JOHN ABEL – CAMPAIGN LAUNCH SPEECH
Good evening ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for coming out tonight.
I am here to launch my campaign for Mayor of Aurora…and to unveil my platform for the people of Aurora.
I entered politics relatively late in life – at age 55. The reasons are simple: my wife, Tracy, and I raised our two children here and we love this community.
At some point, however, I realized that I didn’t like the way the Aurora Town Council was dealing with various issues, and I thought I could do a better job. And I had come to the belief that politics should be about improving people’s lives. So, I ran for Town Council…with some success.
I’ve spent the last eight years as Deputy Mayor. During this time, I’ve seen a lot and learned a lot. I’ve experienced moments of real gratification and I am proud of the initiatives I was able to get through on behalf of the people of Aurora.
Here are some of the accomplishments I am most proud of:
- Mavrinac Park – despite being up against opposition from Mayor Dawe and Councilor Pirri, my motion to preserve and protect Mavrinac Park from development was a great example of engaging residents to improve their lives. Today, Mavrinac Park is a beautiful, multi-purpose six-acre green space, which is exactly as it should be.
- Last term, I put forward a motion to rewrite the Cultural Centre Service Agreement, which did not have enough oversight. This was an extremely controversial subject. The galleries were full and there was tremendous pressure on the new council to bow to the will of the Cultural Centre Board. There were hundreds of emails exchanged, many with the false assertion that we were planning to close the Cultural Centre. Children were in tears.
- Although I was subject to a lot of verbal abuse, I resolved to stay true to my obligation to the community in the firm belief that the re-write would benefit the residents of Aurora. Today, I am pleased to report that we have an excellent relationship with the Cultural Centre. I sat on the board for two years in 2013 & 2014. There is more oversight now because of the re-write and things couldn’t be better.
- This term, I brought forward a motion to support the construction of the Bayview High School. Once again, this was an example of concerned residents (in this case, parents) expressing their collective will. I am proud to say that the Town Council got behind these parents and the school will be built. This will have a tremendous positive impact on young students who will now be able to walk to school instead of having to commute across Town.
Other accomplishments that I am proud of include:
- Spearheading the acquisition of the Armoury from the Department of National Defense for $560,000. You’ll be hearing more about the Armoury building in a few minutes.
- Introducing traffic calming measures on our residential streets.
- Adoption of a Live Music Strategy to generate revenue through tourism and fuel economic growth.
- Video-linking the Tragically Hip’s final concert on a giant screen in Town Park. This initiative was initially embraced by the Mayor and Staff but then proved to be too much of a challenge for them. In the end, Music Aurora put forward a budget of $5,500 for the Council to consider. Only Councilor Pirri was opposed. The event went off brilliantly and was a great success.
- The 2016 Aurora Summer Music Festival at the Aurora Soccer Club and again in 2017 at our Town Park. At no cost to the town and with no support from Council, we were able to re-establish a summer Music Festival for the Town of Aurora. The 2017 event was free to all, open to all ages, and funded completely by corporate partners. It gives us a good glimpse on how to get things done.
- The Making Peace International Outdoor Photographic Art Exhibit. This was particularly educational for more than 1000 students who attended the exhibit. In short, it was a phenomenal success – the first of its kind in Aurora – and we were able to do it on a shoestring budget of $15,000 because we piggybacked on the efforts of the City of Toronto, who laid out over $300,000 to bring this exhibition to north America.
- I also brought forward motions for:
- – For a Downtown Revitalization Strategy – defeated
- – Library Square Steering Committee – defeated twice
- – Affordable Housing Strategy – approved
- – A pilot Go Station Shuttle Service – approved
- – Community Energy Plan – approved
- – Town Tree Nursery – approved
- – Emerald Ash Boer program – approved
- – Outdoor sports field strategy – defeated
- I have served as Chair and Vice Chair of the Joint Council Committee for the Central York Fire Services. Over the two terms I served on the JCC, we have brought in two new fire fighting crews, a fire master plan, and I was a strong proponent of the new Fire Hall, complete with administrative headquarters and state of the art training facilities.
