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Personal two-term limit leaves a big decision for Vassilakos

This is the first of a series of stories leading up to the October municipal election. Today, Kathy Vassilakos discusses her nearly eight years on council and a pending decision on whether to step up or step away from municipal politics.
Kathy Vassilakos.

It is getting into late June in an election year and Kathy Vassilakos has a decision on her mind.

The Stratford city councillor has reached a personal threshold of sorts when it comes to municipal politics, one that she believes in and has personally committed to: a two-term limit.

Of course, there are no term limits for councillors or the mayor in Stratford, so Vassilakos, on her own conviction, will determine if she will take a big leap or move away from city hall.

“Term limits are good. That seat isn’t mine. It is for someone to represent the community and citizens. I think it is good to have the option to open up that seat for someone else and get new voices at the table, whatever that looks like, or happens to be.”

“After two terms you decide if you step up and run for mayor or if you are done,” Vassilakos told StratfordToday.

Vassilakos has enjoyed her time on council over nearly eight years and believes the ten councillors and mayor worked well together, despite the difficulties presented by a pandemic, which, from a council decision making perspective, led to changes, delays, cancellations and stalled plans.

 “It upended some projects that I would have liked to have seen get done,” she said.

Looking back, Vassilakos said there were major highlights.

The Market Square project revamped the space outside city hall and has become a favourite location for outside events and to share in civic pride. Tom Patterson Theatre has offered theatregoers an award-winning architectural gem along the Avon River, she noted.

The councillor is particularly proud of the Brittania Street Housing project. The first part at 230 Brittania Street is complete and residents have moved into 35 one and two bedroom units. Phase two is a three-story, 27-unit apartment building currently under construction, set to be completed next year.

Vassilakos noted the city’s climate emergency declaration and decision to move forward with hiring a person to lead a greenhouse gas reduction plan as a big step in the right direction.

“We have made a bit of progress on cycling and active transportation,” she added. “I think the new transportation master plan, that incorporates the bike and pedestrian master plan within it, where you embed the two together, is a great thing.”

The councillor notes that these decisions were made by a diverse group - some first-term councillors, others in their second four-year stint, while some have been at the council table for considerably longer.

“It is a good idea to have a mix of people.”

Most city councils have members who fall one way or the other on the ideological spectrum but at the municipal level it is best to work towards common ground, she said.

“By and large you will get a mix of people…I think a big chunk of the things that municipal governments do should absolutely not be ideologically driven.”

“There is much more room for public interest, evidence-informed decision making – you fix the road that is the worst. You don’t play politics with where you are going to put a playground. It is the area of the city that hasn’t had a new one for a while.”

The Brittania housing project was a good example, where, if there were left and right-leaning segments on council, they “came together to make something happen because everyone believed in housing. And the need for more affordable housing.”

One item that never came to fruition was the Xinyi Canada Glass plant. Environmental concerns and a lack of transparency from council created considerable push back from advocacy groups.

The plant, estimated to cost more than $400 million, would have created hundreds of jobs. Xinyi Canada Glass suspended the project. The provincial government agreed to a city council request to revoke a ministerial zoning order (MZO) that would have helped clear the way for development.

Vassilakos said the Xinyi issue was certainly the most ‘painful’ in her council tenure.

But in terms of public engagement, Market Square saw petitions and counter petitions, she noted. The redevelopment of the land that now encompasses the Tom Patterson Theatre was contentious, with long-term user groups having to be uprooted, including a vibrant senior’s group, while a valuable chunk of real estate in the city was repurposed for a theatre.

Vassilakos said there were hundreds of emails about Market Square and Tom Patterson Theatre and plenty of meetings, some requiring the Rotary Complex as a venue due to expected turnouts.

Overall, city council did some “great things”, but there was room for improvement, too, she said.

“You don’t always get it right. There will always be someone who didn’t get what they wanted or it wasn’t ideal for them. There is really no way to make everyone happy.”

“Anyone who gets into municipal politics has to be of two minds: You have to champion the things your community is great at and always be a champion for your community, but you also have to ask yourself what you can do better or where the challenges are or how you can do things differently. I don’t think they are opposing ideas, I think they make for a good council.”

The new council will look different. Mayor Dan Mathieson has announced he will not seek re-election, so there will be a new leader after October’s civic election.

Vassilakos said her decision to run for Mayor of Stratford will be made soon enough.

“I picked up the binder. I haven’t filed yet. I am inching closer to filing.”