An event years in the making, the GO train finally returned to Guelph on December 19th, but it was not without some controversy. Still, 2011 demonstrated a dramatic leap forward in public transit for the City of Guelph. Guelph Transit announced new routes and schedules that will take effect on January 1st, summer cuts to service were repelled in budget deliberations and stat holiday service was restored for many holidays in 2011, and for the entire year in 2012. If some real progress could be made on finishing the transit hub, and if council could resist the urge to not increase transit prices on a yearly basis, we might be the closest we've ever been to a transit utopia. But perhaps true perfection is being left that one, small thing to complain about.
9. The Struggle to Balance Budgets
If you're feeling mathematically exhausted, it might be because this year had two budget processes in them. Whether the 2011 budget deliberations last winter or the 2012 discussions last month, the City struggled with balancing spending, maintaining services and keep tax increases, if tax increases were necessary, as low as possible. In the process some odd sorts of financial arrangements have been made or attempted. Among them the approval of borrowing from the City's savings in order to cover operational costs for the 2011 budget and the proposal to sell the City's street lamps to Guelph Hydro to cut costs in the 2012 budget. For both years, some trimming here and some new spending there has meant a rather steady increase of three per cent per year, and all the while the debate rages: do we pay too much in tax as compared to our municipal neighbours, or too little? I guess we will see what wonders awaits when we hit the ledgers for 2013.
8. Schirk and Gordon End Up in Photo Finish
802. That was the total number of votes that separated PC Greg Schirk from NDP James Gordon in the final tally in October's Provincial Election in Guelph. Liberal Liz Sandals won outright with nearly 20,000 votes,but in the race for second it was a close as it could get between local businessman Shcirk and local musical legend Gordon. The numbers were so close - 11,950 for Schirk and 11,148 for Gordon - that one wonders what difference a higher voter turnout could have made. Also interesting is that both men have announced their intention to run in the next election for their respective parties, which could make political life in Guelph very interesting should Sandals decide that three is enough for her time in Queen's Park.
7. Fight to the Death Over the Health Unit
One of the things that stood out in the 2011 budget was a $10 million request from the Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Health Unit to build a new facility for itself. Another capital project for the wait-and-see-if-we-get-more-money list? Nope, the Health Unit was gonna build it, and, by the way, the Province of Ontario, which is technically supposed to split costs with the municipalities, ain't kicking in no money for no new Health Unit, thanks for playing. The reaction form the City was swift and decisive: well not only can you not build your new Health Unit, but we're going to form our own Health Unit! (But without Black Jack and hookers.) Following the example of the People's Court, the City took the matter to litigation and in October, a judge decided that not only could the city not use the law to stop the Health Unit from moving forward with building a new facility, it couldn't unilaterally start a new, Guelph-only, Health Unit from scratch.
6. Increased Partisan Rancor
If you detected a change in tone amongst partisans this year, you're not alone. The polarizing atmosphere of our politics is shown in perfect pitch online where anonymity frequently allows people to get as nasty as they want to be without consequence. It was a tone that especially became prevalent during the spring Federal campaign, but the trickle down effect being what it is, it started to become more pronounced on a municipal level too. Any mention of strife at City Hall, no matter how minor, brought out the knives. A group of vocal critics eager to rake out select council members like Mayor Karen Farbridge and Councillor Maggie Laidlaw were only too eager to launch ad hominem attacks. Phrases like "waste of skin" and "inhuman monster" were thrown about with the casualness of rice at a wedding, and meanwhile, people on both sides attacked the local media for not letting "their" voices be heard as much as the other side. A recent attempt by some posters on the 59 Carden Street blog to put faces to names and engage in constructive, civilized discussion seems to have gone well. Hopefully this is a positive sign of progress for the new year.
5. Carden Street Conundrum
It was only a matter of time. For years Carden Street has been under construction, from the tear down of the old Memorial Arena, to the construction of the new City Hall, to the renovation of old City Hall, to the repairs of the railway bridge and the two year closure of Wyndham Street. But as construction of the new Market Square marched on with no signs of completion, merchants across the road from City Hall started to see their street as a No Man's Land, and launched a retaliatory strike. First Kris and Adrian Raso of Little Shop of Guitars blasted Led Zeppelin out there window and got a visit from a by-law officer for their efforts, and became something of local folk heroes in the process. Another merchant, Marc Black of Hemphire sent an e-mail to city managers and the Guelph Mercury which included a picture of the Three Stooges, the inference being that city planners are the comical triad of knuckleheads. In a bizarre move, a libel suit was leveled against Black and the Mercury, but then was quickly dropped again. Of all of the City's PR blunders this year, the whole "Three Stooges Affair" was definitely the silliest.
