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Niagara-on-the-Lake
Wednesday, November 30, 2022
Mayoral candidates discuss top issues
Crowds packed the legion for the first meeting. Richard Harley

Niagara-on-the-Lake’s incumbent lord mayor was critical of her two opponents during their first head-to-head encounter Tuesday night at the Royal Canadian Legion, a meeting that focused on issues and candidate  platforms.

Incumbent Lord Mayor Betty Disero questioned entrepreneur Vaughn Goettler’s contention that the town should be run like a business and contended that she seldom saw regional Coun. Gary Zalepa at regional development meetings.

But that was the extent of the fireworks at the Meet & Greet mediated by Joe Accardo from FocusNOTL, as candidates answered a handful of questions submitted by the public.

The Glendale Niagara District Plan and expected huge growth in that community needs careful attention, Zalepa told the forum.

Council will need to figure out what the buildings will look like, what the height of the buildings will be and where the housing is. All of that will determine what the density is going to be in that area, he said.

“And if we do not get that right, then we’re going to see pressure on the other villages in our town,” he added.

Disero said the town is already “keeping a watchful eye that (it) is not overdeveloped, but it is developed in such a way that people can easily enjoy living and working in that area.”

And Goettler admitted that as a political newcomer he’s not well-versed in Glendale’s issues but noted he has talked to many residents about development.

“I think we do need contextual development (in different neighbourhoods). There is a great concern that I think a lot of the old residents are expressing,” he said.

Residents are worried that some see Glendale as a dumping ground for densification, he said.

Accardo noted that town residents now pay taxes to support about $1 million in tourism operating costs and questioned how the the candidates would spend the expected $1 million in municipal accommodation tax revenue in 2023.

When the tax was implemented in July, Disero said the town would use half the money for municipal infrastructure repairs and the rest would go to tourism marketing.

Goettler described the tax as a “mixed bag.”

“The question for me is whether it really should be in place,” he said.

If so, he wondered if it should be in the hands of the government or handled by industry stakeholders, such as restaurants and hotels.

He described the government as a “black hole” into where money goes and it’s hard to account for where it winds up, he said.

“With respect to tourism, I would have the hotels administer (the tax), and have to report to us what they’re doing, but at least have them administer it,” he said.

He doesn’t see it as a tourist-friendly tax, he added.

Zalepa is supportive of the tax and isn’t looking to pull it back.

“I just think what they’ve done wrong is they got the process wrong,” he said.

Two things came to mind for Zalepa regarding the issue: what the government will do with any excess money from the levy and he said the town needs to sit down with the stakeholders and get them more engaged.

Collecting the money without a plan in place is not the way to go, he said. Working on the governance and the criteria should be done first.

When Accardo asked about moving to a ward system from the present at-large election format, Goettler said when he first declared his candidacy, he was against implementing a ward system.

But, after speaking to more residents, especially in the farming community, his opinion shifted.

“I have moved to where I actually think now that a ward system would be very beneficial for our community,” he said.

For example, with many councillors residents of Old Town, the other communities, like Virgil, need someone from their area to represent local interests.

Zalepa said he’s not looking to move away from the current system but is open to learning and understanding how a ward system could benefit the community.

“I am worried about voter engagement (and) voter turnout,” he said.

“I would be open to having a properly reviewed process that’s well-informed, so that council can take a look at it, debate it, discuss it, and perhaps put it out to the community for their thoughts and feedback,” he added.

Disero said there’s no doubt in her mind it would be more efficient and effective if someone knew exactly who the councillor for their area was.

However, she’s worried about accountability and that councillors would only focus on how to please the residents they’re representing and not be concerned about issues in the other communities.

If elected, she would like to work on designating council members to focus on specific areas.

“But having people not be accountable to everyone in Niagara-on-the-Lake, it worries me,” she said.

For the last question of the night, Accardo asked the candidates how they would address developmental issues.

“I really strongly believe that we have not taken the opportunity to really tighten the development guidelines for our community,” said Zalepa.

He said that when he was still on town council in 2014, the town had prepared a process for the official plan, saying it would get started and done by the next term.

But that still hasn’t happened, he noted.

Zalepa called the town’s guidelines “wimpy” and said they need to be more specific.

“But we really need to set these guidelines and get closer to what developers need to bring to the table,” he said.

While Goettler agreed with a lot of what Zalepa said, he wants to switch up the whole game, he said.

“I think that we need to have a delegation go to the provincial government led by the lord mayor,” he said.

Adding that he wants to make the case that NOTL is a special and unique town, and should be exempt from some provincial densification requirements.

He does, however, think NOTL can become a UNESCO heritage-designated community.

Disero was the last candidate to speak and used it to again criticize her opponents’ stances.

“I want to tell my colleague, Coun. Zalepa, that in fact, you can’t just come up with design guidelines and say, ‘This is going to be good.’ There are laws that we have to follow,” she added.

Touching on Goettler’s UNESCO comment, she reminded him that in 2017, the town tried to obtain the designation.

“So yeah, in about the next 18 to 20 years, we can go back and ask for UNESCO designation. There are rules that we have to follow,” she said.

There are timelines that are not available to the town, she added.

  • FocusNOTL will be hosting more sessions at the Royal Canadian Legion Hall. Next up, on Oct. 5, are council candidates Gary Burroughs, Maria Mavridis, Richard Mell and Nick Ruller. People can email questions to Accardo at notlelection2022@cogeco.ca.
  • Read more on the mayoral candidates meeting at NiagaraNow.com.
  • Watch a YouTube video of Tuesday’s meeting at youtu.be/3fkyK6iLMts.