This Month at Council: Race to Zero, Hotel Redo, and Downtown Drama

The year at city council ended with what actually might be some of their most intense debates. In December, there was a pretty fiery discussion about accelerating the City’s response to climate change, a new debate about whether a governance review is needed for the downtown business improvement area, and there was even some time for a public meeting on a rezoning and a brand new heritage designation. Let’s recap this last month of 2021 at council.

Committee of the Whole Meeting – December 6

It was another eight-and-a-half council meeting as Committee of the Whole tried to keep an eye on a lot of boiling pots that were sitting atop a very busy legislative stove.

The first part of the meeting was relatively easy, the quarterly update about the local pandemic response. Medical Officer of Health Dr. Nicola Mercer offered an update on child vaccination and booster shots, and CAO Scott Stewart talked about the City’s planning for a post-pandemic work world and ongoing increased costs for things like cleaning and PPE.

Mayor Cam Guthrie also indicated that the plan was still on to end the state of emergency by year’s end despite the new and growing danger of the Omicron variant. Mercer added that it may be time to learn to live with COVID, but that did not mean people should avoid getting their shots. She also cautioned that her mask mandate will endure even if the state of emergency is ended.

Committee also passed an additional motion to allow businesses a bit of leeway in using mobile signs to advertise job openings.

The next two topics about intergovernmental priorities for 2022 and the urban design concepts for the draft York Road/Elizabeth Street redevelopment plan were passed rather smoothly, and then committee really got into the morass.

Councillors James Gordon and Leanne Caron’s had put forward a new motion for climate action, 10 recommendations to reinvest Guelph’s commitment to the Cities Race to Zero program, and the debate started with over a dozen delegates. Everyone speaking to council on this subject were unanimous: the City of Guelph needs to do more to fight climate change on a local level and endorsing this slate of motions would be a great start.

For committee’s part there was agreement that these were good motions, but the Devil was in the details. Some were concerned about creating new reporting mechanisms that would interfere with other work that City staff currently have underway, while others were worried about making sure that the City was in a position to accomplish the goals in the motion before making any promises. That second point was the biggest source of friction as committee tired to avoid even the perception of delay.

In the face of a struggle between the aspirations of the motion and the practicalities of making them a reality, staff tried to offer assurances that the work proposed in the motions did not deviate far from their original plan. The only major difference is the addition of the more regular reporting, but the slate was just too complicated for one councillor who felt that the motion was a bit redundant if staff was already doing most of the work. Mayor Guthrie also noted that there seemed to be a disconnect between the public perception that the City was not acting on climate change and all the work the City is actually doing on the issue.

The motions were passed near-unanimously, and unchanged, after a few hours of robust debate.

That left one final, yet highly contentious issue on the table. There were about a dozen delegates who wanted to speak to an information report council requested about reviewing the Downtown Business Improvement Area, and many of them had one thing on their mind: ending the Downtown Guelph Business Association!

The accusations flew fast and furiously, assertions that DGBA does nothing for its members, how many business owners in downtown Guelph don’t know what it does or that they even pay a levy to fund it, and that the organization is derelict in its responsibilities. Of course, there was some confusion about what those responsibilities are. The DGBA was blamed for not financially supporting businesses during the pandemic, and one delegate complained that the DGBA had done nothing to clean up empty storefronts on upper Wyndham.

Council received the report and passed an additional motion launching a third-party governance review of the DGBA with a deadline to report back to council by June 2022. While there was some debate about whether or not it was wise to proceed when so many people had the foregone conclusion of disbanding the DGBA in mind, council ended up agree that it’s a better idea to do this review now before feelings of disgruntlement and obsession were allowed to fester for another year.

Given the date, Councillor Dominique O’Rourke, acting as chair, also took a moment to remember the 14 women killed at L’École Polytechnique in Montreal 32 years before had.

Click here to see the complete recap of the meeting.

Planning Meeting of City Council – December 13

After two meetings clocking in at more than eight hours each, this month’s planning meeting was a more bite-sized 110-minute affair.

