The lines have been drawn in Muskoka Lakes between candidates who want to preserve local nature and heritage at all costs – and other’s who’d compromise and work with developers. The proposed hydro plant at Bala Falls loomed large again today at the Muskoka Ratepayers Association’s All-Candidates Debate in Port Carling. About 350 people packed the community centre for the meeting and the most excitement came in question period.

Mayor Alice Murphy, who’s running for re-election said she will continue to support responsible development, but cryptically, did not respond when a question about Bala Falls came up, saying it was too complicated an issue to answer with a simple yes or no. She did however, chastise her opponent Don Furniss for meeting privately with Swift River Energy Ltd officials – that’s the company behind the controversial hydro plant.

“My opponent’s continued political spin and private meetings with developers, causes me grave concern,” she said. “It’s clear that our residents have a choice to make. You can choose to go back to the old days of unbridled development, big business and a return to a time of council when agendas were short, as all important decisions were made before the meetings even started. How did that work out for us? Community Centres slated for closure, huge lawsuits, record number of OMBs. We needed to borrow money because we couldn’t manage our spending. This is wrong.”

The question Murphy didn’t respond to was: “Are you of the mindset that the Bala Falls project can still be stopped with the knowledge that Ontario has more than enough electrical power to service the province adequately, without adding more power plants.”

Furniss was asked what he’d do to protect the concerns of the majority of Bala residents who oppose the plant. He told them that while he doesn’t really want it there, there’s very little political wiggle room. “We’ve fought for 7 years and it’s really out of our control,” he said, eliciting heckles from the crowd. “I can do nothing to influence the Provincial government. They are committed to the Green Energy Act. What I can do for you is I can work to try and get the best possible solution to a bad situation. I can’t really do any more than that. It’s the way it works.”

On the Hannah’s Landing residential development’s handling, Murphy took the opportunity to press Furniss further on whether he’d met privately with its developers, as he’d been shown to do with Swift River over Bala Falls. “Don has refused to answer that question and that concerns me,” said Murphy.  “It concerns me that as council we have tried to achieve a solution and we have councilors who will not answer that fundamental question.” Furniss responded that he believes in democracy and that the word means you have the freedom to talk with whoever you want to. “The purpose of that is to gather information to make intelligent decisions – not to just listen to one side of the story but both sides,” he said. “That’s what I offer in this council – Openness to talk. We’re not talking about control or censorship.”

Other candidates let their positions be known about Bala Falls. Sandy Currie is fighting the plant – Gunta Towsley said she is for the Bala Heritage District and if that prevents the plant, so be it. Gault McTaggart wants to work with Swift River, as does Greg Knight, who says the developer has told him that Margaret Burgess Park could be saved if a more favourable council is elected. Ron Brent is with Furniss – he said the Township has already spent between $1-2 million in the battle against Swift River and that the issue’s dominated everything that goes on at Town hall. He quoted the municipality’s  former CAO Chris Wray, who is said to have commented  that “all roads lead to Bala Falls.”

* Other issues were raised at today’s debate – big ones included senior staff migration from the Township and maintaining taxes. Expect stories on those in the coming days.