Linda Stevenson’s trip to city hall this past Monday (July 16) ensured the sitting council would not be in a lame duck position to close out the term.
Stevenson filed her nomination papers, signalling her intention to seek a second term on council. The following day, Mayor Heather Jackson entered the now-crowded mayoral race, leaving only Coun. Mark Burgess as the lone question mark for the Oct. 22 municipal vote.
Following her official business at the clerk’s counter, we talked with Stevenson at length about her initial four years in the council chamber and her expectations for the future.
“I enjoyed the first term a lot,” advised Stevenson. “I think it was a good working council. We got a lot of work done. A lot of faith in staff bringing forward reports that were full and the information was good so we can make good planning decisions. “And it was a very different structure. We changed a lot of things. The committee structure for one. And I think it’s been very helpful to have that open forum. It took us a little while to get used to it. We find it’s an opportunity to be a little more casual in our questions. I think when we get to the table, we’ve done our homework.”
The makeup of the present council was the result of an extensive makeover of the previous body in the 2014 municipal vote. With only two returning faces (Jackson and Coun. Jeff Kohler) we asked Stevenson if this proved a hindrance to quickly getting up to speed.
“I wouldn’t see it as a big positive. I think some of the folks I have worked with in the last four years, I’ve got a lot of respect for. We have really different opinions, which also really helps at the table.
“We agree on things in the end, we find a way to reach a consensus. I think we have a really good working ability to move it forward. That’s magic when it happens.”
With former MP Joe Preston and former MPP Steve Peters vying for a place around the table, does it make Stevenson feel she may be in the shadow of higher profile politicians?
Not at all, remarked Stevenson.
“Having been formerly on the LHIN (Local Health Integration Network), which was a huge structure and we dealt with the ministry directly, I come with that experience already.
“Also as a school board trustee, I had to deal directly with the MPs and MPPs on school closures. So, I also come with that experience as well. For me, I don’t even find it a bump in the road. I have a pretty good idea of what those folks will bring to the table, one with past experience at this level (Peters). I think it might be more difficult for them than some of us.”
Stevenson’s focus in her first term was primarily on social issues such as housing, poverty and a living wage and she intends to continue on that road if successful at the polls.
“I never think those things are done. There are always ways to improve. I think because of some of the committees that I continue to sit on, it’s a continuous thing. We have a long way to go.
“Having had the experience of not feeling well for a little while and having to get around this place, you get to know the city pretty well when you’re in a wheelchair and trying to get around during the winter. There are still a lot of building structures that need to be remembered (with regard to accessibility issues).
“Especially when they’re asking for dollars for new housing and we’re reminding people about elevators and we have a lot of seniors and we have to make sure things are accessible. I think we are making headway.
“A lot of the curbs are being ramped down so that there is an area where people can get across safely. But have we got a lot of push-button starts to get across the road? No, we don’t. They are very expensive and we need to figure out a way to include that.”
To overcome these financial barriers, Stevenson stressed the city needs to nurture partnerships within the community.
“We need at least 35 new houses for affordable housing and in our budget, that’s a lot of money. We need to find another solution and that probable means partnerships with some of our builders and some of our rental facilities. We’ve got to come up with a different solution.”
She holds up the community and social hub to be constructed at 230 Talbot Street in the city’s west end.
“I’m really pleased with that and a lot of those dollars aren’t necessarily coming right out of taxpayers directly. There are grants and staff have been very creative in finding money for those.
“And we looked at our inventory for housing as well and some of them that are not needed as much as they used to be, we’re selling some of that stock off. And we use that money toward those things.
“We need to be creative. I still would like to see a new highrise over by the seniors centre where the other two apartments are (200 Chestnut Street). We need to find a way to find money for that because that would add a lot of housing in that direction.”
Over the past year, it has become evident there is a real divide on council as to what the city’s transit system should look like.
“Transit is not unique to us. I think if one of those members with senior experience get on council, we need to tap into some of those folks and say who do we need to get in contact with because those dollars just can’t come out of the local tax base.
“We also need to look at the County of Elgin as well. What are they going to bring to the table if we bring a bus down to Port Stanley then go the other way off to Aylmer. If we could put those two pieces in place, there are a lot of people then who would have the ability to go back and forth to shop and for work.”
Currently operated as a limited service with no late evening or Sunday service, should the buses operate longer hours?
“We looked at that and it was under consideration, but we still have to find the revenue to do it. I don’t think there was a lack of desire, we didn’t have the revenue to do it. It’s not cheap.
“Parallel transit, we know how much more that costs to deliver that service. But you still need to do it. But to expand hours, that’s a hefty price tag.
“Partnerships are one thing, but you have to be in the face around grant structures. We do get gas tax dollars and we’ve been using them a lot for infrastructure and things like that. But to expand that criteria a little bit might be nice.
