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  • Oh look what I found: the Predict-o-Matic

    Monday, Oct. 20, 2014 at 12:22 PM

    Way, way back in 2006 I claimed some Brandon Sun newsroom fame by being the only person who correctly predicted the mayoral race that year.

    No, not the winner; Dave Burgess won, as everyone knew he would. But I predicted Mike Abbey in second place when everyone else thought Deveryn Ross would be runner-up.

    Then, in 2010, I correctly predicted a Shari Decter Hirst victory as well. Although, I whiffed on several of the council races.

    Then I stashed the Predict-o-Matic away in a back closet and forgot about it.

    I was rooting around back there for something else over the weekend, when I opened an old box, and there it was.

    After blowing off the dust, plugging it in, and giving it a good thump on the side, I've got the ol' Predic-o-Matic chugging away pretty good, and I thought I'd feed in this year's races to the machine and see what popped out.

    Hence, my predictions for the winners of the 2014 municipal elections in Brandon, starting with school trustees and working my way towards the mayor.

    Note: These are not necessarily the people I'm voting for, just the people I think will win. Here we go!



    With just nine candidates for the eight slots on the school board, this is an almost-acclamation. In fact, it's more like voting on the TV reality show Survivor than an election — one person will be voted off the island, there.

    (Of course, you're still voting for people, not against them, and you'll have up to eight votes to hand out. As a strategy, if you only really care about one or two people, you can stop voting after you've marked off their names, and avoid giving votes to people you don't really care about, who might bump your preferred candidates down the list.

    In no particular order, the top eight will be:

    • Peter Bartlette
    • Jim Murray
    • Kevan Sumner
    • Mark Sefton
    • George Buri
    • Glen Kruck
    • Pat Bowslaugh
    • Linda Ross

    With so little attention paid, the race for school board often comes down to name recognitiion. And that leaves Krystal Kane falling off the list.



    Ward 1 (Assiniboine)

    • Jeff Fawcett (incumbent)

    There is no race, so this is a gimme.

    Winner, by acclamation: Jeff Fawcett


    Ward 2 (Rosser)

    • Miles Crossman
    • James O'Connor
    • Corey Roberts (incumbent)
    • Kris Desjarlais

    This is probably the most interesting and wide-open race in Brandon. So many people still think of downtown as the heart of Brandon that this is a prestige ward to represent.

    But it's also a challenging one.

    Although Roberts hasn't campaigned much, he has some incumbency advantage. But not nearly as much as he could have — he's been hobbled by illness for much of his term on council, and he's no longer the downtown business owner of Clancy's that he was when he ran the first time.

    My former boss, and the Sun's former managing editor, O'Connor has been running the slickest campaign in the city (mayoral campaigns not excluded). His experience as a political organizer and his name recognition make him the candidate to beat in this race — not Roberts.

    But Crossman has significant Brandon roots, and he's running a younger, lower-key campaign. I think he's the dark horse here.

    Desjarlais comes across as a solid choice, but his campaign has been less visible than Crossman's or O'Connor's, and he doesn't have much name recognition either. His role here, I think, is to play spoiler, pulling votes away from Crossman and letting O'Connor win — by a whisker.

    Winner: James O'Connor


    Ward 3 (Victoria)

    • Barry Cullen

    An oddity, in that Cullen is a rookie, and also running unopposed.

    Winner, by acclamation: Barry Cullen


    Ward 4 (University)

    • Jeff Harwood

    Another easy one for us prognosticators

    Winner, by acclamation: Jeff Harwood


    Ward 5 (Meadows–Waverly)

    • John LoRegio

    I guess he made his probationary period okay.

    Winner, by acclamation: John LoRegio


    Ward 6 (South Centre)

    • Kim Longstreet
    • Lonnie Patterson

    One nice thing about this election is that we've got an all-female race in South Centre and absolutely no one has thought it was unusual enough to warrant any comment.

    Longstreet's got the clever signs, but Patterson's got the political savvy, thanks to a few years cutting her teeth in the Legislature. 

    I've been acquainted with Patterson since we were both at Brandon University together and I wouldn't be surprised if her get-out-the-vote operation trumps her opponent. Getting out the vote will be especially important if it rains — and that's the forecast.

    Winner: Lonnie Patterson


    Ward 7 (Linden Lanes)

    • Shawn Berry

    No contest, no fun.

