City Council Recap: What Happened from January to March 2017?

In case you’re more of a reader than a listener, or maybe you just want to reference back to something quickly, over the next three weeks, Guelph Politico will post a recap of the first seven months of 2017 at city council in three parts. This first part covers January through March…

The council year began with a Committee-of-the-Whole meeting on January 16. Deputy Chief Administrative Officer of Infrastructure, Development and Enterprise Services Scott Stewart kicked things off with the annual report presentation of his division, though Stewart said he preferred to think of it as a “status report.” What was keeping them busy, said Stewart was “slaying that dragon called the Guelph Factor,” and considering the year in development so far, it’s pretty clear they’ve been successful.

One of the themes this year at council was immediately apparent: tree canopy management. A staff report suggesting that 300 Water Street be taken off the heritage register had some on committee concerned that trees might immediately be cut down on the property. Committee passed the recommendation, but it also passed an additional motion that the property owner, who lives out of province, be notified specifically that they do not yet have permission to remove the trees, and thus allay community concerns.

Half a million dollars in left over capital money from the purchase of new carts for solid waste in 2012 was allocated to the general capital budget, the brightness of a new LED sign for a Cork Street business was considered for potential restrictions during night hours, and an update on District Energy were also presented. On the subject of D.E., staff announced that they had amended the agreement between the Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO) and Envida to terminate the contractual obligations and return their security deposit, while the City had amended its own agreement with Envida to reduce the land requirements and settle outstanding payments to the City. The new agreement between IESO and Envida avoids about $60 million in loses and recoups $612,000 for the deposits. A full report on District Energy would be discussed later in the spring.

The January council meeting was itself straightforward, though it came the day after the mass shooting at a mosque near Quebec City, and at the same time several hundred Guelphites gathered at the Muslim Society of Guelph for one of dozens of vigils held across the country to show grief and solidarity with Canada’s Muslim community. Mayor Cam Guthrie said in council, “I want to assure you that Guelph stands with its Muslim community at this terrible and uncertain time.”

As for the business of council, Mayor Guthrie was nominated to potentially fill a vacant seat on the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, and a motion brought by Ward 6 Councillor Karl Wettstein was referred to Committee-of-the-Whole asking that staff be directed to review, analyze and bring forward recommendations to update striking committee policies, processes, remuneration and expenses. Both items passed easily.

That brings us to February, as things got back to normal after an understated January agenda. The master plan for Ellis Park in the city’s west end was approved, and two outstanding motions were removed from the Audit committee’s plate. A third item, the Fuel Security and Systems Audit Report, was also received by committee, offering a glimpse at how the City of Guelph processes and controls its fuel use as of the summer of 2016. The report looked at monitoring activities, the compliance of storage tanks, and whether the City held itself to the strict standards of current environmental legislation.

The first planning meeting of the year brought the first of several new proposals for high-rises in the city. The developers of 45 Yarmouth returned to council with a new plan for a 12-storey tower versus the original 14-storey proposal for a mix of one and two bedroom units. The developers were commended for working more closely with staff to ensure that the City’s concerns were properly addressed, and that standards were rigorously followed. The plan was approved unanimously by council.

Also at this meeting, the demolition of a home on Harcourt Drive opened a brief debate as to the number of applications for renovations and demolitions that are coming forward for homes in the old university neighbourhood. A delegate to council wanted to make sure these applications met community standards, and wanted to avoid the building of what she called “monster homes” in the area.

A few days later, council was convened for a special meeting to discuss the phase one findings of the Strategies and Options Committee. The committee, which was co-chaired by Chief Administrative Officer Derrick Thomson and Guelph Hydro CEO Pankaj Sardana, was joined to discuss the possible future options for Guelph Hydro. Although Guelph Hydro is a well-run, well-organized company that most people, through public feedback, noted wasn’t broke and didn’t need fixing, the goal of the S.O.C. was to be proactive in planning for the future. Hydro, in the years to come, was going to be about more than “polls and wires”, council was told.

There were three recommendations on the table. The first was to not do anything, to leave Hydro ownership as is in the hands of the City of Guelph. The second option was to sell Hydro outright, and the third was to merge Hydro with another local distribution company or L.D.C. A fourth option, for Hydro to reach out and buy another L.D.C. and merge with it, had already been discounted by the S.O.C. Basically, Guelph Hydro was making a calculation for future capital to make service and infrastructure updates to meet the changing needs of its customers in the 21st century. What those needs will be is still uncertain. Is the market going to increasing self-generation, or will Hydro’s present infrastructure still be needed as people turn to electric vehicles? Those are just a few of the questions.

