CANDIDATE QUESTIONNAIRE – Cathy Downer, Ward 5 Councillor

“Guelph faces many challenges – climate change, impacts of growth, pandemic recovery, care for vulnerable people…and the list could go on. As a Guelph City Councillor I have taken a leadership role on many issues with positive outcomes. I want to continue with this important work with the support of Ward 5 residents.”

Why are you running for city council?

Guelph is a great City! We have a lot to celebrate.

However, like other cities, Guelph faces many challenges – climate change, impacts of growth, pandemic recovery, care for vulnerable people…and the list could go on.

As a Guelph City Councillor I have taken a leadership role on many issues with positive outcomes such as protecting our urban forest and green spaces, preserving our heritage, increasing funding for the Neighbourhood Support Coalition and advocating for road safety. I want to continue with this important work with the support of Ward 5 residents.

I have the experience and dedication to continue to be an effective and responsive voice on City Council while being accessible and connected to the community I serve.

Working together, we can enhance our quality of life and ensure Guelph continues to be a great place to live, work, study and play for generations to come.

Tell us a bit about your background and experience, and how that will inform the way you work as a city councillor?

I bring extensive experience and community knowledge – both as a City Councillor and as a community volunteer. I have lived and raised my family in Ward 5. I have been a Councillor for almost 20 years – yes a long time!

My background as a mediator and my record show that I am a ‘bridge builder’ who works collaboratively with others to find solutions to the many challenges that we face and to plan for future generations.

I understand the need to build positive relationships with fellow Councillors, City staff, neighbourhood groups and community partners in order to create a respectful environment for community building and decision making. Different points of view are healthy and a reflection of our community!

Being connected to the community I serve has been a priority for me! I have engaged through newsletters, town halls, neighbourhood meetings, responding to constituents concerns and actively reaching out for community feedback on issues.
I will continue to be engaged and responsive to the community I serve.

My experience has also taught me the importance of coming to meetings well prepared. I do my homework!

What do you think was the most consequential decision made by city council during the 2018-2022 term?

I think approval of the Community Plan and the Strategic Plan early in this term will have the biggest city-wide impact for years. The Community Plan engaged over 10,000 citizens to develop a collective vision for Guelph for the next 10-20 years. It was the foundational work to develop the Strategic Plan which has informed all of the updated policies and plans that are in the works or approved this past term. City Budgets are set based on the City’s Strategic Plan. Budgets should reflect community values. These are 2 significant documents that help to create the city we want now and in the future.

The Baker Street District Redevelopment is another milestone this past term. Once completed, this significant private/public investment will have many positive economic spinoffs and change the Downtown, particularly in the north end.

Guelph has to make accommodation for 208,000 people and have 116,000 jobs ready by 2051. What’s your growth strategy, and how will you co-ordinate with developers, neighbourhoods and community groups to achieve it?

The recent Census shows Guelph’s annual rate of growth at 1.7% a year since 2016. This is in line with the City’s Growth Management Plan. The city has just updated its Growth Management Strategy. Our latest forecast is a 1.2% growth rate until 2051.
I believe we need to stay the course with our growth management plan. However, there are challenges.

Managing the rate of growth is most important. Growth does not pay for itself. We use the rate of growth to manage and plan for new infrastructure, services, facilities and parks. It informs our Budgets. Lack of planning or growing too fast places an additional tax burden on existing residents and businesses. Services must keep up with growth. Jobs must keep up with growth. Water is going to become a significant issue the closer we get to 2051 and we should deal with this sooner rather than later.

I have always engaged and worked with constituents in response to developing land use polices and applications in neighbourhoods and city wide. My wardmate, Leanne and I frequently host Town Halls and invite planning staff as our guests to involve Ward 5 residents with the latest policies and plans. I proactively reach out to neighbourhood groups on individual development applications or new bylaws. I will continue to directly engage with the community on planning matters.

Homelessness and the mental health and addiction crises are having a profound impact on Guelph, what can be done at a council level to address these issues, and what will you do as an individual councillor to address them?

Homelessness, mental health and addiction are symptoms of poverty and a lack of medical and social supports. This issue is very complex and has become a focus of this Council. It has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Housing with proper supports is of primary importance to help tackle this problem.

