's about sustainability. Asset Management is still in its infancy here at Woodlands County, but it is going to be the path forward for the municipality to budget properly." He said bringing in the structure for asset management came about through asking questions. "I was asking things like, how much does this section of road cost us to maintain, and the answer was, we don't know. When you don't know much things are costing you, it's tough to make good decisions on how to make them better."
As a mechanic by trade, he looked at things through his professional view. "When you're fixing a piece of equipment, if you find something that fails continuously, you're not going to continue to keep putting that part on there. You are going to find a better fix for it, something to make it more robust and last longer and cost less and have less downtime."
One of the most challenging parts of being on Council is not getting too personal. Another was the realization that the public is not engaged in the process. "The one thing that I'm amazed at, after being part of four budgets, is that there's not been one single person sitting in the room at an open budget meeting that is not a member of Administration or Council. That's the frustrating part, trying to get people to understand how government works and engaging them in the process."
Looking ahead to the upcoming election, Burrows said he hopes to continue on Council. "I think the biggest thing we lack right now is the infrastructure side of things, and it's difficult because we are obviously cash strapped at the moment. But if we do not plan for the future, we won't have one."
Burrows said that one of his inspirations in his role on Council is his soon-to-be 17-year-old daughter. "That's a big part of why I'm trying to be involved. I think it is crucial for future generations that we have a structure and an economy. It's how you build the future of your community." He said that he also hopes to see more community engagement. "There are ways that everyday citizens can make changes by getting involved on boards. If you don't want to run for council because it's too much time commitment, get onto one of the boards."
For Burrows, in the next four years, he would like to see a focus on helping attract more people to the area through self-sustaining developments. "I don't think it's the government's job to create jobs. I think it's the government's job to stay out of the way and streamline the process." He said that making it easier for people to open businesses is a win-win. "A lot of these people that want to open businesses, they're not developers and aren't versed in the system. They aren't immersed in that bureaucracy. You need to hand them something straightforward, in one package and say, this is all the stuff you need to do, this is where you will find all the information, and come see us when you're done." Burrows said he looks forward to the opportunity to continue the work of the last few years and the push to bring sustainability to Woodlands County for the future.
Serena Lapointe, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Whitecourt Press