As the new Kingston city council is officially sworn in for a four-year term Dec. 4, the former council term will be remembered for its major accomplishments and sometimes awkward apologies.
You’ll recall voters elected half a dozen fresh, youthful faces to the horseshoe in 2014, including rookie Mayor Bryan Paterson. From the get-go, they promised to be a more conducive clan that would restore decorum to council meetings both in tone and mutual respect. And, for the most part, they kept their word.
But their get-along mantra also sowed seeds of problems down the road. One of the former council’s first acts was to decline hiring an integrity commissioner to keep tabs on council conduct which, nowadays, is a legislated staple of Ontario municipalities. Instead, council went the ad hoc route, hiring a lawyer as needed to resolve complaints.
Mayor Paterson went with the majority vote, although he saw the role as more of an educational service rather than acting as council’s cop. “Be pro-active so it doesn’t blow up later on,” he told council in February 2015.
However, veteran Coun. Jim Neill argued the city didn’t need a full-time integrity commissioner to improve municipal government accountability and transparency. At the time he remarked: “We can do it ourselves.”
It was an argument that would later come back to haunt the group as an unprecedented number of integrity investigations were launched — and it seemed the city ended up having the on-call integrity commissioner’s number on speed dial — to deal with citizen complaints ranging from a councillors’ scolding of a constituent to another’s business connection to the hotly-debated Capitol condo high-rise project.
READ MORE: Developer to appeal Capitol condo ruling
Councillors Kevin George, Peter Stroud, Adam Candon all felt the sting of separate investigations that concluded they had breached council’s Code of Conduct — leading to public apologies but no sanctions against them. Coun. Candon was so vocal and bitter over his experience that he declined to seek re-election this year.
Their experience may serve as a valuable lesson for the latest batch of rookie politicians of just how careful they must choose their words and actions. Council now has a permanent integrity commissioner to advise and investigate.
But the 2014-2018 term was also marked with some big accomplishments. The former council will be remembered as the one that pushed ahead with big infrastructure projects; completing the final phase of the “Big Dig” of downtown’s Princess Street, expanding Norman Rogers Airport, rejuvenating Rideau Heights, planning an east-end community centre and expanding the Public Works maintenance garage, to name a few.
Perhaps their biggest decision was to push the third bridge project to “unsinkability status.” Building on the momentum of previous councils, this group managed to secure provincial and federal grants totalling $120 million while casting their own support to get the $180-million bridge built over the Cataraqui River. Construction of the 1.2-kilometre crossing is expected to begin in the summer of 2019.
The crucial debate to approve the bridge was not without controversy when two councillors ducked out of a detailed staff presentation to have a bite to eat at a restaurant next to City Hall. The June 2017 debacle, dubbed “Pub Gate” by the media, prompted complaints about the duo dining on council time. Then-rookie councillors Peter Stroud and Mary Rita Holland later apologized. Coun. Stroud acknowledged the optics of leaving such an important meeting were not good.
“That is true. Had I a press secretary they probably would’ve been mad at me because it was bad from an optics point of view for sure,” he told reporters at the time.
While the bridge represents Kingston’s biggest ever infrastructure project to largely benefit daily commuters seeking relief from congestion on Highway 401 and the LaSalle Causeway, the former council also undertook an unprecedented expansion in active transportation such as public transit, walking and cycling. The result is expanded express bus service and record ridership levels on Kingston Transit, additional bicycle lanes across the city and more pedestrian pathways including completing the urban portion of K&P Trail into the downtown.
The two-year, multi-million dollar makeover of the city’s waterfront jewel, Breakwater Park, was another highlight of the past four years with its new swimming area from Gord Edgar Downie Pier and upland beach activities. However, the city misjudged the park’s popularity and was forced to fence off a large entranceway to prevent jaywalking across busy King Street West while it invested thousands of dollars to install a new pedestrian-activated crossing.
As the new council assumes power during Mayor Paterson’s second term, the four new faces around the horseshoe — Simon Chapelle, Bridget Doherty, Wayne Hill and Robert Kiley — represent a one-third turnover in local governance. They will soon be thrust into the increasingly complex world of being a municipal politician. But they’ll be better paid for it as the new council gets a hefty raise based on a recent pay review.
READ MORE: Why new council deserves pay raise
In January, they will be focused on finalizing Kingston’s more than quarter-billion-dollar municipal operating, capital and utilities budgets, and the property tax increase that usually comes with it. There is pressure on politicians to dig deeper into the budget numbers to avoid rubber stamping the tax hike — a 2.5 per cent inflationary-based increase has been common in recent years. While it has preserved municipal programs and services, many homeowners complain the year-over-year increases are not sustainable for them.
Kingston is also expected to tackle its crushing 0.6 per cent rental vacancy rate, the lowest in Ontario, making apartment hunting extremely frustrating and more expensive as market rental rates tend to increase to reflect the housing shortage.
The housing shortage file could be thrust into the spotlight in March when the new council is scheduled to hold a series of meetings to set their priorities for the 2018-2020 term.
Bill Hutchins is anchor of the flagship news program at CKWS-TV in Kingston.