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Mayor Alex Nuttall: Passion for the fun, opportunity of local government

by Sean Meyer, Municipal World
in Leadership
October, 2023

There would be few people who could argue that the job of mayor is not a difficult one. Those challenges are heightened when viewed through the rhetoric-fuelled lens of social media. But for Barrie Mayor Alex Nuttall, the job has proven to be busy, but enjoyable.

“It’s really been a lot of fun,” Nuttall said. “We have a great group of councillors who worked together really well – co-operative and collaborative. It’s been really nice.”

New Chair, Different View

Barrie is a city of about 162,000 people located on the western side of Lake Simcoe, about 90 kilometres north of Toronto. Nuttall is well versed in Barrie’s political world. He previously served two terms on city council, from 2006-2014. Later, he moved to federal politics, serving as MP for the area from 2015-2019. Although he has been mayor less than a year, Nuttall said he has already learned a lot.

Learning, he said, should happen every day. The number one thing is nobody should ever stop learning about how to do a better job. This is especially true in the mayor’s office.

One of the interesting things Nuttall has picked up is around communication – especially team communication. In Barrie, being a councillor is a part-time job. That isn’t the case for the mayor or the deputy mayor. Keeping colleagues up to date while ensuring the plethora of daily information is being disseminated – so everyone feels included – is key.

“When I was a city councillor in Barrie that type of information flow wasn’t happening,” Nuttall said. “It was something that I remember really influenced how we were approaching the job. But every day, we’re learning lessons about making sure that we’re all on the same page, and the information’s flowing, and folks are included. It’s not just show up once a week. It’s a team game.”

Local Government Excellence

Something that has not changed for Nuttall is his feelings for the value of local government. Local government, he said, is where people can actually help individuals achieve what they want in the community. Council decisions, he adds, can affect people’s quality of life in “a very substantial way.”

Municipalities do not have an excess of tax dollars. But Nuttall said this does not mean there aren’t opportunities to have a positive impact on the municipality. In Barrie, there has been a lot of planning done in the past into projects. These past projects include a performing arts centre, the downtown market, and “a whole bunch of other things.”

One of the “neat things” Nuttall predicts for this council is taking all those items and putting them into action.

“Now we get to move forward with these things in a way that folks can see, feel, agree where their tax dollars are being spent and how their communities are growing and improving,” Nuttall said. “I am a big fan of municipal government. Especially when you consider the removal of the partisan politics for the most part. It really does allow individuals to work together in a good fit.”

Strategic Focus on Solving Problems

As excited as Nuttall is to move Barrie forward, he recognizes it is not something a mayor can do alone. Members of the public often put expectations on a mayor that aren’t achievable given the parameters of the job.

Nuttall does not see this as “necessarily a problem.” He sees it as encouraging a mayor to do more, to work harder. As a result, Nuttall admits he is often “quite blunt” in his interactions with the public. Council, he said, does its best on wide range of issues, from noisy cars to excessive speeding to whatever the issue of that day is.

Those issues are shaped by the city’s strategic plan. Within a few weeks of being sworn in, Barrie council set its strategic priorities. It then aligned committees to feed into those priorities.

With regards to the state of the city, Nuttall said he thinks Barrie “is in great shape.” But that said, Barrie struggles like every mid-size and large municipality with chronic homelessness, the opioid emergency, and mental health and addiction challenges. But sometimes, council comes together to address a long-standing, but quite local, situation.

In the case of Barrie, that issue involved former inmates of the Central North Correctional Centre, in nearby Penetanguishene. For 15 years, former inmates were bused to Barrie upon their release. Without necessary connections or resources, these individuals were often left with no option but to remain in the city.

Earlier this summer, and after working with the province, the city announced plans for a solution to this situation. The city will use a shuttle program to transport these individuals closer to their homes. Or, at least where they lived before their time behind bars.

Changing this situation was something Nuttall said council has long focused on. This, despite corrections not necessarily being a municipal responsibility. The bottom line, he said, is doing whatever council can to ensure the safety and prosperity of residents.

“As municipal leaders, we are tasked with ensuring that the vulnerable are given the best chance going forward to succeed in life,” Nuttall said. “And to make sure that our young people and our families and our seniors are given the best chance to live a good life, too.

“We can’t drop everything that we’re working on with all the other groups just to focus on homelessness, addiction, and mental health issues. That’s the balance that we’re still trying to strike here in the City of Barrie.”

Passion for Public Service

His commitment to the people of Barrie, as well as his colleagues, means Nuttall does not find himself with a lot of free time. That’s OK, he said, because he knew what he was getting into. He even took a “sizeable pay cut” to become to become mayor.

But, on the plus side, he gets to stay in the city he loves and the community he grew up in. About 50 percent of the time, he even gets to pick the kids up from school, which he only half-jokingly describes as “a neat thing to be able to do.”

While his schedule is busy and high-paced, Nuttall said it is important that he finds the time to sit back, relax, and let it all go. Well, at least some of the time.

“I love what I do, and I love the pace of which you do it,” Nuttall said. “I think if you talk to people they’ll tell you the same thing, which is I work 24-7 – and I wouldn’t have that other way.

“It wasn’t any other way when I was a member of Parliament. It wasn’t any other way when I was in private sector. It’s the way I grew up or the way I was built. Probably the way I was built because both my brothers are the same way. It just is what it is.”  MW

Municipal World Executive and Essentials Plus Members: You might also be interested in Sean’s other article: Local government champions look ahead to new experiences.

Sean Meyer is Digital Content Editor for Municipal World.

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