For the first time, to my knowledge, all seven of the mayoral candidates were together on one stage for the Guelph Mercury Candidate Forum Monday night. In the shadow of a now infamous partisan attack ad, it was a packed room at the Italian Canadian Club that came together to see the mayoral candidates clash for one last time before election day as Jason Blokhuis, Andrew Donovan, Karen Farbridge, Cam Guthrie, John Legere, Nicholas Ross and Joseph St. Denis all aimed to make a closing argument for their election. But with partisan politics in the back of everyone's mind, would the undecided get their chance for a clean, compelling argument?
Things got pointed early in terms of referencing recent events in the opening statements. Donovan proclaimed that the "two horse race was turning into a bit of a farce," with a "Toronto Factor" creeping into the campaign. St. Denis took it up a notch by doubling down on exploiting the so-called "Michael Sona" connection to Guthrie, which got him several loud boos from the crowd who St. Denis then called "trained seals." Guthrie, Legere, Blokhuis and Farbridge then took turns, calming things down by staying platform focused in their opening remarks.
Ross was the last to make his opening statement, and indeed Ross would also be given last word on all the questions owing to his disability. Ross would write responses on notes, which were then read aloud by his assistant Cathy. Ross told the crowd that he keeps his promises, and will work towards building more apartments for the disabled and homeless, as well as make bus shelters with washrooms.
The first question of the night came from a media panel made up of an editor from the Mercury and representative of Conastoga college, whose broadcast journalism program was filmming the night's events for the Mercury live-stream. The question asked mayoral candidates to outline details concerning what other revenue tools that the city might have aside from property taxes. St. Denis suggested red light cameras to catch overly aggressive drivers. Guthrie talked exploring making the student bus pass model used by the University of Guelph to make it available to students across the city and increasing ridership, as well as collecting the millions in outstanding fines served by the city. Farbridge, meanwhile discussed re-developing underperforming properties and re-developing contaminated sites.
The floor was then opened up to questions from those in attendance, selected through random draw. First up was a woman in a townhouse complex with a question about garbage and how her and her neighbours have to pay for private garbage collection. Guthrie said he has a new five-point pln to address the fact that the city missed planning for multi-resident units, and that people should get tax rebate if they're not getting the service they're paying for. Farbridge countered that Guelph had the highest diversion rate in the province in 2012 and many condo developers are interested in being part of program. Solutions will be addressed in the 2015 budget deliberations, she added. Donovan slammed the rollout of the new bin program as being "too bureaucratic."
Then the candidates were asked about food security. Legere said that Guelph needs a local food district, while Blokhuis said that he would look at making "fresh food nodes" at local community centres so that local people can get access without needing to drive. Farbridge said that she's dedicated to make food security "a thing of the past" and will continue to support the creation of communities gardens, a rare point of agreement between her and Guthrie. St. Denis said that he would push big box stores looking to building in Guelph to "create hubs for essentials, and healthy local food," adding, "that's the innovative thinking from philosopher and not a table full of politicians."
Next was the first of two questions about climate change and the environment, which brought darts and laurels for Guelph Transit. Donovan said that our local bus service is inefficient, and that a good place to start at looking for greater efficiency is to integrate Guelph's service with Grand River Transit in the tri-cities. Blokhuis proposed a similar idea, saying that a lot of people commute out of town to work in Kitchener, Waterloo and Cambridge. Legere pointed out that there's a lack of direct public transit options to several nearby communities like Hamilton and Burlington, and that we should be "aggressively" developing options there. Farbridge cited the cycling master plan, the community energy plan and the pedestrian charter as positive environmental moves, while Guthrie said he wants to expand trail networks and look at hybrids and EVs to replace the city's gas-using fleet of vehicles.
