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Grant’s Tomb

with Grant Hamilton

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  • The first 100 days

    Monday, Nov. 17, 2014 at 5:34 PM

    Nearly four weeks after their election (or acclamation), Brandon's new city council and mayor will take their seats for the first time Monday night in City Hall.

    Over the next four years, their decisions — whether through collaboration or fierce disputes — will shape this city.

    As mayor, Rick Chrest has only one vote, the same as any councillor, but his voice carries more weight and he will, largely, set the tone and the agenda for the rest of them to follow.

    Chrest's winning strategy was a low-key one. He promised nothing except getting the city "back to basics" in how it runs.

    So the traditional first 100 days will not be judged by how many of his campaign promises he manages to get done — or at least started. But that doesn't mean that this council gets to sit on its hands. In fact, I think they've got a tough few months ahead of them. And how they deal with the challenges of this first 100 days will auger either well or poorly for the 1,350 or so that will follow.

    Back to basics sounds like an easy thing, but there are some difficult decisions looming on the horizon. Here's where I think the challenges lie:

    Tackle the budget

    The last council was very nearly tarred and feathered for hiking taxes, even though you could make a good argument that some hikes were badly needed to make up for years of artificially frozen spending.

    Many of the scary headline numbers come from early budget estimates. Those numbers are basically wish lists put together by bureaucrats. Every year, councillors sharpen their pencils and pare those numbers down to something that actually gets passed.

    But hose scary headline numbers can be the ones that people remember — even if they don't end up paying them. So council would be wise to let City Hall staff know that inflated wish lists won't be looked upon kindly this year.

    After all, Chrest said he would work to keep tax hikes to zero, saying that he could work with the natural budget growth from city expansion. The worst-case scenario was a rate-of-inflation hike, he said.

    He's going to need to keep that promise right off the bat.

    In his first post-election interview, Chrest appears to get it — he's been on council before, of course — and he knows the process. He knows that even though the budget process itself is months away, the hard work is starting right now.

    He'll need to work with staff to ensure the first-draft budget is as close as possible to his promised zero.

    He does not need a scary headline number running out of control.

    Read up on past plans

    Brandon is notorious for hiring consultants and paying staff to draft intensely detailed plans — plans that do nothing but gather dust on a shelf while bureaucrats and politicians make ad-hoc changes willy-nilly.

    The plans (I've read many of them) are good. They're just seldom followed. And the problem with urban planning is that the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. Unfortunately, decisions are often made piecemeal, and the parts fall apart.

    If anything, the last four years were more plan-heavy than ever before.

    Under Shari Decter Hirst, the city cleared house, launching an all-out review of previous plans and coming up with new schemes for everything. The "Roadmap for Growth" is a sprawlingly comprehensive look at everything the city could possibly touch for the next decade.

    It's the product of untold staff hours and it lays out a blueprint for the city that is well-researched, well-thought-through and remarklably non-partisan. They're not controversial, except perhaps in how ambitious they are.

    The only thing missing is implementation.

    I'm certain that Chrest won't agree with everything in the many plans to come out of the Roadmap, but nobody would. The deal is, though, they've been debated, drawn up and agreed on.

    What the city doesn't need now is a rethink of where it is going to go. It needs someone to take a look at the sensible, affordable parts of those plans, and ensure that they're followed when the time comes.

    First up, of course, is the Greenspace Master Plan, which should come before them late this year or early in 2015.

    Filled with "green signatures" and "celebration parks" it is a plan that has Decter Hirst-style fingerprints all over it.

    Despite that, and a few other flaws (primarily some hand-waving over how much it would all cost), it's a not-bad document overall, with plenty of good ideas and a comprehensive vision for city greenspace.

    In the first 100 days, we should get a sense of whether this administration is willing to take a baton that's been handed to them, or whether they want to re-run the entire race.

    Sharpen your snowplows

    Chrest is lucky that Brandon hasn't had a significant snowfall yet, not least because the Assiniboine River is still pretty high and we don't need a third massive flood anytime soon.