- I have served on the Heritage, Economic Development and Accessibility Advisory Committees.
- I was a member of ad hoc committee for the Town’s Strategic Plan, and when the Province announced in 2013 that they were accepting bids for three new Ontario University locations, I was a member the university strategic investment steering committee.
On my commitment to the community:
Before I entered politics,
- I coached and volunteered in Aurora while raising our two children – received my 10-year pin and coach of the year award from the AMHA. Coached and was part of the league executive during my 12 years with the CYGHA. Proud recipient of the Volunteer of the Year Award from the YCGHA.
- For 12 years I was an active volunteer at the Sommerville Dance Academy for competitions and recitals.
- Coached in Aurora Youth Soccer and Aurora Baseball
Since being elected,
- For the past 8 years, I have been a member of the Optimist, and an active volunteer at the United Church Rise’n Shine Breakfast. I am a member of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows and a regular volunteer at Doanne Hospice, NN food pantry drives, Arboretum tree plantings, The Aurora Winter Blues Festival and the Magna Hoedown.
- I currently sit on the three Boards:
- – Aurora Sports Hall of Fame
- – Music Aurora
- – Aurora Seniors Association
- Every Charity Fund Raiser is enhanced with the presence of live music entertainment. I perform for non-profits and charities such as the Southlake Hospital Run, Terry Fox Run, Hike for Hospice and the Optimist craft beer tasting. I pay my musicians who accompany me out of my own pocket, and I know the reason I get asked back each year is because there is no charge.
I’m no Johnny come lately, and I think it’s fair to say that my track record shows how committed I am to this community.
When looking at potential solutions to any issue we face, I always ask two fundamental questions:
- Does it make fiscal sense?
- Will it be good for the community of Aurora?
As proud as I may be of my accomplishments, being the longest serving Deputy Mayor of Aurora has not been an easy road. The Aurora Town Council was and is a dysfunctional mess, with a decision-making process that is nothing short of stupefying.
In the process of trying to stop dumb decisions before it’s too late, my view of politics has been completely reinforced: yes, it should be about improving people’s lives – no more and no less! As long as I remain true to this fundamental principle, I know that I can represent the interests of Aurora’s citizens much better than the other candidates.
In April of this year, the JOC audit report identified a systemic problem with the way Town Council goes about its business: there is no Project Management Methodology, and it is a glaring shortcoming. Staff and Council were made aware of this but have totally ignored the report’s recommendations, which are very clear and emphatic: when undertaking major capital ventures, do your due diligence; create a steering committee with several disciplines; do not allow staff to work in isolation; employ a team approach with the expertise of all the directors; and consider alternatives and the financial implications before decisions are made. As I say, the Town Council has completely ignored these recommendations…and the Town of Aurora has suffered as a result.
We have witnessed an exodus of key staff, and 40 positions this last year alone have been vacated due to the massive cuts in the Staff training and development budget. We averaged six vacancies annually last term. It’s alarming, and the Mayor and Council have sat idle.
There is great wisdom and merit in Richard Branson’s quote “Look after your staff and they will look after your customers.” It’s that simple – we are neglecting our staff.
This is essentially where we are right now and where we have been for quite a while: a few members of council – a cabal, if you will – work behind the scenes (in secret) micro-managing and presenting hasty, last-minute and ill-considered reports to an unquestioning Council. This process has resulted in some monumentally stupid decisions that will cost Aurora taxpayers millions of dollars.
Before I get to my platform, let me take you through the two key issues that are at the crux of why I decided to run for Mayor and why I believe I would make a great Mayor for Aurora. This will require me to go into a fair amount of detail, but I think you’ll find it interesting. (By the way, I’m pretty sure most Aurorans are not aware of these details)
The first issue is the Council’s agreement with Niagara College to turn the historic Aurora Armoury into a culinary school. At first blush, theoretically, this sounds like a perfectly good and reasonable idea.
But when the citizens of Aurora learn how this deal was arrived at and how the terms are stacked against us, I believe they will conclude that it is not just a bad deal – it is a classic example of financial malfeasance and inexcusable mismanagement.