The City has invested $2.5 million to assist in the development of Supportive Housing. Also, the City gave the former Delhi Rec Centre building to Wellington County to create temporary transitional housing. Council must continue to facilitate the development and provide additional funding for these housing projects. The Mayor’s Task Force on Homelessness and Community Safety has reconvened and a new strategic advisory group with the appropriate stakeholders is to focus on supports for vulnerable people in the Downtown and across the City. The City is trying to help fill the gaps.

I will continue to support programs like the Welcoming Streets Initiative – a program to support Downtown businesses and to assist vulnerable people in the Downtown to find the services they need.

HOWEVER, this is not going to get better without an integrated and comprehensive provincial/municipal response in terms of services, supports, prevention and equitable access. This is a public health issue that needs provincial attention. Ontario’s Big City Mayors, of which our Mayor is the chair, has been requesting an emergency meeting with the Premier for 3 months with no response at this time. We need to continue to advocate and help those who struggle and have difficulty accessing affordable housing, transportation and healthy food. I will continue to work with Community partners and stakeholders to improve the lives of everyone.

Would you support a more collaborative relationship between the City of Guelph and the County of Wellington? What would that look like?

Yes, of course. The County is the City’s service provider for housing and childcare. We definitely need to improve communication and transparency around these services. I, along with others have advocated for improvements in this area for a long time. I will continue to do so.

Also, we have seen much success with the development of the Circular Food Economy initiative in which we partner with Wellington County. Guelph-Wellington has become a leader is this field. I believe this will launch other partnerships with common ground such as in the tourism sector.

How would you increase accessibility at city hall? How will you make sure that your constituents feel well-informed and well-represented in council?

I think I have answered this in earlier questions. It has been a priority for me to stay accessible to the community I serve. I have done this with newsletters, Town Halls, neighbourhood meetings, surveys, Ward 5 Facebook page, website and individual meetings with constituents. I strive to keep my constituents up to date on what is happening at City Hall on a regular basis.

I also proactively reach out for input on matters of interest to certain neighbourhoods and groups. We hold Town Halls on many topic, inviting city staff to provide information on the latest initiatives. I am readily available to local media for interviews.

Now we have Zoom! We switched to virtual events once the pandemic hit and it will continue to be an effective way to meet for those who don’t want to leave their homes. Citizens can also delegate at City Hall virtually now, making it much more convenient.
I attend many events every year which help me stay connected and engaged with the wider community.

It is important to listen to and acknowledge constituent concerns. With a background in mediation, I understand that differences are healthy and reflection of our community. In the end, we may not be able to please everyone but it is important that people be heard and their concerns validated.

The City needs to continually find innovative and inclusive ways to inform and gather input from our citizens.

Movements like Black Lives Matter and the discovery of unmarked graves at residential schools have made the creation of more equity and inclusion at city hall a top priority. How will you help promote greater representation and work to create more equity and inclusion at the City of Guelph?

We recently revisited Guelph’s Community Plan to adopt language that was more inclusive of everyone. This was done through extensive consultation with marginalized people and groups in our community.

I support the creation of an action plan with specific strategies to address systemic racism and barriers to inclusion in local government.

I am committed to ensuring we create services, programs and opportunities that are equitable for everyone.

I recently brought forward budget motions to increase funding for the Guelph Neighbourhood Support Coalition to support their anti-racism and equity projects.
I supported the recent hiring of a Senior Policy Advisor for Equity, Anti-Racism and Indigenous Initiatives. I also supported the hiring of a Indigenous Relations Officer to enhance and foster relationships between the City, First Nations and Métis.

I helped with the Women’s Campaign School and mentor many candidates.

All of these recent initiatives will help but we can do more. As a community we need to acknowledge that racism and exclusion exists in many forms. It starts with us. I will continue to uncover and acknowledge my own biases and prejudices and strive to be a more inclusive leader.

The City of Guelph, as a corporation, is responsible for three per cent of emissions locally. What will you do to encourage and assist the Royal City to reach it’s net zero and 100 per cent renewable goals?

In 2018 Guelph was the second community in Ontario to adopt a zero net carbon policy by 2050. There was also a goal for the City as a corporation to achieve 100% renewable energy by 2050. I was one of the Councillors, along with my wardmate, Leanne, to bring these motions forward.

