Three decades after his introduction to municipal politics in St. Thomas, Steve Peters is returning to the council chambers at city hall.
And he’s taking his place at the horseshoe with an overwhelming mandate from city voters.
Of the 10,259 residents who cast their ballot in the Oct. 22 municipal vote, 8,197 indicated they wanted the former city mayor and Elgin-Middlesex-London MPP back representing their interests.
This past spring, toying with the idea of a return to where it all began, Peters left no doubt as to his intention.
“Standing here (inside his home) I can see the city hall tower and my focus is on that.”
Several days after a resounding vote of confidence, Peters confessed “I have to admit I’m excited that interest in the community is still there. I’m itching to go.
“I’m still humbled by it and pinch myself because a lot of people chose to fill in the round mark beside me.”
He continued, “I’m certainly committed to serving that percentage of people who didn’t vote for me, but especially the 64 per cent who chose not to vote. I think that’s the bigger issue out of all of this. And it’s not just unique to here.”
Throughout the campaign, Peters promoted the necessity of working closely with neighbouring municipalities, with the goal of making St. Thomas “a better place to live.”
It will be a priority once he is sworn in on Dec. 3.
“It will be interesting to see Joe’s (mayor-elect Joe Preston) perspective on dealing with things regionally, especially with the new mayor of London (former Conservative MP for London West, Ed Holder).
“First and foremost, we owe it to the taxpayers to make sure we’re getting the best value for the money. I remember the studies that were done in the 1990s when the city looked at actually being part of the county and it was a benefit to the taxpayers of St. Thomas.
“They subsidized a lot of services. I hope it’s on Joe’s agenda. I think we’re all looking at what he has to say in his inauguration speech.”
Neither of the two is waiting until that day to get the ball rolling.
“I talked to him on the phone once. We had a long conversation and I lobbied for one (committee) appointment. I know they are working on an orientation session for us this month.”
Up for discussion with Preston is a decision made by the present council to do away with the long-standing committee structure whereby each member of council was assigned to a particular department at city hall.
That individual would act as chairperson of the departmental committee and report to council as a whole.
“We did talk briefly about the whole committee structure. I certainly want to do my own due diligence and understand how we got to where we are today. I know what it was like when I was there from 1988 until 1999 of having those respective committees.”
Peters continued, “I operated under the committee system and I liked the committee system. It gave each councillor some focused responsibility. I knew if I had an issue with protective services and transportation, then go see the chairman.”
“I’ll be fighting to make sure we are not becoming a platform for any one particular party of any stripe at the local level. That’s always been a big one for me.”
Any debate about the committee structure will invariably turn to where does the balance of power lie at city hall? It is not hard to argue with the present alignment, the pendulum has swung away from council and toward city staff.
“It is an old question and I think this is where it is going to be important to hear from the mayor-elect and what his style is going to be and what he would like to see happen.
“I understand there is a balance on the role of council and the role of staff and how much council gets involved in the day-to-day operations of the city and who is answering to who.”
Peters noted, “In my own experience, in the past, we always found that balance of not crossing the line of telling staff what to do. But I think having the ability as a committee chair to be able to walk in and sit down with the director of engineering or the director of planning, I think that helped.
“From a councillor’s perspective, and particularly as mayor, my response to a constituent would be, ‘Have you had the opportunity to speak to Ald. Campbell about this? Have you spoken to Ald. Turvey, that’s her committee?’ It gave me the ability to know a committee chair would look after the issue for me and for all of us.”
Looking beyond the committee structure to the role of a city manager, Peters observed “Ultimately it raises a question about the mayor. I can only know how I operated. That’s why I look forward to seeing how things are today.
“In many ways it is the role of the mayor to lead us as a council, to lead administration and the staff. I’m not opposed to a city manager, we need a city manager’s position. You need someone who is ultimately responsible and the buck stops with that person.
“You need that head of the civil service, so to speak. And it is building on that relationship between the mayor and the administrator, staff and council.”
One structural change Peters approves of is the additional member of council this time around.
“Increasing it to eight perhaps allows us to become a little more focussed on some of the broader issues in the community by being able to spread the workload around a little bit more.”
Like a youngster eager to dive into the gifts under the Christmas tree, Peters admitted he is “excited and looking forward to working with my colleagues.”
He closes the discussion on a cautionary note, however.
“I’ll be fighting to make sure we are not becoming a platform for any one particular party of any stripe at the local level. That’s always been a big one for me. I can tell you my black-and-white signs appealed to a lot of people.”
It’s all right there in the numbers.
For Steve Peters, his focus is on city hall, once again
A CHANCE TO GREEN THE DOWNTOWN?
One of the early tasks for the incoming council will be to reach a consensus on what becomes of the Colin McGregor Justice Building, now being demolished.