This explains why no Council Member, including the two Mayoral candidates, Geoff Dawe and Tom Mrakas, cite the Armoury deal as one of their accomplishments. Why? Because they do not want voters to be aware of what they were responsible for. Check their election material – not one of them even mentions the Armoury. If it was such a great deal, why don’t they highlight it? There is no getting around it: the Armoury deal with Niagara College is a monstrous folly, and both Mr. Dawe and Mr. Mrakas know it.
Let me expand on this.
On December 5 2016, at a special Council workshop attended by 90 Aurora residents, Council resolved to renovate and repurpose the historic Armoury building. The estimated budget was $2.3 million, and the aim was to turn the Armoury into a Community Cultural Hub that could host concerts, theatre, weddings, tech expos, indoor farmers’ markets, seniors programing, youth fairs – you name it. If you haven’t been there, the building is a precious historic gem with a massive 8,400 sq. ft of beautiful open interior space. They won’t allow the public to look inside because they do not want you to see what they’ve given away. With just a modest renovation, it could be the cultural pride and joy of every citizen in Aurora.
So, the decision to spend $2.3 million renovating the Armoury made good sense and had my full support.
Prior to the Council resolution on Dec 5, 2016, the Mayor and a Councillor approached Niagara College about a Micro Brewery and offered to lease out the Armoury to them. It was brought to Closed Session for Council’s consideration. However, once the decision was made by Council to renovate the Armoury for a Community space, Niagara College should have been informed that the Armoury was no longer available. Period. End of story.
Within weeks, staff quickly demolished the old library and the old firehall. Staff then hired Fotenn Consultants to design the Library Square. But Staff did not follow the Council’s direction to proceed with an RFP for the renovation design of the Armoury.
Instead, with absolutely no authority from anyone, the Mayor and the CAO took it upon themselves to continue to negotiate – in secret, of course – with Niagara College to lease the Armoury for a Micro-Brewery.
The Mayor then called his Councilors into closed session to update the negotiations with Niagara College. Again, they did this in complete secrecy! They negotiated all the terms of the deal in complete secrecy! And they didn’t inform the citizens of Aurora until after the secret deal was done! Other than myself, nobody on the Council raised an eyebrow.
So, let’s look at the deal with Niagara College. At the outset, let me say that what I am about to describe is not embellished in any way. These are the facts. It’s also important to mention again that I don’t think many Aurorans are aware of these facts:
- First, did you know that there are 17 Ontario colleges that offer culinary courses, and even more colleges that offer high-tech courses that lead to higher paying jobs?Because of this, the Aurora Town Council was encouraged to expand its scope and invite these other potential partners to look at investing in Aurora.But get this: Council refused to entertain anyone but Niagara College. No one else was allowed to bid on one of our Town’s finest buildings and assets.
- Second, in an effort to save the Armoury for a much better purpose, Council was encouraged to look for a suitable alternative location for the culinary school. The number one option, was the Baldwin building, located at the GO Station in the cultural precinct. The Baldwin building, which was up for lease at that time, and to this day remains dark and unoccupied, features 5000 square feet of wide-open space with tall ceilings on the second floor, and an additional 2500 square feet of restaurant space, complete with a commercial kitchen on the ground floor for expansion. In short, this was an ideal space for a Culinary School, with very little capital required for repurposing.But get this: Council refused to even look at the Baldwin building that was sitting empty and up for lease throughout the duration of the secret negotiations with Niagara College. Just so nobody misses the point, if the Baldwin building had been chosen for the Culinary School, the Armoury would have been repurposed to become a great Community Cultural Center that this Council directed Staff to proceed with in 2016.
Now, here are the terms of the deal our Town Council negotiated in secret with Niagara College. Once again, they are not embellished:
- The cost of the Armoury renovation was budgeted at $2.3 million and since has more than doubled to $5 million – this includes a commercial kitchen, complete with stoves, ovens, prep tables, student seating, walk in refrigeration, walk-in freezer, and dry storage. The Town of Aurora will pay the entire capital cost. Niagara College will pay nothing.
