Change was what the voters wanted in Niagara-on-the-Lake, and change was what they got — there will be a new look in the council chamber when meetings resume in December.
Betty Disero will lead seven new councillors, with only John Wiens, last term's deputy lord mayor, returning to the table — this time in fourth place.
Disero, the first female lord mayor not only for Niagara-on-the-Lake but for the country — another first for a town already steeped in historic milestones — will be joined by Deputy Lord Mayor Clare Cameron, forming a female duo at the helm, which is also a first.
Grape-grower and retiring police officer Erwin Wiens, Gary Burroughs who also brings experience to the table, Wendy Cheropita, Stuart McCormack, Allan Bisback and Norm Arsenault will join them on council.
After one term as councillor, Disero took 4,135 votes — slightly more than 50 per cent — against incumbent Pat Darte, who earned 2,732 votes, 33 per cent of the 8,349 ballots cast in a town of 14,213 voters. Daniel Turner finished third with 1,402 votes.
NOTL had the highest turnout of voters in the Region, at almost 59 per cent, while Pelham saw the biggest change, sweeping out every incumbent, including mayor, Town and Regional councillors.
Although an election outcome is never a certainty, Disero says she was feeling pretty confident heading into the last few days of campaigning, after knocking on doors and speaking to people who were interested, engaged and often supportive. A Toronto city councillor for 18 years and a Toronto public school trustee for three years before that, she says she learned early in her career that the candidate who gets out to knock on doors early has a good chance of winning.
“People want to talk to you,” Disero says.
She estimates she knocked on 300 to 400 doors every day for two months, hitting not only the villages but some of the concessions, firelanes, Lakeshore Road, Four Mile Creek Road, York Road and Queenston Road.
“That's the way I won — through hard work.”
She's not lord mayor yet — the new council officially takes over Dec. 1, but a day after the election she was already being asked about the title, one that was apparently legislated for NOTL by the province, although details of the history of the appellation are a little uncertain. Historically, in the U.K, the title remains lord mayor, whether for a male or female. Lady mayor or mayoress are used in the U.K. for the wife or consort of the mayor. Lord mayor will be her title, Disero says, “and I accept that.”
Disero spent a good part of her first post-election day at the NOTL community centre — first at a Rotary Club meeting with discussion about one of the club's main priorities (eradicating polio) and then sitting down with The Lake Report to talk about her goals for the next term of council.
Disero believes doing her homework, researching issues, listening to residents and bringing their needs to council were what helped her earn the right to lead the town for the next four years, along with organizing or attending many public events and heading or sitting on committee during the past term.
But that, she says, “is who I am.”
And it isn't about to change, she says — residents can expect to see the same level of energy, organizing and participating in events, committee work and gathering knowledge about issues — her workload is about to increase, and she couldn't be more thrilled.
At 61, Disero exudes energy. She got that from her mother and grandmother, she says, and believes it will come in handy as she faces the challenges ahead of her.
'This will be a tougher, bigger responsibility, with two councils involved (including a seat at the Region). I will do my best to get back to everybody who contacts me, because I know as a constituent, the worst thing is to send an email to someone and not hear back, although I might need people to give me a little nudge sometimes.”
She's already champing at the bit to begin, and keeps thinking of all the many issues she wants to get started on, “but then I have to remind myself, I can't do that yet, so I put it on my list.”
In the month or so until the December council meeting, the new council members will be going through orientation sessions. Disero hopes they will get some guidance on the code of conduct, so they will know and understand it.
“I don't want them to unknowingly do something inappropriate,” she says.
Then there's understanding the budget process, which will require a quick learning curve, because on the long list of things to do, it's at the top. It will be the first issue to come to the new council, and is expected to be approved by the end of December.
She's confident of the new council members, though, she says. “They're a smart and bright group of people who will catch on quickly,” noting they have also already demonstrated respect for each other and even friendship rather than competition during the pre-election events.
Disero's face lights up at the mention of Cameron, and her value to the new council.
“She's bright, she's confident, she does her research, and when she speaks she knows her subject. I'm thrilled to have her on council.” Cameron too is anxious to get going, and the two have already scheduled a meeting for later in the week to begin discussions.
