In her first term as Mayor, Karen Farbridge led the council to oppose WalMart to establish in the city. She lost the election in 2003 and the Kate Quarrie council approved the project after 11 years of wrangling. It opened about a week before the 2006 election. Mayor Kate Quarrie and her council paid the price by being defeated. Since then Guelph’s citizens have been paying the price.
Now an independent consultant has written a secret report, known as “The City of Guelph Operational Review Issues Scoping Report” that has been revealed to the world.
It is a clearly articulated and devastating indictment of the way the city is managed. It reveals how the majority of council has deliberately created an anti-business and anti-development culture in Guelph to suit its own purposes.
It reveals how senior management including the Mayor has bungled city finances and job creation to create an unhealthy morale among staff. The city debt has soared to a record $118 million under the Farbridge administration.
Under council’s own rules the city debt cannot exceed 55 per cent of the total budget each year. Here are the figures. The 2011 budget had total spending at $167 million. Calculating 55 per cent of that figure and the total debt should not exceed $91.85 million.
That results in excess debt of $26.15 million. That money has already been spent. Now council has approved spending another $15 million on a waste collection system to supply the new $32 million wet waste composting plant … the one that doesn’t work.
Is it any surprise that the city has failed to hire a qualified Chief Financial Officer? The last one lasted one week on the job after looking at the books.
Here are some highlights from the consultant’s conclusions:
“Guelph is among the more difficult places in Ontario in which to do business and … the city does not work collaboratively with business. Moreover, some believe that the city makes things unnecessarily complicated.”
“Various examples were offered — the process for Walmart coming to Guelph, the process for securing approval of the Hanlon Creek Business Park, the process for securing approval of the Home Depot — as proof that the city as a whole is generally too willing to allow vocal interests to delay projects that are eventually approved.”
“City councillors were frequently identified — by virtually all parties consulted — as contributors to making Guelph a challenging place with which to do business.’ ”
“There is a segment of council that is perceived as anti-development and anti-business’ … Even some staff question the degree to which council is open to development and business investment in the city.”
“The city says it wants infill and higher density development, but seems to make it difficult to approve this kind of development.”
The city says their rules and requirements must be adhered to, but certain city projects move forward without full permits and proper drawings.”
“A number of external participants believe that staff find it much easier to raise objections and say ‘no,’ than to work with a client to find a way to say ‘yes.’ ”
“The city was described as lacking an appreciation of the urgency required when in the midst of brokering deals.”
“A significant number of staff — particularly those at the mid-to-lower-levels agree that there is a great reluctance to share opinions or espouse views that have not been specifically endorsed by more senior staff.”
“Some say that city hall is still trying to operate too much as though Guelph is a ‘small town’ and not enough like it is a growing city that has been designated one of the province’s urban growth centres.”
“Some staff described morale as being among the lowest they have ever seen.”
“A number of participants noted that actions to address the morale issue are among the most important that the city should consider.”
“Uncertainty and fear … attributed to ‘surprise layoffs and firings,’ employees who are removed from their positions without sufficient explanation, other employee departures clouded in uncertainty, and the loss of good people who have chosen to leave of their own volition.”
“A few external participants noted their diminished confidence in city management as a whole.”
“Moreover, there is a sense that some councillors have an inappropriate level of ‘hands-on involvement’ in development and business investment initiatives, to the detriment of the process.”
“It is important to note that there is a significant skepticism and cynicism about the potential for positive outcomes flowing from the Operational Review.
Every citizen of Guelph should read this report. It calls for independent action to clear up the mess the Farbridge administration has created. A good start would be to create a citizen’s petition requesting an investigation by the Ministry of Municipal affairs.