As a curious and undecided voter, I (Peter Warrack, photographed below) recently reached out to mayoral candidate Gary Zalepa as I thought it unusual that a regional representative would want to run locally, and as mayor. I recorded the interview. I believe it is important as a voter to be informed.

Peter Warrack, 556 King St, Unit 17, Niagara on the Lake. 905-468-3079

A Discussion with Gary Zalepa

Peter Warrack, is a resident of Niagara-on-the-Lake, and in addition to his over 30 years as a financial investigator, he is a recent recipient of the Meritorious Service Cross from the Governor General for his work combatting human trafficking in Canada and abroad.

PW: Thanks for meeting with me Gary. As I said I am a curious voter who is curious as to why a regional representative would want to run locally for council – what do you hope to achieve by running?

GZ: Well I appreciate the opportunity to talk about it. I think it is important and voters need to get curious because we really need engagement in our community. I think that we’ve seen better engagement in voting locally in the past but it’s still very low. This is why I want to run because I want to get engaged and talk about the issues. To get to your question Peter why, being at the Region and now coming to the Town I’ll break it down in a couple of ways because of my personal situation and the experience I think I have accumulated plus some of the issues that I think are really important to me - so I’ll break it down that way. All of my life in Niagara I’ve been active in the community and involved in many organizations with minor sports, cadets, community organizations, real estate boards- all those opportunities allowed me to gain experience about how an organization should really function, how governance should look, how financing looks and it started to wet my appetite for the political world having already been involved with political things in school, student councils and things like that were always places where I liked to participate. Getting involved with politics at a local level became a natural progression. There were some issues I became involved in back in the day where I got involved originally issues to do with schools and the lack of schools in the community I had two young boys and they needed schools. That got me going into politics and I had an opportunity in the last election to run at the Region there were some really big issues. There were governance problems, bad behaviour, people weren’t doing their job and there was a lot of unhappiness with what was going on at the Region and that really sparked my interest. That’s why I ran regionally at that time because I could make a difference. I have a strong governance background with many associations locally, provincially, and also federally where I’ve been on these boards. I learned a lot about how those organizations like boards, whether a municipality or a corporation or a not for profit, how they should be governed and the role between elected people and the role of staff. I went to the Region to make a difference and I think over four years the council, I can’t take credit for it – it was a council of thirty-one people. We had a good Chair, strong council and we were able to impact change and really clean it up, not only at the regional council level but also at the Niagara Peninsula Conversation Authority, which was an organization that was in shambles. That really spoke to me I really got engaged in that. I need to be engaged in something to want to do it. I’m not just doing it to fill space, I want to get something accomplished, but I’m also not looking for a career. I’m not going there to be involved with the Government and to stay forever. I want to go there, get things going really well and leave it in a good place and then move on to my professional career whatever that may be. So why locally this time? I see all the experience I have accumulated, the opportunity to work at the region at a high level I became the Chair of the Budget Committee for the entire council for the four-year process working on budget. I learned a lot about not only how a good organization is properly structured and funded but also the political steps necessary to gather twelve mayors and all the councillors to get consensus on some pretty topical issues. I can bring all that experience to help the Town. What I see at the Town now are opportunities. The first is leadership to Council. I really feel that my experience and record places me perfectly to assist Council in building a stronger relationship with the community and really becoming more effective Council. The Mayor should be the chief advocate for not only the community but for Council. The Council needs to be functional in a way that the community feels that they can make input to Council, that their input to Council and of the Councillors matters. Partly why I want to run locally is at the end of the day after four-years I want councillors to say, ‘I spent four-years on Council, I feel that I was really engaged, my input mattered, and I would do it again.’ Right now, that is not the current reality that worries me as a resident, and it should worry people. The second issue that I see as an opportunity for the community is about the health of the corporation. There is opportunity to assist financially with sustainability, long -term capital budgets require work and that is the job of the Mayor, to help guide that, recognizing that there are eight other decision-makers and that working together as a team that is where we need to go. The corporation is a really important entity, it’s going to drive all the other things the community can eventually achieve. The third really strong piece is community and economic development. This includes discussing how we can be respectful of the integrity of our history, our built form and natural heritage. How do we balance these with the growth that we know is coming that has already started? How do we put in place a vision so that we can effectively manage that growth over the next twenty-years? This is really important, and I know that if I can get involved, put things in place and in four-years step back and say we have achieved that balance and the community is in a better place.

PW: It’s interesting, the third point in particular is of real interest to me and I don’t want to go into too much detail but, there has been talk recently about the Town being one of ice cream shops, cafes, restaurants and little else to do, at least on Queen Street. Sooner or later, we may see neon lights etc. and how do we balance our history with our tourism? I don’t know the answer.

