With time winding down before the municipal election, Orillia’s mayoral candidates gathered at the Rotary Aqua Theatre Tuesday evening to answer questions on a wide range of issues.
Hosted by the Rotary Club of Orillia, club president John Hammill moderated the event before dozens of attendees, which included Rotarians, residents, current council members, and council candidates.
The format for the event included two mandatory questions – asking candidates to lay out their top three priorities, and how they would balance legacy and infrastructure projects – but permitted candidates to select three of the remaining nine questions to answer.
Topics discussed include how the candidates would foster diversity, equity and inclusion, how each would describe their leadership style, their views on cannabis and adult entertainment shops, how to effectively use their tie-breaking mayoral vote in council proceedings, and their views on the living wage debate.
Candidates also discussed competing desires for tourism within the city, addressed concerns about upper management turnover within the city, and how they will succeed in contract negotiations with city employees in the coming years.
Found with time to spare, Hammill also posed questions about how candidates will recruit doctors to the city, how they will retain youth within the city, and why the public should vote for them.
Candidates Mason Ainsworth, John Maxwell, and Don McIsaac began by presenting their top three priorities.
Ainsworth said his top three priorities include investing in basic infrastructure – such as roads, sidewalks, and ditches – supporting local businesses, and developing partnerships with not-for-profits, clubs, and community organizations.
“Businesses are the backbone of our community, and without our business community we couldn't do anything within the community,” he said. “The third thing is partnerships, making sure we're working together with our not-for-profits, with our clubs, with our community groups and with our surrounding municipalities.”
“There’s big discussions about taking people's land,” Ainsworth added, highlighting discussions about the possible annexation of neighbouring townships’ land to support growth. “I'm not interested in taking anybody's land; we should be working to support our surrounding municipalities, making sure that we're good neighbours and then we're helping out with future growth.”
Maxwell said his priorities include infrastructure, the cost of living, and business, and stressed the difficulty of getting by while living below the poverty line.
“I would make sure that we have good infrastructure … we need that here in Orillia. We need support of the community, and I will give that support to the community,” he said. “I have talked to many, many people in this city that are trying to get by on $1,400 a month, and that's a shame. I know these are not on the program, but they're on my program.
“The other thing is that I have talked to a lot of businesses. Myself, I'm a retired manufacturer and I built a successful business. I am a builder, and I am a listener, and I am a leader.”
McIsaac said he prioritizes helping the city’s vulnerable, helping people find doctors and housing, and bringing a financially responsible eye to the council table.
“My priorities are as follows. I want to help people with what matters most to them, help them find a doctor, help them with the rising cost of living, help them find a home,” he said. “Secondly, I'd like to help the most vulnerable – those who have opioid addictions, homelessness and drug problems. That's important.
“Third, I think we need to provide good government and spend our tax dollars wisely, and that includes budgeting carefully and making sure we get value for whatever dollar we spend.”
All three candidates discussed their plans to foster diversity, equity, and inclusion in the city.
“I want to make sure we build a safe, inclusive and sustainable environment for all people, not just some people, but all people,” McIsaac said. “I also am committed to truth and reconciliation … There are 94 calls to action, so I think we need to do what we can to improve those (and) get those across the line.”
Maxwell claimed he would bring progress to the city within his first 50 days in office.
“I have always wanted to support the poor of this community, the rich of this community, and I intend to keep on supporting them. I can only do this, I can only be effective If I'm elected,” he said. “Within the first 50 days of being elected I guarantee that I would have situations under control.”
Ainsworth highlighted the importance of “welcoming different groups” to the city and ensuring council plays its part by investing in opportunities to be more welcoming.
“If we want to be welcoming as a place for people to come and invest their money, we need to make sure that we're welcoming different groups, and that we're coming to the table with solutions,” he said.
“I was happy during our most recent budget deliberations at council; we brought up an item for diversity and equality training. I did have someone reach out to me in the community and say, ‘How dare you spend money on that?’ Well, my opinion is that we should be spending money on these things. It's important to respect people.”
All three candidates laid out their leadership styles, as well.
Ainsworth deferred to his campaign slogan, and said he will be approachable, accountable, and hard working as mayor.
“I'm always approachable whether I’m at events, community functions, or people reaching out online – always happy to chat,” he said. “I'm also accountable to my actions. There's going to be times where we don't agree on things, and that's OK, but I will describe and detail, if you like, why we disagree on things and the reasons behind my actions.
