CANDIDATE QUESTIONNAIRE – Matt Saunders for Ward 4 Councillor

Matt Sanders is a new player on the political scene in Guelph, and he’s playing in the very competitive field of Ward 4.

1) In 100 words or less, what’s your main reason to run for council?

We all agree that there’s something special about Guelph. Our city has unique qualities that make it a great place to live, work, and raise a family: things like our vibrant and diverse community, our natural areas, our groundwater, and our strong economic advantages. Over the last four years, I have seen Council fail in its mission to protect those unique features of Guelph. Instead, I see a Council that seems hell-bent on transforming Guelph into yet another commuter town. We need to step back, and chart a different course that makes sure Guelph stays like Guelph.

2) What, in your opinion, was the most consequential decision on council last term?

Council decided last term to fast-track the Clair-Maltby development, despite incomplete environmental assessments. We’ve shifted from the original goal – a community planning process intended to build a modern “urban village” neighbourhood where walkability and transit access are top priorities – to a developer-first approvals process which is building the kind of car-centred sprawl we know doesn’t work for the 21st century.

The Clair-Maltby neighbourhood is additionally important as a rare example of a moraine landform – with rolling hills that will not survive the typical suburban bulldozer development. This is important: geologically, moraines act as “rain sponges” which soak up rain and slowly release it to the aquifers below – and we need this moraine in particular to help supply Guelph’s growing groundwater demand. Specifically, the city’s growth plan calls for a new well to enter service in this neighbourhood, without which, it will be difficult to supply enough water as we grow. We can let the developers build, or we can secure our water supply – but not both.

3) What is *your* issue? What is the one thing you want to accomplish during your term at council?

I have five driving principles that I care deeply about, and thus, five goals for my term on Council:

– Better development that’s smarter, greener, better connected, and better serviced. We must stop sprawl.
– Better protection of our water. We need to protect our fragile aquifers from unconstrained development.
– Better business by attracting vibrant new companies and working to provide great green jobs for our community.
– Better green space access for everyone. Our kids need the same green spaces we enjoyed as kids.
– Better government innovation based on what leading cities are doing with technology.

The issue that is closest to my heart is technological innovation, particularly, online voting: my background is in computer engineering, with experience in network programming. It’s rare for a candidate to have a deep background in an important election issue. Usually, we have to rely on expert advice: the most important skills for a city councillor are the ability to recognize the experts in a field and the willingness to listen and understand.

That being said, in this case, the experts are in agreement. The people who understand the Internet the best – computer scientists and computer engineers – have unequivocally stated that the Internet is not currently capable of safely and securely supporting online voting. It’s convenient, it’s accessible – but the tech’s not ready yet.

Many candidates in Ward 4 have already publicly come out in support of online voting, either in Council chambers or on social media, ignoring expert advice despite knowing the risks. We can’t support candidates who let ideology trump science. There are only two Ward 4 candidates (to give credit where it’s due) who are on the right side, and who have stood up to defend our democracy: my opponent Mike Salisbury, and myself, Matt Saunders.

4) What is your understanding of affordable housing versus social housing? How can Guelph develop both?

Affordable housing is a complex issue made more difficult in Guelph by the fact that the city is not the service manager for social housing and homelessness programs – the county is. We must work with an outside agency to coordinate social housing, and resources are shared across the entire county.

Regarding social housing: we have to work with the County to direct funding to Guelph. I support directing that funding towards the development of new non-market housing options like rent-geared-to-income and non-profit/cooperative housing, along with programs that subsidize private rentals. I would like to see the city take over this role from the County – housing is an intensely local issue and the problem is much bigger in Guelph than elsewhere.

Affordable housing is much more complex: choosing a place to live is an economic decision and rent is just one of the many factors that must be considered. In Guelph, rentals near efficient transit routes (like the 99 corridor) or near the University fetch high prices, while 22% of our city’s legal accessory apartments sit empty because they are not affordable to live in. Many empty apartments will become affordable if we improve their access to affordable transportation options.

On Council, I will work to implement a multifaceted strategy, leveraging transit to increase the amount of affordable places to live in Guelph. Certain areas of the city, like Stone Road Mall, the University, and the West End Rec Centre, are natural transit hubs, surrounded by higher-density development and important commercial destinations. We can develop a strategy to make travel between these transit hubs more efficient and then recognize those efficiencies within the city’s official plan.