GZ: I don’t profess to know all the answers, but I have some thoughts. We need to identify different parts of our community where we want to see different types of business development. We have some great opportunities we have an assortment of villages in our Town that all have different nuances and character. We have a wonderful opportunity to for instance build out Glendale. The Town has partnered with the Region in creating a district plan for an economic development future and the Town needs to leverage that now by putting more detail on what that looks like. This will create a really solid secondary plan that maps out what kind of businesses and development do we want to see in different nodes of that community. That will start to dictate the fact that we have an opportunity to attract businesses who are employers. I don’t believe the Town has ever had a strong plan to actually go out and advocate and seek out businesses and attract them here. I see this as a key role for the Mayor.

PW: In listening to you I realize that when I am referring to the Town, I have been thinking only about Old Town and that the Town of Niagara on the Lake is much bigger than that.

GZ: Absolutely we have St. Davids, Glendale, Queenston, Virgil…

PW: Interesting you mention St. Davids. Many people I talk to in trying to inform myself about the candidates and issues of the upcoming local election when you name is mentioned associate you one way or another with the proposed roundabout in St. Davids- what is that all about?

GZ: Yes, it’s very interesting and it’s actually an item that I have never voted on. There’s never been a vote on it and never will there be. The roundabout is a piece of infrastructure and the way that the Region plans infrastructure is that it has a provincial approved process to do that, which has been adopted by the Region Council. It starts with an environmental impact study, which has been completed. Professionals such as architects, engineers etc. look at what could be done in that space and identify options. They look at impact, cost, transportation needs and other factors and come up with a recommendation. To date that recommendation is for a roundabout. What I support is the process that got us to that conclusion. Good governance and good process are the most important things and when politicians start to inject themselves and breakdown inside a policy, I think it’s a perilous slope.

PW: So the roundabout is a strategic initiative it’s not going to happen tomorrow?

GZ: Yes as of now there are no funds for it in the capital budget. The ten-year capital budget of the Region does not have that item in it as of now. At some point it will be there because I receive a lot of messages from residents concerned about traffic going through the village and there is no doubt traffic is changing. A failure to act to improve the infrastructure in the long term would be disastrous. What’s happening now is that feedback is being received from residents on the plan this will be considered in how the plan can be tweaked to make it better for everybody and I support that process. If the recommendation from the process had been a signalized intersection with left hand turning lanes as the preferred option, then I would support that.

PW: The last question I have concerns your views on the concept of an indoor pool to serve all including older residents who would benefit from the therapy a pool could provide. I have heard of this need from a variety of residents recently and the community centre as a proposed location.

GZ: The community has to reconcile what it wants to pay for and what services it has. Many communities our size have wonderful indoor pool facilities. We have two nice pool facilities that are very dated. They have been well cared for and they served the community well. It would be a very good conversation for the community to go engage with the Town who will be looking at our recreational services and the pool needs to be part of that conversation. I can tell you what I would like to see, but more importantly we need to hear from residents in the context of the costs and what do we do with the orphaned assets we have. Maybe there are other land resources we could use to make it happen. At the end of the day, I would like to see the Town having the best facilities we deserve and can afford. But it takes planning and should be inserted in the recreation master plan.

PW: If elected would that be part of your agenda as part of the recreation plan?

GZ: Yes absolutely and that leads me to another item I would like to talk about and that is municipalities being challenged with housing. Housing fits with community development housing attainability and the ability for people to afford housing that’s within 30% of their income is really stressed. There is an opportunity for municipalities to take a look at the lands that they own some of those lands are vacant and some of them are sitting in parks we don’t use anymore, baseball diamonds perhaps that are not used at all. I can’t help wondering how we could repurpose that land, whether some kind of a seniors’ facility, a community facility to have multiple services inside it, maybe an indoor pool. All this can be done by looking holistically at the recreational assets and determine what do we need for the future rather than what we had in the past. It’s a tough conversation, people get very emotional when you start talking about their public infrastructure with pools. We need to first step back and understand where the community would be comfortable going and what’s the vision and get enough people behind that, then that tougher conversation becomes easier.

PW: The pool question also goes to the balance of tourists versus local residents arguably everything is done for the tourist and we’re funding it as locals.

GZ: Right and wouldn’t it be great to have that full study where we look at what does the community really need and how can we deliver that in a sustainable way so that we’re not placing extra burdens on the ratepayers there are a lot of burdens, a lot of things the corporation needs to get in order first before it embarks on something like that.

PW: This has been very informative Gary, thank you for taking the time and good luck with the election.