    But the winter is still young, and there will be plenty of snow to come. Based on Chrest's "back to basics" approach — and the increasingly annoyed tone coming from people who can't walk through intersections (particularly downtown) because of the windrows left after plowing — people will expect the streets to be cleared better and faster than ever before.

    There's no time to buy new snowplows. And that's too expensive anyway.

    City staff already work nights and evenings when the snow falls. I'm not sure there's time or money to hire or train new employees to keep the plows running 24/7.

    It will be interesting to see if there truly is much a mayor can do to to battle Mother Nature.

    Pre-order that asphalt

    Potholes and the poor condition of city sidewalks rumbled as an undercurrent through the election — pledging to fix basic infrastructure like this was really what undergirds a promise like "back to basics."

    Once again, though, there's only so much a mayor can do when confronted with Mother Nature. The freeze-thaw cycle is relentless and holding the line on taxes will mean there will be limited staff and resources available to fill them.

    But with Brandon drivers getting used to a buttery-smooth Victoria Avenue — thanks to the provice for stepping up after that stretch was voted worst in Manitoba — they'll notice the poor conditions of city roads even more next spring.

    Maybe the worst of pothole season will happen in a little more than 100 days, but you know there will be some cropping up if there's a January thaw.

    How they're tackled — and how quickly, and how often — will be interesting to watch.

    Cross the Eighth Street Bridge

    There have been two — TWO! — municipal elections since the dire condition of the Eight Street Bridge was brough to the city's attention.

    Then-councillor Errol Black enquired about the bridge in August 2010. He was told that the bridge was in such bad shape that it might need to be replaced — something that was envisioned "by 2013."

    A public open house was held the next year. Four options were presented to council. The bridge even has a website, at 8thstreetbridge.com, although it hasn't been updated in years.

    Replacing the bridge will be expensive, and knocking it down will be controversial. Turning it into a pedestrian or cycling-only bridge isn't a panacea either. It's simply too steep and too exposed.

    But this particular can has been kicked down the road for far too long, and it can't be put off much longer. The province is dragging its heels on both the First Street Bridge (now being replaced, but a year later than thought) and the Daly Overpass (

    Part of the reason a "back to basics" approach to governing resonated with voters is because city council has sometimes seemed inacapable of making any big decisions.

    From the location of the fire hall and police station to the collapse of the Brown Block to the fact that Eleanor Kidd Park still hasn't reopened since the 2011 flood, there has never been a willingness to just Get. It. Done.

    The crumbling Eighth Street Bridge — now so fragile that Manitoba Hydro trucks need a special permit before they change the streetlight bulbs — is an embarassment.

    And dealing with embarassments like this is just part of the basics of running a city. Or should be.

    The last council couldn't manage to deal with the Eighth Street Bridge in their entire four-year term.

    Whatever they decide, this council needs to act quickly. The four options — and approximate price tags — have been known for years. There's no excuse to not clear this mess off their agenda asap.

    Downtown decisions

    At the start of the last council's term, I applauded their willingness to experiment with things like one-way traffic downtown and a pedestrian mall.

    I also applauded their willingness to admit when things hadn't worked out, and to revert them if needed.

    But that spirit has long since evaporated. I hope this new council finds it again.

    News that the draft Greenspace Master Plan envisions a park where the Brandon Inn used to stand puts downtown Brandon at a bit of a crossroads.

    Low-density development is the complete opposite of the vibrant downtown I think everyone wants.

    Parks are better than parking lots, but they're a sight poorer than mid-rise development. Downtown Brandon needs main-floor retail with two or three storeys of offices and apartments above.

    This is not rocket science, it's been known for decades, and has been included in planning for downtown Brandon almost as long. But those plans need to be followed through on.

    First up will be hiring a replacement for Braden Pilling, who is leaving Renaissance Brandon.

    The corporation is arms-length, but its mandate and funding may change — and soon — to give it more leeway in developing downtown.