    Winner, by acclamation: Shawn Berry


    Ward 8 (Richmond)

    • Ray Berthelette
    • Ron W. Brown

    I like this race because they both have the same initials (it's the little things). It might come down to who has done the door-knocking, but assuming they are about even in their ground game, I have to give the edge to Berthelette, given his experience on the ACC board and Brandon Urban Aboriginal Peoples Council.

    Winner: Ray Berthelette


    Ward 9 (Riverview)

    • Vanessa Hamilton
    • Tyson Tame

    This is my ward, so I've had a front-row seat to the campaigning that's been done in my neighbourhood (and I chose a back-row seat at the candidates' forum).

    Hamilton (no relation) has been the only candidate I've physically seen door-knocking, and she's dropped twice as many pamphlets in my mailbox as Tame.

    Tame has to be banking on his name recognition as a realtor, but the murmuring in the forum crowd was that his not living in the ward (although he used to, and he still owns property in the ward) didn't go over well. East enders are fiercly proud of their neighbourhoods, and people want neighbours, not revenue property owners.

    Hamilton seized on that with a new round of leaflets, shortly after. That was sharp.

    She's come up short her past couple of attempts in elections, but I think third time's the charm for Hamilton.

    Winner: Vanessa Hamilton


    Ward 10 (Green Acres)

    • Jan Chaboyer

    Hmmm, I think Chaboyer will win.

    Winner, by acclamation: Jan Chaboyer



    • Shari Decter Hirst (incumbent)
    • Rick Chrest
    • Mark Kovatch
    • John Paul Jacobson

    What a great race this has turned into. At first, I thought this was Chrest's race to win. He had the name, he had the experience, all he needed with a vision.

    Well, his vision has turned out to be "I don't have grand visions." That may have been initially questionable, at least to me, but it turns out that his "back to basics" approach resonates with a lot of people. It was a canny way to turn the election into a bit of a referendum on Decter Hirst's term.

    I think that turned it into Decter Hirst's race to lose.

    A shock summer flood may have reminded voters that Decter Hirst was one of the first to sound the alarm in 2011, when many people scoffed at the early flood outlooks. Now maybe it was city and provincial bureaucrats who did much of the heavy lifting, but I can imagine a very different mayoral approach — a laid-back, have-a-couple-more-meetings, we-have-plenty-of-time approach that would have put us too far behind to successfully fight the flood in 2011.

    I'm hearing — from some surprising sources — that she's still got their vote based on flood fighting alone. (Westjet doesn't hurt, either.)

    But there are a lot of people who are vehemently opposed to any increase in taxation, and she's still weighed down by the recent bumps in property taxes.

    You have to remember that Decter Hirst pretty much demolished Dave Burgess in 2010, and surprisingly so. People were tired of a laissez-faire government, one that let developers pick where and when they were going to go.

    Now, Chrest is offering to return us to a similar style of governance, although he's billing it as "ask the experts" rather than "leave it up to the developers."

    I get the sense that this race would be nearly neck-and-neck if it weren't for the confounding presence of Kovatch.

    (Let's dispense with Jacobson right now: His heart's in the right place, but he's clearly not right for the mayor's chair. I appreciate his sentiments, and I'm glad he brought up moving the rail lines, but he won't be a factor in this election. I think he'll grab fewer votes than Gorf did.)

    Kovatch has been an indispensible shake-up to an otherwise two-person race. He's small-business oriented, so he offers people an alternative to Chrest.

    But he's also an ideas man, so he could be an acceptable place for erstwhile Decter Hirst supporters to place their votes.

    Just a week ago, I thought Kovatch might grab 15 per cent of the vote. Now I think he might be closer to 20 per cent.

    The real question is, where do his votes come from: More from Chrest? Or more from Decter Hirst?

    Frankly, I see a lot of disappointed in Decter Hirst voters who aren't quite ready for the "Back to Burgess" approach promised by Chrest. They're flocking to Kovatch.

    Kovatch is also picking up votes from people who would've been primed to support a small-c conservative in Chrest, but who were looking for a little more in the way of vision.

    Until late last week, I would have given her the edge. Then, she inadvertently breached an election regulation by holding a campaign announcement too close to an advance poll.

    It played perfectly into the role her opponents give her: That she's a gaffe-prone error machine too sure of her own infallibility to govern well.

    At that point, I was ready to give Chrest a slight advantage.

    But that will be nearly week-old news when people vote on Wednesday. And the blowback I've been seeing online has started to turn the other way: with Decter Hirst defenders finding their voices — and their motivations.

    In a race that's seen momentum swing both ways, I think she's lucking out with the timing now.

    Winner: Shari Decter Hirst.


