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Under the Brim

Web posted on November 27, 2006

I had hoped that the entire contingent of councillors the full complement of 13 elected officials would have been at the last meeting of the current council last Monday. Twelve made it. One, Rocco Furfaro, for whatever reason, did not.

Many taxpayers made it out on a cold November night to witness a memorable event. No, I am not referring to the last appearance of the mayor and her councillors, many of whom went down to crushing defeat. I refer instead of the passing of a gentler era. I refer to the retirement of Councillor Cathy Downer.

Downer is the one councillor not returning who was not defeated on Monday November 13. She decided last summer to retire from her political career with Guelph city council and did not run in the election. This is a retirement well deserved.

Downer was first elected to city council in 1994, and during her 12 years in office she has been a work-horse. If there was a council sub-committee, she has been there. While colleagues focused on one particular area, Downer, over her career, chaired the Planning, Works and Environment Committee and served on:

The Finance and Administration Committee;

The Local Architectural Conservation Advisory Committee;

Guelph Non-Profit Housing Board;

Guelph/Wellington Joint Waste Management Committee;

Victoria Road Secondary Plan Steering Committee;

Children and Family Services Committee.

And that was in her first six years on Council. During her 12 years around the horseshoe she has been the very model of a knowledgeable, calm and progressive councillor, never once shirking her duty to set the record straight with her knowledge of the history of both Guelph and its past council meetings. This worthy ability was often needed when our most recent council began to micro-manage or rant on about something of which they knew little.

Vividly I recall the recent discussion about merchandising within the new Civic Administration building. "We can't have that!" some councillors cried in indignation.

"Despicable", called others. And so it went until Councillor Downer calmly rose and educated the uneducated that in its early days a butcher shop occupied part of the building. Like the butcher's blade, her observation chopped short any further the protests.

And this was not the only incident where she was able to bring back to the developers' friends some of the idiosyncrasies of their rulings compared to what had transpired sometimes only weeks before. These reminders were not welcomed by the majority of council, but they were by me. And they were by her fellow like-minded councillors, and they were by the viewing public.

Not only were Downer's words often unappreciated by her foes (yes, foes - they saw her as a stumbling block to pushing through much of their puppet-string policy making), but sometimes they were downright rude to her.

Witness the report that she and Councillor Ray Ferraro presented to council. Because Councillor Dan Schnurr didn't like it (and what is there about any major expenditure that Dan Schnurr liked anyway?), he condemned the report by referring to it as "Crap". Not once, not twice, but several times, he proceeded to utter this vulgarity towards Downer and her effort. And the object of his spite? She sat there, outwardly calm. Inwardly who can tell, but she sat and let this nasty, self-proclaimed minder of the public purse spew forth.

It had been rumoured that an aim of the majority of this council was to discredit Downer at every opportunity. How ironic that Downer is leaving because she wants to; most of her detractors because they have been told to.

Downer actually chaired the Civic Administration centre project not once, but twice! When the first project, created under Karen Farbridge's first term, was spitefully defeated, she took it in stride. When the now-finished council realized, albeit slowly, that a new Civic Admin building was a necessity and not merely a want, she again took it all in stride and went on to do good things again.

As mentioned earlier, Downer's memory is nothing but incredible. She can recall those motions and reports from the past that most councillors would have long forgotten. She has always been supportive of staff, co-operative with the media and accessible to everyone. She has never been afraid to defend her decisions.

Downer, in her unwavering dedication to the city and to the greater common good, would have been an asset in any ward, in any city. Here, that wisdom mentioned earlier, combined with her incredible memory, allowed her to make strategic moves on council that quite often caught that group commonly known as the dark side, off guard, off balance, and embarrassed by their direction.

Downer did not step down because of harrassment around the horseshoe or because of disillusionment. She wants to appease her tremendous love of adventure. She intends to visit many of the world's UNESCO sites. She wants to spend more time as a dedicated wife, mother, grandmother, daughter and sister. She wants to sit back and enjoy her Merlot and her music.

But she also wants to continue to enjoy the Guelph that she first learned to love. The place that I still call "The gentle city".

At the River Run on election night Cathy Downer was beaming. The radiance, I suspect, was a combination of joy that she had finally retired, leaving through the front door while so many others were bustled out the back, and the relief that the city had once again been returned to caring hands. And that's an important thing for those of us who call Guelph home.

Guelph is a gentler place to call home because of that gentle councillor from Ward 5. Guelph is a gentler place to call home because of Cathy Downer.

Brian Holstein is a resident of Guelph who hosts a show featuring municipal affairs on CFRU community radio. Brian is a keen observer of human nature and the political scene and is unsparing in his opinions.

The views of columnists in The Fountain Pen do not necessarily represent the views of the principals of the publication.