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PEC mayoral candidates face questions from Picton Rotarians

While the Ontario Court of Appeal today sided with Premier Doug Ford to allow cutting Toronto’s city council seats almost in half to align to provincial and federal boundaries (without using the constitution’s nonwithstanding clause), two of three candidates vying to lead Prince Edward County council as mayor, would not agree to re-opening the issue here.

The three mayoral candidates introduced themselves and answered questions from members of the Picton Rotary Club on Tuesday, at the Waring House.

Following almost a decade of discussion, reports, votes, petitions and an election ballot question, council, in 2016 approved a bylaw to merge Bloomfield and Hallowell into a single ward, reducing the number of wards to nine, from 10. Sophiasburgh’s representation dropped to one councillor from two, reducing council’s makeup in this year’s Oct. 22 election to 14 – one mayor and 13 councillors (from 16 current seats). Another Ontario Municipal Board hearing last year, upheld the decision of council.

Rotarians wanted to know if candidates would support opening the debate again.

Dianne O’Brien has witnessed council’s journey on the subject over her past 12 years as councillor for Ameliasburgh.

“When I was first on council I thought yes, council’s too big. But after 12 years I would not be in support of re-opening the debate,” she said. “It’s divisive for council; it’s expensive for taxpayers and in the end, because we’ve done it three times before and been to the OMB twice.”

She noted her research with CEOs of other muncipalities who had reduced council size shared cautions about the move.

“We do have a lot of County councillors but they earn their money, they work hard and they are actually our voice. They’ve got their boots on the ground and we’ve got their ear. We need to keep what we have.”

Steve Ferguson, currently councillor for South Marysburgh, is also not in favour of re-opening the debate.

“Last time we did it I think our costs ran close to $250,000 for the entire process, including the OMB hearing and $250,000 can do an awful lot for healthcare, or for attainable housing, or for other initiatives,” he said. “Once we deal with those issues, if we want to entertain a conversation about size of council again, I think we have to listen to the proponents for that, but right now, I can’t justify that.”

He did note that given what is happening in Toronto, the issue “may come to roost in Prince Edward County whether we like it or not, that’s something this council has to be prepared to deal with.”

Local businessman Richard Whiten has no political experience but notes great interest in politics. He would be in support of opening the debate on council size again, but believes it wouldn’t save money as those who remained would have to work full-time.

“I don’t feel we need as many councillors as we have. (one for every 2,000 residents). I don’t feel we need that many decisions and it would make for a lot more progress, quicker… If we did trim the size significantly, the positions would be more full-time for the ones that are left so I don’t see it saving much money but it would help the process, I think.”

The three agree, however, on the County’s current hot issue of short-term accommodations.

“The County’s draft bylaw that came out last week I fully believe is a step in the right direction, but obviously there’s a lot of grey areas that need to be ironed out,” said Whiten. “It’s been a free-for-all for so long in the County, it is affecting the economy, the affordable housing, the population growth. We definately do need to regulate it – not just for those factors, but it’s also affecting the way of life of many people and even for just being able to enjoy life in our own homes.”

Ferguson and O’Brien said they have received several hundred emails from County residents over the issue.

“People have expressed their anger – not so much about the legislation, but the process,” said Ferguson. “Speaking individually, and not for council, I think the process that was undertaken was flawed and needs to be reviewed – and not just in this instance, but for any issue of big public concern.”

He said he is generally in favour of regulations and has been working with the County’s Chamber of Commerce for some time, but mostly for issues of safety, and “making sure people using those accommodations were protected from anything that could do them harm, and reflect badly on Prince Edward County.”

O’Brien noted she declares her conflict of interest on the issue at council as a family member operates an Airbnb in Bloomfield.

“So, in my own personal opinion, I do believe we do need licencing. There’s money there. There’s tourism that’s coming in and wear and tear on our infrastructure,” she said. “But we’re not even near finished the consulting process in my opinion and not even near thinking about considering a bylaw.”