With real, effective transit, we can then modernize our zoning practices: create special transit hub zones, recognize that fewer people living there will need cars, and then reduce the amount of land devoted to parking spaces in those zones. The result: more legal accessory apartments can be built where they need to be, and future higher-density developments can be built more efficiently. My answer to question 6 (below) has more details about transit – but what’s most important in the context of affordable housing is transit consistency. We need to commit to consistent transit routes that will not be uprooted – allowing people to make housing choices confidently.

By orienting more areas of Guelph towards an effective and efficient transit system, we can make living here more affordable.

5) Guelph is required by provincial mandate to accept thousands of new residents by the middle of this century. How is the City presently managing growth? What should we be doing differently?

Our current Council has decided to accommodate this growth by developing our last and largest greenfield, the Paris-Galt Moraine, but our current plan designates this area for construction of car-centric suburban sprawl – a development practice we already know doesn’t work for the 21st century. City-provided services like water, wastewater, electricity distribution, transit, road construction, and snow removal are much more inefficient in areas of sprawl. The tax revenue from areas of sprawl can’t cover the cost of these services – particularly when the new residents are commuting to Toronto instead of working in Guelph – and whole city ends up paying more.

We need to take a step back and re-envision the plan. Development may or may not be necessary here – we have approved enough housing projects in other areas of the city to cover our growth for the next ten years – but if we do decide to build here, we need to build neighbourhoods that work for the 21st century. We need neighbourhoods that are walkable and transit-oriented, with mixed use developments, and connected to green spaces (natural areas AND landscaped parks). We need to make sure we’re building more of Guelph, and not more of Markham.

6) Transit. First, what is your experience using transit? Second, do you think council and staff presently understand issues with transit? And third, what is one specific thing you would suggest to improve Guelph Transit service?

This is really three questions. I’ll answer them in order:

When I gave up my job to pursue a university degree (which you can read more about in question 11!) I also gave up my car. My wife Devon and I lived car-free for two years in a suburb off Marksam Road – but we could do that because we chose to live close to Devon’s work and we had reasonable transit connectivity: a one-minute walk from route 11 that went downtown and not much further to the west loop route 2A/2B.

At the most recent service review, both routes were rerouted, extending my commute from 25 minutes to 40 minutes (one way!). I calculated the value of having an extra hour to study each day, and then I used my summer work term money to buy and fix up an old truck. Transit no longer works for our family.

There’s an obvious answer here. A Council that actually understands transit would have implemented full Sunday service. As one example: every person who works rotating continental shifts at a Linamar plant in the northwest industrial park will eventually have a shift that starts Sunday evening at 10 or 11 pm. Knowing that they cannot rely on transit for some shifts means that people have a strong incentive to buy a car – and then not rely on transit for any trips. Transit doesn’t work for those families either.

I talked above (in Question 4) about real, effective transit: connecting transit hubs with rapid transit lines, and designing the city around them. It’s a long-term plan that needs vision and commitment from all of Council.

In the immediate term, we can still improve: we have to start by improving the reputation of Guelph Transit. Bus cancellations are so frequent that Transit’s twitter feed is swamped. Useful information is lost in a sea of service alerts. Instead, we need to communicate effectively.

The first step towards a culture shift is communication. Let’s create an effective smartphone app that actually communicates the status of transit: showing the current bus locations, sending push notifications for cancellations, and (with permission) anonymously collecting route data to continue to optimize our services. At the same time, Transit must take a cue from modern industrial engineering and adopt continuous improvement practices: define achievable goals for service quality, track and report on all late and cancelled buses, and embrace a zero-lateness culture at Transit. We need transit that people can trust.

7) What needs to be done to improve Regional Transit? (This includes intercity buses, two-way all-day GO trains, and high-speed rail?

To grow our commercial and industrial base we need to build connections with the rest of the region. We sit in the middle of the Innovation Corridor – we need to leverage that position to attract good, high-paying jobs. We can do this by embracing high-speed rail and ensuring Guelph has a stop on that line, so we become the kind of city that attracts modern, high-tech business – and become a place that people want to live AND work. By developing strong connections with the rest of the region, we create a reason for our world-class graduates from the University of Guelph to stay right here in Guelph.

8) If there’s one power that’s currently the jurisdiction of the province or the federal governments, but should be transferred to municipalities, what would it be and why?