- An independent appraisal of the Armoury stated that the building should generate $1.7 million in lease payments over five years or $340,000 per year. The actual lease agreement with Niagara College will generate $1.10 million over five years or $600,000 less than what the independent appraisal said it should be.
- In addition to giving Niagara College a break on the lease, the Town Council sole-sourced a catering agreement with Niagara college to the tune of $75,000 annually for the term of the lease. That catering previously was spread out to various restaurants in Aurora. Not anymore. This is taking money right out of the pockets of our local businesses. Obviously, our local businesses were not invited to bid on the catering deal.
- The Town of Aurora will pay all of Niagara College’s maintenance, and utility bills, including heat, hydro and water at an estimated cost of $150,000 per year for the entire five-year lease. With a reduced rent, no utility expenses, no maintenance costs, and a cheap student labour force, Niagara College will be in a position to underbid any corporate catering opportunities. This effectively will run some of our current local businesses out of Town. What chance do they have?
- If Niagara College wants to rent out any of the space at the Armoury, all the revenues will go to the college. None of the money will go to the Town of Aurora who owns the building.
- Many Councilors have stated that “Niagara College will invest up to $500,000 in start-up costs and staffing for the first year of operation, with additional investment in subsequent years.” To date, no one has been able to define what would comprise this $500K investment. Aside from the cost of moving some books and furniture into the Armoury, the start-up costs for Niagara College will be negligible. It is very likely that in subsequent years, Niagara College’s additional investment in Aurora will also be negligible.
- Now here is the big one – the kicker: Council members boast about the “tremendous spinoff benefits” that will result from the Niagara College Culinary School. They like to use phrases such as “potential business incubator” to make themselves sound knowledgeable and sophisticated. They refer to the potential economic benefits of the school but not one Councilor – not one! – has been able to provide any specifics. The fact is that the Town Council did not evaluate any kind of business case for the culinary school. When I brought a motion to evaluate the local economic impact, it was soundly defeated.
Absent a business case, here is the most probable reality, which anyone is welcome to refute:
- Most of the culinary students will commute each day to the school, so they will not be spending money on local accommodations.
- Most students do not have a lot of extra spending money.
- The local McDonald’s and pizza shops ought to benefit from the school…and that’s about it.
On December 6, 2017, following a lavish celebration with dinner and drinks, at the expense of taxpayers, the Town Council announced the secret agreement with Niagara College to locate a post-secondary Culinary School at the Aurora Armoury. They have been basking in that dubious glory ever since. And they have tried to “snow” the people of Aurora by pretending this is a great deal with utterly bogus talk of spinoff benefits.
The bottom line is this: The Aurora Town Council did no due diligence in the deal with Niagara College. They made no business case for the culinary school. Instead, they negotiated a horrible deal and they gave away one of our town’s most precious assets without considering the implications or repercussions.
It’s a truly awful story and it’s time that everyone in Aurora knows about it.
Before moving onto the Hallmark Lands issue, let me make a couple more points about turning the Armoury into a culinary school.
To date, Niagara College has not even prepared a curriculum development program, which they were supposed to do a quite a while ago. This means that we do not know how many students will be attending, or their hours of operation, which in turn means that it is impossible to evaluate any potential local economic benefits.
Councilors who state that the successes of the Waterloo’s Laurier University satellite campus in Brantford will be repeated here in Aurora either do not know their facts or are purposely misleading the public.
Sadly, by giving the precious Armoury away, Council created a domino effect. Aurora still needs a cultural hub, so when Council recently approved the flawed design for the $5 million Library Civic Square, they also approved the construction of an awkward three-storey addition to the Cultural Centre. The third floor – I repeat, the third floor – will have a 240-seat theatre. Most patrons will have to access the theater via an elevator. You can imagine what a clusterfudge that will be.