“And then hard working – I'm always there putting in the time, day after day, working on these issues, working to build these bridges and working to build these partnerships.”
McIsaac said teamwork is at the heart of his leadership style.
“I think leadership is inclusive – we build teams. I'm good at building teams, based on my real life experience. I've had to solve problems with companies that have been in trouble with banks that other people haven't been able to solve. The only way to do that is to build a team," said McIsaac.
“I can do things by myself, but I think we, together, can do a lot more. I firmly believe (that) it's not what I do, but it's what we get done,” he said. “The solutions lie within our community, and I look forward to liaising with the voters, council staff, and interest groups to make sure we get input to solve problems.”
Maxwell pointed to his professional experience as a business owner as evidence of strong leadership skills.
“I built a manufacturing company starting from ground zero. As the leader of this team, I built the company with a lot of employees, and quite successfully by the way,” he said. “How I did that is, number one, picking out subjects that would benefit the company, and number two, listening to the employees on what their needs and what their wants and how that would help our clients.
“I ended up negotiating on a million dollar contract and getting my employees to make a commitment so that we could fulfill that contract. And I'll tell you, not one of the members of my employment turned me down. They said 'Boss, let's go for it, let’s win,' and that's how I do it. I'm a winner.”
While the business community would like to see more tourism many locals like the city how it is, so Hammill asked the candidates how they would negotiate between these competing interests.
Ainsworth said requiring visitors to pay for the parking spots they use through the city is one way of “levelling” the playing field and ensuring they contribute to the community.
“Tourism is wonderful. It brings a lot of economic activity to our city. We need to make sure that we're supporting it especially during the tough times within the winter,” he said. “All these people, all from the city, are coming into our community; they're taking up the parking spots, and they're not paying for them at this point in time. I think that's something we need to look at in the future. It's only fair that you're paying your fair share.”
McIsaac, similarly, stressed the needed for the municipality to find a balance in promoting tourism.
“I think tourism is important to Orillia – we’re called the Sunshine City and I think that's for good reason. Tourism is a vital part of the economy,” he said. “If you look at the relationship we have with Rama First Nation, they have a lot of tourists coming into the area, and it really benefits from that.
“I think it floats the boat in terms of businesses, and I think we need to strike a balance. We can't have too much, but I think it's important that we do whatever we can to attract a good tourist base," said McIsaac.
Maxwell viewed tourism as vital to the city, and said people need to work hard to make one another feel welcome.
“Tourism is important to this city, but the store owners and everything else have to open their doors to the community, or to the tourists to make them feel welcome. This city should be welcoming all tourists with open arms,” he said.
“In fact, my wife and I, for the past nine years on Christmas Day, we serve up meals for this community, and we do it on Christmas Day. The loneliest day of the year, rich or poor, we open the doors and say, ‘Come on in and have a meal on us.’”
Hammill asked all three candidates how they would retain youth within the city and provide them with things to do.
McIsaac suggested that by taking care of the city’s vulnerable, its infrastructure, and making wise financial decisions, the city will be a desirable place for young people to build a life.
“I think our youth will want to stay (here) – we can create opportunities for them,” he said. “In terms of jobs, we have colleges here now, so we've got places where they can get educated without leaving the town. That's important, and then also with the industry that will come once we get the priorities established, we'll be able to retain the youth here.”
Maxwell said the city’s youth need to get out, get involved with the community, and go to work to build the lives they want.
“I've been dealing with youth for the past week or so, and the thing they say, “If we had an arcade here…” it would be great for us, but you need more than an arcade – you need a job,” he said. “You need to be part of the community. You don't expect things to be handed to you; you work for them and the reward is you get paid for it.”
Ainsworth pointed to the city's youth senate, highlighting the importance of having youth “around the table,” and stressed the importance of bringing jobs and housing to the city.
“We have a lot of other folks around the table, but now we have youth around the table,” he said. “When we invest more in the city and we bring more investment here, we're going to have jobs for them. We're also going to have housing because a lot of youth and, you know, folks around my age even can't even buy a home right now. So we need to make sure they have a place to live as well.”
With a dire need for doctors in the city, candidates discussed how they might encourage more to work and live in Orillia.
“We can't forget about our nurses, we need to make sure we're supporting them,” Ainsworth said. “The thing is we need to make sure we have housing for them, so that is a big priority for us and we have some great plans (for) how we can have housing specifically for new doctors coming to our area (and) for new nurses who are coming to our area … because we want them to have this as their forever home.”