Council heard the statutory planning meeting for 601 Scottsdale Drive, the old Holiday Inn hotel and conference centre. The plan is to turn it into over 160 units of student housing, and the biggest concern seemed to be the rather garish wall mural in the concept drawings. The art in those images are a placeholder though so no problem, but there was also some concern about the City getting those development charges because the University of Guelph technically owns the land. There are no worries there either because ownership of the land has no impact on the DCs or property taxes in this case.

Next, council heard the staff decision for a townhouse complex at 66 Duke Street. The approved development is a bit smaller than originally proposed, but some councillors still had parking concerns, and that the property was going to run short of spaces despite the project being sold on walkability and closeness to downtown and transit. The decision was ratified by council with a vote of 10-3.

The last two items were from the consent agenda and pulled for additional questions. Councillor Dan Gibson asked for assurances that the heritage designation at 919 York Road merely protects the three heritage features and doesn’t stop the majority of the old Legion Hall property from being re-developed, and he was given that assurance. Councillor Rodrigo Goller then asked about the public engagement done on the proposed project at 520 Speedvale Avenue East, and it was noted that a neighbourhood meeting held by the developer at the site in question was a good piece of public engagement.

Click here to see the complete recap of the meeting.

Regular Meeting of City Council – December 13

Starting a little late out of the closed session, the last council meeting of year was mainly taken up with a rehash of two big issues from Committee of the Whole.

Before that though, council approved an application to the Ministry of Long-term Care to expand the Elliott Community by 29 beds. The exact details about the operational funding from the City will have to be worked out in the future, but the application to the Province for that expansion money is due tomorrow, so council passed the motion knowing that there would be some future discussions about those new beds (assuming the funding request is successful).

Next up was the ratification of the Race to Zero motions from committee, and 16 delegates gave up a bit of their Christmas week to talk in favour of a swifter move to net zero, including several young people who are undergrad and grad students at the University of Guelph, high school students, and one 11-year-old bird watcher. Many talked about the pessimistic thoughts they have about a dark future, but everyone hoped that council would stay the course on the motion and not water it down.

Councillor Dan Gibson, who tried to amend the motion developed by Councillors James Gordon and Leanne Caron with staff at Committee of the Whole, declined the opportunity to try again. He did reiterate though that council needs to have a discussion about priorities and that fighting climate change is a big undertaking that might require the City to delay some other projects if the move is to accelerate items in the climate file. This sentiment was shared by Councillor Dominique O’Rourke.

Before the final vote though, Councillor Mark MacKinnon moved to amend recommendation #4 so that the setting of targets in that line item would align with the 2023 budget breakdown promised in recommendation #10. Many on council did not like the sounds of that and felt that the setting or targets was a separate matter from doing the budget math to achieve them. Also, since the 2023 budget won’t be discussed until after the next council is elected in October, some members considered that an unacceptable delay. The amendment failed.

Mayor Cam Guthrie sought assurance from DCAO Jayne Holmes that it’s in the staff plan to deliver those targets by mid-2022 and then bring the budget options while reviewing and confirming the 2023 budget early the next year. Holmes gave those confirmations, and the motion was passed 12-1 with the exception of recommendation #4, which was passed unanimously.

That left the recommendation to review the governance of the Downtown Guelph Business Association. There were five delegates here; four were downtown Guelph business owners who appeared to speak in favour of keeping the DGBA, and one who was just a downtown fan and wondered if our BIA was losing a step without more support from the City.

There was no support on council though to continue with a third-party review of the DGBA. Guthrie proposed another motion to have the DGBA report back to council in their annual statement about how they responded to concerns raised in their recent survey, but the majority of council felt that was a little heavy-handed from a managerial perspective, and the vote failed 6-7. A second motion about incorporating the DGBA into the City’s internal audit plan didn’t even have enough support to make it to a debate.

The year at council ended with the mayor giving everyone best wishes for the holiday season, asking everyone to support local businesses and to get a booster COVID-19 vaccine shot when they can.

Click here to see the complete recap of the meeting.

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