In all, 13 delegates came out to speak on the matter. For the most part speakers rejected selling Hydro for many of the usual reasons even a partial privatization of a government service or business is rejected. It seemed the opinion of the delegates was that Hydro should find a way to be more adaptive to the future while still being a locally-owned utility, and that even a merger with other utilities was problematic as bigger does not always mean better.

Council itself seemed to have difficulty in deciding what direction they wanted to go. Sale looked dead on arrival as councillors followed the lead on constituents on the matter, but council debated further how much control they could exert if they decided to follow through on merger options. Amendments were proposed that should a merger go forward then the city should demand a 50 per cent stake in the new utility, essentially having a veto power for any future decisions regarding the theoretically merged L.D.C. Sardana said the most likely players in a merger would be Cambridge or Halton Hills. In the end, council rejected sale by a vote of 5 to 8, and accepted continuing explorations of merger by a vote of 10 to 3.

The meeting was four and a half hours long, and in the end, the S.O.C. would continue its explorations and research into the possibility of merger through further public engagement, employee feedback and external research.

Back to regular business, the final meeting of February brought too notices of motion. The first from Ward 1 Councillor Dan Gibson asking staff to prioritize opportunities for commercial investment and development in the York Road Intensification Corridor as part of the ongoing comprehensive commercial policy review. The second motion came from Ward 2 Councillor James Gordon who looked to declaring Guelph a “sanctuary city”, which opened some considerable controversy on social media. Gordon would later withdraw the motion.

In March, Committee-of-the-Whole gathered again and discussed the initiation of a Natural Heritage Action Plan, which would include developing recommendations, strategies and guidelines to protect and restore Guelph’s natural heritage and protect surface and ground water. Council was concerned about public engagement on this file, which was sure to generate a lot of interest from locals who all have their favourite open space they’re trying to protect; in fact one-fifth of the City of Guelph is considered open space. Deputy CAO Stewart said that the proposed list of projects, when released, will “impress” the public.

Somewhat less impressive, at least to some councillors, was key portions missed on the Sidewalks Needs Assessment. The point of the assessment was not the list, but the guidelines it offered to determine where the priority should be, but many councillors used the occasion to point out where the gaps are in their ward.

The presentation of the Corporate Asset Management Plan and Policy opened up an interesting though depressing possibility that the City’s infrastructure gap was closer to half a billion than the originally stated $200 million figure. Of the City’s $4 billion in assets, $1.2 billion are considered in poor and very poor condition, with parking, information technology, culture and recreation as the areas that need the most servicing. The point of the report is to help the City prioritize infrastructure needs, and inform future budgets and provide input to the 2017-2026 capital and operating budget. Despite the concerns, DCAO Stewart said that Guelph was now ahead of the curve in addressing these issues instead of lagging behind.

The Transportation Master Plan framework was also revealed showing that the city has a long way to go in terms of growing the use of cycling, walking, and public transit usage in the years to come. New Pedestrian Crossing Treatments might help with that as new street crossing can now be set up on low speed roads (where the limit is 60 km/hour or less), and on low volume roads up to four lanes wide including roundabouts and intersections.

Infrastructure, Development and Enterprise Services asked that council defer some decisions on matters like sign bylaw variances and demolitions to senior staff in a pilot project where council would receive regular updates on all these proposals that come through City Hall. Ward 5 Councillor Leanne Piper moved to defer one clause until the comprehensive sign bylaw review comes back next year. The rest of council agree that this was a good idea, and haggled on whether or not there should be a cap on the amount that staff can approve to spend on a project before it comes back to council. A $3 million and $5 million cap both failed, as Mayor Guthrie pointed out that these projects are already approved and overseen by council in the budgeting phase.

At the end of the month at the regular council meeting, the Natural Heritage Action Plan and Sidewalk Needs Assessment Update were debated again on similar grounds, but both ended up passing. In new business, Mayor Guthrie brought forward a motion that would allow local groups and non-profits find away to get first crack at surplus assets the city’s looking to sell be in as small as an office chair, or as big as an ambulance. The full debate on the motion would happen at the April meeting.

Part 2 of the recap will be published next Monday.

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