As Aurora, like most of the world, moves forward towards an uncertain future, renewed focus should be placed on the long-term impacts of Climate Change, says Councillor Wendy Gaertner.
The environment has always been an issue close to Councillor Gaertner’s heart, particularly since first elected to Council nearly two decades ago, and it is as important now than ever before.
“One of my main goals was protecting the environment and working furiously to mitigate the impacts of climate change,” she says.
Long-predicted severe storms will likely put Aurora at risk of flooding, but it will take approximately 25 years before measures outlined in flood protection plans are fully in place due to budgetary constraints, she contends.
“That is concerning to me. After being the lone voice plugging away at protecting the environment, I am really pleased to see that Council is taking Climate Change seriously,” she says when asked on what she thought were some of the key wins of the first six months of decisions made by Council this year. “We have put several studies in place in the 2020 Budget, but we need money to activate the recommendations.
“When I asked at the table where we were going to get this money from, after a long pause the answer was that we may have to look at our service levels and that was kind of a ‘wow’ to me.”
It also, in her view, underscored a missed opportunity; namely the Town’s investment in the nearly $52 million redevelopment of Library Square.
Councillor Gaertner was one of the three Council members who voted against moving ahead with the plan this past August.
This significant investment, she says, would have been better used on initiatives addressing climate change protection as “that is going to be the biggest quality of life issue we face in the next 20 years.”
But, in regards to Library Square, Councillor Gaertner says she respects the majority decision of Council and, going forward, it is important that the downtown revitalization project is done well for the sake of residents.
“We made a democratic decision and we want this decision to work,” she says. “Council has to do their best and there is a commitment that [a task force] is going to be watching the financing. We have to be doing the best we can to make sure this is a success. Library Square is the largest capital infrastructure project in Aurora’s history. Because of the financial uncertainty and the hardships that residents and businesses have experienced and will probably continue to experience, I wanted Council to take a step back. We can’t know what is going to happen with COVID. I think we were hoping for better than we’re getting and it may be with us for a long time. We can’t know the financial reality it is going to create. For me, it would have been most fiscally appropriate to step back and concentrate on funding the most pressing community needs.
“I think we need to be very careful not to place a future burden on our taxpayers. In my opinion, we don’t know what that is going to look like. At the very least, I would have liked to have seen a comprehensive business plan reflecting the reality of COVID.”
Addressing the day-to-day realities of COVID, however, is one of the big wins Councillor Gaertner says will be a hallmark of the first half of this unusual year.
As a member of one of the action teams set up by the Town at the start of the global pandemic to identify community needs and ways the Town as a whole could help vulnerable and at-risk residents, Councillor Gaertner says she was proud to be a part of a group that examined a cross-section of important issues, including food security and access to affordable housing.
“COVID really brought all that into the fore,” she says, noting these were issues that have persisted for decades, including her time running the youth drop-in program Hot Spot. “We had everybody [at Hot Spot] from the kids who were in estate homes to kids who were living in basement apartments. I know from that experience there are many people in Aurora who are vulnerable. I think COVID really exposed that, but I think it also exposed how precarious many people are in general. We used to be known as one of the richest communities per capita in Canada and that is what many people still have in their minds. We’re a community that has every income range and a lot more seniors.”
She says she takes particular pride in the Committee’s efforts to develop a comprehensive list of resources available in Aurora and surrounding communities that are on hand to serve those in need, including meal programs in both Aurora and Newmarket that, when looked at as a whole, offer at least one good square meal for just about every day of the week.
“That is something many people in this community take for granted,” she says. “This document will be updated over the years and serve as a great template for people who need a helping hand. I am afraid there will be more and more of these people in the community because of COVID and [its eventual] aftermath – and it can’t really be ‘aftermath’ because we don’t know when COVID is going to be over. It is really going to be the financial hardships imposed by COVID.”
In addressing these needs from the municipal perspective, communication will be key, she says. Councillor Gaertner says she is proud of the Town’s latest communications policy as having “easy access to clear, complete facts” as Council decisions are made was a key plank in her election platform.
That being said, however, Council’s decision to forge ahead with a ward system of governance in time for the 2022 Municipal Election was one of the areas in which she says the Town fell short.
Many residents, she says, felt they were not given enough opportunity to weigh in on the ward decision and cited the fact that a “no ward” option was not part of the last round of public consultation on the subject.
“At the end of the day there were a lot of residents who didn’t want to change to wards and they didn’t have any voice in that,” she contends. “I had to support those residents. We’re here to listen to the public and sometimes there are so many voices it makes it difficult. Certainly, if the majority of the people wanted a ward system than that is what they want and that is what we provide.”
Looking ahead to the latter half of fall and the beginning of winter, Councillor Gaertner says she will continue watching the Library Square project to ensure its success while also pushing for initiatives related to environmental protection and improving accessibility.
Everything needs to be examined through a lens of needs versus wants, she says, and that includes the ongoing development of the Town’s renewed official plan.
“We need more attention on future development,” she says. “We have the tools in place to ensure that a development on the Oak Ridges Moraine is protective of its environmental function. We have tools to ensure that developers put affordable housing into their developments and we have a lot more work to do on protecting our heritage.
“We have a population that is aging and Aurora has a larger population than most. Seniors are going to be able to have easy access to services and easy access to parking. It is not just people who have the official designation and the permit, it is also seniors who are having more mobility issues. That is one thing I am worried about with Library Square. The library portion is so important to our seniors and I don’t believe we have enough easy access parking for the seniors.”
Brock Weir, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Auroran