    City council doesn't hire Ren Brandon staff directly, but two councillors and the mayor do sit on the board. The person they choose to helm that organization will have to be hired quickly. And the direction they choose to take it will indicate whether downtown is heading for densification — or further suburbanization.  

    Identify the ‘experts’

    Chrest said during the election that he'd "ask the experts" when it came to making tough development decisions. Given his lengthy history in business and politics, I'm sure he known quite a few successful developers.

    But developers are in business for themselves. Their motivation is their own financial success first, and doing good for the city second. If those two motives are in harmony, so much the better. But what if they conflict?

    The city employs a large number of planners and engineers who are paid to analyze competing motives and to come up with what's best for the city as a whole.

    Those are the "experts" that I would hope Chrest listens to first.

    Developers may have special insight, but they make money by doing what's best for their pocketbook. When the Corral Centre was built, it was built in a way that didn't allow for buses to enter the parking lot, didn't play nice with the adjacent "Paddock" development and screwed North Hill traffic for a generation.

    We don't want to listen to "experts" like that, and it would be worrisome if short-sighted economic development was chosen over the long-term health of the city, just because it made immediate financial sense for a developer.

    Now, I don't think there is a real "Old Boys' Club" in Brandon — certainly not to the extent that there used to be. But perception matters, too, and I'm not sure I'm comfortable knowing there is a group of pseudo-lobbyists bending the mayor's ear behind the scenes.

    Former mayor Dave Burgess courted countroversy by having morning prayer meetings in his office with religious authorities. I don't think it would be any more appropriate for politicians to take secret guidance from businesspeople.

    If they have advice to give, let them give it publicly.

    Charter our City

    During the 2007 provincial election, then-PC leader Hugh McFadyen promised to put Brandon on equal footing with the city of Winnipeg by giving us our own official City of Brandon Charter.

    That was a long time ago — you can tell how long by the fact that all of the reporters scrumming McFadyen in the photo above are using digital recorders and not iPhones. But aside from continually being brought up, the idea of a City Charter for Brandon hasn't gone anywhere.

    However, some of new Winnipeg mayor Brian Bowman's ideas would require re-opening the City of Winnipeg Act, so there might be an opening for Brandon soon. Calgary and Edmonton are also talking about new deals with the province of Alberta.

    But the situation on Broadway is currently … muddled, shall we say, and a Brandon Charter is not going to get much attention until the premier-ship is decided one way or the other.

    But if city council hunkers down now and gets all their ducks in a row, they can present a unified front for a City of Brandon Charter, and they could get it one of two ways.

    Either soon, from the reigning NDP, as a costs-nothing goody to try to shore up Brandon East, or as a promise extracted when the next provincial election heats up a year from now.

    But that will require all city councillors to be on the same page with what the city needs in a charter, and why they want it.

    A charter would give Brandon new powers that aren't currently envisioned under the municipal act. We could get new authority to levy taxes — maybe a 1% sales tax, as floated in Winnipeg — or to adjust the powers of our mayor and council.

    We could take over maintenance of provincial highways like First Street and 18th Street, including the bridges (for appropriate compensation, of course).

    Or we could do something else. The point is, asking for a charter is useless unless we know what new powers we want, and why. That needs to be decided soon, and the case has to be made quickly, or we will be caught flat-footed when the opportunity crops up.

    Planniversaries

    The Centennal Auditorium was built in Brandon to mark the 100th birthday of Canada — but it was originally mentioned some 15 years earlier as a possible 75th birthday project for Brandon.

    More anniversaries are coming up. Next year is Manitoba's 145th birthday. There's nothing too special about that. But 2017 will be Canada's 150th — and Brandon's 135th.

    We lost our opportunity to host the Canada Games during Canada's 150th, but there should be federal money available for other sesquicentennial projects floating around. We need to have ideas ready — something that maybe is a nice-to-have, rather than a need-to-have.

