Another crowd of almost 200 people turned out to hear why five candidates running for election to municipal council in the Oct. 22 election want to sit at the table for the next term, and what they hope to accomplish while there.
It was a full house again at the Royal Canadian Legion hall Wednesday for candidates Norm Arsenault, Clare Cameron, Simon Bentall, Jordon Williams and Dennis Dick at the second meeting hosted by FocusNOTL. The series of four meetings is intended to introduce 20 new candidates to voters, and this one began with Colin Patey, one of the organizers, again defending their decision to exclude current councillors against accusations of being undemocratic.
'It's tough to be a new candidate,” he said, while incumbents have face recognition and four years to become known in the community. “We're trying to level the playing field somewhat by giving new candidates an opportunity to come out and introduce themselves with a decent amount of time.”
The questions presented to candidates were ones that had been emailed and picked “pretty much at random,” he said, noting they would be different from the round of questions at the first meeting and different from the meetings to come.
“Boy, does this town have a lot of issues. We've got a lot of questions,” said Patey.
Arsenault introduced himself as having grown up on a dairy farm in Northern Ontario. He served in the military for three and a half years, but didn't like it, and then went to university. He worked as a manager for several different retail operations before moving to marketing and international sales. “I have the ability to work with people, I'm a decision-maker, and I don't take time to dawdle. I make a decision and then on to the next thing.” He has worked in conflict management and developed negotiation skills that might come in handy, he said.
His number one priority is to have a completed Official Plan. “We've been talking about it for four years, and it's close to being finalized. It will give us direction of where we want to grow in Niagara-on-the-Lake.” He explained a community planning permit system, a new process that allows all stakeholders and developers in one specific area to establish what kind of community is suitable for that area, with bylaws to back it up, and said “it's a great plan. I think it will work well.”
The current council has been “very reactive” to development issues, with long-term planning an afterthought, he said. “With a community planning permit, Randwood would not have been an issue.” He also wants to protect the greenbelt from urban sprawl, preserve the heritage and culture of the town, and work with growers to ensure a sustainable agricultural industry.
“Integrity, commitment and accountability are what I stand for,” said Arsenault. ” I take responsibility for my decisions.”
Williams grew up in the Niagara Region, and has lived in NOTL for 10 years, he said. His family has roots in the steel industry and fruit farming, so he grew up with an appreciation for hard work. He has worked for Niagara College, non-governmental agencies and government, and behind the scenes in federal and provincial politics. “You may not know who I am but I've been around,” he said. “I've seen how government can impact daily lives.”
He's also seen a lot of change in NOTL, “some I like and some I don't like.”
He fell in love with the community when he moved to town, “but I've seen a few things happening recently that I don't like,” he said. “Every community is unique and deserves our full attention.”
Williams said one of his goals is to keep taxes in check and in balance with services provided. He's looked over the budget and found areas where money is wasted. He's committed to keeping St. Davids Public School open, the library and community centre enhanced, and roads paved. He'd also like to see garbage that piles up on Queen Street picked up weekend mornings. As for development, “it's going to happen, change is going to happen. We have to be smart about it.”
He would also like to see more young families moving to NOTL. Keeping families in town and keeping schools open will protect property values, he said, to a mostly senior crowd. “Your home is your retirement investment. If we devalue our property values, your investment decreases.”
“Why should voters elect me?” he asked. He has connections, he has passion, and if he gets elected, “I won't let you down. I'll be there for you. We need new blood. We need someone of a certain generation who has energy,” he said, “and I have a little experience to go with it.”
Bentall, owner of the Scottish Loft on Queen Street, is from the UK. He has worked in the leisure and hospitality industry, he's a certified chef, and spent six years in the cottage rental industry in town. He's concerned about the accommodation industry and the growth of Airbnbs, and has seen illegal ones in the Old Town, Glendale and Virgil. “Why should they have the right to an Illegal B&B?” he asked, suggesting the Town should have a bylaw officer specifically for B&Bs.
He would like to see the former hospital parking lot used for public parking to increase revenue, with possibly a market on the property as well. The former rifle range, he suggested, should be an eco-friendly park, although a Parks Canada employee suggested to him it would be a good spot for residential development. He'd also like the see the town “upbranded,” and marketed to attract more eco-tourism.
Listening to farmers to help protect farmland is important, he said, and he'd like a new transportation loop around all five communities. “It's been done before but it wasn't done properly. I want to do it properly.”
Cameron grew up in Jordan surrounded by grape farms, with the Bruce Trail at the end of her street. Visiting NOTL was always an exciting experience—her introduction to theatre was seeing The Potato People at the Shaw Festival Theatre, she said. “It was baked into my brain. NOTL was a very special place.” She worked for a time at Fort George, met her future husband there and had their first date at the Old Angel Inn.
