Meet Your Neighbours: The Council Brothers
By Sue Tiffin
Published March 21, 2019
Jim and Paul Mitchell are, like many siblings, alike in many ways.
Their voices are similar, and they gently rib each other with the familiarity that comes with their lifelong relationship as both brothers and friends. They both have glaucoma that affects the intensity of light on their vision and both have depth perception challenges with their vision that they joke makes them function best when they are together.
Also like many siblings, they are complete opposites to each other.
Jim likes to chat, with Paul noting he can’t keep track of him at social functions. Paul says he’s more an introvert, but Jim said he’s social enough, just a bit quieter. Jim can, according to Paul, read a novel a night, while Paul prefers time spent with an aluminum boat, a fishing pole and his dog.
Together, the two share an interest that puts them side-by-side on the same bench about twice a month: Minden Hills municipal council meetings.
They’ve been so often in the past five years – likely about 50 times, Jim estimates – that the two have even been jokingly compared by local township staff to Statler and Waldorf, the Jim Henson Muppet characters who watch performances from the show’s balcony seats. The Mitchell brothers are significantly less likely than those characters to heckle and jeer, but they have definitely made themselves a consistent sight to see at the council meetings.
“We’re almost like mascots there now,” laughed Jim. “One time, [Mayor Brent Devolin] walked up to me and said, ‘we were really getting worried, the Mitchell Brothers haven’t been here for the last two meetings.’”
The brothers have long been connected to the Minden area, having moved to the area in the early ’50s at age two and five when their parents purchased the Silverwood Lodge on Canning Lake. (A third brother was born later.) They speak of their earliest memories being in this area, before life took them to Toronto and Peterborough, returning to the area full-time after careers with Hydro.
They can be seen contributing as members of the community to volunteer initiatives, as local event guests and as regular music concert goers, but their interest in the community extends to following local government more than most residents.
“Every time a meeting comes up, I’ll phone Paul or he’ll phone me,” said Jim. “Do you want to go to council on Thursday?”
There wasn’t necessarily a reason they started going, but Jim notes that his years with his cottage association made him particularly interested in some topics.
“...[I]t gave me an opportunity to really keep abreast of what was going on in the municipality for my cottage association,” he said, remembering the influence of Morgan Loucks from Canning Lake. “Morgan was just a really interesting guy. He used to come to the meetings, to council meetings, all the time and he used to report back, particularly on anything that might have a potential to impact on the lake environment or seasonally.”
“I think the fact that we were both basically raised up here,” said Paul. “My earliest memories are up here. It’s in my blood. And you’re curious as to what goes on, you’re concerned and it’s interesting.”
The brothers sit in the front bench, usually in the same spot, at the twice-monthly meetings. They refer to staff and councillors and the press who also attend regularly on a first name basis, having struck up conversation before meetings or during breaks.
“It becomes addictive after awhile because each council meeting tends to produce another point,” said Paul. “And that’s fodder for us to say, sure, let’s go. And if we don’t show up for any given reason now, I guess we’re such regulars that [we hear], oh, we missed you guys.”
At meetings which are not particularly well-attended by the public, the brothers (and fellow regular council goer Diane Peacock) stand out.
“We go because we have an interest I think,” said Jim. “And if we have the time as well. A lot of issues are important to us. It’s just interesting to me to go and see local government work because you’ve heard the cliches about that’s the closest you ever get to what’s really going on is municipal government ... Municipal is what impacts on you directly, you know, the quality of roads, whether your snow gets plowed or your lakes get polluted or whatever.”
“It gives you definitely an understanding as to how things operate,” said Paul. “Your road conditions up here, and things like that. A lot of things, people don’t even realize. They just expect things to be done and why aren’t they?”
“One of the things we’ve both learned is that you have a better understanding of the difficulties council has in making decisions, especially around the budget stuff,” said Jim. “I don’t think as a layperson ... I don’t think any community is better served with the newspaper coverage, but unless you’re sitting there, you don’t really realize what a balancing act it is, and how you can’t have everything all the time and you can’t have anything without taxes ... I’m glad that I go because it helps me better understand what the rationale is behind all of these decisions. You might not agree with all of them, I certainly don’t, but you see how hard people work to try to come to the right decision. And it’s not always right. But if you don’t do that, see it in person occasionally, then you have no idea. You form an opinion based on something you’ve read somewhere and that’s it, that’s what you stick with.”
“You certainly get a sense of feeling of how their minds are working,” said Paul.
Because of the amount of time they’ve spent in council chambers, the brothers share insight they have garnered about individual councillors – some who they went to school with or who they’ve worked with on committees – and how each works to make decisions. They discuss interesting occurrences they’ve seen take place, usually related to resident concerns or major decisions and topics they look forward to seeing come to council. After one recent delegation they took their visit to council meeting one step further.
“People were standing up and they had pictures of all sorts of stuff, about how people were trespassing on property and parking these giant trucks and trailers and ATVing into the wilderness and blocking driveways and Paul says to me at the break, ‘I know exactly what they’re talking about. I know exactly that spot,’” said Jim. “And after the meeting he took me up there. We drove up and we actually looked at the area that we’d just seen the pictures of ... So I learn a little bit each time as well.”
They don’t think it’s particularly special that they attend council meetings frequently, but they do notice it’s not a common practice for most people.
“Unless there is some big event, usually when we drive in we can tell whether there’s a delegation or some sort of interest, where the place is full, and there’s some special interest delegation,” said Jim. “We’re often the only two or three people there. And people wonder why we are.”
“It’s nice to see what’s going on and listen to other people’s opinion and things,” said Paul.
“We both read all the local papers from front to back,” said Jim. “I think we like to know what’s going on in the community we live in. We’ve often spoken between the two of us about why more people don’t show up at council. They’re not riveting ... Some days it’s like watching paint dry. I believe, and I think Paul does too, that if you’re not informed on what’s going on in your community you really don’t have a lot of right to bitch and complain about it ... We’re just amazed because the community is such a large community of retired people ... you’d think that chamber would be packed with people, just to keep up on what’s going on.”
Jim notes that residents could go to every other meeting and still keep up on what’s happening. And the brothers agree it’s become more comfortable the longer they’ve been there.
“We actually got a padded cushion for our bench,” said Paul.
“After a couple of years of this past council, somebody made a comment one day about how hard the benches were,” laughed Jim. “We said, ‘yeah, it’d be really nice to get comfortable seating for your gallery here.’ And about a month later there were padded cushions on the benches. I’m not sure if it had anything to do with our comments or whether it was part of the plan but they’re there now.”
“We’re working on the heating system and piped-in music,” laughed Paul.
After council meetings, Jim and Paul often head out together to discuss what they’ve heard.
“We usually go out to lunch after,” said Jim, and then, laughing: “That’s the other big incentive, we get to go to Dairy Queen and have a $7 lunch.”