In completing the two-part Top 10 list of the year's biggest political/news stories, we turn to the local scene and recount the doings that had us talking locally and provincially throughout 2014. We had back-to-back elections where no matter the side you were on, they both might have had surprising results. Court matters took up a good portion of the year as both the city and a young campaign worker had their days in front of a judge. We also said goodbye to a number of politicians leaving office (or who announced that they were leaving office in the future), we said hello to new people and new circumstances, and we all reveled, or were repelled by some damn, dirty campaigning. It was a year of great change to be sure. This was the year 2014, locally and provincially, at least according to me.
10) Negative Campaigning Phrases Election
The Municipal Election this year was a pretty big story on its own, but really it's a couple of different stories, and one of them is just how ugly things got. Karen Farbridge has been a polarizing figure in recent years, so it wasn't that big of surprise when her harshest critics organized under the Grassroots Guelph banner. Or was that critic singular? For what was supposed to be a group "Promoting Voter Awareness and Participation in Guelph Civic Affairs" seemed to fold quickly after the election, and despite proclamations to the contrary, even those who were part of the group say it was the fiefdom of one man, Gerry Barker. On the other side, an 11th hour ad from the Farbridge campaign attempted to draw links to Marty Burke and Michael Sona, as if to say Cam Guthrie was a secret, hard right zealot, from which the only salvation was Farbridge. Along the way, there were numerous instances of online harassment, vandalism, and other acts of negative campaigning from both politicians and their supporters. In what was an important election for trying to figure out the future of the Royal City, all many people could talk about was how they hated the people who had different politics from them versus their own ideas and policies, and that's not good for any of us in a democracy.
9) Guelph Embraces Internet Voting
Another side story to the municipal election was the apparent success of online voting. City council announced last year that the 2014 election would feature a bold experiment in voting via the internet, a measure supposedly designed to encourage the 66 per cent of the people that stayed home in 2010 to get out and vote. But was it successful? Well, 13,000 online ballots say 'yes,' which could easily account for the 10 per cent bump in turnout this past October. However, there are still some unanswered questions. Is security tight enough to avoid any kind of malfeasance? This is the home of the robocall scandal after all. Andy Best at the Guelph Citizen brought up a good point about record-keeping, and making sure there's a hard copy of every vote registered, which would come in quite handy when dealing with a recount situation, as demonstrated in Ward 3 this year. There was also some objection to how the city presented the online voting option, posters on the bus that basically said, "Hey, while you're waiting to get where you're going, why don't you vote?" which kind of made voting sound like an incidental way to kill time on your phone, like tweeting or playing Candy Crush. The bigger question though is will online voting have a long-term impact on turnout: will more people vote after an effective demonstration of the system, or are we always going to tap out at around 45 per cent?
8) The Rob Ford Era Ends
If you thought 2013 was a crazy year in "Crazy Town" it was merely the orchestral warm-up for 2014, which was barely a few weeks old when Toronto Mayor Rob Ford went off the reservation again, performing Jamaican patois at Steak Queen in full view of a camera phone. The dogged pursuit of Ford wouldn't let up until finally, nearly one year after the rumors of that first crack video came to light, the mayor made a sequel video in his sister's basement. Forced to finally admit he had a problem, Ford went away to rehab and even there he couldn't stop making news whether it was a fellow patient being stopped in his car, or talking to Toronto Sun reporter Joe Warmington by phone. Once back on the campaign trail, Ford seemed rejuvenated, but protests against him increased culminating in not just one shirtless protester, but a whole group of them inspired by school teacher Joe Killoran, the so-called shirtless jogger. But the denouement of the Ford era came not at the ballot box, but in a hospital room, as it was announced that Rob Ford had two inoperable tumors that required immediate treatment. His brother Doug would try to continue the Ford dynasty in the mayor's office, and fail, while Rob, despite undergoing rigorous cancer treatments, handily recaptured his old council seat. This may not be the end, Ford promises to be back in 2018, but will be in any fit physical condition to do so, and will four years away make voters less likely to want the circus back in town?
