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Regional Council/Ward 2 Debate

I attended the Waterloo Regional Chair debate last Tuesday. It was one of the better debates I have seen, but instead of writing about that I will attempt to summarize the regional councillor debate I attended on Thursday. Choosing 4 out of 11 candidates is a big task, and I have been disappointed with the lack of coverage this race has seen. As far as I know The Record didn't even cover this debate, which was the ONLY Kitchener Regional Council debate organized for this election!

I doubt I will improve this situation much. I was in emotional distress while attending the debate, which affected my attention to the candidates and perceptions of their platforms. There were also so many candidates that their answers started melting into each other after a while.

I have been feeling pretty guilty for posting such long messages without cut tags, so I'm cutting this entry.

As if having 11 people debating was not enough, the organizers of this meeting also invited all city council candidates for Ward 2, bumping the total to 14. From Ward 2 there was Len Carter, JD McGuire and incumbent Berry Vrbanovic.

I did not pay as much attention to the Ward 2 part of the meeting (which tended to be overshadowed by regional concerns anyways) but I can offer some brief thoughts. Len Carter, JD McGuire and incumbent Berry Vrbanovic.

I think McGuire is running as a protest candidate, but I am not sure. On the one hand he did not volunteer to answer many questions during the debate (in his closing remarks he said he didn't want to repeat things others had said) and his campaign materials consist of a empty page with the caption "This page is nearly empty. It's a lot like Kitchener's polling stations" splashed on the front. It's pretty clear he is not out to get elected, but he also talked about visiting the thousands of residences in his ward. My guess is that he is an activist out to increase voter turnout.

From Carter's campaign materials it seems that he is running seriously, and he is mostly unhappy with Vrbanovic's decisions as city councillor. His campaign materials attack Vrbanovic's positions but don't have any policies of their own. Having said that he didn't seem like a bad candidate. He offered at least a couple of ideas and observations that were interesting: encouraging local farmers to sell produce in the city, and buying composting machines that turn garbage into dirt in two weeks. He also is an advocate of eliminating cars downtown, even as he advocates for growing jobs in the region. Oddly, he did not attack Vrbanovic very much during the debate at all; I guess he did not get the opportunity.

Vrbanovic seems very much the polished, competent incumbent. He's in favour of keeping local utilities local and profitable, and growing business in the city by giving existing businesses a place to expand. On the environment he seemed pretty proud about supporting the Pedestrian Charter.

As I have not been studying Ward 2 at all, I don't have anything further to say about that campaign. Sorry.

On the regional councillor side, the floor was packed. All 11 candidates showed up: Stephen Cage, Kurt Ditner, Gary Ferguson, Tom Galloway, Daniel Glenn-Graham, Jean Haalboom, Jason Hammond, Matthew Ichim, Rick Moffitt, Jake Smola, and Jim Wideman.

What struck me is just how uniform their views were throughout this debate. It might have been a function of the questions that were asked, but time and time again the candidates brought up similar points and expressed similar views. For example, everybody unanimously agreed to keeping water services totally public, and with the exception of Steven Cage every candidate enthusiastically supported the pesticide bylaw (with a couple of people -- Galloway, Hammond -- also bringing up the education aspect). With the exception of Gary Ferguson, everybody is in favour of increasing mass transit on some large scale, whether that be through GO service or the LRT. (The issue of highways was another matter, though.)

Maybe more distressingly, everybody agreed that municipal taxes are regressive and unfair to seniors, even as the they proposed increasing expenses in all kinds of ways. I think only Jake Smola hammered home the idea of tax-benefit tradeoffs. And when a person asked for support in opposing more group homes for troubled youth in the region, nobody had any good answers. Only four candidates (Hammond, Smola, Ichim, and Galloway) had the guts to answer the question, and none of them had the guts to offer any thoughts about whether the questioner's request might be reasonable or not. They essentially said "they'll look into it" and left it at that. This was a question the candidates were totally unprepared for, and it is unreasonable to expect that anybody has well-planned policies about the issue. Offering election promises to the questioner would have been foolish. Even so, the ability to offer at least rudimentary analysis of these tough problems seems pretty important to me, because it demonstrates an understanding of the many hard tradeoffs involved in politics, and (on this question at least) that was not apparent.

As with so many other debates this season, environmental concerns dominated the agenda. Everybody seems to have water, traffic and air quality on the brain. There was widespread support for opposing development on the Waterloo Moraine, which will be a cruel joke when it happens.

