In a few days, the second decade of the the 21st century will be in the history books, and we’ll be back again in the Roaring ’20s. Before leaving all this behind, let’s take one look back at the decade, and rate the 10 biggest political news stories that happened in and around the Royal City for the last 10 years.
10) SLAPP Dance
The notion of Guelph being a haven for left-wing politics was severely tested at the beginning of the decade when the City brought a $5 million lawsuit against the five leaders of an occupy protest at the then-under construction Hanlon Creek Business Park. Because the City had already pegged the costs of damage from the protest at $150,000, critics immediately read the City’s $5 million price tag as a “SLAPP suit,” or Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation. Since the five people named in the suit were far from being one percenters, many perceived the lawsuit as a way of using the law to shut them up, and for the most part, it worked. Although the City eventually dropped the suit, the effect was the same, and between this and the mass arrests during the G20 protests in Toronto that same year, the local activist scene was decimated. On the plus side, the Ontario government did pass anti-SLAPP legislation in 2015.
9) Growing Pains
Guelph is the fifth fastest growing city in the country, growing 8.3 per cent between the 2011 and 2016 census, and you need only look to the skyline to see just how fast the Royal City has grown in the last decade. Condos sprouted up at the eastern end of the core, and new towers are going up all along Gordon. A new 14-storey tower is currently being built along Baker like it’s an advanced look at the total redevelopment of that area, and an application came to the City earlier this month for Guelph’s first 25-storey building. For many long-time Guelphites this is a sign of the end times, and around town there’s grumblings about Guelph getting too big to be sustained. The pragmatic view though says that Guelph has to grow by provincial fiat, and if you don’t like the growth now, you’re definitely not going to like it later.
8) Construction Business
Tied to the growth of Guelph over the last 10 years is the increasing gap in our infrastructure needs. From keeping the streets and pipes in pristine shape, to building facilities to address the needs of a growing population, and reclaiming City facilities that may have outgrown or outlived their usefulness, a 2017 report to council pegged the cost of the City’s infrastructure issues at half-a-billion dollars, but much of the news in the decade gave taxpayers doubts as to the City’s ability to handle huge projects with equally huge price tags. The dispute with Urbacon over the handling of the construction of new city hall was only resolved in 2014 and not in the City’s favour, projects like Guelph Central Station and the Carden Street redevelopment took longer to complete than expected, and while the Market Parkade came in on time and on budget, it remains to be seen if the same will be said of the Police headquarters renovation.
7) Mayor Unrest
The 2014 Municipal Election was always going to a tough one for incumbent mayor Karen Farbridge, who at that point had served as Guelph’s mayor for 11 of the previous 14 years. Facing a young, up-and-coming folksy politician in the form of then-Councillor Cam Guthrie presented many challenges, but Farbridge’s greatest adversary was her own record, and the news cycle didn’t work in her favour the months and weeks leading up to Election Day. In August, Guelph Transit workers were locked out by management for two weeks in what felt like a pre-election move by the administration to show toughness against union demands. Then, just a week into the official fall campaign period, a superior court judge ordered the City to pay $8.3 million in damages and legal fees to the developer Urbacon for their wrongful dismissal from the new city hall construction project. Guthrie’s more populist message was an easy sell for a voter base that felt the administrative state of the city had gotten a little out of hand, and Guthrie easily defeated Farbridge with 50.75 per cent of the vote to 36.57 per cent. The rest, as they say, was history.
6) Social Studies
A lot of the issues on this list tie back to the rapid rate of growth in the city, and this is no exception. Guelph’s vacancy rate has always been on the low side, but the added with more people moving into the City, and with many of those people moving west from Toronto with more money to spend, the cost of housing has only gone in one direction. At the same time, Guelph has not been immune to opioid crisis. In the first half of 2018, 39 people died of overdoses, and this despite the fact that Guelph is one of the few places in Ontario with a safe consumption site. The issues of homelessness, mental health, and addiction became so unavoidable that the mayor created a task force to look at solutions, forcing the municipality to stake a claim at areas that are supposed to be above their pay grade. It’s complicated, but after years of inaction, what choice did the City have?
