The first of a series of meetings for new candidates running in the Oct. 22 municipal election drew a packed house Tuesday, with five of the 21 first-time town council hopefuls on hand to introduce themselves to voters.
The crowd of about 180 people at the Royal Canadian Legion on King Street had an opportunity to meet Gary Burroughs, Terry Davis, Stuart McCormack, Sandra O'Connor and Bernhard Peters.
Peters stepped in to replace Norm Arsenault, who was on the schedule for the first meeting but had to cancel. Arsenault is rescheduled for the second meeting Sept. 19.
Sitting councillors will not be included in this series of meetings, hosted by FocusNOTL, one of several local Facebook groups.
Colin Patey, the commentator for the evening, spoke about the exclusion of current councillors who are also candidates for the next term, saying that contrary to charges of being undemocratic, it could be considered democratic to ensure those who won't have as much of a voice at other meetings have a chance to speak.
“New candidates have a steeper hill to climb,” he said, pointing out the incumbents are already well-known from their years on council.
Each of five candidates had 10 minutes to talk about their experience, qualifications and priorities, and then questions were read to them, with each having a minute and a half to answer. The questions had been submitted to organizers by email leading up to the event.
With the order of speakers chosen at random, Davis spoke first, telling the audience he wants voters to know he will serve with honesty and integrity, and will listen to the key issues of residents and respond. He has extensive experience in government and not-for-profit agencies, has led charitable fundraising campaigns, and has served on boards and served boards of national associations, he said. He has also worked on his family farm, and has been a newspaper reporter and a magazine editor — jobs where listening is important, “and which I did and still do well.”
He said he also understands the roles of elected officials versus staff, and knows what it takes to get things done in municipal government.
Davis said he's not happy with what is happening in the town and would like to see “a substantial change” to the handling of development, with a council that can say no to development that doesn't make sense.
His priorities also include preserving heritage, tree canopies and streetscapes, he said, and he would like to see a noise bylaw that sets maximum noise levels.
He promised to respect and serve residents, listen and respond to their concerns, strive to keep taxes and user fees reasonable, preserve the natural characteristics of the town, consult taxpayers and seek consensus in both urban and rural areas, and plan for the future with a completed Official Plan.
“Together we can keep our town one of the most beautiful in the world, and resolve concerns in ways that work for all of us,” he said.
Sandra O'Connor grew up in Niagara, specifically St. Catharines. Her grandparents were farmers in NOTL, where her father was raised. She went to Brock University where she studied geography and urban planning, and has worked in management and consulting, mostly for science organizations and government. She also ran her own goemetrics consulting company. In her years living in Ottawa, before she retired, she watched livestreamed council meetings to keep in touch with what what going on in NOTL.
In her work she has reviewed official plans and subdivisions for the Ministry of Natural Resources, and developed skills such as problem-solving and analyzing complex situations, she said.
It was her dream to retire in NOTL, and when she did and found she finally had the time, decided to run for council four years ago. She was not successful, and has spent the last four years being engaged in the community, including serving on local committees.
She believes in being transparent and accountable, she said. Preserving natural and built heritage is a priority, as is completing a revised Official Plan — she campaigned on that last election, and it still isn't finished.
She promises to listen and respect community concerns, encourage appropriate development controls, support the environment, offer sound financial management, safeguard farmland and support farmers.
She stressed the community needs to be consulted in meaningful ways — not just asked an opinion and then forgotten.
“I want to be your voice on council. I promise to work for you and work with you.”
Burroughs started with why he chose to run for council: the message clearly presented at the meeting from all candidates is the desire for change.
“The town is changing. I want to ensure it's changing for the better,” he said.
He spoke of his time as a town councillor, then after an absence from politics, while he was running a business, a return with the position of Lord Mayor. He has also been a regional councillor for the last eight years, and regional chair for four years.
“I understand how the Town can work together, and it's not happening at this time,” he said.
His resume reflects a record of community service, leadership, listening, understanding and tackling issues, he added.