The issue of water came up a number of times, with some interesting contributions. Smola said that he had proposed a two-pipe system, using filtered river water for lawns and toilets and potable water for drinking and bathing. Wideman noted that water restrictions were for peak usage only, and that the region has enough water for the next 30 years, which countered Moffitt's earlier claim that lawn days demonstrate that the Region has a water problem already. Wideman also stated that the project to build a pipeline to Lake Erie has already started, which made Hammond look kind of foolish for opposing the project earlier. Ditner noted that building a water pipeline was a far better solution than building deeper wells. When asked about their "one achievable goal" for the term, Haalboom cited improving water sewage treatment. Ferguson proposed subsidizing homeowners for rain barrels (which I thought was the case already?).

Wideman, Galloway and Smola all brought up their work in designating environmentally sensitive lands, which will prevent development (and presumably protect water recharge areas) on those lands. I was surprised to learn that Smola was actually in charge of the environment committee.

The issue of increasing highway access and dealing with traffic congestion was somewhat contentious. Hammond, Cage, Galloway, Moffitt, and Wideman appeared to express support for an LRT system. Many of them expressed a rail system as a planning tool that would encourage greater development along the "spine" and reduce pressure to expand outward. (Personally, I don't totally buy that idea, but it is very common; it's basically Ken Seiling's mantra.) Ditner offered qualified support of an LRT; he said it should be started in Cambridge, and he was pretty upset that people don't know the timings of the buses right now. Ferguson and Smola were openly skeptical: Ferguson on the basis that we should put money into health care and GO trains, and Smola on the basis that it will cost a huge amount of money ($300 million for phase 1 alone) and that there is no guarantee that there will be enough ridership to support the system. He was in favour of having a referendum about the LRT. Ichim came out in favour of GO trains to support the 10 000 people who commute to Toronto already.

On the issue of highways, Cage was the strongest proponent of increasing the number of links to the 401. Wideman and Moffitt talked about improving existing roads -- Wideman the River road extension, and Moffitt the single link between Conestoga and the 401. Moffitt also was skeptical of widening roads, on the basis that this just moves the bottlenecks around. (That's an interesting thought, but what else are you going to do? Force people to use transit?) Ditner and Cage talked about improving transportation links so that businesses in the region could ship their goods more efficiently, which would help keep companies here and improve the job outlook. Ichim claimed that a GO link would encourage businesses to move to Waterloo Region, which sounded pretty odd to me.

One attendee asked about the attendance records for each of the incumbents. They all said that their records are "a matter of public record" (which is a cop-out because somebody has to look through the minutes and compile totals), but that except for conflicting engagements (mostly concerning the FCM -- some municipal government coalition) they claimed attendance rates of 95%. It would be interesting to actually do a count and see how good their estimation skills are. I don't know how often regional council meets, but if they met once a week (or 50 times a year) then a 95% attendance rate would mean they had skipped only 7 or 8 meetings in their 3-year term of office.

Because I have not been giving a fair shake to all the contenders, and because it is our job is to pick people from this giant list, I thought it might be helpful for me to express some (utterly biased) thoughts and impressions of each candidate below.

There did not seem to be any joke candidates, which is kind of surprising. Everybody appeared earnest, as if they really wanted the job of being in council. It was clear that some candidates were more ready to hold the job than others, but the lines were pretty fuzzy. Certainly, I did not see four clear winners on the basis of this debate alone.

I apologise for picking on the Ichim brothers this season, but it was clear to me that Matthew Ichim needs to get some experience. He's running mainly on a platform of increased GO service and better public transit, and it seems that he wants it all. On the one hand he wants buses to run every ten minutes all throughout the city, and on the other he wants to reduce bus fares, and meanwhile he wants to eliminate property taxes on seniors and other who cannot pay. Where you get the money to make these improvements is beyond me (I guess you go "taxing the rich") and several times he fell into the trap of promising everything to everybody. I was surprised to see that he was pretty left-wing; I had heard rumours that most of the Ichim clan was conservative, but I haven't seen a conservative one yet. I don't get the impression Matthew is campaigning seriously; his literature consisted of a business card.

Steven Cage has been working pretty hard this campaign. I saw him at pretty much every all-candidates meeting I attended, and he has been attending a lot of the council meetings as well. He is a schmoozer; at the end of each debate he went around shaking hands and saying hello. I'm sure if there were babies to be kissed he would have been on that as well. His resume paints him as a pretty diehard member of the Conservative party -- he has been president of the riding association and apparently ran in the last federal election. Like so many other conservatives this campaign, he also seems to painting himself as an environmentally concerned candidate -- like Bob Verdun, he sees increasing the number of highway links as a way to improve air quality by reducing traffic jams, even as he supports the building of the LRT. You wouldn't know that he was conservative from his campaigning, though -- in person he seems to be keeping it low profile, and he is in favour of keeping most public services public. He is in favour of amalgamating services, especially water.

