City Council Recap: What Happened from June and July 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 third part covers June and July…

Committee-of-the-Whole proceeded as usual on June 6 as they reviewed the Consolidated and Unconsolidated Financial Statements from the year before. The bottom line on the unconsolidated statements is that the City is in a stable financial position, which ensures the current levels of service and infrastructure without any service cuts to cover the gap. It’s worth noting though that in 2016, while revenues did increase by $15 million, expenditures went up $10 million, mainly due to an increase of $6.8 million that goes to salary and benefits.

The June committee meeting was also where this September’s transit realignment was officially revealed to council after months of public feedback and discussion in the media. Two other transit matter were also brought to committee, including a one-year pilot program for a $1 special event transit fee for events at the Sleeman Centre and River Run Centre. The other item was a request to work thorough the Transit Procurement Initiative (TPI) to buy nine specialized vehicles for mobility services. The TPI is a five-year program that allows Metrolinx to work with municipalities for the joint procurement of specialized vehicles and related transit equipment or technology. Half the cost of those nine mobility buses, and another 11 transit vehicles, is being covered by Public Transit Infrastructure Funds (PTIF) through the federal and provincial government.

Committee also approved a motion brought by Councillor Dan Gibson to direct City staff to work with the Climate Change Office to find ways to transition the corporation, its buildings, and fleet vehicles to a net zero, or similar, low carbon designation. A report on that will come forward at the end of the year.

The first of two special council meetings for the month took place on June 13. This would be the second meeting of the Strategies and Options Committee, and this time they were looking to be directed by council to conduct further discussions, and prepare preliminary business cases to assess any potential mergers. But a fundamental question was stumbled upon in the course of deliberations: If we agree that Guelph Hydro is doing the job that its customers want it to do, why are we talking about merger?

It was a reminder that while Hydro has certainly been proactive in talking about the future, most people in Guelph still have their eyes on the present, and those eyes like what they see when they look at Guelph Hydro. Councillor James Gordon would add later that if the council decided to pursue merger with another utility, it will need to make a compelling case for the community because a lot of people move to Guelph because they think that smaller is better.

In spite of ongoing concerns, most on council agreed that it was better to proceed and keep their options open than stop now. The three recommendations were accepted 9 to 3.

Two weeks later, Hydro came before council again in the form of the shareholders meeting for Guelph Municipal Holdings Inc. In the last year, GMHI has been divesting itself of the assets of District Energy, so among the decisions made by council, the shareholders, was to transfer control of Eastview Generating assets to Guelph Hydro, transfer solar control of solar assets in a split decision to the City of Guelph and Guelph Hydro, and that the Envida reserve fund be repaid by the revenues generated from the investment on a repayment schedule to be established by the City treasurer.

On the bright side, Guelph Hydro is exceeding provincial conservation targets by leaps and bounds, and Guelph is at the “lower end of the pack” in terms of cost per customer.

At the regular council meeting for June, the major item had to do with redrawing the boundaries of Downtown Guelph, but an item from Committee-of-the-Whole suddenly became contentious, the Outdoor Aquatic Facilities in Parks report. Ward 1 Councillor Bob Bell took a stand on the basis that the report did not deal with the equal distribution of facilities in the City, which was a peculiar stand to take because the main point of the report was to get council’s approval to convert two wading pools at the end of their lives into splash pads sometime in 2018. Those pools were at Sunny Acres and Exhibition Park. A third clause was added to the recommendation asking that staff consider equitable distribution in a future report.

As to the main point, council did approve the exploration of the expansion of the area covered by the Downtown Business Improvement Area or B.I.A. Presently, the downtown boarder forms a rough pentagon from Carden St to Norfolk to Yarmouth to Woolwich to the CN tracks, but the new borders will extend to everything north of the tracks, east of Dublin to just past Paisley, just west of Norfolk up to London and down the river back to the tracks. The Downtown Guelph Business Association has been going about the process of getting feedback in the proposed expanded area through summer.