The cost of the addition approved by Council is a staggering $26 million. Add the $5 million to develop the Civic Square and another $5 million to renovate the Armoury, and the price tag has suddenly gone from $7.3 million in 2016 to $36 million – in less than 18 months it has escalated by $29 million! And that does not factor in the revenues lost by giving the Armoury away, or the negative impact on our local businesses!
My favourite line from the book Magna Man, the life story of Frank Stronach, is “Can we do better for less?” Obviously, to the Mayor of Aurora and most of the Council, the answer is “No, we can’t.”
The next big issue is the Hallmark Lands. Again, mayoral candidates Dawe and Mrakass conspicuously do not list this as one of their accomplishments. It’s not hard to figure out why.
The Town bought this property in 2015 for $7.4 million for municipal purposes. This is prime industrial employment land that is economically developable. The staff at Town Hall has identified a strategic goal to develop such the lands into a medical campus that would create 100s of good-paying jobs and would attract many people from inside and outside Aurora. Many of our children could be employed at these high paying jobs that we can create here.
The Hallmark Lands are now worth at least $11 million – probably a lot more.
So, what does the Town Council do? To secure a few votes from some sports executives, it votes 5-3 to build two baseball fields on these economic lands. The cost to build each field, including washrooms and a parking lot, is about $1.5 million. Most notably, these baseball fields – which will function for only five or six months out of the year – will render the lands worthless. We will thereby have spent $3 million and forfeited $11 million for a total waste of at least $14 million.
Repurposing Machell Park into tournament ball diamonds would be less costly because there are washrooms, change room facilities and parking already in place at the Aurora Community Centre. These diamonds would cost about $1 million each and they would save the Hallmark Lands for economic development. Machell Park is walking distance to dozens of restaurants and stores in the downtown core. It is cringe worthy listening to these Councilors extol the economic sport tourist virtues of locating two baseball diamonds in an industrial park that is two kilometers away.
But get this: Town Council would not even consider this alternative even though it makes complete sense, both logistically and financially. They would not look at any alternatives and they would not consider the financial implications of ruining the Hallmark Lands. Once again, they blindly refused to do their due diligence.
The decision to build two ball diamonds on the Hallmark Lands was rushed through Aurora Town Council despite a recent audit report that implored councilors to carefully deliberate before making decisions on major capital expenditures. The ostensible purpose of the audit report was to prevent the Council from repeating the mistake it made with the Joint Operation Centre. Suffice it to say that Council completely ignored the audit report’s recommendations.
So now, the cost from these recent Council approvals has gone from the original $7.3 million for the Armoury and the Library Square, and a sensible $2 million for two quality ball diamonds in our downtown core, for a total of $9.3 million…to $50 million! And this whole domino escalation in cost began with the secret decision to give away the Armoury and the refusal to adopt a Project Management Methodology.
Okay, I’ve just described in a fair amount of detail the Armoury/Niagara College deal and the Hallmark Lands decision. As you can imagine, it would be virtually impossible to tell this entire story to every citizen in Aurora.
So, we developed a whiteboard video to capture the essence of what I’m talking about.
People often ask me, “Why does the Council make decisions such as these that are clearly not in the Town’s best interest?”
My answer used to be “I don’t know”. But I’ve had time to give this subject considerable thought and I’ve concluded that it has something to do with Group Think – a particularly pernicious strain of Group Think.
Most of the current Town Councilors are timid and uncritical. I guess they believe they are doing a good job because they show up regularly for Council meetings. But they don’t delve into issues to deepen their understanding and they have trouble formulating opinions of their own. They can be easily led…like sheep.
The leaders of the Council are much worse. They refuse to conduct due diligence, they refuse to evaluate business cases, and they are reckless with other people’s money. Yes, they are good and fast talkers and yes, they often boast about their leadership skills. But in real life, they act in haste; they never consider the consequences or potential repercussions of their actions; and they do not have the best interest of Aurora at heart. Two of them are running for Mayor in October.
In contrast to my fellow competitors in the race for Mayor, I am pragmatic, open and resolved to doing things deliberately and right. I cannot be swayed by special interest groups at the expense of the community I serve. I believe in due diligence. If anyone on Council proposes a costly expenditure, then they damn well better have done their “homework”, or I will do it for them.
