The community hub at the former Cooper site is at the top of the list of projects that Cody Sebben would like to continue working on if re-elected to Stratford city council.
The first-term city councillor also wants to find ways to get citizens more engaged in civic affairs, while at the same time, encouraging council to work with residents to ensure their needs are being heard.
Sebben, who grew up in the city, is well aware of the Cooper site and its dilapidated image that sprawls over a large portion of the downtown core. While a lot of work has gone into planning, and roadblocks sometimes beyond council’s control have held up progress, there is reason for optimism.
The Grand Trunk Master Plan includes planning and design and included several opportunities for public feedback on the site, which could include a new YMCA to replace the existing building and a new student residence for the University of Waterloo’s Stratford School of Interaction Design and Business.
“We heard about it a lot during the last campaign (in 2018),” Sebben told StratfordToday. “People want to get things moving there. There is progress, but not as much as everyone would have liked.”
The city was involved in a number of court issues over the years related to the site and the COVID-19 pandemic held up planning over the past two plus years.
Sebben is a big supporter of allowing citizens to have a voice – he hosts monthly meetings with residents – and has committed to taking on issues that others may not agree with.
To ensure more residents throughout the city are being engaged and responded to, Sebben suggested the city use a ward system, which would see different sections of Stratford represented by specific councillors. Councillors are currently elected at-large.
“With the at-large system, every councillor is accountable but at the same time, nobody is,” he said.
“Hundreds of people can petition council opposing development or parts of a development in their neighbourhood…but you don’t have a responsibility to that neighbourhood.”
Sebben said he has brought up the ward system but there is no appetite for it with the current council.
“That would be something, moving forward, that would hold council members more accountable.”
City council certainly had some vocal public feedback on hot button issues over the past term.
The Xinyi Canada glass plant project engaged a group of citizens to oppose the company, who chose Stratford as a potential site for a $400 million facility.
The municipality asked for and received a Minister’s Zoning Order (MZO) to free up the annexed land for the project. According to Ontario’s Planning Act, the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing has the authority to approve zoning without public consultation or opportunities for appeal.
“I was not supportive of the idea. The day after it was announced Stratford was chosen, people were surprised, people were upset, and I was right alongside them.”
After public outcry, the company eventually indefinitely suspended plans. Sebben put forward the motion to have the MZO removed and that was ultimately carried by city council. Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark later revoked the MZO.
While it could be argued that the public outcry derailed the project, there should have been more information and democratic process, a number of people in the community have said.
“I think people were pushed to a point, they were hit by this glass plant out of nowhere. People were horrified,” Sebben said.
City council’s recent decision to implement a Municipal Accommodation Tax of four per cent, to be paid by visitors when they book with a local accommodater, is an example of a lack of consultation with the public, notably the groups that are being affected, Sebben said.
At the meeting when the bylaw was approved to move ahead with the new MAT, it was determined that planned consultations did not take place but that they would after the bylaw was approved and before the tax goes into effect in July of next year.
Consulting with affected groups and other citizens after a tax is voted through erodes confidence in the processes, said Sebben, the only member of council who voted against implementing the MAT.
“It makes sense why people have a default expectation that council or the city will not reach out to them. Now their expectation is they have to be on high alert. They have to watch out for what comes up next.”
Even when people contact council or groups or delegations present, the needle doesn’t shift, Sebben noted.
“People feel like they are on the sidelines a little bit and they are feeling like their voices are not being heard or when they do speak, they do reach out, they are not hearing back, when they do speak to council, they feel it is not making an impact.”
With a number of councillors electing not to run again, and two of them – Kathy Vassilakos and Martin Ritsma – running for mayor, there will be a big turnaround in October, he said.
“That in itself will inspire confidence in council moving forward and driving more engagement. If they put in the time to make a presentation, it will actually make a difference. I think the engagement of citizens is very key. When you don’t have that dialogue, when the discussion is not starting and happening out in the community then there certainly will never be any change.”