    We shall see, on Wednesday!


  • Election Act violation no big deal

    Saturday, Oct. 18, 2014 at 1:19 PM

    So late last week, with just a few days before the election, incumbent mayor Shari Decter Hirst made what should have been a rookie mistake by holding a campaign event outside of City Hall.

    Normally, there should be nothing wrong with that — challenger Rick Chrest has held events there, too.

    But on this particular day, City Hall was also the site of an advance poll.

    Whoops — that put Decter Hirst in violation of Section 72 of The Municipal Councils and School Boards Elections Act.

    The Act says that no campaign activities can take place within 50 metres of a voting place, and then it goes on to define what counts as a voting place.

    So, for example, if voting takes place in a single unit of a mall, you only have to stay 50 metres away from that storefront — you don't have to stay 50 metres away from the outside edge of the mall's parking lot.

    I presume (though I haven't talked to Decter Hirst, nor to any elections official) that since the ballot box was inside the main foyer at City Hall, any campaign activities on that day would have had to be 50 metres away from the door to the main foyer.

    Decter Hirst may have been more than 50 metres away from voting itself, but she was a little too close to the door. That put her in violation.

    Judging by some of the comments on eBrandon, you'd think Decter Hirst should be cuffed, tarred, feathered, immediately removed from office and prohibited from ever running for anything ever again.

    She should also be exiled to a volcano, I guess.

    Voices of reason, including site owner Adam Sobkow, don't seem to be getting through, so I thought I would add my own to the chorus.

    The MAXIMUM PENALTY for this type of offence is a $2,000 fine and up to two months in jail.

    This is the most possible than anyone can dole out. This is for the worst of the worst. This is for campaigns that organize deliberate breaches of election law, with malice aforethought, trying to intimidate voters at the last second on Election Day at every polling place for the entire day.

    Two months in jail and a hefty fine would be appropriate for these worst-case scenarios.

    But the whole point of a range of penalties is that you can show leniency for first-time offenders and for people who make mistakes.

    A finger-wagging and a warning from the elections official is entirely appropriate in this case. It seems to have been an honest mistake, it only lasted a few minutes, and it was nearly okay — she was just a little too close, she wasn't right next to the ballot box.

    Anyone taking an "off with her head" response to this error sounds like a lunatic to me.

    Now, it certainly wasn't a great move for Shari's campaign. It plays into the whisper narrative of her opponents that she repeatedly makes these types of inadvertent, "whoops, didn't check the rules" mistakes.

    But carelessness is not malevolence.



  • Let’s take a look at mayoral promises

    Wednesday, Oct. 15, 2014 at 4:43 PM

    During the televised mayoral debate, I got into a Twitter conversation with Tyler Glen, who wondered aloud about John Paul Jacobson's idea to move the rail yards out of Brandon, and thus connect downtown with the north end.

    Could it be done, wondered Glen?

    Sure, I answered — but it would cost.

    So then I thought that all four mayoral contenders have issues that they're championing, and they all have assumptions built-in that may or may not hold up to scrutiny.

    Let's dig in:


    Candidate: John Paul Jacobson
    Signature idea: Move the rail yards

    Moving the rail yards isn't really an innovative idea — it's being discussed during the Winnipeg election right now, too. And it's previously been completed in places like Moncton, Montreal, Edmonton and Victoria.

    While Brandon owes its very existence to the railways, their time as being central to this city is long since past. It's currently a relic of our past, and one that gets in peoples way on a daily basis — costing us time and money in congestion and lost opportunities.

    It's also a risk — a risk made horrifyingly clear by the devastation in Lac-Mégantic. And if you think it can't happen here, well it just did in Saskatchewan.

    Moving the rail yards also opens up a huge swath of land downtown for immediate development that wouldn't be constrained at all by existing roadways or buildings. It's an incredible opportunity.

    But it would cost. A lot.

    Moving the rail lines themselves is expensive, and we're looking at tens of millions at least just for the gravel and iron and workers to pound spikes into place.

    It would cost millions more to buy up the land to run them. Just like in the 1880s, speculators smelling money would bid up the cost of the land where the new rail lines might go — raising the spectre of drawn-out expropriation.

    And where would the rail lines go? North of town? Perhaps up to the airport for a future multi-modal industrial development? That would mean crossing the Trans-Canada Highway — twice. An expensive proposition, unless it's somehow incorporated as part of the long-planned interchanges for First Street and 18th Street entrances.