He spoke of the need for a comprehensive approach to development, a need to work with developers on projects that preserve heritage and are consistent with what residents want, and his plans to jump on the Official Plan right away. He said the Town is exceeding provincial guidelines for growth, and that needs to be made clear in the preamble to the OP.
He would also like to see the urban tree bylaw completed.
“I don't think it's as frightening as some appear to think it is,” he said, referring to discussions at council which have led to a deferral of the bylaw.
Burroughs said as the former owner of the Oban Inn, he understands the difficult balance between the needs of tourism and residents, and the importance of promoting tourism while also managing infrastructure and traffic to benefit residents.
“There's only one way in and out, and most of us use the lines and concessions during tourist season.” But the “incredible growth” in agritourism is causing problems on the back roads as well, he said, calling for a comprehensive plan to deal with traffic.
“I remember when I first came to Niagara-on-the-Lake, the Lord Mayor asked if anybody had a spare car, could they please park in on Queen Street so we look busy,” he said. “Times have sure changed.”
He also spoke of the need to improve communications and the relationship between the Town and residents.
At council meetings, he said, it's hard to hear what's being said, or to see who is speaking.
The agenda, which is no longer printed out, is available online but it's hard to follow and often residents don't know what issue councillors are addressing, he added.
And one last issue that needs to be solved, he said as his time ran out — “we have a garbage problem.” Although garbage collection is a regional issue, “it's all of our problems and we need to work together to solve it.”
Local electrician Bernhard Peters said he's lived in town most of his life — he left for a short time and came back to raise a family.
He lives in St. Davids, has a background in business and working with companies in receivership, has worked in real estate, is a deacon on a church board, and is the president of a charitable organization in Niagara Falls, which helps low-income people and the homeless.
He said he's running for council because “we always complain about government and never do anything about it,” and he decided it was his time to do something about it.
Peters said he's watched the town change over the years — he remembers what it was like before the Shaw Festival and tourism, and he's seen schools close as it becomes more of a senior population.
“I went to Parliament Oak, and it closed. I went to Lakeshore, and it closed. I went to Col. John Butler, and it closed. Then I went to District, and it closed.”
The families moving into town are, like him, settling in St. Davids, he said.
“They didn't close that school — they built an extension.”
As a businessman, Peters says he's pro-development — he is building a 60-unit project in Niagara Falls.
“But the last thing I want to see is the town destroyed by development,” he said.
“It has to be done in the right way and the right place,” he explained, saying he would support drawing borders “to show where we want development and where we don't. We love our small community. We're very blessed. We have virtually no crime and we need to maintain that, by keeping the wrong development out of our town.”
He believes in working with people, in a way that is straightforward, honest and transparent, he said.
“I want to bring that to council. If you don't like what I say, at least I'm being honest.”
Stuart McCormack introduced himself as a lawyer retired from one of Canada's leading law firms, where he was the managing partner of an Ottawa office for 10 years, and a member of the partnership board, setting the direction of the firm and its 500 lawyers. His expertise, he said, was in intellectual property and information technology. He has also worked for the provincial and federal governments, but when he came to NOTL in 2012 for a break, he decided not to leave.
He has been watching the current council and believes one of the most important issues is the lack of an Official Plan. He would look at a community plan, with a building code specific to NOTL, which developers would have to follow. It would require public notice and consultation, and would avoid ad hoc approvals that occur now.
HIs priorities would include sustainability, active transportation and green energy, and he favours new urbanism development with complete communities where people can live, walk, work and shop. That can be integrated with agricultural, he said, pointing to farmers' markets as an example, and aid farmland preservation.
“I know we all want a better NOTL. What does that mean and how are we going to get there?”
He suggested instead of looking at how long people have lived in town, the real question to ask candidates is “are you qualified to do the job?”
If elected, he said he intends to work responsibly for all communities of NOTL, not just the Old Town, and he closed with a pitch to voters: choose carefully and pick the candidates best qualified to do the job.