Maxwell said he “can’t do anything about it,” aside from working with the health unit.
“I can try my very best to recruit doctors, but unfortunately, we don't have them here. Unfortunately, we don't have the proper health care we need here. I'll tell you this has got to be the poorest city for service from our doctors. My doctor is overworked,” he said.
“There's not enough doctors here to serve the community. And when you do get service, you go to the hospital and you're waiting and you're waiting and you're waiting," said Maxwell. “I can't do anything about it. As mayor, I can't – I can only work with the health units.”
McIsaac argued there is plenty that can be done at the municipal level.
“At the municipal level, there's a lot we can do. We can certainly advocate with the province to help,” he said. “Effective January 1, pharmacists in Orillia will be able to prescribe medication for 13 ailments – I think that will help ease the burden.”
He said nurse practitioners can be utilized for less serious ailments, and the city could help train doctors to run their own practices.
“They don't want the overhead,” McIsaac said. “They are trained in medicine, but they're not trained how to run a back office, how to build things, how to schedule patients and that sort of thing, and I think we can help them with that to make their life easier.”
Candidates were also asked to weigh in on how they will balance between investing in large, legacy projects while keeping an eye on city infrastructure.
McIsaac said it is important to tackle infrastructure issues first.
“The roads in Orillia are not in good condition. You know, we can have all the legacy projects we want – if you can't drive down the street, if the buses don't run properly, if the streets aren’t plowed, I don't think people really care,” he said.
“We need to handle basic things that matter most to people first, and that includes improving the roads and making sure the infrastructure is right. That is a good thing to attract business investment as well," said McIsaac.
Maxwell did not weigh in on how he would balance between legacy and infrastructure projects, but he did criticize the state of the city’s roads and the current council.
“We have the poorest streets that I've ever seen in any given city that I've been to. The infrastructure of this city is poor – it is extremely poor,” he said. “If it’s up to the present council, they did a lousy job.”
Ainsworth said he “couldn’t agree more” that the city’s infrastructure needs work, but said his track record demonstrates a history of fiscal responsibility and prioritizing infrastructure investments.
“I'm proud of my voting record, that when I got re-elected to city council in 2018, one of the first items we brought to budget was to double investment into basic infrastructure into our roads, into our sidewalks, and serious investments into snow removal within the city,” he said.
“As folks (have) mentioned, the infrastructure still is pretty bad in some areas, but the reality is … it's been chronically underfunded in the past, lots of former mayors and former councillors, unfortunately, have went after these big legacy projects,” he said.
“If you've spent any time reading about me or watching me in the news or watching our council meetings, you’ll see I'm a big proponent of fiscal responsibility, making sure we are saving money and not putting it into these grandiose things," Ainsworth said.
The remaining questions posed by the Rotary Club were not answered by all candidates, who were given some leeway in selection.
Maxwell and McIsaac discussed how they would effectively use their tie-breaking vote at the council chamber.
Maxwell said he would try to persuade his council members “what will be best for the community,” and McIsaac reiterated his commitment to understanding people’s needs, building a team, and establishing trust–no matter who is elected.
Ainsworth addressed how council will address contract negotiations with city staff in the coming years.
“Does anybody remember the big garbage strike we had in the City of Orillia where they weren't picking up our garbage for the entire summer?” he said, waiting for the crowd’s response. “No, nobody does. You know why? Because it didn't happen. Because we have a good city council, we make sure that these things don't happen.”
“You need to understand how folks think and you need to be able to work with everybody regardless of their political affiliation," said Ainsworth.
Ainsworth also addressed turnover in the city’s upper management, and said the current rates are “pretty standard.”
McIsaac and Maxwell spoke of their views on cannabis and adult entertainment shops in the city.
McIsaac highlighted these types of shops are legal and said “there’s not much we can do about them” beyond ensuring they comply with city regulations, but did say he wishes they were not on the main street.
Maxwell said Orillia has “the largest police force in Ontario, but we have the most corrupt drug dealers right here in Orillia,” and said he will “put an end to it” if elected.
Maxwell also discussed the living wage concept, pointing to a number of people who are struggling in Orillia.
"I deal with a lot of people that ask me the same question: 'John, how can I survive on what I'm getting?' And they said, 'Well, I get $1,400 a month. Have you tried living on $1,400 a month to pay for your rent, to pay for your groceries and to pay for your kids ... Can you do it? '" he said.