5) Electric Schemes
It was a decade of change for Guelph Hydro with pressures outside creating pressure inside. On the one hand, the City’s attempts to save costs with the District Energy project veered wildly from projections, and while the Downtown node showed promise, the Hanlon Creek Business Park was a huge loss due a complete lack of capacity that would make the project worth it. District Energy added to the appearance that asset management in City Hall was lacking even though the utility itself, Guelph Hydro Electric Systems Inc, or GHESI, was highly attractive for purchase or amalgamation with a bigger utility. A separate process looked at the best option for Guelph Hydro, and eventually council decided to approve the recommendation to merge GHESI with Alectra Utilities, a new provider made up of several municipally-owned electricity providers. The long-term effects of the merger are still TBD.
4) Green Nook
For years, the Green Party has seen Guelph as a base from which they could build a national or provincial movement, and before she settled on Saanich-Gulf Islands, there was even some talk of Elizabeth May running here. May made history to be sure, but it was up to Mike Schreiner to make history as a Green politician in Guelph. After finishing third in the 2014 election, Schreiner kept plugging away as the Guelph-based Green leader hitting community events and holding kaffeeklatsches that further ingrained him in the political fabric of the Royal City until his moment came in 2018. An open race, and province-wide dissatisfaction with the status quo, gave Schreiner the opportunity to be the first Green MPP in Ontario, and a Guelph success story.
3) Staffing Issues
If the challenge of the last decade was getting people moved into the new city hall building, the challenge of the this past decade seemed to be keeping them there. There are a lot of examples to talk about, but a few in particular stand out. For instance, the City has had enormous difficulty hanging on to the top talent at the top as there’s been four the Chief Administrative Officers over the last 10 years. There were also four managers of Guelph Transit in the last 10 years, with Mike Spicer only serving a scant 14 months before taking up a new job all the way in Halifax. But there were also issues in the Building Department too where chief building official Bruce Poole was found to be wrongfully dismissed, and in the process there were 53,000 confidential emails accidentally released to Poole’s attorney. The snafu cost Deputy CAO Mark Amorosi his job, and just as he was in the middle of a lawsuit against a local blogger for defamation, which is still ongoing.
2) Mercury Poisoning
January 29, 2016 saw the final edition of the Guelph Mercury hit the newsstands after 149 years of publishing, and for the first time in years, the paper was sold out. The Mercury was not the first local daily to fall in this digital age, and it certainly wasn’t the last, but the monumental shortsightedness of TorStar/Metroland in shuttering the Mercury with very limited notice has been matched by nearly four-years of hand-wringing by Guelphites who still talk about the Mercury like there’s a chance it will come back. Guelph became a lab for what a growing city looks like without a local daily paper, and the results of that experiment has been that people miss the newspaper they barely supported and can’t get behind the realities of the new media landscape. In the meantime, TorStar has kept cutting…
1) Robo Prop
On Election Day 2011, thousands of Guelph households got a phone call telling them that their polling station had been moved from the location printed on their Voter Identification Card to a new polling station at the Old Quebec Street Mall. This, of course, was a lie. A person calling themselves “Pierre Poutine” bought a burner phone and some pre-loaded Visa cards and opened an account with a robocall provider called RackNine to arrange the call on the morning of May 2, 2011, but that was just the beginning of the story. Elections Canada investigated, citizens groups followed up with their own court challenges, and the media started breaking serious investigative ground. All signs pointed to a massive co-ordinated effort to disenfranchise people across the country, and Guelph became ground zero for the one and only criminal case on the matter, the trial of former Conservative staffer Michael Sona. Sona went to jail, but that wasn’t the end of the story, and many, many questions about the entire affair remain unanswered to this day.