The two serving councillors want to know parameters the province will impose surrounding legalization of cannabis shops before they make opinions, while Whiten is ready to roll forward on the issue.

“Cannabis has been referred to as a cash crop here in the County for many years and whether we have pot shops or not, it is still going to be available,” he said. “It’s best that we have the pot shops and regulations in place and it’ll be much easier to keep it out of the hands of children. At the same time, it’s a good revenue generating stream for the town and a lot more businesses and employment opportunity for people in town. So far, I’m all for it.”

Ferguson, noting attendance at sessions on the subject held by the Association of Municipalities recently, stated the issue must be handled very carefully.

“We have had no information given to us by the province as to what the process is going to be for the retailing of marijuana. We do know the municipality will have an opportunity to either opt in, or opt out. If we choose to opt out, then we can later opt in. If we opt in, we cannot opt out,” he explained. “The licensing and location of where dispensaries will be located is really predicated on inforamtion that is not yet been forthcoming. My approach is one of caution… The two-hour presentation at AMO on what other municipalities and specific agencies are contending with show questions being rased and not a lot of answers being provided.”

O’Brien agrees the muncipality is “going to be a victim of the province until they decide where it’s going to be sold… I do think cannabis does need a level of control. We are already seeing vandalism already with peole trying to steal from the pop up stores so I do think we need stricter controls. Until we get a mandate from the province, the municipality doesn’t have a mandate, so we just have to wait patiently.”

Bumps on the road to change led to the question of how to solve the problem of County Road 49 – which last year topped the list of ‘Worst Roads in Ontario’.

“County Road 49 needs to be repaired That’s it. We don’t have an option,” said O’Brien. “We have prices that vary between $18 million and $23 million. We have to lobby the province and the feds to get money.”

Ferguson agreed.

“It’s a main thoroughfare and we are going to have to partner with other levels of government to make sure it happens beause it just cannot come out of the pockets of taxpayers. It’s too expensive to do.”

Whiten suggests the County is beyond requesting help.

“It’s time we start demanding and possibly forcing their hand to help us with it. It is expensive for the County to have to fix There may be other avenues where we can save some money on it, but still in the long run, we have to more actively request help from provincial and federal governments on it.”

On the issue of parking meters, the three noted they have all heard concerns from the public.

Ferguson, who advocated during council sessions for the old meters over the advanced digital versions, said at very least considerations need to be made for seniors and those with mobility and accessibility concerns.

Annual or monthly parking passes he suggested would help those who have difficulty getting to, and using the meters, which he noted could also use adjustment in height and could be simpler to operate.

“We do have to generate as much revenue as we possibly can from as many sources as we possibly can and parking is one way to do that,” he noted. “Also they are a way to encourage traffic to move along, not taking up space for other people who are shopping or on other activities.”

O’Brien agreed noting her Dad told her years ago that “If you want to be rich, you build a parking lot and you know what? he’s right. That’s where the money is – in parking.”

Whiten, as he’s not currently a councillor, said he wasn’t part of any parking meter decisions and isn’t up yet on the costs associated or whether they will pay for themselves or not but was sure they are not always reliable.

“They didn’t like the cold last winter and didn’t work at all. I don’t have answers because that information isn’t available to me yet.”

Rotarians wanted to know the candidates’ opinions on developing a municipally-owned and operated Picton Harbour, similar to that at Cobourg.

“We have undertaken a recent study for what the Picton Harbour could look like,” said Ferguson. “Effectively it has been completed but has to be revived and given careful consideration during the next term of council. We can’t undertake studies such as this one, pay the money to have them done, involve the community, then not do anything.”

O’Brien agreed continuation of research and study on what is bes for the taxpayers will be better understood once the final study is completed.

“I’m interested in seeing the value of the report and what is in it for us, the taxpayers. I’m open-minded about the option,” she said.

Whiten said he would like to see it remain in County hands.

