New chapter for Murdoch
By Chad Ingram
Published Dec. 13, 2018
Former Minden Hills deputy mayor Cheryl Murdoch foresees travel and volunteerism in her future, as she reflects on nearly four decades in public office.
Her career in civic life began not around a municipal council table, but a school board table.
After working as a teacher in Peterborough and Toronto, Murdoch moved back to her hometown of Minden, where she also taught for a few years. By then a mother, she first became a trustee with what was the Haliburton County School Board in 1978.
“I thought I’d like to be able to stay home with the children until they were back in school,” she says. While the kids eventually went off to the classroom, “I never went back to teaching,” Murdoch says. “When the kids went to school, I just stayed with the school board. I felt there was more power at the school board to do good stuff for education than I could ever do as a teacher.”
Murdoch would ultimately serve 19 years on the county school board, many of them as its chairwoman. In 1997, the county’s school board was merged with the school boards of Muskoka and Victoria County (what is today the City of Kawartha Lakes) to create the amalgamated Trillium Lakelands District School Board.
Murdoch was heavily involved in that process, chairing the strategic planning committee in the lead-up to amalgamation.
“It was difficult because everybody thought they had the best scenario,” she says. “And the big thing was for us to convince them, let’s take the best of all three, and take it forward. And when we were doing strategic planning, we couldn’t vote on anything; we had to have consensus.”
Chuckling, she adds, “Do you have any idea how difficult that could be?”
Murdoch was then elected Haliburton County’s sole trustee on the new Trillium Lakelands District School Board, and would serve as its first chairperson for two of the three years she spent there.
“I lived in a car and drove all over,” she recalls. “Twelve thousand square kilometres. Sixty-two schools. I think back now, I don’t really know how I did it.”
From 2000 to 2003, Murdoch took a break from public life, before deciding to try her hand at municipal politics.
“I guess I’ve always had a political interest, so I said, you know what? I’m going to try it again,” she said.
Murdoch was elected to Minden Hills council as councillor at large in the 2003 municipal election. Just over a year later, she would move into the role of what was then deputy reeve, after Reeve Ross Rigney had a stroke that prevented him from continuing his political duties. Jim McMahon had been the deputy reeve at the time, so he automatically assumed the reeve’s chair. Councillors then voted a new deputy reeve from their ranks, that councillor being Murdoch.
The deputy reeve position (now referred to as deputy mayor) was one she would reclaim in the 2006, 2010 and 2014 municipal elections, sometimes by acclamation and sometimes by contest. She did not run for re-election this past October.
Looking back on a decade and a half on Minden Hills council, Murdoch counts the creation of the Minden Riverwalk among the top achievements. The walking path winds its way along the Gull River through downtown Minden, allowing pedestrians to travel a circuit that includes the Loggers’ Crossing footbridge. The Riverwalk project also included connecting Invergordon Avenue to the Minden Hills Cultural Centre via a boardwalk.
“In Minden Hills, I would say Riverwalk is my biggest accomplishment in my time there,” says Murdoch, who was a member of the Riverwalk committee.
“As far as I’m concerned, it’s not finished yet,” she says, adding she’d like to see the pathway extended along the river up to Rotary Park. “It’s not done, in my mind, until it goes all the way to Rotary Park.”
“Another thing in Minden Hills I take great pride in, it took 10 years to get there, is the new fire hall,” Murdoch says. The $2-million facility along Highway 35 opened this past summer, and Murdoch gave a speech at its opening ceremony, paying homage to the community’s volunteer department.
Haliburton County council is comprised of the mayors and deputy mayors of the county’s four lower tier townships, so most of Murdoch’s municipal career also involved sitting as a councillor at the upper tier.
At the county level, Murdoch says one of the things she’s most proud of is the rejuvenation of its public library system, which has included the construction of new facilities and the addition of modern services and programming during the past decade.
“It’s become all things to all people,” Murdoch says. “We’ve got three new libraries, and I give great accolades to [library CEO] Bessie Sullivan and her staff. They’ve done a fabulous job.”
She also cites the construction of the county EMS base along Highway 35, the facility opening in 2015.
“It took us a long time to find some property and get that thing in the ground,” Murdoch says.
A major challenge at the upper-tier level has been the downloading of responsibilities – social services and housing, ambulance funding, etc. – to municipalities, without accompanying financial assistance. Murdoch says it’s a challenge that will remain an ongoing one.
“Downloading from the upper levels of government, and lack of major funding from the upper-tier governments . . . I think the municipalities and the county, they’re going to have to, whatever it is they want to do, find ways to raise funds beyond the funding we used to get,” she says, noting that level of funding has dropped substantially in recent years. “You get a little bit, but nothing major.”
Another ongoing challenge in a cottage community will be balancing the needs of full-time and seasonal residents.
“Their needs are different,” Murdoch says. “Some are similar, but some are very different.”
The protection of lake health is also of perennial importance, she says, since it is the foundation upon which everything in the county sits.
In her view, is it time for an amalgamation of the municipalities of Haliburton County into a single-tier government?
“I don’t know if complete single-tier is the answer,” Murdoch says, “but I do truly believe that what we have now needs to be improved upon, and move more towards single-tier. There is too much duplication with equipment, fire halls, everything, and there’s got to be some savings.”
Murdoch is asked for something she thinks a lot of residents might not realize about being a municipal politician in Haliburton County.
“I think a lot of people don’t realize that when you’re budgeting, over half the money is already spoken for,” Murdoch said, indicating that between staff wages and benefits, OPP requisitions, EMS funding, social services, etc., there is far less money in the pot for municipal projects than residents might realize. “You’ve got no control over what you’ve got to do, it’s got to be paid,” she says.
Murdoch also says that municipal governments have less control in general than some might think, that they are creatures of the province, and therefore bound by provincial legislation.
“The bylaws you have to abide by, all the laws, all kinds of things that you can’t mess with, that you have to abide by,” she says. “We’re grassroots, we have simple politics as grassroots. We’re the lowest of the low on the totem pole, which, to me, is the best, because we’re the ones who deal with the people directly. I go to town, I go to the grocery store, or the post office or whatever, and everybody wants to talk, and that’s part of my job, and I feel that any councillor should understand that people want to talk to you. You’re there for the people. If you’re not truly going to care about the people, you’re in the wrong job.”
After a total of 37 years in public office, what will Murdoch do now?
“Well, I’m not going to any more meetings,” she says with a laugh. “It’s a big relief not to go to any more meetings. I’ve been to thousands of them. I have a personal bucket list. I’ve completed my business bucket list – the fire hall was the last thing. I would like to travel. I’ve seen a lot of Canada, my own country, but I’d like to see more of it.”
Murdoch also plans to get back into community volunteering, and says she’s already received interest from a number of organizations. However, she’d like to make it clear that any volunteer activities come with this caveat: “I’ve already told people, if you’re looking for me to go to more meetings, if that’s what’s involved . . . I’m sorry!”