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Market Squared: The State of the State of the City — a rebuttal

In this week's Market Squared, Adam A. Donaldson asks, “Doesn’t the opposition party deliver a rebuttal speech after the State of the Union?”

Last Friday, Mayor Cam Guthrie delivered his State of the City address, an annual event put on by the Guelph Chamber of Commerce where you get to hear the mayor talk about the doings of the Royal City as the oratory dessert to a delicious buffet breakfast.

The event was inspired by the annual State of the Union delivered by the President of the United States, so I thought, “Doesn’t the opposition party deliver a rebuttal speech after the State of the Union?”

Well, I’m not a Steve Bannon-type that thinks the press is the opposition party, but since our municipal government is non-partisan, and because there’s always room for rebuttal, I thought it would still be worth our time to consider an opposing point of view. Or failing that, expanding the mayor’s remarks into areas more critical and less florid.

Imagine me at a podium in a handsomely lit hotel banquet hall and read on. (If you don’t know my voice, imagine Ian McKellen. He’s great in everything.)

"Good morning and thank you to Mayor Guthrie for his fine words. There’s no doubt that our city has a lot of reasons to be #GuelphProud. About a thousand examples can be found on any given day in our streets, our schools, our businesses, and our social places. Yes, we might be forgiven if we mistake our little big city as a magic kingdom, but we need to keep in mind that there are some concerns under the surface.

For instance, while the mayor hails a 'new tone' at City Hall, we can’t forget that there was a pretty rough tuning process. While the executive team at 1 Carden St. works in a pressure cooker of clashing expectations, a fact we all have to respect, we can’t ignore that there’s been a revolving door at City Hall that’s threatened to fall off its hinges at times. Let’s not forget that Derrick Thomson, though seemingly filling the part of Chief Administrative Officer nicely, was halfway out the door when Ann Pappert stepped down last spring.

The mayor’s 'new tone' is also sometimes broken by very loud, very public incidents of rancour amongst the council too, which while natural, paints a very different idea that everyone with the City of Guelph is wearing shiny happy faces. And not to sound conspiratorial, but there was an awful lot going on behind closed doors for a while, and people are understandably concerned that they still haven’t gotten the whole story. And that’s not just the nuts talking.

In any event, one thing we can all agree on is that Guelph is growing, and growing quickly. The mayor is right to compliment city staff and council for making a commitment to address the growing infrastructure gap in a serious way. He also deserves credit for putting a more business-friendly face on City Hall, but he didn’t dot the i’s or cross the t’s on a couple of areas in his speech.

For instance, the big “T” that was missing from the State of the City was “transit.”

One might think that getting people around the city en masse might fall under the infrastructure category, but public transit was mentioned a total of four times in the mayor’s speech, and not once to address the problems it’s facing. Yes, there is a pending service review of transit, but the City of Guelph can’t even be expected to offer a consistent level of service, let alone an improved one.

For example, there’s a massive commercial development at the corner of Clair Road and Gordon Street that transit doesn’t service. The most direct way there is an hour long ride from downtown that drops you off on the western most side of the plaza. The message is seemingly clear: “Welcome to Guelph, hope you have a car.” Meanwhile, Guelphites that rely on transit, or simply want to reduce their carbon footprint, now have to wait two years for the review to be complete, and then who-knows-how-long for improvements.

Naturally, many of the people that depend on transit in our town are the working poor. While we applaud Guelph’s low unemployment rate, we rarely address the chronic and growing problems of under-employment, and precarious part-time employment. No longer is there an expectation of advancement, or growth in the job market. Lucky are the few that can stock shelves or deliver pizza.

Of course, these are systemic problems suffered in communities across Canada, and perhaps the statistics and the anecdotal evidence might fool us that things are better than they are, but we have to keep in mind that there are a whole lot of problems that we sometimes don’t see.

Guelph has homelessness.

Guelph has problems with drug abuse. 

Guelph has people using food banks and other social services.

We can all agree that people gathered for a Chamber event are doing, at least, okay. But for all too many of our fellow citizens, reaching “okay” is a daily struggle that’s never, ever achieved.

The mayor also talked about getting Guelph in on the tech and information corridor that’s forming along the 401 between Toronto and Waterloo Region, and how he wants Guelph to contribute to civic tech, cool apps that advance engagement between users and city services. That is good news, but we risk leaving so many people behind too, like seniors who haven’t adapted, and the ones for whom the latest tech and gadgets are economically out of reach.

We’re in the midst of a societal shift where technology is radically changing our lives and the best adaptation is total immersion. That’s why young people are having an easier time of it. They’re immersed in the change as it happens.

Even economically disadvantaged kids have easy of access through schools. To them, finding out what day to take out their garbage with an app is second nature, but as communications change, we can’t forget that change can be difficult for some.

While we pat ourselves on the back for phone apps, we have to keep in mind that some people still use a phone as a phone.

As we reach out to constituents and fellow citizens through social media, we can’t forget the human touch. People still like to see words come out of the actual mouths of other human beings. Guelph also stands, and somewhat unfortunately, as the only community of its size without a daily paper, and while technology has filled the gap, there are people that can no more can access a website than fly to the moon.

Yes, there’s a lot to be #GuelphProud of, but there are lots of ways we still have yet to #ImproveGuelph.

And to say one of these things is a positive and one of these things is a negative is disingenuous.

What’s in front of us is an opportunity to do better, which should be the goal of every politician at every level of government no matter their political stripes.

Thank for listening. And was that fresh squeezed juice? Because it was delicious."