Our city planners have long been at the mercy of the Ontario Municipal Board – a government agency that served as an appeals court for city planning decisions. In practice, the OMB served as a voice in favour of the status quo – preventing any higher-density developments from being built, even where they are sorely needed, and despite the wishes of the city and its residents. It remains to be seen how the OMB’s replacement, the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal, will rule. I support provincial government policies that give the city more control over its own planning decisions. We need to chart our own course and make sure Guelph stays like Guelph.

9) How do you define a taxpayer? What is the responsibility of a councillor when it comes to budgeting?

The word “taxpayer” is not a meaningful one. Every single person in Guelph either directly or indirectly contributes to the city tax revenue: by paying property taxes directly or through rent; by paying user fees for city services; by making purchases at city businesses which pay taxes, or by creating value at their place of employment. When crafting policy we need to consider everyone who has a stake in the outcome.

Council’s role is to create a guiding vision for the city, and in practice we set our priorities based on where we choose to spend money. The budget that we pass is how we signal what is truly important for the city to focus on: what capital projects to build, what infrastructure to maintain, and what has to be put off until later. I take the role of council in the budget process very seriously – and I look forward to challenging city staff whenever the budget deviates from our vision.

10) Hypothetical: The City’s in a budget crunch, and a substantial tax increase is cost prohibitive for the average Guelphite, so a cut *has* to be made. What City of Guelph service do you look at and why?

Every city service has been the target of relentless searches for efficiency spanning the past thirty years. The “obvious” answers that some of my opponents will give – reduce funding for transit, eliminate the stormwater levy, cancelling district energy, or increase user fees for city services – all have long-term costs that outweigh any immediate benefits. Cuts to transit worsen traffic, and cost everybody. Crumbling stormwater infrastructure floods basements and erodes rivers. District energy helps us achieve our net zero goals, and breaks even financially; there’s no easy savings to be found here. Increasing user fees reduces use – it’s how you turn a well-used facility into a wasteland, or (in the case of user fees at the garbage dump, like we tried with yard waste a couple years ago) how you incentivize people to choose to dump illegally, making the city a worse place to live.

Instead, we need to find incremental efficiencies: the days of easy cuts are over. We need to leverage advances in technology to reduce the cost to provide city services in Guelph: replace old sodium-vapour streetlamps with warm-hued LEDs which use a fraction of the power; connect a smart traffic light system to improve traffic flow and prioritize transit vehicles; measure water flows in real-time to track and repair leaks; and replace expensive software licenses with free and open-source alternatives.

11) Describe a time you had to make a tough decision, and the thought process you went through in order to reach that decision? (Doesn’t have to be political)

I made the toughest decision of my life four years ago. I decided to leave a good, high-paying job – a job that let me buy a house and support a family – because I realized I had become unhappy the more time I spent there and the more I learned about their business practices. I was unable to continue working for a company that did not share my values. I wanted to be able to work to improve the lives of real people in concrete ways, so I embarked on a second career, returning to university to study engineering. I stood up for my principles and walked a difficult road: working sixty to eighty hours a week for four years straight. With incredible amounts of support from my wife, my family, and my friends, I was able to complete my engineering degree – in a program designed to teach exactly the kind of problem-solving skills we desperately need on Council.

The decision was not easy and there were many opportunities to quit – but I persevered. I’ve come out the other side, and now, I have a proven track record of putting in long hours and learning quickly: vital skills for a city councillor.

12) Is there a municipal issue that you don’t think gets enough attention? What is it and why should it get more attention?

Something that passed almost under the radar was the last council’s decision to increase their own salary. This increase came against the recommendations of city staff, who prepared a detailed analysis of the state of municipal council salaries across Ontario. Instead of considering expert advice, Council ignored it, and (with few exceptions) voted to pay themselves more.

This is not what I consider getting value for our taxes!

13) Where can people learn more about you, or your campaign, and how can they get in touch with you?

I am very easy to contact! My e-mail address, matt@mattsaunders.ca, is best for long or detailed questions about the campaign. I’m always available by phone – 519 760 9071 – if you need help with anything. My website, mattsaunders.ca, has all the details about my platform – with some deep dives into the issues facing Guelph if you’re interested in reading. I also have Twitter: @MattForWard4 and Facebook: fb.me/MattForWard4. I’m always interested in talking with people who care about Guelph!

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