John Wiens is knowledgeable about public works, says Disero, and Burroughs “knows where the bodies are buried at the Region. He'll be a real help in that department.” She said Erwin Wiens knows growers, and he uses the irrigation system, which is a big issue in town. Wendy Cheropita is a strategic thinker, Al Bisback and Norm Arsenault are smart men and bring their own skill set, and Stuart McCormack is already thinking way ahead.
“There is so much positive energy in this group. This council is made up of colleagues in every sense of the word. They will come together as a team that will move the agenda forward like no other council I've ever known in my career.”
Each member of council will bring something different to the table, says Disero, and if there is ever outside expertise needed, “they'll know where to find it.”
There are other big issues once the budget is approved, including some left over from last term, such as the updated draft Official Plan, which she expects to come to the committee-of-the-whole January meeting. She and council members will all be seeing it for the first time, and she hopes over the Christmas holiday, they will spend some time reading it, as she expects to. There will be master plans and secondary plans to be prepared, which will get the town to the vision set out in the OP, she says.
Also on her list is the community planning permit system, which alters the development process so that developers apply for zoning amendments, provide design details and a site plan at the same time, so when councillors make a zoning decision they have all the information they need. Currently, a zoning amendment can be approved, leaving council to deal with an inappropriate design when it's well along into the process.
And then, of course, there's Randwood. The Two Sisters provided a revised plan in August and staff were expected to schedule an open house and public early in the term — the process was delayed because of the election. Disero said she believes Two Sisters jumped too early to the appeals tribunal as it was their decision to submit revised drawings. Two Sisters have also appealed the Town's notice to initiate heritage designate for four properties.
“My hope would be that the appeals tribunal (Local Planning Appeals Tribunal) sends it back to council, so we can do our job and conduct an appropriate review of the application.”
She's also concerned about an onslaught of development proposals likely to start coming before council in January, she says. Developers are smart enough to avoid council during the lead-up to an election, so there are probably a few “waiting in the wings, and we need to be ready for them. It's about slowing down the rush, taking a breath until we get some plans in place. The community planning permit system is good for both sides. It allows the developer to go to the planning department with one stop, and it also gives us a level of protection. We know what we're approving.”
Sure to resurface early in the term is the urban tree bylaw, which was discussed over a period of years but which council didn't approve when it was presented to them in September. Much talked about during the campaign, there was never any intention of it being applied in the rural areas, says Disero. She hopes the next draft urban tree bylaw will incorporate some of the suggestions made by Coun. Jim Collard in September, with less of an impact on residents but the ability to prevent developers from clear-cutting before they build.
The Town also needs a master transportation plan, built around the Regional system and its plans for the future; the St. Davids pool is on the list, in conjunction with discussion of what other facilities are needed in the Lions Park, and options that could include a public meeting place, a splash pad, and even a Saturday farmers market, says Disero. “I think that would be great.”
Other issues that surfaced during the campaign — a sidewalk from the Cannery Park subdivision to the Lions Park, parking in the Cannery and grinder pumps are still troubling St. Davids residents. Diesel buses drive through Queenston at the rate of one every four or five minutes some days on their way to the jet boat dock, and Bevan Heights has fence issues. Paxton Lane residents want an encroachment agreement on some Town land that is not being used, and throughout the town, there are traffic problems and heritage protection concerns. In the Old Town residents want calming measures on King and Rye Streets,;Virgil residents on Andres and Henry Streets are concerned about their neighbourhoods being used as thoroughfares; and in subdivisions some residents want sidewalks and others don't.
Disero says she can point to almost any street in each community in town where there are problems to be solved. “And we'll get through it all,” she says.
While the Official Plan is the most significant issue for the town, the Region may be the biggest challenge for Disero. Along with the draft OP she'll be studying up on Regional issues, she says. The tainted hiring of the regional CAO and recent contract extension, expenses at both the Region and Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority and other issues have led to several new Regional councillors, so she will be in good company. Sitting at the table with new faces and a different type of issue will provide the learning curve for Disero, but the process is nothing new to her. Any decisions made as a result of a closed-door discussion must be voted on in public, and if a councillor is not satisfied with what has gone on in private, that's the opportunity to “set the record straight.”
Depending on the subject matter, the appropriate alternative to a public discussion may be to go directly to the integrity commissioner, where it remains confidential. “It's not appropriate to disrespect a member of council in a public forum,” says Disero, “but you have to have people who are not afraid to follow the appropriate process to do the right thing.”