Guthrie's remarks about more bike trails than bike lanes segued nicely into the next query from the floor, a question about bike lanes, and the asker, Lou, was not a fan. Farbridge began saying that Lou was unlikely to like her answer, but she did support the cycling master plan, and although she does not use bike lanes herself, it makes her concerned when she sees someone on their bike, on the road, and not riding in a separated bike lane. Guthrie said that he is not in favour of removing bike lanes, or cancelling plans for bike lanes already on the books, but we would like to look at a separated bike lane on Woodlawn and to promote the reduction of gridlock through the installation of roundabouts.
The next question was about the leadership experiences of the candidates, and it brought out some interesting responses. While Donovan said that door-to-door campaigning shouldn't end on October 27, St. Denis went off on the person who asked the question saying that, "You disappoint me as a voter, and give no credit to people with potential" versus established politicians.
Guthrie said that it's unfair to characterize him as uncaring but rather "sidewalks, curbs, snow removal that should be the focus," as opposed to more global matters that are handled by the provincial and federal levels. After that, Blokhuis once again offered himself as a middle path between Farbridge and Guthrie saying, "We've had polarize councils for years and it doesn't have to be that way." He also noted that he cares about the things Farbridge cares about, but he cares about the things Guthrie cares. A good leader, Blokuis said, "can satisfy most people most of the time."
A question about the Nestle and its contract to pump water in Aberfoyle stirred passion in St. Denis further calling the contract a move to "line the pockets of Swiss investors." He also said that he should be running at the Federal level is makes him so disgusted. Guthrie noted that the permit comes from the province, but he has no problem advocating for those against it to the province or other bodies. Farbridge took the question as an opportunity to promote the city's move to making tap water more available.
Ward 6 candidate Glen Tolhurst took the mic a few questions later. Not identifying as either a candidate or as an associate of GrassRoots Guelph, Tolhurst asked a loaded question, complete with preamble, about why the city doesn't adapt zero-based budgeting.
Farbridge took the question first and fumbled a bit saying that zero-based budgeting is too expensive and time-consuming, but it had been used in unraveling the management of overtime spending last fall. Guthrie picked up on that and tossed out some red meat to his supporters in the audience saying, there's been "an attitude at city hall that its your money and it needs to be respected. Zero-based budgeting goes line by line, we just need the political will to make it happen."
No one took Tolhurst up on his request for a pledge to use zeo-based budgeting, but St. Denis was the most vehement in his refusal calling it "politicians with politalk," and calling zero-based budgeting a scheme by Conservatives, he said there were better ways to budget than "force me to associate with people who produce traitors," once again referencing Sona. That was roundly booed by the audience.
Privatization was on the docket next. Donovan, whose platform is largely based on the idea of increasing privatization, said that its necessary to find ways to shift some of the government's responsibilities away from government and make them cost effective. Also staying within his platform was Blokhuis, who said that he'd like to use the resources we already have and get the most we can out of them. He also denounced the hiring of outside consultants. Once again, it was St. Denis who walked up to the line saying, "We need to do more for the right amount and there's nothing wrong with paying that amount." He then evoked Isabel Warren, the school girl who was killed three years ago in the wall collapse of bathroom in a Guelph park saying, "Don't always look for more for less."
Guthrie took exception to that, and responded that he will fulfill a mandate to the taxpayer to look at three key areas: garbage collection, snow removal and parks. As for privatizing services, Guthrie said that he will be "the first one to hit the no button if it doesn't make sense, but it's my duty to you to check."
Legere said that he's not interested in privatizing services, but public-private partnerships, or P3s, is an option for future building construction he said. Farbridge scoffed at the idea of doing more for less, which drew the ire of one man in the audience who yelled something about her "big raise." Farbridge ignored it and noted a few services in Guelph that used to be privatized, like the ambulance, and how even when services are delivered by a private company, we're still paying for them, including the profit margin.
The night ended cordially enough with everyone's final statements, but it was Donovan who got the most applause when he send in that in the final week of campaigning the candidates should, "drop the attack ads and focus on things that matter to people." Whether or not anyone takes that advice, or whether or not any undecideds were turned by the content of the debate, is to be determined.