CANDIDATE QUESTIONNAIRE – Charlene Downey for Ward 1 Councillor

Charlene Downey is one of six challengers trying to flip one of Ward 1’s seats in 2018.

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

I have lived in Guelph for 25 years, 21 of them have been on Alice St in the heart of Ward 1.  I have witnessed while volunteering, and working professionally as a teacher, the divide between the “haves” and the “have-nots” widen.  Even with 10 years of volunteering at The Life Centre, I know I can do more.  I have just left my career, and my children are now independent.  I am ready to dedicate myself to Guelph and its people, listening, connecting, and serving as I have always done, promising to be both accessible and available.

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

The decision to start concurrent Downtown infrastructure projects: Wilson Street Parkade, West Parkade, and the Fountain Street parking lot had a huge impact on Ward 1, and Guelph in general.  While many attempts were made to ease the lack of parking downtown: shuttles from outlying lots, parking permits in surrounding communities, and actually enforcing the 2 hour time limit downtown—the damage has been done. This lack of parking reinforced the negative image of our Downtown that many Guelphites already had.  As less people are coming downtown, the negative stereotypes of our Downtown community are increasing.  What I am hearing as I am going door to door, and connecting online through social media is a perception that downtown is not safe and it’s too much of a hassle to even go there.  Let’s get the planning right as we enter the next phase of downtown infrastructure projects:  Baker St. and the updates to Wyndham Street.  This will allow our Downtown community to have some breathing space and let Guelph fall in love with our core once again.

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

Bylaw, bylaw, bylaw!  Whether we are talking about driveways, housing, infrastructure, environment protection, or park lands, it comes down to a bylaw.  Guelph is in desperate need of comprehensive bylaw reform.  It is through our bylaws that we can increase our rental inventory, ease community tensions over parking, protect and increase our tree canopy… encourage the direction we want our city to grow.  There is a bylaw review being planned for 2019, but it will take creative proactive thinking and an ability to work together for the common good to accomplish the necessary reforms.

A few thoughts regarding bylaw reform:

Bylaw enforcement in Guelph is complaint driven. Unfortunately, this often results in tit-for-tat conflicts between neighbours. I believe that this problem could be minimized by adding a small cost (that could be waived by bylaw officers when the situation obviously warrants a complaint) to the process of lodging a complaint.

Bylaw enforcement is selective- when it was brought to Bylaws attention through a complaint that a series of driveways were non-compliant, there should have a been a pause and reevaluation once the scope of the problem was realized.

Guelph currently has a bylaw on its books that allows any “by-law enforcement officer, police officer, chief fire official or designate, Animal Control Officer employed by the Guelph Humane Society, or any City of Guelph employee authorized by Council” (taken from the current Power of Entry Bylaw for Guelph section 1.4) access to your property, accessory building (shed, garage) without your permission or a warrant.  Currently this bylaw is wide open, without very clear guidelines and constraints to prevent misuse.

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

“Affordable” is currently defined by the city as being 20% less than the average rent. This is far too high to deal with the needs of a very large percentage of the population. “Social Housing” is a provincial program (administered by the County instead of the city) that subsidizes the rents of people in specific units to hold the cost of housing to about 30% of their gross income. The amount of social housing in the city is grotesquely less than the need, which leads to very long wait times. While there is federal money in the pipeline and may be available in the future, it will not be enough to take care of the backlog of housing. Moreover, the Doug Ford decision to pull Ontario out of the cap-and-trade arrangement has removed a commitment from the previous government to use that money to provide upgrades and maintenance in existing social housing.

With these problems in mind, if the city is committed to building more affordable housing it needs to take proactive action instead of waiting for the feds and the province to do the job. I would offer the following suggestions as a way of “getting the job done”.

We can copy a program from the City of Waterloo that offers $25,000 low interest rate loans for home owners to build basement apartments, provided they charge less than market value for those apartments for 15 years.

We can look north to Meaford, where they have opened up their bylaws to allow for tiny houses.

We can look to Toronto and Vancouver where they have approved laneway housing in order to help alleviate their own housing crisis.

We can even look to our bylaws, eliminating the need for houses with basement apartments to have 3 parking spaces. (This would immediately bring rental inventory back—as some units have been taken off the market because of the recent complaints over illegally-widened driveways.)

Lastly, we can support grassroots initiatives, partnering with frontline groups already seeking solutions, providing connections, and zoning changes to increase available housing.

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?

The pursuit of single family neighbourhoods are no longer a luxury Guelph can afford.   Back in the Mayor Joe Young days, Assistant Planning Director Jim Forbes, came to the conclusion that the focus on single family units in Guelph would lead to a housing crisis for low income families.  We are now in that crisis with a less than 1% rental inventory and house ownership out of the reach of many families.  We need higher and smarter density, to create the walkable neighbourhoods that our residents need.  Use the tools in our belt (bonusing, financial incentives, inclusionary zoning) to encourage developers to provide entry-level housing for the ownership and rental community.  Guelph is a desirable, sought after city and we should be using that truth to leverage the type of development we need to move forward.  We must learn from our past to ensure a better future, walkable communities where a family can live, work, and shop in the same space, saying a firm “NO” to more urban sprawl to protect what greenspaces we have left.

