The Month at Council: COVID Continued and Back to Regular Order

City council got back to some kind of business as usual in May with the announcement of a new schedule for a slate of meetings to carry us through to September. Will we be allowed to attend these meetings in person by then? Who can say? But for this month we got our COVID update, plus a planning meeting, and a regular meeting of city council. Here’s the recap from May.

Special COVID-19 Meeting of City Council – May 11

City council met for the first time in nearly a month in the first meeting of May, and they went in-depth on a number of issues concerning the City of Guelph’s response to COVID-19.

After passing the 2020 Property Tax Policy Report, which was deferred from the April meeting, Mayor Cam Guthrie began the presentation by asking everyone for continued patience as we continue to fight the spread of the virus. Guthrie discussed the results of his task force for economic recovery so far and says that they’re presently looking at crisis management options, and short-term measures to assist businesses and create a more adaptive and resilient economy going forward.

CAO Scott Stewart then discussed the financial effects of COVI-19 and the actions that the City has taken to assist the community like the 1,000 meals made every week for Guelph’s most vulnerable at the Evergreen Seniors Centre. Stewart also said the City is exploring options to re-open the public drop-off at the Waste Innovation Resource Centre, but it’s too soon to make an announcement.

Christopher Beveridge of Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health then did a deep dive about the response to the pandemic, and the ongoing challenges to keep it contained. Beveridge explained that everyone at Public Health is now working on the COVID-19 response, and as the economy opens up, some of that personnel will have to return to regular duties like health inspections. Beveridge and his colleague warned that COVID-19 is not going to disappear in the next week, or the next month, and that the City will need a “risk-informed” approach to re-opening, which will hopefully be universally applied across the province.

In terms of coming back post-pandemic, the City is applying $1.6 million from the Smart Cities Challenge prize money to new food security efforts that will assist people immediately with access to locally-grown, nutritious food. There will also be an announcement about the re-opening of community gardens later this week, and the City is looking at a variety of capital projects that can create some economic stimulus once the economy is re-opened.

There were seven recommendations to come out of the report, but Councillor Phil Allt asked to have recommendation #6 separated from the rest because he disagreed with the sentiment of the LUMCO declaration that cities shouldn’t run deficits as a way to cope with financial concerns created by COVID. For another recommendation, Councillor Christine Billings offered an amendment endorsed by staff to find more diversified revenue steams that don’t put additional burdens on the taxpayer and prioritize affordability.

All the recommendations were approved by council as amended.

After that, council dispatched with a couple of motions that came up internally. Councillor Cathy Downer’s motion wanted to make sure that City staff was coming up with standards, guidelines and a communication plan for when outdoor public spaces start to be allowed to re-open. The motion passed unanimously.

Then it was on to Councillor James Gordon’s motion to create more active transportation options, which became a little more complex from the original motion that was introduced in the agenda package 10 days earlier. The budget was now $45,000 and the money would come from the council’s training and conference travel budget, which will likely go unused for this year. The motion also asks staff to prioritize the use of existing City-owned infrastructure, and that the changes will be implemented on a trial or temporary basis.

Questions from council concerned how much time constitutes a “temporary” time period, and the manner by which the “pinch points” will be chosen for expanded active transportation options. Still, the motion was unanimously endorsed by all six of the public delegations, and then unanimously approved by all 13 members of council.

Regular Council Meeting – May 25

After quickly dispatching most of the consent agenda, council picked up on a thread that was left dangling back in March, the Clair-Maltby Secondary Plan’s Open Spaces Strategy. Committee of the Whole endorsed option #1 over the staff recommended option #2, and while many of the delegates offered a repeat of previous talking points, or praise for council for moving to make Halls Pond a city amenity as the centre of a community park, there was still a lot to chew on.

A flashing red sign that there might be trouble ahead came from Trenton Johnson, the legal counsel for Thomasfield Homes who warned of legal considerations if council decided to move forward with the Open Spaces Strategy now instead of deferring a decision so that there can be more consultations with landowners in Clair-Maltby. Johnson didn’t have a specific idea of what the consultation would look like, or what the timetable of such a meeting would be, but he did make it clear that if the City were to appropriate land for the park from his client, they will expect top dollar from a full residential assessment.