Daniel Glenn-Graham seems like a nice guy, but he did not make a great showing this debate. He is a mediator with the WSIB, which I like. I have seen some of his lawn signs, and he did have a handout with his campaign platform. Unfortunately, his platform is not that good. The centrepiece of his campaign seems to be implementing a "suggestion box" so that citizens will contact their representatives. Given that contact information is already available for all regional council members, I don't see how a passive suggestion box will help. He also wants to build a big lake in the middle of the city, which is kind of bizarre. (Where would it go? How would it get water?) Some of the more interesting ideas on his platform are increasing transparency by televising/webstreaming debates, and working on programs to fast track immigrant doctors so they can practice.

In a word, Kurt Ditner came across as... intense. He sounded pretty upset about the lack of accountability in council -- about bad bus timings, about the folly of amalgamating fire services, about non- transparency and not getting good responses to his questions. I don't have any campaign literature from him, which surprises me because I thought he produced some. I have seen him at a couple of other all- candidates meetings, so I know that he has at least a casual interest in the election process even if I have not seen any election signs from him. His claim that we should freeze all development in the region (but that we would prosper anyways) was bizarre given all the empty brownfields in the region. He also came on a bit too strong during his closing remarks -- he said that in addition to returning phone calls he would go to people's houses and have coffee with them. He was addressing accountability and not disappearing between elections, and I support what he had to say, but it still came off as a bit creepy -- like the Linux tank salespeople from Neal Stephenson's "In the Beginning Was the Command Line". Having said that he did make a few interesting contributions: he noted that the reason seniors have problems keeping their homes is because of rising property assessments, and he was a strong proponent of reducing terms to three years so that councillors couldn't disappear from public view as readily.

Gary Ferguson (whom I know has run for office at least once before) was pretty concerned about health care. Even though health care is a provincial responsibility and we have this medical school coming to Kitchener, he advocated again and again for increasing the number of doctors in the region somehow. He also expressed a lot of concern that the municipal term of office is increasing to four years from three, and the way that councillors approved pay increases for themselves. One thing that hurts him is the simplicity of his campaign materials; he has a handout but it contains only a bullet-list version of his platform priorities. I have no idea whether he has any previous community involvement experience that might make him a good candidate for office, and he did not offer any in his comments.

My views for Jason Hammond come with a big fat conflict of interest disclaimer: I know Jason personally, and think it would be nice to see somebody I know and share values with get elected to public office, so I was planning to cast a vote for him regardless of the outcome of this election. I have also been paying attention to his website and campaign literature, and he's clearly coming from a Green Party perspective of improving rail transit and building the economy through green initiatives. I also know that Jason has been active in environmentalist initiatives (for example, to reduce car usage) when he was at the University of Waterloo, and I see that he is continuing that work at People's Car Co-op. Having said all that, I was disappointed by his performance at this debate. He wasn't terrible, but given the emphasis on environmental focus of the debate he could have given a much stronger performance than he did. If I did not know about Hammond's background I am not sure I would have been persuaded to vote for him. For example, the first question posed asked candidates to outline specific environmental improvements they suppported. Instead of answering the question directly, Hammond spent over half his time listing off a bunch of his past memberships, while deferring most of his concrete suggestions to his website. He did mention a few interesting ideas, such as using pedestrian tours to reduce community crime, and bringing jobs to the region by developing our environmental technology sector, but he did not give many details about how such initiatives could be made feasible. Although he stated that he did not want to come across as a one-trick pony, he filtered all of his answers through greenish strategies, and did not deal with the hard tradeoffs of allocating scarce resources to his strategies without fomenting a rebellion from all the taxpayers who are living comfortable lives under our current environmentally-insensitive lifestyles. Nonetheless, I am hoping that he will sneak into office, and a recent endorsement in a recent Record column might help boost his votes. To his credit, Hammond is clearly running a serious campaign; although I have not seen many of his lawn signs, he's been getting brochures out and showing up at other candidates meetings.

The last challenger is Rick Moffitt, who interests me more than he ought. He too is running a serious campaign (using the same colours as Len Carter, which suggests there is some tie between them) and he seems to have a reasonable balance in the areas I care about. He's big on improving both public transit (via the LRT) and improved highway links (between the Conestoga Parkway and the 401, and between Waterloo Region and Guelph. What makes Moffitt interesting to me is his interest in some of the lower-profile issues in the campaign: keeping manufacturing jobs in the region, affordable housing, and funding for things like the arts. He's also got experience with a number of political councils, including the Regional Labour Council, Opportunities Waterloo, and the Waterloo Region Health Coalition. In his closing remarks he claimed that he had done this work for free, and then made the rather dangerous campaign promise to donate 10% of his salary to reducing poverty and an addition 5% to the arts community. I am not thrilled about his desire to amalgamate all services, and his assertion that Carl Zehr should have stopped the Goodrich-Uniroyal plant from closing by threatening them with a boycott of Goodrich tires in Waterloo Region was kind of offensive, but it looks like he is one of the few candidates who has enough past community involvement to step into the job of regional councilor without a lot of training. Having said that, this is the first time I have heard of him in this campaign, and although he has some lawn signs and campaign postcards, I had not seen any of it. I doubt that he has the exposure to get elected, but I could be wrong.