So, to all citizens of Aurora, the question is this: do you want to continue down this reckless path of hasty, unjustifiable spending or do you want to return trust and fiscal responsibility to Aurora’s Town Council? If it’s the latter, then I am your man.
If elected Mayor, this is what the Town of Aurora can expect from my administration:
- First, we will establish a $15 million Revolving Investment Fund. This financial vehicle is a well-proven method of gap financing primarily used for development and expansion of small businesses. It is a self-replenishing pool of money, utilizing interest and principal payments on old loans to issue new ones.
- With this fund, the Town will provide loans for the procurement of properties, partner in the development of those properties and sell them at a profit to create local businesses and jobs. The loan would be at a favourable interest rate for a short term. The payments from the loans would then be deposited back to the revolving investment fund with interest while the profits would go to our reserves. This strategy has already achieved great success with the Town’s Leslie Street employment lands and the LED Lighting Conversion Project. The Revolving Investment Fund would be administered by the Economic Development Board.
- Let me also emphasize that Edmonton and many other municipalities have successfully employed this economic strategy. Each year more and more municipalities are adopting a Revolving Investment Fund. It’s innovative and financially sound. There’s no reason why we can’t do it here again…and again! In fact, Aurora is in a better position to establish a Revolving Investment Fund than most other municipalities. In short, we will invest in Aurora and we will get the most mileage out of the dollars we spend.
- As an immediate example, we will purchase the Sports Dome with the Revolving Investment Fund, and we will pay back the loam with the favourable permit fees. Once the loan is paid back, we will own this asset and we will be better able to support our local soccer clubs. If we provide arenas for hockey, then we can certainly provide a dome for our soccer community
- We will enhance the GO-Transit shuttle service.
- We will provide additional facility space for burgeoning senior programs, and we will build an addition for storage at ASA and better transit for those with mobility issues.
- We will make sure that the windrows left by snow ploughs are removed so people don’t get trapped in their driveways.
- We will improve our children’s ability to thrive in world of global technology – we will do this by partnering with schoolboards for after school programs and cultural hubs.
- We will continue to support the BIA, the Aurora Chamber and revitalize downtown as a tourist destination. This will include redeveloping the Howard Johnsons building. That eyesore – the signature of the Geoff Dawe’s inability to address obvious critical issues.
- We will get out of the contract with Niagara College, which will cost us only a fraction of the countless $millions we will save.
- We will build the Library Civic Square for $5 million and we will double the current parking plan capacity recently approved by Council.
- Like Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto, this will be a great gathering space for special events.
- We will renovate the Armoury at the original cost of $2.3 million and turn it into a great Cultural Community Hub that will attract tourist traffic and generate ongoing revenues via concerts, theatrical productions, weddings, et. cetera.
- We will develop the Hallmark Lands into a medical campus or high tech incubator hub that will generate 100s of good-paying jobs and tax revenue for Aurora. This is exactly what the Economic Development Strategic Action Plan calls for.
- We will develop a multi-purpose recreational centre on the Bloomington lands. This will be a barrier- free centre like the one in Durham Region. Until then, soccer and baseball tournaments can be held in the downtown core by re-purposing the under-utilized fields at Fleury and Machel Parks.
- We will hold a series of cultural and ethnic celebrations and more festivals to draw tourism.
- We will employ an affordable housing strategy to increase rental availability in Aurora so that we are able to find housing for our children, and mitigate the migration of our educated children to the city in search of housing and job opportunities. We can create jobs for them, but we have to give them access to affordable places to live as they embark on their careers.
Ladies and gentlemen, if I am elected Mayor of Aurora, the days of secret negotiations and backroom deals will be over. Openness and transparency will return to Council. We will do our due diligence, evaluate each business case and consider all reasonable options. We will restore fiscal responsibility and trust in our local government. And we will always be guided by one overriding principle: To improve the lives of the people of Aurora.
Thank you once again for coming out tonight. Let’s spread the word and let’s win on October 22nd!