Todd Cowan isn’t one to stand on ceremony. The newish mayor has made Woolwich council meetings a more relaxed affair – he’s fond of a joke or two, and not above corny ones. That’s one part who he is and one part a desire to make council more approachable to township residents, especially at times when they come forward to speak at meetings.
But since being sworn in a year ago, Cowan has also made council more politicized, using his years as a Queen’s Park insider to be more vocal at the provincial level.
Reflecting this week on his first year in office, Cowan is mostly pleased with the effort, based largely on making his way through the list of targets in last fall’s election campaign. From promising to make Woolwich greener to making government more responsive, he feels he’s on the right track.
On the environmental front, he points to Elmira’s Victoria Glen Park. The township recently acquired two parcels of land from the Region of Waterloo and will set about rezoning the area as parkland, removing the residential zoning that was part of the previous council’s proposal to develop some of the land. Cowan also cites the township’s toughened gravel pit policy, which bolstered its decision to deny an application for a site new Conestogo from Hunder Developments – “We’ve taken a pretty strong stand on that” – and the ongoing cultural heritage landscape designation for the area surrounding the historic West Montrose covered bridge.
Cowan has also been hands-on with the Chemtura Public Advisory Committee, which has undergone a complete refocus with all-new members. Most recently, the township has agreed to bring in Dr. Gail Kranztberg, a McMaster University civil engineering professor and specialist water issues, to review the work done to date and to help the committee form a list of priorities.
As part of his platform, Cowan called for a full, department-by-department review of the budget. He also wanted to see councillors given more responsibility over individual departments. The formation of a council liaison system early in its mandate addressed the latter, while councillors are taking part in their first full budget process right now in preparation for 2012. Cowan is optimistic the township will find efficiencies to reduce expenditures, especially in the parks and recreation area, which last year went $550,000 over budget.
“The public wants to see more accountability. It’s [our job] to hold staff accountable for the dollars they’re spending, making sure people are getting good value for their dollar,” he said.
To that end, a cost-benefit analysis should be applied to all spending. He acknowledges that the staff has grown in recent years, but there’s no indication that the public is being any better served for the increased costs – a review is in order. In that vein, he’s also concerned about customer service.
“That was a complaint that I heard in the campaign … that when dealing with staff it wasn’t always topnotch.”
Outside of the township administration proper, Cowan said the focus is promoting development, particularly on attracting high-tech businesses given the close proximity to Waterloo. Through organizations such as Communitech and Canada’s Technology Triangle (CTT), he’s been trying to boost Woolwich’s profile. With the help of Mercedes Corp. and Quarry Integrated Communications, St. Jacobs could be an ideal destination, he added.
Similarly, regional plans for the so-called eastside lands means huge development potential for the Breslau area, where Thomasfield Homes has tabled a plan for a large mixed community featuring residential, commercial and industrial uses.
“I’m trying to be more involved in helping them to highlight Woolwich – promote, promote, promote. I’m a little more engaged in targeting and attracting business here,” he said. “It’s about highlighting the township, keeping Woolwich in the limelight.
“I want to keep Woolwich in the picture as far as a place to move to and a place to locate your business.”
Development in St. Jacobs and Breslau will certainly be a priority moving into his second of a four-year term. The Thomasfield proposal and a planned park-and-ride GO station will certainly keep Breslau on the front burner. Likewise, ongoing talks about a biogas plant, the redevelopment of the former Procast site and the impact of growth in the south end on the downtown will put Elmira issues front and center, as will more detailed discussions of a bypass route around the core.
Cowan also plans to continue to be vocal at Queen’s Park. The township is certainly more active at the provincial level, meeting with ministers and senior staffers to push the township’s agenda, specifically its concerns about firefighting regulations and the resultant costs, gravel pits and the Green Energy Act.
“We’re actually doing something here, meeting with ministers and with opposition parties,” he said.