Thursday, July 31, 2008

Frank Valeriote: Building Bridges

It’s Thursday morning, the day before Stephen Harper announced the date for the by-election in Guelph, and Frank Valeriote has the appearance of a man ready to get campaigning. The first time Liberal candidate faces a long and winding road down the campaign trail. Even though Guelph is currently coloured red on the electoral map, Valeriote himself says that he’s not taking anything for granted. “I make no assumptions,” he says. “I’m working for every single vote that I get,”

In the spirit of not taking anything for granted, Valeriote says that there is no single issue that he favours above others, comparing it to being asked which child he loves more. Naturally, it’s hard to have any conversation with a Liberal candidate without bringing up the centrepiece of the party’s platform: the Green Shift. “Personally, I think Mr. [St├ęphane] Dion hit the bullseye in such a way that he’s left no more room on the target for any of the other parties to shoot at,” he says, calling the plan bold, visionary and comprehensive.

The Green Shift has not come without its share of controversy, but according to Valeriote people are beginning to understand that they’re not going to be paying more, but paying differently. “A large majority of people say we have to do something and they recognize that it can’t be done without some sacrifice.” Valeriote believes that Guelph can be the epicentre of growth here in Canada and that a lot of research being done at the University of Guelph offers prime research and development opportunities in the creation of a greener economy.

It all fits into Valeriote’s vision to improve the future and help the people of Guelph. On the economy itself, Valeriote says that government needs to be more intentional with its efforts and offer more support local industry. Of course the Green Shift will help in this regard, as Valeriote explains, tax credits and incentives will drive research and innovation which will translate into jobs and increased investment.

In terms of social issues, Valeriote wants to see a re-investment in early childhood learning and says that part of Dion’s plan for Canada is a commitment to cut by 30 per cent the number of people living below the poverty line within five years. Valeriote’s also in favour of expanding programs to help new immigrants. He remembers his grandparents’ own difficulty settling in Guelph and wants to make it easier for the large number of immigrants coming into the city to become a part of the community.

You can tell the issue’s personal to Valeriote, who’s lived in Guelph for 53 years, the last 26 of which as co-founder and senior partner of the Smith/Valeriote law firm on Silvercreek. “It’s not what you say but what you do,” explains Valeriote, who adds that his skills as a lawyer and an advocate make him a powerful candidate. “If you look at my record you’ll see that I’m a doer not a sayer.”

His only previous elected position is as a member of the Catholic School Board. It’s here that Valeriote says he cut his teeth and earned a reputation as a conciliator and bridge-builder. He served on the Board during the tumultuous Mike Harris years, which saw much strife between teachers and school boards. “I entered into teacher negotiations saying ‘this is going to be a win-win,’” Valeriote remembers. “And it was made very clear that when you announce at the beginning of your negotiations what your goals are – that everybody will leave this table with something – then you work towards it.”

Mostly though, Valeriote is anxious to tackle problems and look for solutions rather than participate in partisan arguments and joining a polarized parliament. He had some harsh words for Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty saying that he was “taken aback” by the minister’s comments about Ontario as “the last place” anyone should want to invest in. “I cannot, embrace someone who’s dismissive in their approach to every issue that’s brought before them. It’s discouraging that what was promised: openness, transparency and honesty, has been anything but.”

Valeriote’s up against some pretty high profile competition this election, but he’s confident that he’ll stand out from the crowd. “I think the people of Guelph will look for substance over profile and they’ll see substance when they look at me.”

Stay tuned next week for another candidate profile. And for daily election coverage go to my blog: http://guelphbyelectionbeat.blogspot.com/

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Ward 2: Always Stable, But Ready for Change

Welcome back to part two of my six part series, “Better Know a Ward.” This week: Ward 2 – St. George’s. Located in the northeast corner of the city, Ward 2 pretty much covers everything east of Woolwich and north of Eramosa and Eastview Roads. Amongst its attractions are Riverside Park and Goldie Mill, the oldest saw mill in the city established the same year as Guelph: 1827.

Vicki Beard and Ian Findlay, both elected in 2006, are the councillors responsible for speaking for the residents of Ward 2, which boasts the highest number of long time residents, including seniors and young families, and is home to a lot of Guelph’s post-war development. On the cutting edge of innovation as well, Ward 2 also has the world’s first “Pollination Park,” which lies atop the old Eastview landfill and is a research project commissioned by the University of Guelph for which Beard is an excited and passionate advocate for.

