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Opinion, Dave Dale: Reading between the texts

A 90-minute video interview with Peter Handley, 89, about his time on council and life in North Bay touched on current issues locally and nationally ... including pointed criticism of out-going Mayor Al McDonald by mayoral candidate Peter Chirico.
al mcdonald texting
North Bay Mayor Al McDonald was all-in when it came to social media communications during most of his three terms over 12 years (2010 to 2022).

It was a pleasure to sit down and have a long chat with Peter Handley, 89, former North Bay councillor and respected radio and television broadcaster.

We covered a lot of ground, including his early days in the news business, a marked change in political decorum and what is most important.

He balked, initially, at commenting about local municipal election developments: “I don’t want to get involved in that … I really don’t because I’ve some strong views and I just prefer to let them go…I hope it’s reasonable, I mean, you shouldn’t have asked that…”

Of course, as a veteran interviewer and teacher, he would have given me a failing grade had I let him off that hook so easily.

Handley hasn’t slowed down and is still active very active in the community. He’s a driving force on the North Bay Heritage Committee and North Bay Sports Hall of Fame while also continuing interviews for his “Life Is…” show on YourTV.

And he is twice as busy now while sorting and purging decades of files as he and his wife, Pam, prepare a move to the Belleville area to be closer to their children and grandchildren.

For the video interview, we set up a portable studio with chairs in front of his “barn” that faces Cedar Heights, although it’s mostly hidden by a curtain of foliage in the front, side, and back yards. They’ve lived there for the past three decades after raising a family in West Ferris.

Their home is actually a short jog from Canadore College – where Peter and I first met in 1987. Hard to fathom it’s been 35 years already. I was a student in the print journalism program and Handley taught interview techniques, primarily to the radio and television broadcast classes. We also crossed paths at Memorial Gardens during Centennial games for several years before I veered north and south before returning to the Gateway City.

It wasn’t until I joined The Nugget in 2000 and started covering North Bay council did our paths cross again, this time as a reporter and elected official.

It was short-lived fun as he hung up his council spurs in 2003 after three straight three-year terms – the same year Jack Burrows retired after three terms as mayor and many others on council.

It was a beautiful afternoon for an outdoor interview with not too much sun finding us in the shade. Birds of many feathers stopped in the trees nearby to check us out with chipmunks running through our feet like they owned the place.

Peter is old school everything, from his manners to his speech, and he came prepared with notes and reference materials. Preparation has always been his strong suit, that, and diligence.

Among the notes was his first campaign platform promising how he would conduct himself if elected.

“That’s one thing I was really proud of,” Peter said, “I never promised anything (other than) than I’d work hard, I would listen.”

Another one of his election promises made a great slogan and makes for a solid life philosophy: “I believe in working with people rather than against ideas.”

It was a beautiful afternoon for an outdoor interview with not too much sun finding us in the shade. Birds of many feathers stopped in the trees nearby to check us out with chipmunks running through our feet like they owned the place.

“That nine years was really something special in my life,” he said of his time on council, noting that the city faced many challenges during that time, including the eventual purchase of rail lands for waterfront development.

“There were more challenges than any council has faced since – except for Covid (pandemic), a whole separate ball game.”

Peter described his last three years on council as “iffy” as far as enjoying the experience, mostly because a taxpayer’s association at the time was “unreasonable.”

And he said it was “petty, pathetic and small-minded” of the next council to label the purchase of CP Rail lands as a special surcharge on tax bills that followed. It was seen by many as a jab at Burrow’s legacy initiative, which in hindsight turned out to be a great decision that couldn’t be done in today’s economic climate, he said.

Last week, mayoral candidate Peter Chirico – who was deputy mayor for Burrows the last term, and then Vic Fedeli’s two terms that followed, as well as Al McDonald’s first term – started his campaign with a similar tack. Chirico said in a media release he decided to run due to a lack of community leadership with a clear shot at McDonald and his tenure.

“Leaders don’t just sit on their docks tweeting all day pretending everything is great when it’s not,” Chirico’s media release stated. It was decidedly on brand for a long-time politician known to be feisty. And it was somewhat understandable if you are privy to the background. Chirico had stepped down from council to take the community service directorship position when there was a major renovation of Memorial Gardens required to bring the OHL’s Battalion to the city. Costs escalated above the publicly projected estimate and Chirico was informed he lost the job while in a hospital bed recovering from cancer surgery complications. So there’s ‘no love lost' between the two and probably a lot more fuelling the animosity Chirico’s campaign team has for McDonald.

I can't condemn Chirico for speaking his mind and targeting McDonald's social media focus. I've had my fun teasing the mayor for his social media proclivity, leading to an over-exposure in the public eye. And while he could have done better, it was nasty how McDonald and then CAO Jerry Knox, specifically, threw him under the bus. I wouldn't recommend doing too much of it though.

The Mayor didn’t immediately respond to the dig, except for posting a photo a couple of days later of a large group of people on his dock, part of a welcome party to a recent corporate arrival which he hosted at his East Ferris home on Trout Lake. Today, 24 hours before Chirico is expected to unveil his vision for the city, McDonald posted a bit of a response on his Facebook page.

“To me, the definition of leadership is working with a dedicated team on a common goal. The flip side is, lack of leadership is knocking down individuals and discrediting the dedicated efforts of many,” McDonald stated before describing how a council growth initiative was successful.

Handley, for his part, merely said that attacking an out-going mayor in that way “I really think it was a misstep…we’ll see how that plays out.”

Dave Dale is a veteran journalist and columnist who has covered the North Bay area for more than 30 years. Reader responses meant as Letters to the Editor can be sent to editor@baytoday.ca. To contact the writer directly, email: davedale@backinthebay.ca or check out his website www.smalltowntimes.ca