With the 2022 municipal election just over a month away, more than 150 residents attended a mayoral debate at St. Paul’s Centre Wednesday evening.
Moderated by Rev. Ted Reeve, candidates Mason Ainsworth, John Maxwell, and Don McIsaac laid out their views and plans on a wide variety of issues impacting the city.
Following introductory remarks, candidates answered nine questions preselected from over 40 provided by Green Orillia and the Simcoe County Alliance to End Homelessness.
Candidates were given the opportunity to provide rebuttals to their competitors’ statements, as well as to provide closing remarks following the question period.
The room proved to be excitable as attendees alternately cheered for and disapproved of candidate statements, with Ainsworth in particular eliciting both positive and negative reactions from the crowd over the course of the evening.
Topics discussed by the candidates included their plans to address climate change and implement the city’s climate action plan; how they will address the affordable housing crisis; how they will combat urban sprawl as the city grows, and their plans to support and expand healthcare within the city.
Candidates also discussed their plans to maintain city infrastructure; plans to foster diversity and inclusion; how they will tackle the city’s issues while remaining fiscally responsible, and how they will cooperate and collaborate effectively with council members and citizens.
Plans to address climate change and implement the city’s climate action plan were the first issues candidates discussed.
McIsaac said implementing the plan’s recommendations immediately is his priority.
“The climate change plan needs to be implemented now – full stop,” began McIsaac. "In my first 100 days as your mayor I plan to move it forward. I'm sure it's not a perfect plan, but with any plan, there will be challenges along the way. We will deal with whatever we encounter as we move forward.
“We will integrate the recommendations of the climate change plan in all of our processes and procedures, including budgeting, building codes, community planning, capital expenditures.It will become part of doing everyday business.”
Ainsworth, in what would become a recurring theme through the evening, highlighted the importance of making Orillia “investment ready” in addressing issues across development, housing, job creation – and climate change.
“The big thing is this costs money,” he said. “I want you to remember these two words because they're gonna come up a few times: investment ready. What that means is making sure that Orillia is ready for investments coming into it, making sure we have streamline processes for things.”
Ainsworth highlighted council’s accomplishments over his previous two terms as evidence of his commitment to tackling climate change.
“My track record shows my commitment to the environment. We've created a community garden policy. We've created a bee friendly city. We put in over $55 million into a tertiary treatment plant to reduce the amount of phosphorus that's going into our lakes,” he said. “We've done a great job of waste diversion within our community. At one point, you know, we were the second best in all Ontario. These are things that speak volumes.”
Maxwell said he did “not come here prepared,” but that he was committed to serving his constituents’ needs and desires.
“I come here to talk to you straight from the heart. What a mayor needs to do is listen to the citizens of Orillia to find out their needs, their wants, and their cares,” he said.
Up next, candidates laid out their plans for affordable housing.
While he did not share a specific plan, Maxwell stressed the importance of bringing affordable housing to Orillia.
“We need affordable housing here,” began Maxwell. “There are so many people in Orillia that are … finding it hard to deal with daily living. They are lined up at food banks … it breaks my heart, it really does.”
Ainsworth highlighted the difficulties he experienced growing up in affordable housing, and pointed to the “thousands” of homes that have been built over his time on council, as well as the creation of the affordable housing committee and incentive programs for bringing such developments to the city.
“The big thing, at the end of the day, making sure to build these things, is that the city is investment ready, and (when) they want to come here we’re willing to work with them and are willing to cut the red tape, and we're willing to add to the tax base but also to the housing inventory within the city," said AInsworth.
McIsaac said housing is a “critical issue” in Orillia that he would address by engaging professionals of all types while working to "incentivize" affordable developments through policy.
“Within the first 100 days … I would get together with nonprofits, real estate people, developers, planners, citizens, have an all-hands-on-deck approach to examine this problem,” he said.
“I think we should look at allocating a portion of the lands in the city to be developed by nonprofits,” he said. “I think we should incentivize the construction of purpose-built rental houses, and I think we should enable more collaborative and supportive, affordable housing.”
Following affordable housing, candidates discussed their plans to manage growth and urban sprawl, under the backdrop of provincial policy that calls for Orillia to grow to 50,000 people by 2050.
“Managing urban sprawl is just good stewardship,” said McIsaac. “I’m committed to the thoughtful and responsible growth of Orillia: healthy walkable neighbourhoods within our city … finding working solutions with the surrounding townships, and implementing missing middle housing strategies and agreeable neighbourhoods, implementing vacant land policies to accelerate (development) within the city. And infill – we need to do a better job infilling before we look at expansion.”
