A new council will now shape NOTL.
The group, consisting of seven new councillors and one returning member, led by the newly elected Lord Mayor Betty Disero, was sworn in Monday night during the inaugural council meeting held at the Shaw Festival’s Jackie Maxwell Theatre.
Around 500 people in the community showed up for the occasion, offering enthusiastic rounds of applause to Disero, who gave her first comments as the leader of Niagara-on-the-Lake.
“On behalf of my colleagues and myself, I would like to thank family, friends, supporters and all of the people of NOTL for their participation in the municipal election,” Disero said.
“I am so excited to be here tonight, to mark this new beginning — a new chapter for NOTL. I say chapter, because of course we want to acknowledge our past. Today we stand at a crossroads of extraordinary opportunities. It is time to reflect seriously on the past, but also to look forward, to chart a positive course for the future.”
She said part of that course includes taking actions “to encourage, welcome and provide for a growing population of young families, because they are our future.”
During the past six months, she said she’s spoken with people from all across NOTL, and a “common theme kept coming up — What kind of town do we want NOTL to be?”
Disero said there are a number of issues facing the town that will shape our future, and addressed three during her speech.
The first was her belief in the importance of “sustaining a sense of community.”
“At the most basic level, people want to belong to something bigger than themselves, to feel the spirit of community that connects them to others,” she said. “As the town grows, we risk losing the personal connections that make this place so special. Most of us, both those of us who grew up here or who have moved here, cherish the friendliness of our neighbourhoods. We look forward to welcoming others, saying hello to people on the street, both those we know and those we don’t. We need to keep this spirit alive, by encouraging more people to get involved in building a stronger community. Otherwise we risk becoming just another bedroom suburb — we don’t know our neighbours, we just drive into garages and close the door.”
The second issue was development.
“We all know development has been a hot topic, not just during this election, but for the past 10 years or so. Some say it’s resistance to change. Some say growth is inevitable. Some close the door and don’t let any more people in. The councillors you see here tonight know that if we want to retain what makes NOTL special, we have to get organized. We have to complete the official plan. We need to make changes to our development processes. We need stronger design review policies. We need master plans. And most of all, throughout all this work, we need to balance the past with the future.”
The final issue she spoke about was the town’s financial situation.
“In this chapter, we are facing some tough decisions regarding our financial situation. Our reserves are being depleted; the 2018 budget is in deficit; and the old practice of putting off to tomorrow has left us with a budget that is no longer sustainable,” she said.
“Good leadership is about making decisions and setting priorities. We cannot do everything, especially with our relatively small budget. We will need the courage to make those tough decisions. Some costs are fixed. Some costs are multi-year obligations that we must fulfil. But other costs can and should be carefully reviewed … I believe that these financial challenges will make us a better council. We as a council know that a large portion of the town’s budget comes from you, the residents and businesses of NOTL, through your property taxes… we must spend these funds wisely and with accountability.”
“As your elected official, we welcome your input and feedback so that we can protect NOTL and ensure that it is on strong financial ground for the future.”
“I can see that change is possible. Some changes will come quickly, others won’t. And yes, sometimes change is not the answer.”
Disero also thanked all who have helped make the town what it is today. “But most of all, to you — all of the incredible people of NOTL, who through collective efforts have created the most unique, the most amazing, the most livable town in Canada.”
After her remarks, she invited Shambhu Sharma of The New Hope Seniors Association to the stage, who placed garlands around her neck.
The actual council meeting didn’t happen, with a motion by Coun. Norm Arsenault to adjourn the meeting being seconded by Coun. Stuart McCormack and unanimously approved.
Instead, council members celebrated with an enthusiastic crowd after the ceremony.
Town CAO Holly Dowd said the inaugural event was one of the best-attended the town has ever seen, with the event typically being held at the historic Courthouse in Old Town and seeing attendance numbers in the 250 range.
The Shaw was a great location, she said, with the theatre being capable of holding so many people, as well as the lobby for a reception.
“It’s a good time for Niagara,” said Sheila Hirsch-Kalm, who helped Disero lead NOTL to a national award for its daffodil gardens around town as part of Communities In Bloom.
“It really does feel like change is in the air.”
Former Toronto mayor Barbara Hall and former Mississauga mayor Hazel McCallion were also in attendance to show support for Disero, who was once a Toronto city councillor.
Disero said she can’t wait to get to work again, and that the past month felt much too slow for her usual pace.
She’s confident with the new council will come a new and positive era for the town of NOTL.
“Meeting the challenges ahead of course will require a collective effort — one that unites the town in ways we may have never seen before,” she said.
“We will decide our vision, so that when people come to NOTL they will know who we are, where we are going, and what the rules are.”
“Niagara-on-the-Lake, we hear you. We understand you. And we are up to the task.”