That leaves the incumbents: Jake Smola, Jean Haalboom, Tom Galloway and Jim Wideman.

Of all the candidates Smola sticks out as a "scrapper". Right at the beginning of the debate, he rubbed me the wrong way, boasting of his initial work in eliminating employment equity at City Hall, so that white men wouldn't be discriminated against and people could be "hired on merit" instead, without any acknowledgement of structural discrimination. Certainly, he must have been very pleased with the makeup of the candidates: of the 14 candidates at the front of the room, 12 were white men. If that's not "merit-based" hiring at its best, I don't know what is.

Having said that, Smola is an interesting character with quite a bit to recommend him. He does chair the environment committee, and is clearly proud of his work in declaring land environmentally sensitive. Even as he expresses skepticism of the LRT, one of his main platform promises is to make more industrial lands available to businesses, so that the region keeps jobs in the area and does not become a bedroom community. Contrast that to many LRT proponents, who want to avoid Waterloo Region becoming a bedroom community but want to intensify around the central "spine", which will make it more expensive to do business. He also understands the tradeoffs between municipal services and taxes, and wants to keep tax increases down. He had the guts to challenge the audience openly by asking how many of them would actually be riding an LRT if it was built. (If I had been in better shape maybe I would have followed that up by asking the candidates the last time they had taken public transit at all, and how much of a tax hike they would support to build improvements to a mass transit system that few of them used.) It seems that he is an agitator who doesn't fall into lockstep with Ken Seiling's vision of Waterloo Region, and that has its merits.

I keep wanting to like and support Jean Haalboom, but I can never get there. It makes me feel bad; I remember going through this struggle back in 2000, and I'm nervous that I have been so unsupportive of the female and visible minority candidates whom I have seen running. Certainly, Haalboom doesn't seem incompetent, but of the four incumbents she seems the weakest. She spent a lot of time focusing on making the city more beautiful by planting trees, getting youth involved in gardening projects, and so on. She does have a few other priorities: rehabilitating buildings, attracting small businesses, and protecting wells and water. I think she also volunteered answers to questions less frequently than other incumbents. In her defence, she was nearly missed on the responses to one question, so there could have been a bit of "merit-based" discrimination going on as well. Having said that, her focus on urban design has merit, and it is apparent that she is pretty active in council -- I think she attended the most committees of any of the incumbents.

Jim Wideman, on the other hand, worked to be as visible as possible. He answered a lot of questions, and volunteers his answers first more than any other candidate. Like Smola, he pointed out the conservation efforts of the region while detailing plans to bring 335 ha of land for development. He also expressed pride in the region's livability, pointing to its AAA credit rating and its ranking as the second-best place to live in Canada, next to Saskatoon. (Who produced that ranking I don't know.) Because he jumped out to volunteer his answers first, he came across as being knowledgeable -- about the feasibility of reducing taxes for seniors, about the number of jobs gained and lost in Waterloo, about the rationale behind water restrictions, and so on.

That leaves Tom Galloway, who really does not seem that distinct from Wideman. Like Wideman, Galloway said mostly sensible things about the tradeoffs involved in government -- that the region could not create jobs on its own, about the need for an education component for the pesticide bylaw, about recreational program subsidies for poor kids, and so on. (Actually, Moffitt countered that last point by noting that people don't like asking for subsidies, but Galloway at least knew about the program.) He also seemed proud that the region had taken flack from landowners and land speculators for designating certain lands as environmentally sensitive, and that the region resisted the pressure to give in. In fact, Galloway and Wideman referred to each other's comments a couple of times in the debate; I did not see such camadarie between other pairs of incumbents.

Getting to this debate was not a pleasant experience, and quite frankly I'm frustrated and burned out by this election campaign now. I'm feeling the futility of choosing these people every few years and then not paying good attention to their antics in office; I'm feeling stupid for going to all these dumb debates; and I feel as if I am picking candidates based on surface impressions rather than a good understanding of what needs to happen in our region and the best people to carry out that job. Most of all, I don't think my vote is going to matter; regardless of for whom I vote, the incumbents are certain to take most of the positions, because (except in times of big publicized crises like RIM Park) that's how municipal politics works.

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Mood: burned out