The election really got underway last night with the first of the debates sponsored by The Guelph Chamber of Commerce and Rogers TV. The stage was the council chambers at 1 Carden Street, sitting from right to left were incumbents Mike Salisbury and Gloria Kovach, followed by challengers Steven Petric, Cam Guthrie, and Christina Boumis.
The debated began with a one-minute opening statement. My original thought was not to comment on them since the more sustentative were more like to come out of direct questioning, but a couple of things struck me. First, Cam Guthrie came out of the gates hard by hitting his talking points. He stated that, if elected, he plans to not accept the salary increase for councillors and will institute an online vote tracking system in order to promote greater accountability. Christina Boumis, in her opening comments, dropped the “Karen Days” bomb and said that it had been caused by “careless and excessive spending” and that if she were elected voters would get “better value for money” with cut taxes and more emphasis on attracting new business.
The debate officially kicked off with a pretty open ended question about what issues that the candidates think are the most important. All but Mike Salisbury said that taxes were number one. It wasn’t that Salisbury was saying that taxes were not important, but he reminded everyone of his self-administered survey to Ward 4 residents, which came back with communication, employment, spending/taxes, environ protection and water safety as the top issues. Guthrie listed another type of safety as his priority saying that he’s seeing a lot more graffiti and break-ins around his neighbourhood. Boumis was concerned about (lack of) park maintenance as well as the cost and consequence of the new bin system for waste management. Gloria Kovach and Steven Petric, meanwhile, agreed that rate of growth was an important second to taxation.
Next was a question about the limiting of licensing rental units to four bedrooms. Boumis made a good point by saying that this penalizes people with big families like homes with three generations living under the same roof. Salisbury noted that this issues was behavioural driven because of landlords that don’t take care of their property. He was also concerned about adding an extra layer of bureaucracy in a “carte blanche” situation. Having a system where the city can make sure that rental units are safe was a matter most of the candidates pointed out as well.
A question about how the city can help facilitate development and speed up applications brought the first of many mentions of Guelph’s Prosperity 2020 plan, with Kovach touting how the plan has already begun helping to streamline the process by making the economic development office the “go-to” point for new businesses. Petric, while noting that the Prosperity 2020 was a good development, said that the city’s been slow to implement it fully and added that councillors aren’t aggressive enough to bring businesses here.
The topic of city debt brought out some divergent points of view. Salisbury noted that the city does have a double-A credit rating and mentioned that during his term in council a number of measures have been taken to try and cap debt. His fellow incumbent though disagreed. Kovach said that debt is way too high and that spending in the short term will cost in the long term, and that our double-A rating could always be a triple-A rating. Petric echoes that saying that the city should look at alternatives, like provincial funding, and should be looking more at how to pay for things rather than borrowing to fund them.
On the question of the move to a three bin system rather than putting out our garbage in bags, there was some agreement that the move to bins, while causing some short term confusion, may be a positive change in the long term. (A couple of candidates also noted the similarity in arguments against the bins to the arguments against Wet/Dry Plus almost 10 years ago.) What most of the candidates seemed most unhappy about though was the cost of the new waste management plant and the “sweetheart deal” made with Waterloo to process their garbage.
Sticking with environmental themes, the next question was about the topic of water issues. Both Kovach and Salisbury made the obvious “pipe dream” joke about a proposed pipeline from Guelph to Lake Erie. Petric spoke of conservation, while Guthrie added along with conservation goes the proper maintenance of our water delivery infrastructure. Only Boumis seemed to avoid coming out with a straight up no vote, but she did say that we need to find ways to make better use of grey water.
Next was the highly contentious issue of relations between the City of Guelph and the County of Wellington. Petric swung hard saying that when comes to dealing with not just Wellington County, but Waterloo Region as well, we need to sit down and be grown ups and solve these problems. Guthrie echoed that sentiment adding that the divide is impacting social services in town. “These are people in need,” he said. “It’s not about us and we need to concentrate on people that need help.” Boumis was one of many candidates that brought up the idea of outside mediation or arbitration adding that the city should be more fiscally responsible in working with the county rather than “building empires” in Guelph to deliver the same services. Kovach countered that the issue is accountability and transparency considering that 15 per cent of the city’s tax revenue is allocated to programs administered by the county.
There was more agreement on other topics though with all candidates committed to keep a balance between development demands and the heritage strategy, with Petric citing the Co-operators decision to move into the Gummer Building as a good example of meeting the demands of both. On arts and culture, each candidate endorsed their support for the arts in Guelph. Some, like Guthrie, gave personal examples like the fact that he himself is a musician and has helped up-and-coming bands. Kovach said that she would like to engage Guelph’s immigrants to help create new cultural festivals and events, while Salisbury noted the economic benefits of having a vibrant arts community in the city.
The final question of the night was about how each candidate proposed to stimulate the economy. Guthrie said that the city needs to rebrand in order to appear less hostile to new business, while Boumis once again took the city to task for dragging its feet for three-and-a-half years on Prosperity 2020. Kovach reiterated the point that the city needs to appear to be open for business and that we have to make lands ready for businesses to move, including new plots like the Hanlon Creek Business Park, or refurbishing brownfield sites.
With closing comments, Boumis and Guthrie once again made an impression. Boumis said that “the incumbents have failed you” with out of control spending while Guthrie said that he was “not aspiring to be a politician,” which got a few chuckles from the gallery. Petric said that he would bring “positive change and fresh thinking” to council, while Kovach reminded everyone of her own vast experience on council. Salisbury, however, was succinct in his assessment of the election. “If the residents of Ward 4 feel well served, then they’ll probably vote for me, and if not, then they’ll vote for one of the other candidates,” he said.
The Ward 4 debate will be repeated Saturday at 1 pm on Rogers 20
Thursday’s debates will begin at 6 pm with Ward 3 and follow at 8 pm with Ward 6
Also tomorrow there will be a Ward 1 debate, featuring all 11 candidates, at the Italian Canadian Club – 135 Ferguson St – at 6:30 pm