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?

I grew up in Toronto, taking the bus on a daily basis, then up to 4 hours a day while attending university.

Do Staff and Council understand the issues with Transit?  They understand the problems from their point of view. Staff don’t want Transit to go over budget, Council doesn’t want to annoy riders, transit boosters want to increase ridership, and, users want reliable service. If you attempt to do all of these things at the same time you won’t satisfy anyone.

So we start with acknowledging that transit will never pay for itself—if it did Toronto would not still require funding.  Instead Council needs to develop a clear measurable objective for Transit. I’d suggest that we create a system that will service the vast majority of Guelph with a travel time comparable to car travel.  Encourage and equip Transit to leverage its available resources (buses, shelters) to increase revenue through marketing and advertising.  Strongly consider free transit to all students, public and high school, to increase ridership.  Children need fare paying parents, and getting more high school students on the bus, brings them closer to local businesses with their disposable incomes, plus we could explore a financial relationship with the school board like we currently have with the university.  Listen to our Transit experts both within Transit itself and local activists.  Lastly, provide stable consistent funding to allow for the planning required to build the Transit Guelph needs.

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

Guelph needs to continue working with the other municipalities in our region to present a common message to the provincial government with respect to an integrated Regional Transit solution.  We should be making investments in our infrastructure to ensure that we are prepared when the Regional Plan is implemented.

Two-way all-day GO is the quickest option to start with as well as partnering with higher education institutions and other stakeholders to begin the process.

High-speed rail is a much longer-term initiative that we should monitor and provide input as the opportunity presents itself.  Though I would rather increase regular train frequency, as the infrastructure is already in place and does not require a dedicated line.

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?

Municipalities should have the ability to determine our own representation.  Given the recent example of the province cutting Toronto’s City Council in half, our ability to determine our own representation is the very foundation of democracy.

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

We are all taxpayers. Even people who don’t own their homes pay taxes that are included in their rent.

Defining a budget is the process of assigning our hard-earned tax dollars to programs and services, infrastructure and development, to contribute to the wellbeing of the entire community.  A Councillor’s responsibility is to allocate this money with consideration, respect and complete transparency.

Budgeting should never be a means of fulfilling pet projects or personal projects of councillors. It should always be fulfilling the needs of the community as a whole.

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?

Cutting a specific service may not yield the savings required to address a budget shortfall.  Most of the City’s Operational Budget is tied to staff costs, and cutting staff positions needs to be made within the current contract with the unions.

As I’m not aware of the details of the restrictions of the current contracts, I don’t know how much savings would be available—but I suspect that they are limited.

I would rather look at alternate ways to increase the budget. What resources can we leverage to increase our budget? Permit parking for street parking?  Protected budgets at City Hall to encourage saving?  Development actually paying for itself instead of costing the city between 20 and 35%?  Guelph is a hub of innovation and our council needs to look outside the box and explore alternatives to increase budget in the hopes of avoiding major tax increases.

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)

For eight years, I second guessed myself, was a victim of societal stigma and family judgement because I pulled my children from the public school system—despite being a teacher myself—and undertook the journey of homeschooling.  Everyday involved balancing the complete responsibility for their future and hoping I made the right choice to homeschool three boys. Everyday I came to the same conclusion:  square pegs can be forced into round holes but it’s rarely pretty, or successful.

I focused on building their character, teaching responsibility, empathy, and integrity.

-My oldest at 19 years of age, now 20, bought a house in Sudbury with his own earnings instead of paying for residence while he attends school there.

-My 18 year old now goes to G.C.V.I., has worked since the day he turned 15, plays football, rugby, and has a plan for his future.

-My 16 year old is an incredible young man, goes to Our Lady of Lourdes, also works, plays football, and is well on his way to achieve his goals.

It was hard but I stand by my decision to choose the less trodden path.

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

I realize I have already mentioned bylaws, but there is another element I would like to address: the specific language and accessibility of our bylaws in general.

Bylaws define our City and how we interact with it, yet the vast majority of our population are not aware of them.

Due to their legal nature, Bylaws are written with very specific and precise legal jargon.  As a result, they are mostly inaccessible to the average citizen, creating confusion and fear when a citizen comes conflict with one.

The City needs to do a better job of communicating the intent and impact of its bylaws, in day to day language, to engage the entire population of Guelph in discussing and defining the place we all call home.

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

I am always up for a meet and greet, coffee, please do connect using any of these social media contact addresses.

https://charlenedowney.ca/

https://www.facebook.com/CharleneDowney4Ward1/

https://www.instagram.com/charlene.downey/

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