4. McGuinty Gets a Three-peat
The odds were stacked against him, he was down 10 points in the polls at any given time, and on the eve of his second election as Premier, it was a forgone conclusion that Dalton McGuinty and his Liberals were going to take a serious hit on Election Night. Whether a straight up loss or a minority government, the feeling was that McGuinty was going to pay at the polls, but thanks to an unengaging election and an even more unengaged electorate, McGuinty nearly walked to his third majority, only barely missing the mark with 53 of the requisite 54 seats needed. What happened to all that bitterness and resentment towards the Premier? What turned out to be a plebiscite on McGuinty, was made dubious by Tim Hudak's repeated gaffs. Of course, this was Hudak's first election, it stand to reason that he'll get better, but rarely does an incumbent go into election so far behind, and yet is till able to grasp victory. A minority victory, but a victory nonetheless.
3. Rob Ford Loses Steam, Gravy and Conviction
It's hard to believe that it was a lone, solitary year ago that Rob Ford became Mayor of Toronto on a tide of fiscal savings and soaking up all the gravy and giving it back to the tax payer. But for Ford, the year 2011 wasn't just about getting the fiscal house of the of the City of Toronto in order, is was about learning that those problems can't all be solved with an axe, that covering for your big brother is sometimes more effort than you think, and that sometimes a man that prides himself on his virility has to run and hide, even if it is from gays, comediennes and Margaret Atwood. From the grand affront of siting out Pride Toronto events in favour of some very important cotteging, to the whole waterfront debacle, to calling 911 on This Hour Has 22 Minutes, to eventually ceding to a slight tax hike in the 2012 budget, the Ford era got off to a tough start. In the meantime, Ford took (some of) the blame for Hudak's defeat, and he remains a boogeyman for the downtown T.O. crowd that has to live with him for at least another three years. So overall, a mixed bag, but those challenges aren't going away in 2012 either.
2. The Marty Burke Campaign Was (Finish Headline with own Adjective)
As I look back on the year, I realize that I've spent way too much time and computer memory on Marty Burke. I was attacked by a couple of people for my perception of bias, and that I was flailing a good, honourable man for his politics because of my nitpicky attitude that a candidate for Federal government should be more available to media requests. But several months later I see the real story as the untold one of local Conservatives who were disappointed by the Burke campaign, whose members bungled what should have been an easy win in the midst of a Tory sweep to majority status. Guelph used to be a bell-weather riding, but it stayed Liberal red as all around us, people voted blue. The silence of the Burke campaign, with the exception of an embarrassing incident at a special ballot at the University of Guelph, looked like amateur hour from the outside. Julian Fantino, Jason Kenney and other high-profile Conservatives maybe able to win with a minimum of public engagement, but last spring Guelphites said that you have to make a case for your election, and not just accept it as a forgone conclusion.
1. Dysfunction in City Hall
Last fall during the municipal election, many candidates agreed that better communication between City Hall and the people, both inside and out, was needed. Well, 2011 didn't show a lot of improvement, and indeed, it may have even seemed to have gotten worse. The aforementioned Carden Street affair was replete with accusations on the part of merchants that they couldn't get any information on construction from City Hall, and a bizarre incident chronicled by the Mercury's Scott Tracy had him chasing comments from several different Communications reps in City Hall who all seemed to be on vacation at the same time. New changes to the Wet/Dry garbage system were put into effect and despite everyone in Guelph getting new guidelines in the mail, there was still almost universal surprise about the changes. And perhaps most damaging of all, the drama inside City Hall with comings and goings of high-level managers, and the replacement of certain councillors on certain boards were amplified by the cone of silence and were made to seem even more salacious because of it. Like a snake eating itself, the lack of communication fed the blogs, and the paranoia, and the rancor, while the few city councillors that make a genuine effort to be more transparent seem to be chastised because of it. If there's a goal to be had in 2012, its to strive harder to talk to one and other, and, if possible, to do so as if were talking to other human beings. As New Year's Resolutions go, that one might be a doozy.