7) Valeriote Decides to Retire in 2015
Frank Valeriote has been Guelph's Member of Parliament through some very interesting times; there was the suddenly extended 12 week election in 2008, the robocall scandal in 2011, and his inexplicable victory in spite of nearly the whole of southwestern Ontario turning Conservative blue... It was a wild ride, perhaps too wild to last a third time. In an emotional speech last month, Valeriote revealed that he would not be seeking a third term, meaning that in a very contentious election coming up in the new year, the Royal City riding is up for grabs. Who the Liberals might seek to fill the Valeriote void is an interesting question, but no more interesting than who the Conservatives might find to succeed Marty Burke, or who the NDP and the Green Party may recruit with an open race now on the table. But Valeriote has proved though that he's not going to sit on his laurels in his final months in office. As the Liberals Veterans Affairs critic he's been at the forefront of the Opposition's attack on Julian Fantino's handling of the portfolio, and has been featured more than few times on Power & Politics after a full day of thundering away at Fantino in Question Period. No matter your political stripes, you have to admire Valeriote's passion and dedication as a proud representative of Guelph on Parliament Hill.
As we head deeper into the 21st century, our region faces increasing challenges in dealing with how to grow by a couple of hundred thousand people in the next 30 or so years. Guelph's first big downtown condo project has come together rather quickly, and a second one on the old Woods site looks ready to begin construction in the new year. A brand new plaza was built at the corner of Gordon and Wellington after months of construction and the unexpected discovery of some potentially toxic barrels found buried down the road. New commercial development continued to pop up in the south end, and it seemed a grocery store was finally coming in the east end. The real growth story of the year though was a little to the west of here as construction began on the new LRT line meant to connect Waterloo, Kitchener and Cambridge with rapid transit. Businessman Jay Aissa pulled a legal challenge so that he could unsuccessfully run for the chair of Waterloo Region, and all the declared anti-LRT candidates running for the mayoralty of Kitchener or Waterloo lost to those who wanted to move ahead with the project. The Liberal government in Ontario further announced an expansion of GO train service, and a promise that all day train schedules would be passing through Guelph and Kitchener in the next two years. Like it or not, our area is only getting bigger and will get bigger still in 2015.
5) Urbacon Gives Red Meat to Farbridge Critics
If you're trying to convince voters that you're fiscally prudent and wise about city planning, there's probably no worse news you can get than for a judge to render a $8 million judgment against you for wrongfully dismissing a contractor, especially less than eight weeks before Election Day. A $6.6 million judgment against the city with another $2 million in legal fees needing to be paid out was not the type of news you want to get if your running for re-election, and although Mayor Karen Farbridge tried to frame the discussion on her end as "Mistakes were made, we learned our lesson," her challenger, Cam Guthrie, was able to wash his hands of it having not been on council at the time Urbacon's contract was cancelled in 2008. For those critical of Farbridge's tenure, this was just the sort of concrete example they could use to paint a picture of managerial incompetence. Not helping was the rather large dollar amount pegged to that lesson learned, nor the immediate assertion of city hall that a $9 million finding would have no impact on taxes at all. Through it all though was the fog of scandal. Did the Farbridge administration force deadlines to go long with constant changes to the plans, or was Urbacon the incompetent one? And whatever the reason that things fell behind, what could the city do when faced with a looming deadline where in half the city's offices were homeless once leases started to expire? The optics were terrible, and many voters in Guelph could only see clearly enough to put the blame on the mayor.
4) Lockout Shuts Down Transit for Weeks
Urbacon got the lion's share of the attention, but summer's lockout of Guelph Transit workers was the second, and likely most powerful, of the one-two punch in Karen Farbridge's defeat in the mayor's race. There's no doubt that negotiations had stalled between the City and the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1189, but then city hall issued an ultimatum to settle now, or get locked out. Coincidentally, this announcement came at the end of June when school was closing down for the summer and ridership would be at seasonal lows. If there was implied cynicism there, it was made explicit by city staff who admitted that this was the time to take action, to push for a deal lest ATU wait for September and the barrage of University of Guelph students to make a strike fully impacting. Details were scarce as to what exactly the differences were on either side, the nature of these negotiations is that they're kept confidential till a deal is reached and ratified by both sides, but the anger against the city in particular was palpable. Farbridge was shouted down at the city hall announcement of the lockout, and city hall's advice about how to cope - from taking taxis to renting cars - showed just how tin an ear the City of Guelph had about its own citizens who take Guelph Transit. Those same citizens smelled the whiff of politics being played for the sake of politics, and they were out of pocket (or out of work) as a result.
