An impromptu question-and-answer session broke out October 21 as those attending a Woolwich Ward 1 candidates’ meeting put democracy to work, prompting a change in the evening’s format.

Ward 1 candidate Sebastian Siebel-Achenbach speaks with resident Brenda Kempel, who pressed for a format change to allow for a proper public forum at Tuesday night's event in Elmira.[Steve Kannon / The Observer]
Ward 1 candidate Sebastian Siebel-Achenbach speaks with resident Brenda Kempel, who pressed for a format change to allow for a proper public forum at Tuesday night’s event in Elmira. [Steve Kannon / The Observer]
Organizing the public event themselves – no group had come forward to put together an all-candidates’ night – the six hopefuls vying for the two Elmira seats eventually settled on what amounted to a trade-show format: each would set up a table in the community room at the WMC, allowing visitors to approach them individually.

Those arriving Tuesday night expecting a debate were unimpressed, eventually persuading the candidates – some eager, having pushed for a debate, and others reluctant – to sit as a group and answer questions from the audience. Resident Michael Purves-Smith, no stranger to issues in Elmira, was drafted to serve as moderator.

The on-the-fly format eventually allowed some 50 people to settle in their seats about half an hour into the event, but not before others had left when confronted with the original setup.

Not surprisingly, infrastructure spending was top of mind to both the candidates and some audience members.

Facing more than $60 million in future upgrades to roads and bridges and the like, the township will have to reallocate some of its current spending, argued Sebastian Siebel-Achenbach

“We need a 15- to 20-year plan,” he said, noting that earmarking $4 or $5 million a year over that timeframe would help deal with aging infrastructure.

Representing perhaps a third of the township’s current annual budget of $13 million, the course would require council to make some tough decisions.

One place to look for savings is the half of the budget that goes to administrative costs, suggested Patrick Merlihan.

“Not all of the money is being spent in ways that benefit the public.”

Reducing spending there would free up money rather than simply relying on tax increases he said, adding the township has to get its own finances is order because it can’t rely on funding from the federal and provincial governments.

For Scott Hahn, the key is to think in longer timelines, planning as much as 50 years out. Even then, tough spending choices will have to be made.

“We all agree that it needs to be fixed. It’s going to be very difficult, but I believe we can do it,” he said.

Allan Poffenroth, the lone incumbent in the race, pointed out that the township has added a one per cent levy to residents’ tax bills, with the extra money earmarked for infrastructure projects.

“Last year, there wasn’t a plan,” he said.

A potential new piece of infrastructure, a long-discussed bypass route around downtown Elmira, was cited as an issue by most of the candidates.

“We have to convince the region that it’s a priority,” said Ruby Weber of the need to lobby the Region of Waterloo to move on a truck bypass route.

Along with helping traffic flow, it would help with efforts to revitalize the downtown core, she added.

Dan Holt said council as a whole, rather than just the mayor who sits on regional council, should lobby the region to expedite a bypass road. Removing truck traffic along Arthur Street and Memorial Avenue would be helpful in drawing more people to come downtown.

Having more people in the core would encourage businesses to set up shop there, which would in turn draw more people, he said, noting council’s role involves making the core more attractive to businesses.

“We have to revitalize downtown.”

Calling existing levels of truck traffic downtown “unacceptable,” Siebel-Achenbach said the need for a bypass route will only increase as Elmira grows.

A prosperous downtown is needed to help keep jobs in the community, said Weber. As well, there’s a need for a mix of affordable housing and homes for seniors and empty-nesters to move to if they downsize in order to keep people in town.

“We want this to be a place for people to live, work and play.”

Picking up on the issue of jobs, Poffenroth argued in favour of using some of the money Woolwich receives from its shares in North Waterloo Hydro to develop employment land, particularly industrial lots.

Siebel-Achenbach suggested planners focus on the core for commercial and retail development, perhaps providing incentives to build downtown, to ensure the core remains viable.

“We don’t want a bedroom community.”

The candidates were in agreement on that subject, as well as for the need to act on the pending closure of the transfer station in Elmira.

“A solution needs to be found if we can’t convince the region to keep it open,” said Merlihan, suggesting Woolwich could partner with Wellesley Township, which is also losing its transfer station to Region of Waterloo cuts.

This week’s forum was the one and only public event for ward councillors in Woolwich. It’s crunch time now, as voters head to the polls on Monday.