Some of the delegates expressed concern about the second recommendation in the motion, an amendment passed in Committee moved by Councillor Christine Billings that asked for the final parkland recommendation to be revised based on a financial impact statement when the secondary plan was complete. Some delegates read this as a way to undermine great expectations for the park and set up a way for council to downsize the community park if fiscal times are tough when it comes time to begin construction. Councillor Mike Salisbury seemed to codify that view when he tabled recommendation #1 and not recommendation #2.

Many councillors talked about those big expectations for the community park in Clair-Maltby by saying that it could be a destination for the south end of the city that’s comparable to Riverside Park in the north end. But soon conversation took a turn towards a previously unconsidered option to split the 10 hectare park in two and put one park for passive activity in the area of Halls Pond, and a more active park in the area previously reserved for option #2.

Billings proposed an amendment that would change the proposed Open Spaces Strategy to two five-hectare parks instead of the option approved at Committee of the Whole. A fracas erupted as Councillors Salisbury and Cathy Downer raced to call the amendment out of order because it’s counter to the intent of the original motion, but Mayor Cam Guthrie ruled it in order. Salisbury challenged the ruling, and by a vote of 8-5 council agreed with Salisbury over the mayor. Councillor Dan Gibson, who seconded the motion, voiced his frustration that amendment couldn’t even be discussed, and said that it would reflect in his final vote.

Ultimately, council endorsed option #1 in a vote of 10-3 with Guthrie, Gibson and Billings voting against.

That left the “unfinished business” (to use Gibson’s wording) of the second recommendation. Gibson and Billings moved the recommendation, but there were some on council who now thought that the vote was redundant by asking staff to do work that they are going to do anyway (even though staff said that they had no problem with the motion back in March). The recommendation passed in a contentious 7-6 vote.

The last item was pulled from the consent agenda, the 2019 Year-end Operating Variance Report Surplus Allocation. Gibson wanted to allocate almost all of the City’s $5.5 million surplus from fiscal 2019 into the Tax Rate Operating Contingency Reserve instead of the usual diaspora of reserve accounts outlined by the finance staff. Gibson explained that right now he felt that there were too many unanswered questions, and more than a little uncertainty, concerning the City’s finances to make certain commitments to long-term reserve strategies.

There was a lengthy back-and-fourth between councillors and staff about the prudent move in this unprecedented situation: do they stay the course and move money around as need, or do they follow Gibson’s motion and play the waiting game for when the post-COVID financial outlook is clearer? Guthrie tried to move things along by suggesting that the motion could be properly debated at a meeting on multi-year budgeting on July 27, but staff needed a decision to close out the 2019 books and complete the external audit.

Gibson’s amendment was adapted by a vote of 10-3, and the complete motion was passed unanimously.

The meeting ended with Councillor Leanne Piper Caron marking Paramedic Services Week, and Mayor Guthrie reminding everyone to keep staying the course and practicing social distancing.

Planning Meeting of Council – May 27

Two city council meetings in one week? Yes indeed, and this one was the first planning meeting council has held since March 9.

After posting the image of a Canadian flag in lieu of “O Canada” because of technical difficulties, council and staff got right into the one item on the agenda, the statutory public meeting for the rezoning and redevelopment of 220 Arkell Road. The landowner wants to build 31 new single detached dwellings plus 60 cluster townhouses on the property with a large section of greenspace left alone on the west end of the site.

There were three delegates including the planner, Nancy Shoemaker of Black, Shoemaker, Robinson & Donaldson Limited. A woman named Claudia Espindola delegated on her concern about the natural heritage at the site and the growing encroachment of development on wildlife generally in the south end. The final delegate was Mary Staples, who owns the farmland that borders the 220 Arkell property and is concerned about the potential impacts on her property.

After a break to allow for anyone else to call in with a delegation, the councillors compared notes on the development. Councillor Leanne Piper Caron expressed concern about the fact that there’s no direct road between the development and Arkell, the difficulties of looking at 220 Arkell on its own, when there’s a lot riding on how surrounding properties might be developed in the future. Councillor Dominique O’Rourke asked about increased traffic in the area, and the potential for separated bike lanes and improved trail connections considering the schools in the area. The application was unanimously received by council.

Before adjournment, Mayor Cam Guthrie and DCAO Kealy Dedman gave a found farewell and thank you to Todd Salter, the City of Guelph’s general manger of planning who official retires at the end of the day today.

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