It was the end of an era in Estevan municipal politics Monday night.
Mayor Gary St. Onge presided over his final city council meeting, wrapping up a 12-year career on council. St. Onge was first elected in 2000 and took over as mayor in 2005 when John Empey was forced to step down after he was charged with sexual assault.
A byelection later that same year allowed St. Onge to shed the interim mayor title while in 2006 and 2009 he was returned by acclamation when no one stepped up to challenge him for the mayor’s job.
In his farewell speech at the conclusion of Monday’s meeting, St. Onge, who announced earlier this year that he would not be seeking re-election, reflected on his time in council chambers and thanked many of the people he encountered in his 12 years.
Notably, St. Onge took time to the thank City staff members, adding that 23 of them were employed with the City throughout his tenure.
“As I have said to the staff on many occasions, it is very difficult to work for us,” St. Onge said, “as you are often in the public eye. They take a lot of flack when a lot of times when they shouldn’t take it, so it is difficult and I want to thank them very much.”
St. Onge also thanked the council members that he worked with during his four terms.
“Our first council was the most disruptive as there were a lot of personality conflicts. I’m sure people can remember there were a lot of 5-2 votes or 2-5 votes,” he said. “It was really not a good council because of the animosity between some of the members, but the three councils since that I have worked with, I think have worked well together.
“Although we did not always agree on every item, the disagreements were generally differences of opinion rather then personality conflicts.”
St. Onge made special mention of the current council and said their co-operation was critical in helping move the city forward.
“Of the almost 2,000 motions these past three years, only 38 did not pass and I myself was on the losing side of 10 of those votes so this is to answer the people who say the mayor makes all the decisions.
“No matter what your plans are, unless you have the co-operation and are working together with council, a lot of work cannot get done.”
St. Onge also thanked his family for their support over the years but saved his final plaudits for the residents of Estevan. Calling it a privilege to work on their behalf, St. Onge said although they weren’t able to please everyone, most people were understanding and supportive.
“There are only a few that disagree with almost every decision of council. Needless to say they do not run for council because they are not people who believe in accountability."
Like many who venture into municipal politics, St. Onge said he entered with a number of plans but was soon hit with reality when he realized how little money the City had at the time. However, he noted that over the years they have been able to increase the amount of work they do and said the watermain replacement program was one of the projects he was most proud of.
“As I have said on more than one occasion, the replacement of watermains is not very sexy. But once you have a water break, water is percolating above the ground and the water is shut off for two to three days, you realize how important this project is,” he said.
“We have gone from $50,000 in capital projects in 2000 to $5 million this year. We put a lot of money into capital and we raised the mill rate this year by one mill, and I never had one call, to me, at home or here, because I think people see work getting done.”
St. Onge said although they have drastically increased the amount of work they complete each year, Estevan remains second in property taxes and third for commercial taxes.
“We have also been lucky that our city is part of the great increase in the provincial economy. There is so much more to do as I hear mentioned throughout the city all the time, and I am confident that future councils will continue the improvement and the growth in our city over the next several years. I especially look forward to the finalization of the truck route and the eventual underpass/overpass for the railway. I have learned so much about how municipal government works, and I would like to wish all our residents the best.”
While speaking to the media after Monday’s meeting, St. Onge continued to reflect on his time on council. Asked about his biggest accomplishments, he pointed to getting council to work together while mayor, noting that the public had grown tired of the bickering that had bogged down progress.
St. Onge also admitted that he had made some mistakes over the years, pointing to how the decision to switch to automated garbage pickup was handled.
“That was a tough time,” he said.
With his time as mayor at an end, St. Onge said he has no regrets about his decision not to run for re-election, noting he would be 70 at the end of another term. He plans to remain active as a member of the Sun Country Health Region board of directors, attending Estevan Bruins games and vacationing in Arizona.
“I’ll be one of the best cheerleaders for the city because I love this city.”
The six members of council also had a chance to say their farewells as all of them are up for election in next Wednesday’s meeting.
They also honoured St. Onge, noting that whomever takes over the position will have big shoes to fill.