The end of the year is always an important time for reflection; to take stock of the past 12 months and set goals for the year ahead. This is especially true when you’ve pointed your life in an exciting new direction, such as my foray into local politics.
Being elected as Pelham’s Regional Councillor has truly been an honour. It’s a position I take very seriously, having the privilege of participating on Niagara Region Council and advocating on behalf of Pelham amongst our municipal partners. The first few months were a bit daunting, as I had to become acquainted with the process, procedures and learning the ropes of the inner workings of municipal government. And I have to admit that “Bourinot’s Rules of Order”, the official guide for running our meetings, is a bit of a snoozer!
As a Regional Council, I believe orientation was our first big challenge. The election resulted in 23 out of 31 entirely new members of Council with only eight Councillors re-elected (mostly Mayors). Some new Councillors returned from a break from politics, and some came to the table without any municipal experience at all. We had to build relationships with our constituents, with staff and with each other. A year in and I believe we’ve landed in a place where we can benefit from demonstrated experience, but also be challenged by new ideas and questions about the way we do things and why.
My experience thus far has is that this Council has the ability to disagree with one another, yet respect differences in opinions. But we can also pull together on the right priorities when a unified voice is needed. We respect one another. We work well together. And we come with an open mind. It’s a refreshing change from the toxic and dysfunctional environment that plagued Regional Council over the last four years.
This ability to pull together was most apparent when we faced the release of the Ombudsman report. The provincial Ombudsman investigation into the hiring of the previous Chief Administrative Officer began back in August of 2018. It’s hard to believe it took 15 months to finally have the report concluded and released publicly. It was a damning account of how a select few were able to manipulate our democratic processes through the hiring of Niagara’s top public official. It’s hard to quantify damage this did to the organization (beyond a doubt it inflicted significant reputational harm). I was heartened to see Council pull together and refer the matter to the police for investigation. We acted swiftly and unanimously on this matter. It was the right thing to do.
Aside from the investigation, we also were slapped with a regional governance review initiated by of the Province, which examined Niagara and eight other Regions. The review, initiated in December of 2018, loomed over all of Niagara’s municipalities and casted a great deal uncertainty. We weren’t sure if Niagara would end up as a single amalgamated city, a conglomerate of merged cities and towns (ie. Niagara North and Niagara South) or potentially the elimination of the Region entirely. It’s difficult to make decisions, especially financial or human resource related, that impact the future of the organization when your future is uncertain. It’s a relief to have it behind us. But more importantly, I believe this empowers us to make changes to our governance model that make the most sense for Niagara, instead of a one-size solution for all approach. And I intend to pursue and explore opportunities that help make our government more economical, efficient and customer service driven moving forward.
Despite the constraint of a regional review, and the distraction of the Ombudsman investigation, Council did make headway on a number of policy priorities such as transportation and housing. We’ve made significant investment in expanding transit ($7.9 million last year) to move closer towards a true regional transit system. Combined with the rollout of GO train access, Niagara and its communities are becoming more accessible to residents, visitors and businesses in a new way. Connecting our communities is important to open up access to employment opportunities, connecting employers with workers, making our communities more accessible to live, and also making it life easier for seniors and youth who rely on these services in their daily life. There’s still much work to be done, but we’re getting there.
Housing, on the other hand, has been a more challenging priority, but one we’ve funded substantially. This includes $20 million for an affordable housing project in Niagara Falls, an additional investment of $57.3 million in the redevelopment of Gilmore Lodge in Fort Erie, and an additional $102 million in the redevelopment and expansion of Linhaven in St. Catharines. We also joined Built for Zero, which is a Canadian initiative amongst municipalities to end homelessness. So, we’ve tackled housing on multiple fronts.
However, it’s not enough. With escalating home prices outpacing inflation, many first-time homebuyers have been priced out of the market. Rent has become increasingly unaffordable for many and there seems to be a general shortage of housing. We will need public-private partnerships to help overcome housing affordability, and that must include multi-unit dwellings. We’ll be re-evaluating our development incentive program in the new year, but we truly need all levels of government involved to gain meaningful traction on this issue.
Finally, waste management and trash collection were a topic I received significant outreach about. When garbage pick-up failed to materialize, I often got a phone call. And a few times I was able to get regional staff to make the trek out to Pelham to rectify the situation. Who knew I had the power to summon a garbage truck? A new service provider has awarded the new contract and hopefully this will clear up the services issues we’ve experience over the past few years. We’ll be moving to weekly pick up of organics and recycling, but also bi-weekly pick up of garbage in October.
Over the past year I’ve personally had a number of successes at Council. I am quite proud to have established a Women’s Advisory Committee mandated to help identify leadership opportunities, encourage women to participate more in civic life and also help apply a gender lens to policy making. Niagara will be the fourth municipality in Canada to have established such a committee. But more importantly, despite the outcome of our elections, we can ensure that women always have a voice at Regional Council. To date over sixty applications were received, which could be a record for the most applications ever received for any of our Committees. The Committee will be formed early this year and I’m looking forward to the work it can achieve.
Additionally, I successfully initiated a cannabis workshop that empowered the Region to facilitate a roundtable discussion with area municipalities, planners, by-law officers and other stakeholders that have been challenged by cannabis operations. Staff will be producing a report shortly that will help inform advocacy with either the Province of the Federal government and could allow for improvements to laws and regulations that govern cannabis. There’s still much to done on this topic and I’m hopeful we can improve upon the tools available to municipalities that can help them navigate this issue.
So, with the new year upon us I want to convey my warmest wishes to Pelham’s citizens. A new year represents 365 opportunities. I truly believe that anything can be accomplished with the right attitude and effort and I encourage you to continue to reach out to me with your concerns, complaints or even compliments (I prefer the compliments!) as I value your feedback and want to know the issues that are important to you. I also try to attend as many local events as possible providing the information is shared with me. Feel free to send me an invite!