The city is working towards these goals by electrifying our bus fleet and other city vehicles and updating our plans and policies through lens of climate change. Guelph has an ambitious goal to nearly double transit ridership by 2031. We will soon be implementing a program to allow residents to make property improvements that are energy efficient through loans that are paid back through their property taxes. We must continue to fund our Urban Forest Management Plan and work toward our goal of 40% tree canopy. We are now at only 23%.

There is much to be done to bring the community along. We need to create programs much like we have with Guelph’s successful water conservation programs to encourage less energy consumption. Supporting and encouraging energy efficient modes of transportation like transit, cycling and walking should be a priority.

I would like to see more developers step up to help our City reach its net zero goal with more environmentally sustainable development. Everyone needs to take responsibility! Developers can play a significant role with green, energy efficient design, tree canopy minimums for site plan, meaningful amenity spaces, permeable paving surfaces, and active transportation and transit supportive developments. Currently we are not seeing enough of this.

I want to work with staff to find a way to encourage developers to be more innovative. The new Zoning Bylaw will help mandate better development, but these are just minimums. With greater cooperation from all sectors, we can achieve our goals for generations to come.

Excluding 2-way/all-day GO Train service, how would you work to expand regional transit options to and from Guelph?

Personally, as a focus I would like to see us get our own transit service in order over the next few years. However, we should also explore options and initiate discussions with neighbouring communities to identify opportunities and grants that may be available for inter-regional transit. I believe, it will take funding from other levels of government to move this forward. It was disappointing when Greyhound cut their service. I am encouraged by the success of the Guelph to Owen Sound Transit. It runs twice a day, everyday and was made possible by a grant from the provincial government. We should encourage more models like it.

If you could dedicate your time on city council to one issue over the next four years, like you were a federal or provincial cabinet minister, what would that be, and why?

Trees, trees trees! I would like to be the Minister of Trees.

Did you know that the total number of trees in Guelph is estimated to be 2,973,000 and the replacement value of Guelph’s urban forest is $803 million?

And did you know that Guelph’s tree canopy provides a total estimated $9.7 million in environmental benefits; $1.9 million in home energy savings; removes 156 tonnes of pollutants and 66,455 tonnes of carbon dioxide; and prevents nearly 400,000 cubic metres of rainwater runoff. This is actually a small list of the many benefits of our urban forest. Trees also provide homes for wildlife and pollinators, keep our streams and river cool and most importantly they provide oxygen. There are so many environmental, social, cultural and economic benefits!

It is the city’s goal to reach a 40% tree canopy cover but this is a challenge as the urban forest is under threat from climate change, extreme weather events, pests, diseases and pressure from development.

There are thousands of trees planted every year and a huge shout out needs to go to the many organizations – Trees for Guelph, The Rotary – who partner with us to increase the urban forest.

The City will be reviewing its Tree Protection Bylaw in 2023. I have been advocating with local groups to have the City start protecting trees on lots under half an acre as do many other municipalities. Let’s get this done!

It’s budget time: You have a heritage building redevelopment project, the modernization of a key city service, or you can reduce the proposed budget increase by a full percentage point. You can either fund one of these endeavours in their entirety, or you can assign each option a portion of funding. What’s your motion?

I don’t think of it as an either/or scenario. There is a lot of information to consider. What is the use for the Heritage Redevelopment? Are there partners, grants? What is the Business Case? What is the service? Can it be phased in? Is it a one-time funding cost or will there be ongoing operating expenses? Where is the Budget reduction coming from -reserves? Services? Who is impacted by all these decisions. It is a balancing act and all of the information needs to be on the table. Councillors need to listen to their constituents and do their homework on all these types of decisions.

Finish this sentence: I would be very disappointed if we got the end of this election without debating…?

Not really debatable, but I think low voter turnout is something that we need to talk about. We recently went through a provincial election with the lowest voter turnout in history. As candidates, we need to do what we can to get people out to vote. Democracy is precious. Ask Ukraine. Everyone should exercise their democratic right to vote.

Where can people learn more about you, and your campaign?

Twitter: @cathydowner

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