Stephen Wright may be new to Peterborough City Council, having just unseated Councillor Dave Haacke in the Northcrest Ward, but he’s been around politics for a long time.
He first ran for office at the age of 20, when a simple question asked at a Winnipeg School Board meeting led to a run for school board trustee. “The board was getting rid of properties, and the question was, if you’re selling property that was paid for by the taxpayer, do those taxpayers now see a reduction in their taxes from the sale of those properties? There were school buildings that were being decommissioned—could they not be used for other public purposes?
“Off to the races I went, and politics, once it’s in your blood, you just can’t get rid of it.”
Since then, Stephen’s career path has taken him through business and IT, and he now runs Peterborough home renovation company Hammer and Nails General Contracting, but he has never lost his interest in keeping governments accountable. He has worked with the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses and the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, and first ran for Peterborough City Council in 2014, following a dispute about his property taxes. “I don’t mind paying my share,” says Stephen, “but I believe for the return on services that I was getting, I was paying more than my fair share.”
Following his business background, Stephen is fastidious with details many would overlook. When he speaks of the Parkway expansion, he also speaks of inevitable cost overruns in major construction projects, and how those overruns will translate to the taxpayer. When he speaks of the sale of Peterborough Distribution Incorporated (PDI) to Hydro One, he also speaks of the costs of switching people over to new hydro meters and the challenges negotiating with a third party when it comes time to build new hydro poles.
The Parkway expansion has been an important issue for Stephen, and for the residents of Northcrest. The ward covers the city’s north end, and the volume of traffic going through that area, as well as the challenges of connecting the north end to the rest of the city, were brought up at nearly every election event.
But Stephen is convinced that the Parkway isn’t the right solution. He argues we should take a wider look at traffic in the city, including “a conversation with the townships.” He suggests expanding Chemong Road, as well as Centre Line and Lily Lake Road, and also looking at public transit “and maybe even light rail.”
But in the 2018 election, it was the PDI sale that particularly stoked Stephen’s interest to run. He made it a central part of his campaign, and, when I met with him, he brought it up even before I had the chance to turn on my voice recorder.
“It was the wrong deal,” Stephen believes. “There were too many questions that should have been asked but never were, and too many questions that were asked but never answered. An exhaustive public hearing on the issue should have been done. It should have been left to a plebiscite, to give residents of Peterborough more of a say on it.”
Stephen believes this issue was key to his victory. “Residents were quite upset. They felt that the last councillors representing the ward were yes-men. They voted with the mayor on every single issue, and offered no insightful debate. They weren’t doing the job.”
This lack of public engagement and consultation is something Stephen hopes the new Council will address. He thinks Council meetings should be moved “into communities,” so people living far from the downtown can still attend. He wants shorter agendas at meetings, so people don’t have to sit around for hours waiting to speak to their issue. And he believes the job of City Councillor should become a full-time position.
“The issues that Peterborough has to deal with are full-time issues, and they require Council to be on the job full time. When you’ve got a 1,500-page budget document you’ve got to understand before passing it, that’s not bedtime reading. If you’re on Council and you’re a business owner, you have to make a choice. Do you work on your business or do you work on the City’s business?”
He also calls on the people of Peterborough “to hold us to account. Somebody asked me about the nine people everyone says come to Council meetings and oppose everything. There’s a lot of people in Peterborough who should be grateful to those nine people, for playing the opposition role. To be sure that when a plan is put on the table, it’s evaluated and acted on in a way that meets the interests of the city. We want the residents of Peterborough to stay engaged. I’ll be out there in the next coming years knocking on those doors and asking how we’re doing, and what needs addressing.”
But when it comes to the new Council, “I’m echoing a lot of the sentiments I heard from a lot of residents. They are feeling elated and very hopeful that a lot of work is going to get done. This is a working council, and from the individuals I’ve met, these are people who are going to hold their heads down and get the job done. That gives me a lot of hope.”
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