“And to have those blunt conversations around the difference between urban and rural settings. They need to continue to happen. We need to bring some solutions to them. I don’t think they will come up with solutions.
“We would like to expand services going into London or perhaps going down to Port Stanley or Aylmer. Those municipalities need to be at the table and we all need to be on the same page.”
Attracting businesses to St. Thomas will be a priority for Stevenson if re-elected to council.
“Right now our tax base relies very heavily on housing and the ratepayers. We really need to bring some business in. I think that needs to be a priority and I don’t think anybody disagrees. We should be at the front of the line, not at the back.
“We’re sitting with Fanshawe right on our doorstep and there’s no reason we shouldn’t be utilizing more and more of that. I’ve heard a number of people coming out of Fanshawe saying you need to use us a bit more. EDC (Economic Development Corporation) maybe needs to get a little bit more on board with that.
“Maybe there needs to be more partnerships. It doesn’t have to be manufacturing or automotive, there are a lot of other things happening out there. The robotics in St. Thomas could be phenomenal. One of our manufacturers is one of the leaders in the world.”
On a personal level Stevenson likes the expansion of walkways and cycle paths in the city.
“I do want to see those walking pathways. More gains on social housing continues to be a goal for me. But I think manufacturing is a big one. I need to be a lot more interested in getting myself out there on that one and how can we help.
“Maybe pushing the EDC even further than we are right now. We have to show them we have skilled labour. We have to really brag about ourselves. St. Thomas Proud has put us on the map again but we’ve got a lot of young people coming out of school here and we’re sitting with Fanshawe and Western right on our doorstep.
“There is absolutely no reason with the agricultural region we’re in that we shouldn’t be looking at pharmaceuticals. That we shouldn’t be looking at more diverse food opportunities. Greenhouses don’t all have to be down in Leamington, they could be here. We should be promoting things like that, thinking outside the box.”
While many have bemoaned the lack of a major chain hotel in St. Thomas, Stevenson said the attention should be focussed on roads.
“I’m not as worried about the hotels. I know people would like to have them here in St. Thomas. But it’s 10 or 15 minutes down the road (to London). I’d rather the road structure was better.
“Right now along the 401 corridor, you have a lot of hotels sitting there pretty vacant. There’s no reason why people can’t be using those. It will come, but for me it’s not the be all and end all. It’s more about getting people back and forth.
“We had a lot of people here for Day Out With Thomas and they’re not complaining about where they are going to stay. We have to stop complaining the 401 is 10 minutes away and start bragging about the fact we’re only 10 minutes away.”
MUNICIPAL ELECTION UPDATE
Mayor Heather Jackson made it official this week. Surrounded by family and friends on the steps of city hall, Jackson announced she intend to run for a third term as mayor of St. Thomas.
With her announcement, that gives the city a four-way race for mayor and the last time we saw such a crowded field was back in 1974.
Jackson made note of the number of projects undertaken in this current term of council, citing the downtown redevelopment undertakings and the proposed development on the Alma College property.
Referencing her first term as mayor, Jackson said she was most proud of the first strategic plan instituted for the city which, over time, has guided the budget process, in addition to the city’s asset management plan.
An ongoing priority, pointed out Jackson, is recognizing the individual approaches to quality of life in St. Thomas and ensuring the highest standards possible in this area.
In the councillor field this week, in addition to Stevenson’s re-election bid, Dave Mathers has joined the fray resulting in 11 individuals vying for eight seats on council with July 27 being the deadline to file nomination papers.
THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT THURSDAYS
If you’re driving through St. Thomas on a Thursday, be extra vigilant.According to stats released this week by St. Thomas police, that’s the day most motor vehicle collisions occurred in the period from April 1st to June 30th of this year.
Of the 112 collisions reported to police, 28 happened on a Thursday. The peak time for collisions is between 9 a.m. and noon. And, the three intersections where extra caution is advised: Centre and Elgin streets; Fairview Avenue and Talbot Street and Chant and Elm streets.
ON A PERSONAL NOTE
Would like to take a moment and reach out to Rebecca Kapogiannis, chairperson of the Early Learning Centre board of directors, to let her know our investigation into operations at the centres is progressing far better than ever imagined.
So well, in fact, we’ve had to broaden the scope of investigation.
A statement of claim can be oh so revealing.
Can’t wait to read the statement of defence or notice of intent to defend.
But, more on this in the coming weeks.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
“If the schoolyard bully takes your lunch money on the first day of school, you better fight back or you’re going to be hungry all year.”
Jerry Dias, president of autoworkers union Unifor, responding to the U.S. threat to impose tariffs on imports of automobiles and vehicle parts.
Questions and comments may be emailed to: City Scope
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