“Privitization would not be beneficial to any of the residents of the County but I would have to look into it to have more of an opinion.”

While he has no political experience, Whiten noted in his introduction that “people in the circle that I live with feel they are not accurately represented when it comes to council, and I’ve always been interested in politics.”

He said the current council is making progress, “but we need to make some great strides forward. The current council is taking steps but we need to take some giant leaps forward to get caught up on issues… I really think we need to focus on affordable housing and attracting more working class families to the County. Between that and industry, we can’t have one without the other. We need both. It’s going to be a big challenge to actually achieve that goal.”

O’Brien, in her introduction, said she considers one of her best skills is her ability to negotiate, learned in her career in the telecommunications industry.

She wants to see a more business-friendly infrastructure.

“We need to cut that red tape and get on with the business of building homes and affordable housing. We need to have a plan to make that possible.”

Her other priorities were to continue reparing and maintaining roads and infrastructure and ideas to create stable employment.

“I can’t stress enough the importance of sustainable healthcare and affordable healthcare. We need that Picton hospital… My experience does give me the optimism, the willingness an the desire to be one of the best mayors Prince Edward County has ever had.”

Ferguson has also served as council’s representative to the Chamber of Commerce and the Heritage Advisory Committee. He is also past president of the Milford Fair Board, and publishes the South Marysburgh Mirror. His career background includes marketing and executive positions in the entertainment distribution and retail merchandising industries.

Challenges for focus in Prince Edward County, he said, are on the issues of the hospital, housing, a simplified process throughout Shire Hall, jobs, youth, cost-containment and revenue generation.

His best quality, he said, is his ability to listen.

“I think that is crucial in any kind of municipal job. I also have an ability to build consensus – proven in my business career as well as my municipal experience. I’m analytical and critical because ultimately, the decisions that have to be made on behalf of our constitutents have to take all those qualities into consideration.”

The next meeting of mayoral candidates will be hosted Wednesday, Oct. 3 at The Regent Theatre in Picton, hosted by the Chamber of Commerce. Meet and greet at 6:30 p.m. followed by questions beginning at 7 p.m.

Click here for further mayoral and ward candidate meetings. 

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  1. Elizabeth Lancaster says:

    Hi Richard,
    Yesterday we were forwarded a presentation about a very large hotel development comprising 40 cabins, plus permanent tents, lodge, staff residence, event space, corporate complex, spa, recreation facilities, meditation hut, bar, viewing platforms and trails for Rock Crossroad/County Road 8 on existing undeveloped land. The company name is IRTH and It’s a huge complex, and utterly changes the usage of that land in an area of the County that is entirely agricultural and rural.

    The presentation we received says that rezoning for this complex is expected in March of 2019.

    As a mayoral candidate could you explain your position on how the County decides that undeveloped, rural land that is surrounded by existing homes and farms becomes commercially zoned, please?

    Needless to say this is a significant topic of conversation in North Marysburgh. I’ll share your response with neighbours here.

    Thanks so much for your time.

  2. Chris Keen says:

    Since the County is always looking for sources of revenue I wonder why the parking meters removed from Picton were not reinstalled in Bloomfield and Wellington?

    Also, it would be interesting to know whether the new meters are taking in the same total revenue as the old parking meters.

  3. Dennis Fox says:

    This election is about far more than STA – don’t let council sidetrack the bigger issues – taxes, water rates, roads, benefitting form the tourist trade,etc. Ask the two incumbent councillors who are running for mayor why they supported a model to downsize council that was NOT one approve by either the public, or by council -it was a planned last minute end run around their own process – causing a $250,000 OMB hearing – paid by the taxpayers they let down. How can we trust them?

  4. Chuck says:

    Persons who have recently purchased properties for this purpose may now be disallowed while their neighbors STA is approved. A real mess.

  5. Fred says:

    Sounds like the STA bylaw that planning is ramming through is far from being approved.

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