“Vote, and encourage others to vote.”
To open the question period, candidates were asked about the most important deliverable they could offer on council, and the theme that emerged and continued throughout the evening was the need to complete the Town's Official Plan to control development.
“Council has to prioritize getting this done,” said Davis. “It will be a long process but we have to do it and create certainty for residents, farmers and developers.”
“Delay, delay, delay,” said O'Connor. “We have to stop delaying,”
Peters agreed the OP needs to be revised, but said he could bring transparency and honesty to the table, and would have the community working together with developers to provided input. “It has to be a combined effort.”
“The last OP was 1996,” said McCormack, also looking at its completion as a priority, “but it's not a straightforward process.”
He suggested staff should be reviewed “to ensure they are following best practices.”
Burroughs was the only candidate who did not focus on the OP as his first deliverable – he spoke of communication and listening to residents.
“I don't think we do that well. We need to improve communication.” He referred again to the difficulty of seeing or hearing at meetings in the council chamber, and for residents who try to communicate with town staff on issues. “They don't respond well,” he said. “It's you we're working for.”
Candidates were also asked if the OP could be completed within the first year of the next term of council, and what each candidate would want to add to it that would be different.
“Where we are at the moment is in a contract with consultants to finish it,” O'Connor said. “It should be revised soon.”
Public consultation has to follow, and that could be done within the year. She would like to see the wording changed – there are too many “wishy washy words” such as 'may,' 'if possible,' and 'should be.'
“We need to be more definite, with stronger wording.”
Burroughs said within six months it should be ready to be presented to the region and province, but cautioned “the document is a moving target. It can change daily, with amendments.”
He would like to see streetscapes covered in the Official Plan, he said, so that with any infilling, developers are obligated to meet streetscape standards.
Peters said the OP should be moved forward rapidly, that it was important to get it done quickly.
McCormack has already spoken with the Town's planning director to find out the timeline of the OP, and he was told September. He said he'd like to see it include sustainable goals, active transportation and green energy.
Davis said the timing of the completion of the OP “will depend a great deal on the decisions everyone makes Oct. 22. It's important to elect councillors who will make the OP their first priority and move forward.”
He would like to ensure a municipal tree bylaw is part of the new OP, he said, and he would want to hear from the residents and businesses in NOTL, the people who live, work and farm in town, what they want it to look like. “I want it to look like that.”
Next councillors were asked if they would support a freeze on development, but all agreed that would be too extreme.
“'Freeze' is a strong word,” said Burroughs. “The new council should take a stand. We've exceeded provincial growth targets past 2035. We need to get it into the Official Plan and say no more often. Development must suit our community.”
“A freeze doesn't solve anything. I'd be against a freeze,” said Peters. “Development goes through planning, with strict guidelines. It's not easy to go through the planning process.” He suggested development issues could be addressed through zoning amendments until the OP is complete.
McCormack said he's talked to other lawyers about a moratorium on development, and the answer was “we'll get sued.”
The OP provides for development and affords rights to developers, he said. “That's why it's a priority. It needs to be done.”
Davis says he supports council saying no as opposed to a freeze on development. “We don't have to approve a building that's six stories high. Council has some authority over development while we're waiting for the OP to be finalized.”
O'Connor said a freeze is not a solution. “We can say no to development if we have a strong council.” She spoke of the regional plan underway for the Glendale area, and said the “density is incredible. It has a 20-storey building beside White Oaks. We have to get on this quickly or we're going to lose control.”
When asked about a solution to the traffic problems in town, Peters said Niagara Stone Road should be widened to four lanes, but to avoid a bottleneck in Virgil, there have to be more access roads out of town. “St. Davids is a mess. We need to develop another route. We have too much traffic and two few roads.”
McCormack suggested a comprehensive transportation plan to help move traffic in and out of town. “There has to be a better way,” he said. “Widening Niagara Stone Road wouldn't solve the problem.”
