Having a “strong voice” is an essential quality for an effective politician, but given the state of Regional government and the many issues that Niagara-on-the-Lake needs addressed, Gary Zalepa knows one voice will not be enough.
Elected to represent Niagara-on-the-Lake at the Regional council table, Zalepa spoke often during the election campaign of the need to work with the mayor and Town council as a unified voice. It’s too important a time for the Region and the Town to do otherwise, he said.
Niagara-on-the-Lake might be a small municipality, but it pays a large chunk of revenue to the Region and also provides a huge benefit as a successful tourism destination, said Zalepa. Yet it hasn’t been receiving the infrastructure investment it needs to sustain it.
“This is why I wanted to run for Regional council, to help NOTL get what it needs from the Region. It’s an opportunity to bring my experience and the way I work to change things.”
He’s excited by the reaction he received from residents when he was out knocking on doors, he said. “There is so much more energy than when I was out there campaigning in 2006. People wanted to talk, they’d want to go to get a clipboard so they could ask me questions. I’ve never seen anything like that before. People are so much more engaged, and that’s encouraging.”
It also indicates residents are concerned, and they wanted to hear answers on which to base their votes, he said. They asked about many issues, but in general, they asked him what he could do to make a difference that hasn’t been tried in the past.
Post-election, the big change around the Regional council table should provide the opportunity for change, he said, with many new people who also want to work collaboratively to improve the public’s perception of the Region, to “act in a manner that is much more transparent.”
Zalepa said if a council meeting goes behind closed doors, he will ensure there is a valid reason under the municipal act, which has “fairly strict guidelines,” and that any decisions are made in public. “That will be my gauge, to ensure decisions are made in public in a fair and transparent manner,” he said.
“It’s so important to restore trust and faith in Regional government, for a variety of reasons.”
It’s no secret the province is “keeping an eye” on regional governments and that there could be change coming, said Zalepa, and it’s important for the Region to demonstrate it’s doing a good job “so we make that change, and not have it dictated to us.”
Electing a chair will be one of the first items on the Regional agenda, said Zalepa, and with so many newly-elected councillors, there hasn’t been the early chatter that might be expected. No one has reached out to him to lobby for that position, but he said he expects lobbying to start soon.
The outcome of the controversy surrounding the hiring of CAO Carmen D’Angelo and the extension to his contract was an issue that came up often when he was campaigning, said Zalepa. “Definitely it will come up early on the agenda, but I don’t have any first-hand information. I only know what the public knows,” he said, and he will be in good company with new colleagues who will all need to be brought up-to-date on options before making any decisions.
Another question residents asked was about long-term care, said Zalepa, and he will be investigating the Regional plan. Whether it’s Upper Canada Lodge or another facility, NOTL residents need to know there will be options for them to “age in place. That resonated during the campaign. We need a solution for NOTL.”
As for traffic infrastructure, his strategy, with the backing of the lord mayor and Town council, will be to talk about having funding for improvements moved up in the budget.
“We have to push for that. The part we play in the Region might be a small part, but we’re a significant contributor to the Region, and to the success of the Region through our own tourism success. And having the mayor and I on the same page will be the key to that.”
Having two strong voices at the Region, two votes in the same direction, working together in a constructive dialogue toward the same goal “is our strategy, and I think it will make a difference.”
Whatever the traffic solutions are, they will have to be part of a long-term multi-faceted approach that could include a third lane on Niagara Stone Road, a roundabout in St. Davids and the opening of Mewburn Road bridge with upgrades to Concession 6, “but we’ll let the engineers work on that. I would rather push for when it’s going to happen and having the funding advanced so it can happen.”
The town’s traffic problems are interconnected, he said, and “it’s so important to have a master plan instead of a one-off solution that can cause more problems.”
Another question he was often asked was regarding GO Transit, and how it would fit into the Town and Regional transportation system. Residents “have a desire to see transit integration, with a transit hub that allows them to access Regional transit and GO Transit.”
GO Transit is not a done deal, he said — the Region needs to work on a system, including the location of stations, that will show the Province and MetroLinks it can provide the ridership through integrated transit. “That’s a key part of the puzzle. The Region needs to be committed.”
There will be an open house for the Region to show the public some preliminary plans regarding stations and hubs, he said, at the Casablanca Winery in Grimsby Nov. 8 at 5:30 p.m.
Also high on Zalepa’s agenda is making the Region competitive with other regions in attracting successful investment and economic development, which requires an effective transit system to draw key employers to invest in the region.
“If we can bring people from the GTA, it would be a big game-changer for Niagara. Other regions have been doing the same. It’s time for the Niagara Region to get there too. I think we’re really close.”
Zalepa says his hope is that four years from now, with improved transportation and day care bringing good jobs to the Region, “we’ll be able to say we can live and work here, and age in place. That will be success for the Region.”