With the swearing-in of the new members, the presentation of the chain of office to Lord Mayor Gary Zalepa, and the singing of God Save the King (a first time for many in attendance), the new Niagara-on-the-Lake town council became official Tuesday night at the Court House.
There was an optimistic feeling of a new beginning in the air both prior to and after the formal proceedings, as the successful candidates from October’s municipal election mingled with family members, friends, supporters and residents who came to experience their inaugural council meeting.
The evening began with the Parks Canada Fife and Drum Corp marching in and ended with them marching out. Retired Rev. William Roberts, who ran unsuccessfully for the town’s seat at Regional Council, delivered the prayer and benediction, and Juliet Dunn sang O Canada.
Chief Administrative Officer Marnie Cluckie draped the official chain of office onto Zalepa’s shoulders. Asked by The Local after the event how it felt, Zalepa joked that the chain was “surprisingly heavy.”
Acting town clerk Victoria Steele led the nine new members of council through the declaration of office. Then Zalepa’s first order of business was to officially appoint re-elected councillor Erwin Wiens as this term’s Deputy Lord Mayor. Wiens was also unanimously appointed as chair of the Committee of the Whole, with first-time Coun. Tim Balasiuk as vice-chair.
For his first opportunity to address the community and council, Zalepa looked for inspiration to the words of U.S. President Thomas Jefferson from 1796.
“There are some great insights from Jefferson,” explained Zalepa, “that I believe are amazingly relevant in how we consider the future of our town. Jefferson declared that we are called to undertake the duties of council with sincere consciousness of the task and the responsibility.”
Zalepa said Niagara-on-the-Lake is blessed with its past successes, beauty in its geography and the richness of its heritage and history.
“We as councillors are humbled before the magnitude of the undertaking,” he continued, paraphrasing Jefferson. “We shall find the wisdom, the virtue and the zeal upon which to rely. That is my commitment, it was Jeffersons, and I hope it’s all of ours.”
After expressing thanks to his campaign team, his wife Tammy and other family members, Zalepa recognized former councillors and recently retired ones, including Clare Cameron and Zalepa’s predecessor, Betty Disero, who were both in attendance Tuesday.
“I’d like to thank them for their service and tireless dedication for the benefit of the community,” he said. “As we all know, public office is not the easiest. But it’s very rewarding, and we really appreciate all of their efforts.”
Zalepa then spoke about the process he plans to implement as this council moves forward, as well as some of the issues it needs to tackle over the next four years.
“Councillors have already begun what I think is a fairly robust orientation and training program,” Zalepa said. “They will be tasked with focusing on core strategic items and delivering value-driven plans for staff to implement and to report to council on progress.”
He promised that throughout the next term, the process would include feedback and public engagement from each of the town’s five distinct villages. This will include the creation of regular village open forums, with the focus on improving communication and transparency.
“More listening, less talk,” he summarized.
He went on to list what he feels should be the priorities of this term of council. Number one is economic development. Zalepa feels council must actively seek employment creation investments to bring jobs for residents, including young people, to NOTL, while leveraging the strength and reputation of our agricultural sector.
“We will bring residents, industry, the arts and the town together in a process to work together to build a path for our tourism strategy,” he said.
Service excellence is another focus for Zalepa.
“Our priority will be to improve the town’s capacity in responding to residents’ service requests,” said the new Lord Mayor. “Additionally, we must raise our profile with other governments, in Niagara, at Queen’s Park and in Ottawa, making sure that what is important to you is communicated to these governments.”
He also promised to work toward improved public amenities by finding the gaps and building a plan for future needs. Better access to health care within our town, and ensuring NOTL advocates for increased transportation services as transit becomes regionalized in January, are also part of his plan.
On housing, he said, “Attainability of housing is dysfunctional. We are truly in a housing crisis. We can find solutions and public support to adequately adjust this. I believe we must provide an opportunity for seniors to age in place and for our youth and our local workforce to acquire dwellings in our town.”
Zalepa concluded by promising to strengthen and grow relationships, build trust and provide leadership to council. He pledged to listen and to seek positive outcomes.
“According to Jefferson,” he said, “those governing must adhere to the principle that being rightful must also be reasonable. To council, it will be my priority to ensure that together we provide our CAO with our vision. I will support each of you as we build from this point forward.”
He then turned his attention to the residents both in attendance and watching via live-stream.
“I refer back to Jefferson’s words,” he said. “We commit to listening with the goal of decision-making through transparency, and through uniting our community in common efforts for the common good. Your support is a welcome gift and I thank you for that.”
He continued, “Our promise is to retain your good opinion, conciliate that of others by doing all the good that is in our power to do, and to be instrumental in the happiness and the interests of all our residents.”
Zalepa said he is looking forward to the term ahead with anticipation. “I remain focused on the outcome, to ensure that those that take their oath here tonight return to you in four years stating emphatically that they enjoyed their experience on council, that their opinions made a difference, that they accomplished what they set out to do, and given the choice they would do it again.”