Davis agreed, saying parking lots and shuttle buses would be a better solution than widening roads. “I'd like to see us look at traffic safety, with lowered speed limits and stop signs.”
O'Connor said a plan should be developed with meaningful input from residents, looking at ways to redirect traffic.
There are better solutions than widening Niagara Stone Road, said Burroughs, such as Concession 6 once the Mewburn Bridge is completed. “The goal of this council should be to put aside a budget for Concession 6 so it meets current standards. The solution is not more roads, it's a better way to get into the community. I'm not a fan of parking lots.”
Candidates were also questioned about heritage preservation, with Randwood, the proposed hotel development on John Street, as an example of the issues that surface from development.
“A mistake was made by council first time round,” said McCormack, referring to a 2011 decision to allow a hotel on the property. “It will be necessary to take a relatively strict interpretation of that bylaw.” He cautioned it would not make the developer happy and the decision would appeal it to the Local Planning Appeal Board.
“Randwood has the potential to create precedent,” said Davis. He too suggested council should stick to the height allowed by the 2011 bylaw.
O'Conner said she supports heritage in built and natural environments, and would apply those principles to any development in town. “We don't want to change the character of this town.” As for Randwood, she said, “we have to be cognizant of what the original bylaw intended.”
Burroughs did not support the 2011 Official Plan amendment, he said, and moving forward, that should be the baseline. In future he'd like to see the lord mayor representing council and meeting with developers, to say “'this is what our town wants and this is why everyone is so upset.' We're not doing this, we're allowing staff to work through the process, and that's not the way to get things done.”
“This is a heritage town. If we ruin our heritage no one will want to come here,” said Peters. If the Randwood development has to go ahead, he added, “we should make sure it's not an eyesore to the rest of us.”
The final question of the evening was about health care delivery, with Davis saying the doctors have chosen the site for a new medical centre, and if the current council doesn't provide the necessary rezoning, then the next council needs to figure out a way to get it done and get the traffic problems solved for the neighbouring community. “The town needs to move forward and get the facility built.”
If the current council approves the rezoning for a new medical centre on Niagara Stone Road and Line 2, “we will have to work with them to make it safe,” said O'Connor. If the rezoning isn't approved, “I think we should revisit the non-profit model the current council turned down. Then we should provide the infrastructure needed to keep our residents healthy.”
She also would like to see a walk-in clinic restored in town — one that would serve people who are not members of the local family health team, including the visitors to town.
Burroughs said he would like to understand why the current facility, the Niagara Medical Centre, became an undesirable location to doctors, when it's already zoned for a 30,000 square foot expansion. “Why didn't that work, and what can we do to make it work,” he said. “I'm not keen on rezoning another property for that use when we already have one.” In addition to traffic problems, the site on Line 2 already has water issues, he said. “It's very hard to get water away from this property. I don't know why we're looking at it.”
“It's very important to have an urgent care clinic,” said Peters.
McCormack said “one thing is clear, there is a need for doctors in this town.” He referenced the high number of seniors, which is only going to get higher, and seniors require more medical care. A decision has to be made on the medical centre, he said, “and if it doesn't suit the doctors, they have the option to leave.”
The next three meetings for the new candidates will be held at the legion hall on King Street Sept. 19, Oct. 3 and 9, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.
The Queenston Residents Association will hold an all-candidates meeting Wednesday, Sept. 26 beginning at 6 p.m. at the former Laura Secord elementary school, now the lower campus of Willowbank School of the Restoration Arts, on Walnut Street in Queenston.
The NOTL Chamber of Commerce will hold its meeting Oct. 4 at the community centre, at 6 p.m., but a reservation is required and seating is full.
The St. Davids Residents Association will hold two meetings. The first is at the St. Davids Lions Hall on York Road Oct. 9, at 7 p.m. for mayoral and regional councillor candidates, the second at the same place, also at 7 p.m., Oct. 16 for town councillor candidates.