    Maybe one of those "celebration parks" can be funded this way. Maybe we get an interactive flood sculpture that shoots a fountain of river water when the Assinbioine rises high enough. Maybe we finally fund a proper "Musuem of the Prairies" here. Maybe we commemorate our military heritage in a significant and compelling way.

    But let's show a little vision, and not just ask for airport terminal funding or something that should be bought and paid-for in any old year.

    It would be really neat to have a "trilogy" of related projects — maybe a cultural intepretive centre, a museum and an arts gallery — pegged to the Canadian 150th in 2017, Manitoba's 150th in 2020 and Brandon's 150th in 2032.

    Yes — those look like a long time away, but it'll come faster than you think.

    And remember that the Centennial Auditorium took more than 15 years from idea to construction.

    Those ideas will have to be hashed out soon if we want to take advantage.

    Do we need to have a completed plan for these in the new city council's 100 days? We assuredly do not.

    But I'll be watching to see if they have an agenda. If they agree to start to have a plan.

    Good luck to all councillors and to the mayor on Monday night — and on all the Monday nights to come.

    I'm looking forward to the next four years, and I hope that the first 100 days set us on a good track for them.

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  • Fond farewells and future plans

    Wednesday, Oct. 29, 2014 at 4:48 PM

    Despite six acclamations out of 10 wards, Brandonites will actually see quite a few new faces around the city council table when they all gather for their first meeting next month.

    New faces mean a farewell to old faces. I looked at some of the outgoing councillors, and while some of them are retiring for good, or have future plans that they've announced already, some of them may be weighing their options.

    Luckily, I'm here to throw a few more options their way.

    First, though, those who don't need any help from me:

    • Garth Rice has taken a job with the city, rendering him ineligible to serve, and forcing him to step down in South Centre before the election.
    • Len Isleifson declined to run again in Riverview, and has said that he'll be aiming to take on Drew Caldwell, provincially, under the Progressive Conservative banner.
    • Murray Blight looks to move from semi-retired into full-on retired. He's earned it.

    That leaves Corey Roberts, Stephen Montague and Shari Decter Hirst as those who won't be returning to active political life and who don't have immediately obvious future plans.

    Above: Corey Roberts, in 2010, annoucing his run for Rosser Ward at Clancy's Eatery and Drinkery (File)

    Corey Roberts, late of Rosser Ward

    I think Corey has had the worst luck of anyone in the city over the past four years. After turning a semi-dive pool hall into a successful pub, financial problems forced him to sell. Now, he has to watch as other people profit mightily off the foundation he built.

    Then, although he won a seat on city council, he was plagued by illness that kept him away from fulfilling his duties to the best of his ability.

    Mind you, when I ran into him on Election Day, picking up soda at Superstore for our respective post-vote get-togethers, I didn't even recognize him until he spoke to me — he looked hale, hearty, fit as a fiddle. Frankly, if he had looked that good a year ago, I don't think anyone would have run against him this time around.

    Unfortunately, his health appears to have returned too late to save his council seat.

    I always liked Corey around the table, and I appreciated his support for the Brewtinerie initiative. I hope he stays involved in Brandon, and in downtown specifically.

    • Future suggestion: There's an opening for a downtown development officer at Renaissance Brandon. He's been involved with that before, and he could hit the ground running.
    • And if that doesn't pan out: Downtown needs businesses, and Clancy's had a good run. Maybe another pub or bar is more than he wants to take on, but what about something a little more 9-5? He and his wife have a large family, and Brandon's only baby-specific store has closed, leaving a hole in the market. Put the two together and…

     

    Above: As a child checks out the cameras, Stephen Montague announces he'll be a candidate in the 2010 election, after losing in 2006 by about 30 votes. (File)

    Stephen Montague, late of Richmond Ward

    Stephen declining to run again this year was a bit of an eyebrow-raiser to me. I first met him when he was involved in student politics at Brandon University, and he'd very nearly won in his first municipal campaign in 2006. When he did win, four years later, I thought he'd settle in for a couple of terms to cement his bona fides before launching a bid for higher office.