“It’s probably the most established ward in the city in that there’s not a lot of new development,” says Findlay when I meet up with him and Beard at the Cornerstone, downtown. “There are not a lot of infill opportunities either; it’s pretty much built up. There’s a little bit happening on Woodlawn and Victoria, but I would certainly suggest it’s the most stable.”

Stable, except for the fact that Ward 2 is “ground zero” as Findlay describes, for the city’s termite problems, although their number have gone down in the last few years. A repurposed and dedicated city department has been exceptionally helpful in tackling the problem, explains Findlay. “One of the first things we did when we got on council was retain Dr. Tim Myles from the University of Toronto. He’s one of the pre-eminent termite experts in all of Canada.”

Another change that Ward 2 residents have been positive about is the expansion of service on Guelph Transit and the new “Downtown on the 20” schedule. Beard and Findlay say that they’ve heard from poeple a desire to do more for the environment and conservation on a local level, and giving more support and money to buses was a good, first step. “We’re not done fixing transit, but this was a big step, a huge commitment on the part of the city but we’re not suggesting that all the problems are solved yet,” says Findlay. “And we need a strategic transit plan and that’s coming up in the next little while,” added Beard.”

Less pleased, were Ward 2 residents, about their councillors’ votes over the recent proposed expansion of the Wal-Mart at Woolwich and Woodlawn. A vote that both Beard and Findlay say has been mischaracterized. “I did not vote ‘No’ on the Wal-Mart expansion,” says Beard emphatically. She was in favour of the expansion as presented in a city staff report, which called for numerous environmental and energy friendly benchmarks, but what she ended up voting against was the 6&7 Developers plan as presented to council at the July 7 meeting which didn’t include any of those things. “Their answers did not match that report,” she adds.

“A final decision has not been made, I think we need to make that clear,” continues Findlay. “The motion was to approve [the proposal] as was, and that was defeated. We still need to give formal direction to city staff, but this will be coming back to council for further consideration.”

“We represent people in our ward that want that expansion, we see it as a non-issue – it’s going to happen, we want it to happen,” says Beard, who adds that other developers in Guelph have gone out of their way to meet the city’s commitment to sustainability and environmentally friendly alternatives. “We have to get this straight,” adds Beard, “It’s not the developer; it’s how we want the development to happen.”

The vote certainly got people talking which was good news for Ward 2’s biggest act of transparency: the Ward 2 blog maintained by Findlay and contributed to by both councillors. Findlay says the blog serves multiple purposes: not only can he and Beard talk directly to their constituents, and they respond back, but serves as a paper trail, so to speak, in highlighting residents concerns before the council. Plus the blog has a pretty liberal open door policy. “Any letter that comes in, providing that they’re not too personal, I will post,” says Findlay. “Critical: absolutely. But if they start identifying people and getting derogatory then they don’t get posted. I don’t filter it in any other way.”

To keep up-to-date with the goings on in Ward 2, you can visit the blog at http://ward2guelph.wordpress.com/

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Dion Comes to Town and Wal-Mart Fight Flares

Dion sees Green Opportunity in Guelph

We will be taxed less on what we earn and more on what we burn. This was, in short, the message at the heart of St├ęphane Dion’s new Green Shift, a plan both bold and controversial, as presented during the Liberal leader’s visit to Guelph last Thursday.

In many ways it was a visit long overdue; Dion is the last of the Federal Party leaders to make the trip to the Royal City in anticipation for the coming by-election this Fall. Guelph’s Liberal candidate, Frank Valeriote, and his team hosted Dion and a couple of hundred Guelphites to a town hall meeting at the Italian-Canadian Club on Ferguson Street.

Although the party faithful were heavily in attendance for their leader’s visit, one of several stops for Dion through Southwestern Ontario, the meeting was open to the public and it appeared the public took full advantage. Volunteers kept bringing out more seats into the main banquet hall and when that wasn’t enough, they opened the divider in the middle of the room. Although the riding is Valeriote’s, this was Dion’s day in the spotlight as he continues pushing his radical new environmental agenda.

The Green Shift is either Dion’s carbon tax plan or his “Tax Everything” plan depending on who you ask. The Liberal leader though sees it as the key platform that will return his party to the head of the country with the help of an electorate hungry for a substantive dedication to fighting climate change. Basically, the plan calls for a per tonne tax on pollution generated and returns money to the pockets of taxpayers in the form of income tax cuts and other credits.