Back in May, council awarded the contract to Schouten Excavating, the lowest bidder at $319,000, excluding HST. Compare that to the $197,000 winning tender to level the Sutherland Press building, also undertaken by the Watford, Ontario firm.
Speaking with city manager Wendell Graves, he advised “The property will be left level. What we will need to do is give the new council the opportunity to review things and pick up where we left off with concepts and how that translates into something physically happening there.”
It was the responsibility of this council “to get the building out of there,” continued Graves.
“We will be discussing that (future plan for the property) during the (2019) capital budget process, in terms of what that will look and feel like.”
Part of that equation could include the municipal parking lot across the street adjacent to the London & Port Stanley Railway corridor.
“It was part of the conversation,” confirmed Graves. “We have done a couple of environmental samples there and nothing surprising came up. We will be talking about that and see how the two pieces fit together.”
At a reference committee meeting in December of last year, Graves presented a preliminary concept that would feature plenty of green space, including what he described as a private reading garden next to the public library with access through the building.
In 2016, city staff drafted a conceptual plan for such a development that would link city hall, the public library, and the rail corridor.
And a 2015 retail market study undertaken by Dillon Consulting and W. Scott Morgan & Associates presented to council in April of 2017 urged the city to develop the former police headquarters property for “community use including active and passive recreational uses.”
However, at that reference committee meeting, a pair of councillors were less than enthusiastic about adding green space to the downtown core.
Coun. Gary Clarke proposed building apartments on the property “to drive people downtown.”
Coun. Mark Tinlin, meantime, wanted “more research into other options.”
Could this redevelopment of prime downtown real estate be one of the initial pieces of business to challenge the council sworn in Dec. 3?
Much-maligned Dobbie Report basis for double-digit salary hikes at city hall
RE: WALNUT MANOR IS BUGGED
If the quality of food at the independent supportive living home in St. Thomas doesn’t leave a bad taste for residents, the bed bugs likely will do the trick.
Two weeks ago, we documented a serious infestation of the critters at the facility operated by Niagara Supportive Living of Welland.
We reported a call to Rachel Dunbar at Southwestern Public Health came with the assurance an inspection of the home would be initiated.
And we are pleased to confirm Dunbar was true to her word, undertaking an inspection on Oct. 23.
“Prior to that I had discussed with the owner Vishal (Chityal, also known as Charlie Duke) and the pest control company and they already have started treatment,” advised Dunbar.
“Right now, there are still going to be bugs around and we did see some when we were there. But I guess there has been a significant decrease from what it was. They are definitely aware of the issue and they are taking action for it.”
It was not a pretty sight, according to Dunbar.
“They did take us to a room, one specifically that was really bad . . . Based on what we saw, I couldn’t imagine living in how bad it was.”
It’s going to be an on-going process, assured Dunbar.
“The pest control company they have right now is going to be doing their routine monthly inspection to check for bed bugs as well as their mice issue.
“Either myself or the area inspector will see how things are going after a few weeks because it takes some time to get rid of the bugs or control it at least.”
Dunbar continued, “In my talk with the pest control company they are doing all the right things as far as controlling it. They even got covers for all the mattresses and they are treating the whole facility and not just the rooms that are affected. That’s what I really wanted to see.
“(Patrick Pinnoy, the facility manager) was honest about it. They were all saying it was really bad. He was honest about it.
“I talked about prevention measures, as far as things they can discuss with the residents. Make the residents aware of what they can do to try and prevent them from coming in.”
Now, about that mandated sprinkler system.
Are advance polling numbers an indication St. Thomas voters are engaged?
FOR THE CALENDAR
Monday (Nov. 5) is the first day of registration for the Christmas Care campaign and participants have until Dec. 14 to sign up. This year the volunteers are housed in the former Zellers store at what is now the Elgin Centre on Wellington Street. To register, you need identification, statement of earnings and something with your current address on it. We’ll have full details in a story early next week.
Also on Monday, a public meeting will be held at the Keystone Complex in Shedden to present further details on the 348-home subdivision proposed for Talbotville. The session will run from 7 to 9 p.m.
On Tuesday (Nov. 6) the Southwold Community Policing Association will host an information night dealing with the legalization of cannabis. Topics include Marijuana and the Law; Cannabis and your Tween/Teen; and Medical Use of Cannabis. Doors at the Keystone Complex in Shedden open at 6:30 p.m., with the forum beginning at 7 p.m. More info at facebook.com/southwoldcpa.
A public meeting will be held beginning at 10 a.m., November 13 in Room 304 at city hall hosted by the Site Plan Control Committee to consider an application for three (7-9 storey) apartment buildings on the former Alma College site at 96 Moore Street.
Questions and comments may be emailed to City Scope
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