In 2011, she said, they moved to Virgil, “and we've never looked back. We hope to spend the rest our lives in NOTL.”
She earned her Masters degree in history from McMaster University, where she focused on changing land use patterns in Niagara, and an MBA from the Goodman School of Business. She began her career in municipal services at the Niagara Region, and has spent the last five years working for the City of Burlington, as a program manager for business intelligence, improving access to data and analytics for effective decision-making. “I've seen how a successful municipality can work from the inside out,” she said.
She has served on several town committees, including the Municipal Heritage Committee, the Canada 150 Committee and the Indoor Pool Committee, “but in an advisory role, there is only so much you can do,” she said. “I want to use my dkills as a decision-maker.”
When she thinks about the future of the town, she thinks long-term. She wants her children to grow up in Niagara-on-the-Lake and share her pride in living in such a special place. She wants to help preserve built and natural heritage, protect the farming industry, and control the pace and kind of development that's appropriate for NOTL. A diverse mix of housing options is important, she said. “We don't want every part of NOTL to look the same.”
She would also like more public participation “earlier rather than later” in the planning process, and long-term thinking and decision-making based on real, high-quality data and facts. “Getting data is what I do on a daily basis,” she said.
As a municipal employee now, she said, she has 185,000 bosses, all of whom pay taxes and live in the city. “As a town councillor, I'll be doing the same for 17,000 people in Niagara-on-the-Lake,”
She has 10 years of municipal experience behind her, and serving on town council is one of her greatest aspirations. “I'm ready to hit the ground running.”
Dick, a life-long resident, University of Guelph graduate, and a farmer with an excavation business, has served on town council in the past. When people ask him why he wants to be a politician, he says, “It's not that I want to be a politician, I want to help the people of Niagara-on-the-Lake.”
He's a member of the Pleasant Manor Retirement Village board in Virgil, with construction of a 128-bed nursing home underway. “Upper Canada Lodge will probably close in 2021. We have to take up the slack.” As a member of the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority liaison committee, he represents NOTL interests, and a long-time member of the Virgil Business Association, he has championed the splash pad in the Virgil Sports Park, raising substantial donations to help pay for it, and is now working on plans for a pump track for cyclists and skateboarders in the same park.
Rather than having secondary plans as part of the OP, he'd like to see community plans for smaller areas, that will stand up to appeals to the new local planning board which has replaced the Ontario Municipal Board. The Town has faced many such challenges in the past, including King's Point, Queen's Landing, and Shaw's Lane. “We haven't won anything. Community plans would give the Town new tools in its toolbox,” said Dick, “and we'll have something to win with.”
The first question to candidates was about conflicts of interest, which regularly arose on the last term of council, most often with councillors who have a B&B, a restaurant, or live near a property slated for development. Each candidate was asked if they had any reason to expect to have to declare conflicts, and if so, what they would do to eliminate them.
Arsenault said the conflicts of interest that arise regularly at council may directly affect the outcome of votes. He has no conflict with any business, but he does live near the new medical centre, he said, which could potentially be a conflict if the development comes before council again.
Williams said he couldn't foresee any conflicts, but that it's important to know candidates' interests in town. “Conflicts aren't fair to voters or fellow councillors.”
Bentall said as a business owner in the Old Town, he would have to declare a conflict if the issue of closing Queen Street to traffic resurfaces, which if approved, he said, would destroy the town.
Cameron said she would seek legal advice if she ever thought she had a conflict. On a Town advisory committee, she sees members deal with it differently. Some stay at the meeting but don't speak, some leave the room, and some speak but don't vote. “I want to completely understand my options, to know what would help me sleep at night and still be able to participate as much as possible.”
Dick said the decision about a conflict is whether a councillor has a fiduciary interest in the subject before council. “At this particular time I don't see anything that would be a conflict but if there is something you need to declare it. You don't need a lawyer. If you think you're going to make money from some issue at council, it's a conflict. That's the law.”
Asked how candidates might restore trust in the relationship between council and residents, Williams said, “when elected by you, we serve you. How do you restore it? You work harder, you make yourself available, answer calls, when someone knocks go to your door, listen to what people say.” You restore trust, he said, “one phone call, one doorbell, and one vote at a time.”
“My phone will always be on,” said Bentall. “I'm a listening person. You guys are our bosses.” He said he would hold quarterly meetings to continue to hear residents' concerns. “Any problems, I will listen to you.”
Cameron said she is loving the campaign experience, meeting residents and hearing what they love about NOTL. “I don't want to stop talking to you.” she said. “But listening isn't enough. I'll back up that listening with action. I know as a councillor I'll be one of eight but I'll be recording my results. I want your feedback.”
Trust is all about communication, said Dick. Being on council can be difficult—people come to you with your problems, you take those issues to staff, find out legislation works against you, and you have to explain why you can't do what that person wants. “Without communication, everything breaks down.”