Dion dedicated an hour to taking questions from the audience, mostly they were about the Green Shift, but others touched on subjects like intergovernmental affairs and education. He reiterated his feeling that the Green Shift will breed an environment (pun intended) for research and development and will promote, not an end to the Canadian economy, but a shift to a Green economy.

At a media scrum following the town hall, Dion reiterated his excitement for the Green Shift and his belief that that it will be an easy sell to Canadians looking for change in the environment. “We have seen how much its going well,” said Dion when asked about the difficulty of selling his plan. “I am very impressed by the fact Canadians want to do the right thing and there is a way to tackle climate change, have a stronger economy and a fairer society.”

Dion went on to say that he looks forward to seeing a by-election in Guelph fought over environmental policy in spite of the fact that Guelph has a strong Green Party candidate in Mike Nagy. Meanwhile, Valeriote said that he looks forward to testing this new policy on the campaign trail. “It may well be a test for the Green Shift plan, but I can tell you a lot of non-Liberals that I know have come to me and expressed their gratitude that something so bold and something so innovative has been undertaken by this party because something must be done about global warming.”

Council Strikes Back at the Empire

In what had to be one of the biggest forgone conclusions in municipal politics, Guelph City Council rejected 6&7 Developments’ proposed plan for expansion of Wal-Mart and new commercial development at the corner of Woolwich and Woodlawn. By a vote of nine to four, only Christine Billings, Gloria Kovach, Karl Wettstein and Mayor Karen Farbridge voted in favour of the plan which called for an expansion of Wal-Mart by 65,000 square feet and the addition of another 135,000 square feet of other stores.

Although the debate was more muted this time around, strong words are still being spoken by both sides in reaction to last Monday’s vote. On the Ward 2 blog I found both words of derision and words of support.

For the former, one citizen had to say that, “This council is very much a ‘lobby-oriented’ group, listening, not to the “silent majority” of us, but to the vocal anti-development minority lobby which has held sway over this city for so long!”

Anonther area resident wrote in asking “What will happen to Community Commercial Plazas such as Speedvale and Stevenson, which has served the community well since the 1950s? There are many seniors living in this area including my parents who can walk, take a cab or a small drive to get their necessities. 6 and 7 will have a negative impact on small community centers like this.”

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Layton's Back and Transit News

The Death of the 40 Minute Wait

If you take Guelph Transit, then you’ve noticed a change this week as the 40 minute schedule that has driven bus riders bananas over the past year has finally been eliminated for the more commuter friendly 20 minute schedule. This also means that bus stops will have posted times again, saving the guessing game and cell phone calls to Next Bus. And finally, the 54 Arkell route has been extended to leave from and arrive to St. George’s Square, instead of the University.

Starting Monday, the buses now leave downtown beginning at 5:40 am and will continue to depart every 20 minutes until 6:20 pm. After that, the next buses will go on their regular 30 minute rotation starting with the 6:45 pm until 12:15 am, Monday to Friday. Saturday and Sunday service will remain unaffected, as will the Perimeter routes.

After $1.7 million budget increase form this year’s council, Transit was able to buy the 10 buses it needed in order to offer three-times an hour departures from the Square. The 40 minute, peak time schedule was started last year as a cost saving measure to avoid any loss in service and to help combat missed transfers because of the way some buses would get behind schedule with traffic.

This will not come without some cost to the rider however. The cash fair is now up to $2.25 per ride, which is still a steal as compared to Grand River Transit in K-W ($2.50) and the TTC in Toronto ($2.75). For adults, 10 ride tickets will now cost you $19.50 and a monthly pass is $63.

But even with this improvement, Transit remains a work in progress for Guelph, which only last year began offering a holiday schedule. There are still calls out for the city to increase Sunday service past its 6:15 pm end time, as well as expanded routes. Guelph companies are also hopeful to negotiate special rates to get bus passes for their employees, especially now considering the new normal for gas prices.

Guelph-Eramosa Transit?

Last month, an article in The Wellington Advertiser, the Mayor of Guelph-Eramosa floated the possibility that Guelph Transit routes should be extended outside the city limits. Mayor Chris White said that if the objective is getting more people out of their cars, than it’s an obvious alternative to explore. “It’s to Guelph’s advantage to keep our people off their roads,” he said. The plan White discussed with Randall French, Guelph’s manager of transit services, involved extending bus service along Highway 7 to Rockwood, along County Road 124 west to Cambridge, and from Guelph to the Cross Creek/Blue Forest and St. Ignatius area. Mayor White went on to say though that this extended service won’t be a freebee. “The idea is for each municipality to pay for its own usage,” White added.

