Anyone who has spent any amount of time with J. Murray Jones can be forgiven if he or she came away with the image of the character John portrayed by singer Billy Joel in his 1973 hit song ‘Piano Man’.
The recently re-elected Peterborough County warden — who is also mayor of Douro-Dummer Township — is indeed ‘quick with a joke.’ However, that affability aside, that’s where the comparison abruptly ends for, unlike Joel’s fictional bartender, there is absolutely no place Jones would rather be.
“I’m honoured,” Jones says of his re-election. “It’s what I enjoy doing and I think it’s the role I do best.”
Jones is now entering his 10th year as county warden, a record-setting run that was interrupted in December 2016 when Otonabee-South Monaghan Mayor Joe Taylor was elected to the position for a two-year term.
Acclaimed warden once more in 2018, Jones’ return bid this past December was contested by Scott McFadden, mayor of Cavan Monaghan Township. Following the tabulation of county councillors’ emailed votes, Jones emerged victorious.
“I have nothing but good things to say about Scott,” says Jones, dismissing outright any real or perceived animosity he has towards his warden seat challenger.
“Scott is extremely valuable at the council table. He has wonderful insight into all kinds of issues and, quite honestly, we would terribly miss the opportunity for him to delve into those issues.”
That matter settled, Jones brings his experience and steady hand to what will no doubt be an extremely challenging 2021 — a year that arrives shrouded in the dark shadow cast by the COVID-19 pandemic that has affected all of us in so many ways.
To that end, like municipal leaders across the province, Jones is anxious to see vaccine distribution in the county occur as soon as possible.
“We are making it very clear that we want county residents protected sooner than later,” he says.
“But let’s not throw stones. Are mistakes going to be made? Absolutely. But more mistakes are going to be made if we take on the negative attitude I keep hearing out of some people’s mouths. Let’s be part of the solution, not part of the problem.”
Also looming out there is the ongoing matter of annexation as the City of Peterborough seeks to secure land for industrial development. That issue, says Jones, “is very much in the ballpark of Cavan Monaghan Township.”
“The township is taking the lead. They’ve got to do what they think is right — we get that. But from a regional perspective, if we want jobs, if we want industries, if we want all these wonderful things moving in, we need to have a place to put them. There’s got to be some way for the city and the township and the county to come up with a way of working together and doing this.”
“We’ve been saying that for years but it keeps getting stalled. I think maybe it’s the way people talk to each other that prevents discussion from going any further. We (the county) tried to be the mediator in years past and it never really worked but, if the opportunity arises, I’d have no problem trying to get the two mayors together. We’ll see what happens. It’s been around for so long now.”
“I get both sides of the argument. If I was the mayor of Cavan-Monaghan I wouldn’t want the big city pushing me around and telling me what I should or shouldn’t do. You get your back up. I think anybody would. But from the city standpoint, they have no more room (to grow). There has got to be middle ground here.”
If there’s a silver lining to be found in the pandemic crisis, Jones says it can be found in what has generally been improved co-operation between the two municipalities, with one glaring exception — the lack of consultation with the county prior to the numerous road closures necessitated by the reconstruction of the Warsaw Swing Bridge on Parkhill Road east of Armour Road.
“That was handled extremely poorly by Mayor (Diane) Therrien and the city … I’ve told her that,” says Jones.
“The city treated the county and neighbouring townships in a very condescending way. That bridge is like five feet away from the Douro-Dummer boundary. What do you mean you’re not going to talk to us about it? Their decisions about closing these roads had a huge impact on county residents and there was absolutely no communication with us. Nothing.”
“I’m still upset about that. But you don’t go setting City Hall on fire because you didn’t get your way. You work on it and try to make the best of it.”
Jones says the Eastern Ontario Wardens’ Caucus, of which he is a member, will continue to provide regional “clout” when it comes to lobbying the provincial and federal governments. In addition, Jones chairs the Eastern Ontario Regional Network that is now launching its Cell Gap Project that identifies where gaps are in rural cell phone connectivity and works to address those shortcomings.
Also in 2021, Jones says work will continue in earnest on the reconstruction of the James A. Gifford Causeway, spanning Chemong Lake between Ennismore and Bridgenorth, which Jones calls “the biggest infrastructure project that the county has been involved with.”
Now age 72, Jones says the sun is setting on his political life.
“You don’t know what’s around the corner but right now, if I had to give a definitive answer, this will likely be my final two years in the political game. I’d like a life with the freedom to do what I want to do and not have to put up with some people’s unusual comments who don’t know what they’re talking about. I need a break from that.”
But before that break comes, rest assured Jones will continue to make perfectly clear Peterborough County’s position in terms of the overall health of the region.
“We are not country hicks. We have 55,000 people who live outside the city limits. Without those 55,000 people, a big city like Peterborough would go down the tubes in a hurry. That’s why we sometimes get our back up when it becomes evident we are not getting the respect we deserve.”
“I remember (former Peterborough mayor) Daryl Bennett and I were at a meeting. There were maybe 100 people in the room. All we heard was ‘City, city, city … how wonderful … city, city, city.’ It got to be my turn to speak. I said ‘Just for the fun of it, all of you who live in the county, put your hand up.'”
“Well, 75 per cent of the people in that room put their hand up. That’s when I asked Daryl to go in the other room. I’d like to talk to my county ratepayers. We need more respect than we get. We’re starting to get that more, but maybe Peterborough city councillors and staff need to be reminded a little more. Without those 55,000 people, they’d be in a lot of trouble.”
In the meantime, Jones makes it clear that, while you can call him late for supper, don’t call him a politician.
“I absolutely detest it when people call me a politician,” he says. “I hate it. I’d like them to say he’s one of the few guys who wasn’t your typical politician. That he was there for the right reasons. That he made decisions to benefit all of us. That he was just an average guy and had the attitude he’s no better than anyone else. I’m doing the best I can do in the position that I’m in and I’m not going to apologize for that.”
Whatever the next two years brings, count on Jones always being ‘quick with a joke.’
“I like to promote a little bit of humour. You know me … that’s kind of what I do. There are 600 zillion people in China who really don’t care what Peterborough County council does. Let’s put it in perspective. Let’s do the best job we can possibly do and maybe have a little smile about it. The sun is still going to come up tomorrow.”