3) Sona Goes to Jail as Robocall Scandal Ends
It was a result unlikely to satisfy anyone, not the ones that felt he got off too light, and not the ones who think he was a patsy and shouldn't have to pay the price for more powerful/influential men. But Guelph Judge Gary Hearn, a jurist not known for reaching for the hickory stick, sent Michael Sona to prison, putting responsibility for the robocalls that misdirected over 4,000 voters in Guelph entirely on his head. No one in their right mind thinks a 23-year-old kid launched a conspiracy to prevent people from voting city-wide, not even the Crown attorney that prosecuted him nor the judge that sent him to prison. While we're at it, no one thinks that Sona was a solo actor in repeating the scheme in communities nationwide, but it is another reason that despite one, singular conviction, no one is going to sleep easy with the 2015 election looming. Sona's sentence is currently being appealed and he's out on bail. Meanwhile, the Conservative government passed the Fair Elections Act in the spring, which does nothing to address the problems caused by the robocalls, but instead restricted the powers of Elections Canada, eliminates vouching, and increases limits for established donors to political parties. Democracy solved! (I guess.)
2) Cam Guthrie Becomes Mayor of Guelph (and Other Upsets)
It wasn't a surprise ending, but it was perhaps a surprise given how divisive the ending was. With grassroots (small g) support behind him, and a degree of fatigue with incumbent Mayor Karen Farbridge, Guthrie managed to rally just over 50 per cent of the vote to come out 15 points ahead of Farbridge to win the mayoralty. As mentioned above, this came after a dirty race that same accusations from all sides of bad faith politicking, from sign stealing/vandalism to cyber stalking/squatting. Ultimately, the affair was Guthrie's to lose and Farbridge's to win, and a Forum Poll in early September showed just how far the challenger might fall, and just how much the incumbent had to take back. But the mayor's chair wasn't the only one that changed hands. A total of seven new councillors joined the horseshoe, most of them elected to fill vacancies, but two won outright over incumbent seat holders, including Phil Allt's victory over Maggie Laidlaw in Ward 3. Ward 3 was also home to the tightest race of the election, a total of five votes separated second place June Hofland from third place Craig Chamberlain. Coming up next, the Royal City will get to see just how well the council can perform as they embark on their first big test of collegiality and pressure: the city budget.
1) Kathleen Wynne Leads Liberals to Improbable Victory
Billions. Billions of dollars had been squandered through a myriad of scandals involving the Ontario Liberals from eHealth, to Ornge, to the cancelled power plants, yet against all possible odds, including the breaking MARS scandal at the height of the campaign, Kathleen Wynne not only led the Liberals to victory, but a majority. One can praise Wynne for being a shrewd political operative, but a debt is also owed to the staggeringly miscalculated campaigns of the PCs and Time Hudak, and the NDP and Andrea Horwath. Both opposition parties made hard right turns that turned off important constituencies: independents in the case of the PCs, and the base in the case of the NDP. Hudak couldn't get traction despite being the heir apparent, and even a simple photo op on a subway couldn't go his way without the job getting bungled. Meanwhile, even Hudak's staunchest media supporter, the Toronto Sun, couldn't find much to get excited about, which was okay because Horwath has spending big money on full page ads in the paper. Horwath, in some respects, had a harder time than Hudak, casting off a budget practically designed for NDP approval and one that many union leaders were pushing her to approve. Horwath claimed to not like the Liberal budget, and said that she doubted in Wynne's ability to deliver, but the NDP's own plaform was more centrist and delivered way too late in the campaign, which was odd for the woman and party on whom the whole idea of an election rested. In the end, Hudak is now looking for work, and Horwath has a lot of work to do. Both the PCs and NDP have four years to rebuild and come out swinging. The good news in their favour is that it's inevitable that the Liberals will find new scandals.