As Mayor Shari Decter Hirst continues the second half of her four-year term, the Brandon Sun caught up with her to take a look back at 2012 and the highlights and challenges that came with it.
Right out of the gate, councillors delved into what was considered by many, a controversial budget. Special meetings were held well into 2012, which ultimately lead to significant cuts.
Though it was a challenging time, Decter Hirst said there were "positive takeaways" from last year’s deliberations.
"I am very pleased to see how much we learned through that budgeting process," she said. "Residents in Brandon should be pleased to see that mayor and council in fact very much learn from their experiences … It’s a tough lesson because the test is at the front end and the lesson happens afterwards. We learned the lesson and as we go through this process it should be smoother, which is a good thing."
The city submitted two major bids in 2012: one to attract WestJet service and the other to host the 2017 Canada Summer Games.
"It’s a wonderful opportunity to host the country and that’s something that Brandon does very well," Decter Hirst said.
The mayor said she is excited and optimistic about both projects.
"The process of putting the bids together was a lot of fun and … I think it’s something that the city should be proud of," Decter Hirst said. "It’s certainly exciting and we’ll find out … early in the new year, where things are at with those two projects."
With 2011 being the year of the historic flood, 2012 became the starting year for many city projects. The city began working on plans to develop a long-term vision for a key parcel of land, called the North Brandon Gateway. The area, also known as the Black Farm property, spans approximately 160 acres between First and 18th streets, south of the Trans-Canada Highway. The city held its first public consultation to hear feedback from residents.
The city’s accommodation tax came into effect in July, which means guests pay roughly $3 extra per night. Between July 1 to Sept. 30, more than $214,000 had been collected. Funds collected from the hotel tax will be funnelled into tourism initiatives, particularly for attracting or keeping events in Brandon. City council approved the first payment out of the hotel tax reserve: a $25,000 grant to Hockey Brandon for the Tournament of Champions.
The city was also busy working on a growth management strategy over the past year, with the rural municipalities of Elton and Cornwallis.
"Already we can see from the analysis that our growth is still going to be a straight up curve for about the next 10 years, which means that issues like affordable housing, traffic congestion and what amenities we want in the city will continue to be on the front burner of council," Decter Hirst said.
Also in 2012, Decter Hirst found herself at the centre of a conflict of interest allegation surrounding the Strand Theatre restoration project. She was investigated for taking part in debates and decision-making activities regarding the Strand, both in her role as mayor and as a Renaissance Brandon board member. It was also noted that her family owns property near the proposed theatre project.
Ultimately, city council didn’t pursue conflict of interest charges.
"It’s very difficult when you’re a public figure not to be involved in the life of your community," she said.
Council consists of business people, property owners and others that are "very much engaged" in the community, Decter Hirst said.
"The lessons that we’ve learned from this is very much to be very focused on both the issue as well as the things that we can do to make sure that we don’t trip on the conflict of interest issue," she said. "We’ve had concerns raised around people’s financial benefit from making property decisions … but we also have to move forward and make decisions in the best interest of the city, and so how do we do that in an environment that doesn’t imply a conflict?"
Decter Hirst went on to say that people can "over think things to the point of paralysis."
"This is why we rely on the good judgement of our city clerk," she said.
One of the low points of the year came in November, following a city council meeting when Decter Hirst had an outburst directed towards Coun. Stephen Montague (Richmond):
"If you ever show disregard with that microphone on again, I will slap you on the back of the head so hard your head will spin," Decter Hirst was recorded as saying.
Earlier in the meeting, Decter Hirst requested that Montague follow the protocol that he direct his comments to her, as the chairwoman of city council, when asking questions of a resident on a condominium approval debate.
Decter Hirst later apologized and the issue has been put behind them.
"It’s really important that the people of Brandon understand that all of us at city council recognize the importance of decorum and making sure that our chamber reflects the professionalism that it needs to," she said. "It was an unfortunate incident and won’t be repeated."
One of the year’s disappointments for Decter Hirst was the shelving of Brandon’s pursuit of a casino.
In May, the city announced it had partnered with the Tribal Councils Investment Group, the business arm of seven tribal council groups representing 55 of Manitoba’s 61 First Nation bands, with the intent of securing the right to build a casino on city-owned land.
That eventually fell through. In a Brandon Sun article earlier this month, Decter Hirst said the plan was "dead."
A casino in Brandon would have been great for economic development, she said.
"I think it would be a very good opportunity to create jobs, and revenue both for the city as well as for aboriginal people and the residents of Brandon," she said. "So there’s some very obvious reasons why any entity like that would be good for the city. I think I’m probably most personally disappointed in that we weren’t able to create that partnership with the aboriginal community and the aboriginal leadership in the province."
Heading into 2013, Decter Hirst said she is very focused on getting the infrastructure plan in place.
"We’ve got a couple of big projects, including the Eighth Street bridge and the North Hill development," she said.
With the accommodation tax reserve, there will be plans made to hand out more grants for economic development.
Early in the new year, council is expecting two major reports on affordable housing and economic development strategy, from the city’s director of economic development, Sandy Trudel.
"We’re taking advantage of the planning that we did in 2012 … and laying down more plans in 2013," she said. "It’s going to be busy."
When asked if she plans to run again in 2014, Decter Hirst said it’s "too early" to say.
"This has been a fascinating and humbling experience to serve the residents of Brandon that I have enjoyed immensely," she said. "Despite the bad days — and that tells you how much I value this opportunity — despite everything, the conflict of interest, the exhaustion of the flood, the long days and the many stresses … this is still the best job in the whole world."