Opponents Zalepa and Goettler promise they’ll change how town operates
It’s not Team Disero, per se, but it gives you a pretty good idea who the incumbent lord mayor is backing in the municipal election.
Like many people in election season, incumbent Lord Mayor Betty Disero is displaying election signs on her front lawn in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Besides a large red “Re-elect Betty Disero” sign, are placards for incumbents Allan Bisback and Sandra O’Connor, and political newcomers Tim Balasiuk, Maria Mavridis and Nick Ruller.
Coming soon is a sign from rookie candidate Adriana Cater (Vizzari) of St. Davids, the mayor said.
Conspicuous by their absence are current councillors Wendy Cheropita and Erwin Wiens.
“These are the people I’m supporting,” Disero says, pointing to the signs, a wry smile crossing her face.
While she knows some of them are supporting her re-election bid, “That’s not a condition of me doing this.”
And she doesn’t ask them to put up her sign, she said.
“I just think it’s important for me to show support for people” whose platforms and plans she thinks will benefit the town.
“At some point, there’ll be seven or eight signs on my lawn.”
Despite some occasional verbal jousting between them during council meetings over the last four years, incumbent Gary Burroughs could be added to the sign mix, she said. “Gary and I haven’t discussed it yet.”
Disero displayed signs from other council hopefuls in 2018, she said, and all but one of the candidates she backed won a seat.
While, historically, party politics is not formally involved in municipal elections, sometimes mayoral candidates will organize a slate of candidates, so voters know what team everyone is on.
Disero insists that’s not what is happening here.
“There are certain candidates that I love, love, love and hope they get elected and they would bring good things to the discussion at the council table. Those are people I’m supporting,” she said in an interview.
One of her two opponents, regional Coun. Gary Zalepa, said he won’t be following suit.
“I’ve never aligned myself with other candidates,” he said in an interview. “I will work with everybody.”
Zalepa, who by many observational accounts was an early leader in the “sign wars” – his black-and-white lawns signs were just about the only ones up for the first week or so of the lengthy campaign – said he has assembled a core team of about a half-dozen “very organized” people to help guide his campaign.
That team includes his wife Tammy and sister Alison, as well as retired insurance broker Rick Sherk and former Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake chief administrator Holly Dowd.
“I haven’t given anybody specific titles, but Holly has been chairing our meetings,” Zalepa said.
All the mayoral candidates say they and their supporters have been busy meeting voters and knocking on doors.
Among the main issues she is hearing about from people are the need for new services in St. Davids – including a community centre and a resolution to the plans for the village pool, Disero said.
The region’s proposed roundabout remains a big concern for St. Davids and she said she wants to see alternative solutions.
The upcoming revised transportation master plan is also a big one – “We have to make sure we’re not sending traffic down Charlotte Street” and instead redirect it to the Niagara Parkway – as is finalizing revisions to the town’s official plan so it can be approved by the region.
Disero insisted the official plan will be done soon.
While much of the informal campaign chatter around town seems to be that Zalepa, a born and raised NOTLer, is going to attract a lot of votes from fellow longtime residents, Zalepa naturally emphasizes that he hopes to attract support from across the town.
“We’re not strategically trying to do anything like that, in fact we’re trying to appeal to a really broad base,” he said.
“I’m looking to take a more common sense approach to how the mayor engages with council and how council can work together in the best interests of the community. And I think that appeals to a very broad group of people.”
While he said he is not blaming the mayor personally for a significant number of unfilled jobs at the town, he said the municipality needs to do a better job at attracting and keeping talent.
He acknowledged that filling jobs is a problem worldwide post-COVID, he also expressed concern with “dysfunction” both with council and in the employee ranks.
With several senior managers retiring or leaving during the last council term and many jobs unfilled – including the fire chief, director of operations, town clerk and some planning positions – Zalepa wonders if the town is no longer seen as a desirable place to work.
“While I don’t know all the circumstances behind all those situations, it’s not a positive development. It just seems to be a pattern of concern.”
As for council, while he doesn’t expect everyone to always agree with one another, he said there is too much “adversarial” debate.
“There are exchanges that are not what I would describe as a respectful working environment.”
He said the Region of Niagara has been successful at ensuring that atmosphere and he thinks his “collaborative” approach can help change that “tone” at council.
The third candidate in the race, retired business owner Vaughn Goettler, is a political newcomer who, among other things, is concerned town council spends a lot of time talking about things that need doing and little time putting those words into action.
“It drives me crazy and was one of the things that was part of my decision to run,” he said in an interview.
Besides getting final approval for the new official plan, the lack of a town tourism strategy is one of the things he wants to see done quickly, if he is elected.
“I think that we have a very great opportunity to improve our revenue through a focused tourism approach,” he said.
He prefers a “sustainable” approach to tourism that balances residents’ needs with those of businesses, while also being eco-friendly.
“I think we need to have a co-ordinated effort with restaurateurs, hoteliers and working with the merchants on Queen Street to figure out what we want to create. I think we need to figure out who we are and what we want to do.”
In doing so, though, “we need to make sure that we’re friendly to our residents, especially seniors. For example, we need to solve our parking issues.”
That could mean creating off-street parking, perhaps with a parking garage, or alternatives such as “hop-on, hop-off trolleys” like many other tourist destinations offer worldwide.
“A lot of the traffic problems we have are people driving around looking for parking spots. And then our seniors can’t find a spot when they go to the post office. If you’re lucky you might find a spot out back, but if you’re a senior with limited mobility, that might not work.”
But NOTL is more than just about Old Town, he noted, and said getting the town’s finances in order could allow it to pursue projects like the long-awaited new pool for St. Davids.
“Time is of the essence in anything that we do and I think we need to be much more respectful of that because if you’re not careful time becomes money that you don’t have and nothing gets done.”