Maxwell stated he does not “see growth here” because of the loss of manufacturing jobs over the years, highlighting “good old boys” in Orillia and “shame” about the city for its current state.
Ainsworth agreed there is a “good old boys” problem in Orillia and took a jab at McIsaac before laying out his ideas.
“I did write my own speech, so I'm happy to answer (the) questions and not just read what’s before me,” he said, to the crowd’s disapproval.
“Luckily, during our time on council, we've created many great programs, including the Downtown Tomorrow Community Improvement Plan, where we're actually helping build housing, we're helping intensify within our community, and we're encouraging intensification where it fits,” he said.
“We need to make sure we work with our municipal partners, so that we're not stealing their land, and then we're helping them develop within their communities, which helps ease the burden on our taxpayers," said Ainsworth.
Up next, candidates discussed food insecurity, with Reeves noting that one in eight households in Simcoe County are considered food insecure.
Maxwell did not have any comments on addressing food insecurity.
McIsaac said he will address the issue by reviewing the current state of food insecurity in Orillia and working towards short-, medium-, and long-term goals.
“I will quantify the problem, which is my standard approach, identify the progress, and start the process of developing short-, medium- and long-term implementation plans,” he said.
"Finding ways of implementing small but effective ideas – there's a guy by the name of Myles Odlozinski, who is a 15-year-old high school student who's got this idea of a community fridge. It's absolutely brilliant, we need more stuff like that and I applaud his efforts making food more affordable for those who have limited resources," said McIsaac.
Ainsworth highlighted the success of various community initiatives by organizations like the Sharing Place, and said bringing in economic activity is crucial to funding projects related to food insecurity.
“If we are investment ready as a community, we're bringing in additional revenue that we don't have now. We're bringing in more jobs,” Ainsworth said. “This is how we get more economic activity for communities so that … we can help fund these things that we need to do in our community without putting the burden on the taxpayer.”
Plans to support and expand healthcare were the next topic of discussion.
Ainsworth again highlighted the importance of economic activity in reducing the burden on the taxpayer – who he pointed out battles inflation, fixed pensions, and more – and recruiting additional physicians, but he also stressed the importance of ensuring a new hospital comes to Orillia.
“We need to make sure that our new hospital is within our community. I have connections in the province, with different municipalities to make sure we go lobby, we meet with the people that we need to meet with,” he said. “We get our CAO, we go to Queen's Park, we lobby these folks and we say, ‘Hey, we want this within our community', and we're going to work with our surrounding townships in the catchment area to come to the table and make sure that it happens.”
McIsaac said there's been a lack of funding for Orillia Soldiers' Memorial Hospital in recent years and noted health-care funding largely comes from the province, but he highlighted a number of ways he would like to help at the municipal level.
“One of the priorities is helping people with things that matter, like finding a doctor,” he said. “The other applicable priority is looking after our most vulnerable people, who have mental health needs (and) are dealing with the opioid crisis. Legislatively, healthcare is not part of the city's mandate, but there are things we can do.
“At the first of the year, the pharmacists will be able to prescribe for 13 various ailments – that's helpful. We need to do more of that advocacy, removing silos between services, doctors, nurse practitioners … clinics, pharmacies," said McIsaac.
Maxwell stated he wishes to see increased safety for community members who use mobility scooters to get around, expressing frustration for a friend of his who once brought the subject to council.
“(They) came council to ask what we can do to make it safe for people to have (mobility scooters), and they kicked her out,” he said.
Candidates then discussed their plans to maintain city infrastructure.
McIsaac, again, highlighted the importance of reviewing current data to bring solutions, and suggested increased data collection from residents to help expedite concerns.
“This topic about infrastructure is probably at the top of the hit list, along with the high cost of living. We need to take action,” he said.
“We need to be more prescriptive in collecting and acting on complaints … much like a helpdesk. If we get a complaint on a pothole, we should expedite its repair quickly and communicate when it's expected to be completed, and when it's completed we should advise whoever complained about it that the action’s been taken to make sure they're satisfied,” he said.
“We need to support and reward staff so they initiate going out of the way to provide good customer service and take pride in their work.”
Maxwell did not provide a comment on infrastructure.
Ainsworth once again highlighted the importance of bringing economic activity to the city to help fund infrastructure projects, and said he has a proven track record of supporting infrastructure improvements.
“When I got re-elected to city council in 2018, one of the first budget items we did was we doubled investment into basic infrastructure. We doubled investment into roads,” he said. "We doubled investment into sidewalks, and we made major investments into snow removal in the city. I have a proven track record of supporting basic infrastructure within our city, and I will continue to support it as mayor.”