    However, he's a committed Liberal, so perhaps provincial and federal fields don't feel too fertile around here.

    Although we get on pretty well personally, I've taken to needling Stephen online in a professional capacity. He was getting relentlessly negative, and so I recently I challenged him to tell me what his Top 5 proudest accomplishments were on council.

    Despite repeated requests, he hasn't named one.

    That's too bad — when he was elected in 2010 I had high hopes for what a young, motived councillor might be able to do. But after pushing through an early no-bottled-water initiative, things stalled. He instead switched gears to just be as obstructionist as possible to the mayor's agenda.

    I think he liked the easy attention he got by getting in her face, and he stopped trying to do anything with his own agenda. Or maybe it was when he got a full-time job in Virden that he stopped working quite as hard for Brandon.

    Right from the start, in 2010, he told me one of his goals was to get every council vote recorded and to have every councillor's voting record available online for anyone to peruse.

    I'm still waiting.

    And he's plenty willing to tout things that other people say are needed — like a new school in his ward — but I haven't seen any evidence that he actually pushed for any of these things.

    • Future suggestion: I hear Stephen has quit his day job and is planning to travel. He should. And he should come back refreshed and ready to get involved in politics again with plenty of ideas for how progressive cities in other places solve the problems that we're faced with here. Travel is where I've learned the most — if he travels with an open mind, I'd like to see more of the water-loving, vote-recording, do-something Stephen that comes back home
    • And if that doesn't pan out: You can make a pretty good living selling cars in Virden.

     

    Above: Shari Decter Hirst speaks to supporters at the opening of her campaign office in 2010. City inspectors later raided the office and forced her to shut it down. (File)

    Shari Decter Hirst, late of the mayor's chair

    From a reporter's perspective, Mayor Shari was a gift: She always had time to answer the phone, and she was extremely generous with quotes and interviews.

    Not everyone agreed with the direction she wanted to take the city, but you can't argue that she did it forecfully and energetically. Hers was a bit of a "full speed ahead, these torpedoes are nothing but distractions" sort of leadership style, and it served the city well during the two floods we fought, but I'm not sure it was a benefit the rest of the time.

    So when she comes back to the city for her post-mayoral career, she needs to find something suited to her talents.

    • Future suggestion: Shari should take the reins of the Strand Project. Despite some occasional successes, the theatre rejuvenation has largely been spinning its wheels for six years, and the Brandon Folk Fest group that's trying to steer it seems stretched too thin. Shari's background in fundraising would be a huge asset here, as would her boundless optimism and energy. A lot of people think she raised too much money as mayor, and was in a conflict of interest trying to boost downtown — running the Strand Project would short-circuit those shortcomings into strengths.
    • And if that doesn't pan out: She successfully fought two floods, and she has intimate knowledge of the Assiniboine River and its dangers. Sure, a lot of that was through provincial flood staff and hard-working municipal adminstrators like Brian Kayes, but Shari has absorbed a ton of know-how and has it at her fingertips. She'd be a perfect fit to lead the Assinboine River Basin Commission.

     

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  • Chrest win raises echoes of ’77

    Thursday, Oct. 23, 2014 at 4:06 PM

    The less said about the Predict-o-Matic, which shall henceforth be returned to the closet from whence it came, the better.

    But now that the election is over and results are known, I'll offer some hearty congratulations to Rick Chrest and also my best wishes to Shari Decter Hirst.

    In a few days, I'll have some thoughts on where I think the new council's priorities should lie — they'll have a busy 100 days, if they listen to me — as well as some suggestions for Decter Hirst's next move. Despite her loss, and whether you agreed with her or not, I think she always worked incredibly hard as mayor.

    Moving forward, however, I started today by digging deeper into the election results than I was able to in the frenzy of Election Night coverage. I'll have a short story about them in Friday's paper — but the short version is that Rick Chrest's victory is one of the biggest margins of victory ever for a mayor in Brandon.