July’s controversy began at Committee-of-the-Whole with the presentation of the Guelph Active Transportation Network Design Guidelines and Feasibility Study. The purpose of this report was to outline how the City might be able to create a network of off-road trails that could connect all parts of Guelph in a proposed map. It wasn’t easy given that the study called upon the research of various master plans on trails and cycling that are currently in progress, so nothing presented was really etched in stone, but that didn’t stop council from opening a contentious debate on a couple of fronts.

Ward 4 Councillor Mike Salisbury pointed out that there are no trail options in the west end south of the train tracks, Councillor Cathy Downer asked that staff look at moving the crosswalk on Gordon near the Boatshouse, and many councillors argued whether it was money well spent on winter maintenance for trails.

Controversy was also the word of the day for the last planning meeting before summer break. A townhouse development at 19-59 Lowes Road West had its second bite at the apple with a smaller number of units and other compromises, but these did not address the concerns of area residents about drainage issues and area flooding. An ‘L’ shaped building at 233-237 Janefield Avenue, north of the Holiday Inn, promised the addition of 180 units, and a lot of traffic, which is a concern for the people who live in those neighbourhoods because there are already a lot minor accidents on Janefield hill. And finally, another high-rise might be coming to downtown at 71 Wyndham Street South.

For this, some councillors had concerns about building so close to the river, especially considering the plan’s underground parking feature.

Another special meeting on July 17 concerned downtown development. The Wilson Street Parkade was finally approved to proceed, but at an inflated cost of just over $22 million. The additional $8.5 million was added because plans were altered to create more parking spaces at the new parkade with a little less than 500 spots. The plan would eventually mean cost savings for the City because creating a bigger parkade at Wilson Street meant that the City wouldn’t have to build a parkade on Fountain Street still have more parking than it has right now. Construction on the parkade is expected to begin sometime early in 2018.

The final council meeting before summer vacation saw a rehash of some of the debate about the Active Transportation Network Design Guidelines and Feasibility Study. Clarity was offered about the winter maintenance budget noting that this was not $270 thousand in new spending, but a mere $100 thousand in new spending that will come forward at budget time in an expanded package. One delegate brought a picture of a footprints and wheel trends in the snow down a trail to prove that yes, trails in the city do get used in the winter and they should be passible. Eventually, the recommendations were passed, and the design guidelines will now start to be transformed into more of a design plan.

The final item before adjournment was a Closed Meeting Investigation Report from a complaint filed concerning three closed meetings in September and October 2015, and October 2016 saying that council had contravened the Municipal Act.

The subject of the closed meetings was the Brant Community Hub, which would involve a couple of acres of Brant Park that the City would purchase and turn into a community centre akin to Shelldale at the corner of Willow and Dawson Roads. A number of neighbourhood residents were viscerally against this, not wanting to lose local green space, but Amberley Gavel, a firm that specializes in closed meeting procedure investigations for Ontario municipalities, investigated the closed meetings and found that council were properly in closed session. At the same time though, Amberley Gavel warned that the exceptions to the open meetings rule are discretionary, and that council should “always strive to err on the side of openness and transparency when determining whether to exercise its discretion to consider a matter in closed session.”

Having said that, Mayor Guthrie read out the minutes from the closed meeting on November 28, 2016 in the interest of transparency. Staff were directed to “draft a non-binding offer to lease and/or a letter of intent between a suitable community partner and the City of Guelph for use of the two acre lot at Brant Avenue for a community hub which would form the basis of a long-term lease arrangement.” A previous motion from the October 26, 2016 closed meeting was rescinded.

So with that, the first seven months of City Council in 2017 came to a close. The council calendar will pick up again on September 5 with Committee-of-the-Whole. Budget deliberations will begin sometime later in the fall, and considering that this is the last budget before an election it should be interesting watching that unfold. Stay tuned for that, and all the developments on council by following Guelph Politico.

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