Get on GO More Often this Weekend

As part of an overall expansion of service, GO Transit has began to offer increased frequency and new schedules for Saturday, Sunday and Holiday services. The GO route from the Royal City to Georgetown and Brampton now offers eight trips, up from five, on the weekend and has been adjusted so that the bus now departs from the University Centre loop at the U of G campus, before stopping at the Greyhound terminal on Macdonell. The new schedules began on June 28.

Layton in Town for a Twofer

Federal NDP leader Jack Layton made two stops in the Royal City this week; his fourth and fifth respectively since Tom King was announced as the local NDP candidate in the upcoming by-election. On Canada Day, Layton witnessed a citizenship ceremony in Riverside Park before throwing out the first pitch at the Guelph Royals game against the Barrie Bobcats. Then, on Saturday, Layton and King hosted a community barbecue in Royal City Park, that was free and open to the public.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

The Past and the Future Meet in Ward 3

Welcome to the first part of my six part series “Better Know a Ward.” (Any relation between this column and a sketch done on a popular late night comedy show is purely coincidental.)

This week’s ward: St. John’s, the fightin’ third. Located in the centre of the city, it’s home to both some of the wealthiest and poorest neighbourhoods in Guelph and counts the Library and Exhibition Park amongst its landmarks, as well as a number of heritage homes and buildings. Diversity is also a feature with many new immigrants settling into the Willow area, speaking 26 languages. The councillors representing this diverse sector are the thrice-elected Maggie Laidlaw and freshman June Hofland. I talked to both of them following a Ward meeting in the main council chamber at City Hall.

Amongst the concerns of Ward 3 residents is the usual: property taxes, transit, city services and termites? Yes, it seems that the wood eating insects are something of a nuisance, coming into the ward following the rail line and moving up Woolwich Street.

“One of the issues that was contentious, but its died away because it keeps getting put off, is to have a skateboard park in Exhibition Park,” adds Laidlaw. “Some people are vehemently opposed to it. We’re one of the only cities of our size that doesn’t have a skateboard park.”

Another issue is the placement of an expanded main branch of the library. Last Tuesday, a number of scenarios were presented for appraisal by the public during a library hosted open house. The original building was designed to hold about 40,000 books, a number that it’s since exceeded by a factor of three. Still, there is division about investing in an expanded library, especially after the city lost the preferred location of the old post office on Wyndham.

“There’s still a lot of bad feelings around losing that sale,” says Hofland. “The thing that I find most difficult is that the downtown is everybody’s neighbourhood. That’s why public spaces - libraries, skating rinks - all of those things are important to the health of a city, I really feel strongly about that.”

Of course, the two big elephants in Ward 3 are development related: the Lafarge site and Wal-Mart. As reported here a couple of weeks ago, council voted down the developers’ proposal on Lafarge and now the matter is before the Ontario Municipal Board, where mediation will start in September as all sides try to reach an accord.

Hofland, who refuses to comment on her feeling of the development due to a conflict of interest, says that, “People are not opposed to the development necessarily, but what they’d like to see is a ‘complete community;’ places for people to live, work, shop, public space, as opposed to 400,000 square feet of big box commercial.”

On the other side of the ward is Wal-Mart, and this month a motion will come to council to authorize an expansion of the store and create new shopping space on the surrounding land. After the furious 10 year debate, the fight against Wal-Mart seems oddly stayed as the expansion option has arisen.

“I think people are tired,” said Laidlaw, who was one of council’s staunchest anti-Wal-Mart voices. “One thing I have heard from a couple of people that live on Woodlawn, is that they want a grocery store. And yet there used to be a Zehr’s store where the Staples store is now, so go figure.”

“I don’t think we’ll have input as to what goes into the extension, but I think we’ll have input into the urban design, maybe we’ll be able to suggest a smaller scale but I don’t know if that’ll be the case,” added a hopeful Hofland.

As reflected in their comments, Laidlaw and Hofland share more than a ward in common, but a set of values, as Hofland says; a strong commitment to protecting Guelph’s environment and heritage, while promoting the communication and accountability of city hall. Clearly the people of Ward 3 like what their about as they both won their seats with over 3,000 votes a piece.

“People in my ward want the same things that I want, that’s why they elected me,” observed Laidlaw. “I’m not doing anything I didn’t say in my [campaign] brochure, I’m doing all the things that people expect of me, and I’ve had the same platform for eight years, people know me.”

Hofland agreed, adding, “I still hope that I’m here because I reflect other people’s values and that we mirror each others values.”