Mayoral hopefuls for Muskoka Lakes went head to head at the Port Carling Community Centre.
Hosted by the Muskoka Lakes Chamber of Commerce (CoC), incumbent mayor Phil Harding took turns with township councillor Peter Kelley fielding individual questions from the public.
Key topics of the hour-long forum were helping local businesses and the issue of short-term rental accommodations (STRAs).
Kelley took the podium first, noting his leadership experience in the local Lions Club, CoC, and Friends of the Muskoka Watershed. He said he is “not a politician,” that people will always know where he stands when needs are not being met, and he’s willing to make unpopular decisions for the greater good.
Harding said that since being elected to council in 2010, he has strived to be a “balanced leader” who makes decisions based on strategic thinking rather than emotion. He pointed to a record of making changes such as increased bylaw enforcement, flood mitigation, and a number of strategic plans.
According to Harding, seasonal businesses need to be incentivized to stay open year-round, with a large factor being more housing for seasonal workers. He said they need to attract more developers to the area for affordable rental builds, and will require large seasonal employers– such as resorts– to include staff housing.
He noted that some places, such as Collingwood, have implemented systems where businesses are mandated to stay open for an extended season, or year-round, in their lease agreements. Harding added that municipal tax incentives for businesses that stay open year-round are also on the table.
According to Kelley, municipalities should not mandate businesses to stay open past the prime season. Kelley said the township should work closely with the CoC and other local business organizations to create numbers packages, which help prospective businesses make a case for coming to Muskoka. More housing, he added, is a must.
Both candidates agreed on a need for smaller dwelling sizes, and rezoning lots to include multiple units.
Candidates were asked about undue influence from local organizations on municipal politics, which comes after Kelley was endorsed by the Muskoka Lakes Association.
Kelley said council should not be “intimidated” by the knowledge those organizations provide, and should weigh it alongside any other information that comes in from community members.
Harding proposed a municipal lobbyist registry, which records the number of contacts a group has with council on a given subject. He notes that councillors will often be contacted by groups of interest before a discussion is brought before the public, arguing that council should not be influenced by any group before then.
On the topic of STRAs, both candidates agreed that more needs to be done to go after irresponsible renters and rental agencies.
Kelley said that rental agencies in particular need to be held accountable, and should be made to run their own patrols of rented properties, and escort bad renters out of town. He added the bylaw department needs to be given the right tools, and the necessary manpower, to enforce the rules.
“I don’t know if it’s two [bylaw officers] we need or 20, but we need to make sure that the behaviour that is destructive to the enjoyment of this place, and/or to the environment, stops,” says Kelley. “One of the things I think needs to be considered is to hold those who are perpetually violating the bylaws accountable.”
Harding said that there are many responsible STRA operators in the township, noting that he neighbours one, but the packed-full “party of the week” rentals need to stop. He added that the township’s official plan will implement an STRA policy in the next six months. Harding disagreed that it’s a question of manpower or tools.
“We can’t put 100 bylaw officers to stand on every street corner and catch someone setting off fireworks. We’ve moved the needle already on this,” says Harding. “The more education we have about our bylaws, the more information our cottager associations and ratepayer groups can do about our bylaws, the better off we are going to be to enforce our bylaws.”
Regarding criminal matters, Harding and Kelley both said that the OPP needs help with how its resources are directed, and residents should be active in contacting police and council on where they are needed.
In his closing statements, Harding stressed the importance of listening to the community in his prospective second term as mayor.
“I don’t do this for any other reason than I care about Muskoka. And I want this for my children, and my children’s children, for the next 56 years, or 156 years,” said Harding. “Our council over the past four years has moved mountains, we have ticked every box that was asked of us. I look forward to another four years of continuing to move the needle. Ask and you will receive.”
Kelley called back to earlier discussions, noting that strong leadership is required.
“I have led successfully large organizations, [and] I feel very able to lead this one,” said Kelley. “It needs strong leadership, it needs leadership that understands there is a difference between attracting business– and creating the conditions whereby they stay open– and mandating them.”
The municipal election is Oct. 24.