Arsenault said the first step toward trust is being honest with people. “There is no point dancing around an issue. Honesty is critical.”
It's also key to answer people, and communicate effectively, he said. “I won't make a promise I can't keep.”
Asked about Regional taxes and whether NOTL pays more than its fair share, especially for policing, the answers brought out signs of frustration with the upper-tier government.
Bentall criticized the Region for only providing two police officers for NOTL. The circumference of the town “is slightly bigger than St. Catharines,” he said, and the poulation is growing quickly. “We need to talk to the Region.”
Cameron said although the population of the town may look small, during tourist season it can go up by 50,000 day-to-day, with barely any visible enforcement, although the Town pays more taxes to the Region than the City of Welland. As a member of council, she said, “I will do my best to build a relationship with our Regional council.”
The Town pays $11 million to the region for 2.5 police officers, said Dick, because back in the 70s it was determined that policing would be based on assessment rather than population. NOTL is paying a disproportionate amount of money for police services, “but our Regional councillors think it's a wonderful idea for NOTL to pay more than their fair share. We could probably police ourselves with a car and two police officers for about $1 million.”
“Think of how many police we could have for $11 million,” said Arsenault. “That's a flawed system.” Only 25 per cent of the $25 million NOTL pays to the Region stays in town, because of the assessment-based system, he said. “I would fight for a population-based system. That's the only way it could work. It's an absurd system. It needs to change. We have to work on it as a team.”
If NOTL attracts more marijuana facilities, the town will need more police, said Williams. And traffic on Regional Road 55 is a real problem, and needs real solutions. The next council needs to work to change things at the Region, he said.
With the current CAO expecting to retire, candidates were asked what they would look for in a new CAO.
“I”m excited about the opportunity for town council to select the very best and brightest,” said Cameron. The CAO is critical for setting the style of leadership and the tone of the community, she said, describing the person in charge of administration as the narrowest point of an hourglass, with council and the public at the top, staff at the bottom, and information filtering through from top to bottom, and then back in the other direction. “That's the kind of thinking I'd like to see in a CAO. I'm very much looking forward to sitting on a selection committee.”
Dick said he has been a member of two committees to choose a CAO, and the type of super-person described by Cameron comes at a cost. “We don't offer enough money to attract that sort of person,” he said, adding NOTL is a great, unique place to live, and could attract a good CAO who would like to live in town. But typically, he said the Town trains the people who work for it and then they go to the Region or a larger municipality where the compensation is greater.
A CAO has to be good at talking to people and leading people, said Arsenault, and would possibly come to NOTL because it has a lot to offer in the way of lifestyle. “We have to cast a wide net and get the very best person with a good background in communication and management.”
Williams agreed, strong leadership and good communication are key. A CAO is working for council and has to listen to council, he said. “We are your voice.” He suggested someone young and energetic would fit the bill.
Bentall said he'd like to see a CAO with knowledge of the area and the people, calling the position the glue that bonds the community, and is connected to the community, and should be “a person who knows us.”
Dick got the first stab at the last question of the evening—when marijuana becomes legal to sell, would candidates want to see such stores in town or would they vote to outlaw them. “We're an upscale place, and we don't need marijuana dispensaries here,” he said, adding that he doesn't think the town needs any more marijuana growing operations either. There will be legal opportunities for residents to plant pot in their backyard, enough for them and their friends, he said, and if they live in a rural area, to make a little money, but he would not support retail operations in NOTL.
“Cannabis has been around for a long time, in your neighbourhood,” said Arsenault. “It is going to be regulated, it's going to be a legal product. I'm not a fan of it, but I would be in support of letting the people decide.”
“The legislation is coming whether we like it or not,” said Williams. “I wouldn't be in favour of it on Queen Street but to outlaw it? I'd need more information. We have to be ready for it.”
Bentall said he's against it, but there will be small farms and factories in every municipality. Although he wouldn't support a retail outlet, he suggested there might be a place for hemp products—there's an opportunity, he said, to make money from byproducts, “but not to be selling weed on our streets.”
Cameron recently “had the good fortune” to attend a forum of Niagara College students learning about the production of cannabis, she said. The industry is “very much here and growing in the Niagara Region,” and across the country is making a lot of money. “I'd be extremely cautious. There's a lot to learn.” She praised the Town's “cautious” setbacks, and said she wants to keep a very close eye on this industry going into the future.
About the cannabis question, said Cameron, the last speaker of the night, “I'm so glad we're going to end things on a high note.”
Correction: It was originally reported that candidate Simon Bentall said he would like to see houses built on Parks Canada property. He told the Lake Report Tuesday he had said it was a Parks Canada representative who suggested that to him. He would like to see an eco-friendly park on that property. The Lake Report apologizes for the error and any inconvenience it may have caused.