Following infrastructure, candidates discussed their plans to foster diversity and inclusion in the city.
Maxwell highlighted his desire to listen to the concerns of all of the city’s residents.
“I listen to members of this city and their needs, their wants, their concerns – I want to help. I do the very best I can to help people,” he said.
McIsaac said he will work to implement new policy recommendations and meet with the region’s Indigenous leaders within his first 100 days in office.
“I read the report submitted in July of 2022 by the Orillia Diversity Advisory Committee to the current council, and will look for opportunities to implement their recommendations. It's time to move forward and get it done,” he said.
“I've also read the Truth and Reconciliation Report and the 94 calls to action, and we need to take action. Within the first 100 days, I will meet with Indigenous leaders in our community and the surrounding municipalities regarding calls to action … (and) I would identify ways of discussing these issues collectively.”
He said he would also like to implement Indigenous culture sensitivity training to members of council and city staff.
Ainsworth highlighted the importance of simply showing up to hear the needs of diverse communities.
“I think one of the most important things when it comes to inclusion, when it comes to diversity, when it comes to listening is showing up,” he said.
Ainsworth pointed to the active cricket scene in Orillia as evidence he has "shown up" to help Orillia’s Indo-Canadian community.
“I helped them create a club with the city. I helped get some funding for that club,” he said. “I helped get some space so that they could play, and now they've had multiple tournaments, bringing people from all over Ontario to Orillia to play cricket, to share culture and to bring sports tourism to the city.”
Up next, candidates laid out their plans to remain fiscally responsible while addressing the city’s issues.
Ainsworth pointed to his experience on council, stating he’s been a “voice of reason” over the years and that social progress goes hand-in-hand with economic progress.
“If you've had the privilege of watching city council over the past few years, you've seen that I'm fiscally responsible at the table, as well as socially conscious. We cannot have one without the other,” he said.
“This is not a business. This is a municipality that is here to provide services and to help people and do it in a fiscally responsible manner," said Ainsworth.
“The more revenue we're bringing into the city, the more jobs, the more housing, the more excitement that Orillia has, and the more streamlined processes, the better we can get the ball rolling on these things that we need to do.”
Maxwell was reluctant to promise too much to Orillia’s residents.
"To have good responsibility, one must lead by leadership," Maxwell said. "One must act on behalf of the citizens, but they cannot do it all,” he said. “You cannot say ‘Well, I promised you that, I'm going to promise you everything. I'm not prepared to do that.”
McIsaac highlighted that certain expenses the city undertakes prove to be worthwhile investments, adding he plans to carefully negotiate a responsible path forward.
“We need to use our limited resources wisely, and we need to understand the difference between an investment and an expenditure. We won't leave anybody out in the cold … that's just not acceptable,” he said.
“Ensuring there is suitable housing with supports where (it’s) necessary and makes good economic sense should be characterized as an investment in the community. Expect the results of this investment will be less hospital emergency visits, less police calls and less human tragedy," said McIsaac.
“As a chartered professional accountant, I have decades of experience differentiating between investments and expenditures, and I look forward to using those skills.”
Ainsworth used the discussion about fiscal responsibility to take a shot at his rival.
“The one thing I did really find impressive about Don McIsaac was one of his decisions about fiscal responsibility (was) to retire back to Canada where we do have free health care," said Ainsworth, whose comment was roundly booed.
Finally, candidates discussed how they will collaborate and cooperate with council and community members alike.
Ainsworth looked to his past two terms on council as evidence of effective cooperation between city council and community.
“We have been effective community leaders within our community over the past eight years. A lot of folks … have said we're one of the best councils they've ever had. That's not me saying that. That's what I've heard in the community,” he said.
“We need to make sure we have diverse people at the table. We have different dynamics. We have good discussions when we make sure we're doing the best thing for the community," Ainsworth said.
McIsaac said he plans to meet with councillors, community leaders, and constituents within his first 100 days to set the appropriate priorities.
“I will meet with whoever gets elected to council and I look forward to doing so. I will listen to everyone. I will prioritize the needs and interests of voters," vowed McIsaac.
“I will meet with senior staff. I will consult with the interest groups. I'll build an effective team, and (I’ll go on) a ride along with the OPP. I'll review budget and capital plans in detail. I'll set the priorities and accountabilities along with council … to make sure we’re going in the right direction.”
Maxwell did not provide a comment on cooperation and collaboration.