    I was trying to find another non-incumbent candidate who had taken 65 per cent of the vote, and I gave up when I got back to the early 1970s and hadn't found anything. Earlier than that, and the city's just so different — elections are just so different — that it's tough to compare anyway.

    Plus, I was distracted by the 1977 election, which has some amazing parallels with the election we've just had, nearly 40 years later.

    But you, me and Rick should all hope that it doesn't turn out the same way as ’77.

    The mayoral election that year was a shocker — "one of the biggest election upsets in Brandon history," according to the front-page Brandon Sun story.

    The incumbent mayor, Elwood Gorrie, had just a single term under his belt. He'd been elected handily in 1974; observers had predicted a closer finish in the four-way race, but Gorrie swept in with close to twice the votes of his closest competitor.

    Although the position of mayor was, at the time, just a part-time gig, Gorrie vowed from the start to devote full-time efforts. He was what you might call an activist mayor.

    Three years later, the city had invested in an expensive new water treatment plant, had devoted much time and effort towards planning a business revival downtown, and had gone after — and gotten! – the Canada Winter Games in 1979, for which they'd be building a brand-new facility, the Sportsplex.

    Starting to sound familiar?

    Well, three years later, taxpayers were fed up with Gorrie's plans — and their mounting bills.

    Gil Box, a former city councillor and businessman, ran a low-key campaign to replace him. Taking a "back to basics" approach to his campaign, Box said that the city had been too aggressive with investments under Gorrie. And voters agreed.

    They swept Box into the mayor's chair in 1977, sending the incumbent tumbling to third.

    Gorrie was "sullen" in defeat, according to the Brandon Sun, calling taxpayers "gutless" in voting against his progressive plans.

    "Subsequent events will show this council (to be) the most progressive council in the history of this city. Gil Box will climb into the best thing that ever happened to him when he becomes mayor."

    Box, who'd previously been an alderman for 10 years from 1959–69, was nonchalant about his victory.

    "I'm not surprised. I sort of expected it," he said when he learned of his win. "(Voters are) tired of their taxes going up. They want them held in line."

    Well, it didn't quite turn out that way. In fact, that's where the similarities to this year's election will end.

    You see, Gil Box turned out to be a little bit like Brandon's version of Rob Ford.

    Box quickly became notorious for missing meetings and ducking work.

    Just a month after the election, alderman Mike Melnyk publicly suggested Box wasn't fulfilling his duties.

    In January, another alderman, Fred Anderson, called for closed-door meeting of council to discuss the mayor's problems. Others talked him out of it, but three weeks later a private meeting was held it anyway, organized by two other aldermen. Seven participated, three declined.

    They said the mayor had "personal problems" and they wanted him to take a leave of absence.

    By April, alderwoman Betty Boyd was calling for Box to resign. She said the "personal problems" was a "drinking problem."

    Box rebuffed it at first, but admitted he was battling the bottle about a week later. He did, in fact, take a month's leave to attend a South Dakota rehabilitation centre.

    That didn't help anything. By June, administrators were threatening to resign themselves, although council talked them out of it.

    Finally, by summer, Box was being told by the rest of council that he should forfeit his salary and use the money to pay a deputy mayor.

    Even when he came back from rehab, Box continued to miss meetings — including an important one about the Canada Winter Games.

    That was about the final straw, with a proposal floated that Box be stripped of all but $1 a year for salary.

    Without council unanimity, however, the suggestion went nowhere.

    Finally, at a closed-door meeting Box called himself, he either tendered his resignation and then rescinded it, or offered and no one took him up on it (recollections vary).

    A week later, he'd resigned anyway.

    Box had been mayor for just 13-and-a-half months, and his resignation sparked the first-ever mayoral by-election in the city's history.

    Who won that one? Ken Burgess, kicking off a 10-year run in the chair that his son Dave would also later fill.

    And that Chrest will settle into soon.

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