    What about south of town? Well, they could run near the Brandon Eastern Bypass route, but that would require a new bridge over the Assiniboine, and it would mean running the rails across Highway 10 south of town.

    Complicating the issue is that the downtown rail yards are for the CPR, but there is also a CN line running through town. Perhaps they could both be moved out of city limits — that would eliminate the level crossings at First Street and 18th Street and would simplify buying up a joint right-of-way.

    Best-case scenario: The city, CP and CN all cooperate to bring the CP line down along Currie's Landing Road, crossing the Assiniboine near where the existing CN bridge is, and both lines end up passing south of the city where the East Bypass meets Highway 10. Perhaps a new bridge there removes every single rail crossing from city streets.

    That means the city can just knock down the Daly Overpass and the Eighth Street Bridge. It also takes the railway out of Kemnay, sparing that long-battered bridge.

    Unfortunately, it leaves us on the hook for a new bridge south of the city, and it means we built a brand-new rail bridge on the low road that now we don't need.

    My take: This will cost untold millions — although we're already looking at having to spend millions on the Daly Overpass and the Eighth Street Bridge. It would be a huge opportunity to redefine the city, and would at a single stroke solve problems that plague us all the time.

    But it would take sustained political will at all levels and broad agreement from citizens, as well as all that up-front cash. Not in the cards. Also, if we were going to do it, we should've done it before building the new bridge on the low road.

    Candidate: Mark Kovatch
    Signature idea: Straighten the Assiniboine

    Digging a ditch to straighten out the Assiniboine might move some water through Brandon faster, and Kovatch's specific proposal might help homes along Kirkcaldy Drive and Kasiurak Bay, but it doesn't address flooding along any of the riverbank parks, nor Grand Valley Road, and I'm not convinced that it would save First Street or Optimist Park.

    An eight-foot deep, 300-foot wide ditch just isn't enough to move a fully-flooded Assiniboine.

    According to the province, the river peaked at a flow rate of 36,700 cubic feet per second in 2011 (it was slightly less this year, although the river's height was higher).

    To push that volume of water through a semicircular segment that's 300 feet wide and eight feet deep at its deepest (area of the cross-section is 1,600 square feet) means that the river would have to be flowing at 23 feet per second.

    That's fast — it's about 25 km/h — and I don't think Kovatch's gully would be enough to force that speed.

    Interestingly, the idea of straightening the river to avoid floods is not a new one. It was proposed as far back as 1914, and went as far as getting federal government approval in principle, although plans fell off the drawing board when the First World War broke out.

    Best-case scenario: Kovatch's plan saves a couple dozen homes in the Kirkcaldy area and opens up a huge new recreational space in the centre of the city that is currently woefully underused.

    Dirt dredged up from digging the ditch could go towards reinforcing and raising dikes elsewhere in the city. But it's doubtful it would add up to enough to save First Street or the soccer parks during a 2011 or 2014-level event.

    My take: If we're going to pilfer ideas from a century ago, I think streetcars would cost less and be cooler.

    Candidate: Rick Chrest
    Signature idea: Hold the line on taxes

    Famously, Chrest has been saying that "zero equals three." He says that city revenues have been increasing by an average of three per cent a year thanks to natural growth, and that should be enough to balance the budget in the future.

    That's disingenuous.

    Perhaps the city tax base is growing by about three per cent, but that's because there are more people and more businesses here paying taxes. Their tax dollars aren't free money — they expect the city to take their taxes and use them to pay police officers, firefighters and pothole pavers.

    We need, on average, three per cent more of those things every year. Taking money from newcomers to pay off existing debts is not "natural growth" — it's a Ponzi scheme.

    Sorry to say, but Chrest's three actually equals zero.

    Of course, he's been hedging his bets by saying that he would only increase taxes by the rate of inflation. That sounds like a great idea, but loses its sheen if you dig a little deeper.

    Inflation is an average — but the city spends very little on groceries, and a lot more on things like concrete and gasoline. If we're looking at needing infrastructure investment, and the cost of those things is rising faster than inflation as a whole, limiting tax hikes to "average" inflation ends up handcuffing us.

    Secondly, there are new needs every year.

    For example, police officers in the 1950s needed just blue uniform and a revolver. Now they need Tasers, Kevlar vests and computers in their patrol cars. And that's not counting SWAT gear like flash-bang grenades and assault rifles. It would be very tough to afford those things if we'd just looked at the cost-per-officer in the ’50s and adjusted for inflation on revolvers and uniforms.

    Finally, a big city needs things that a little city doesn't. Enjoy WestJet service at the airport? We have to spend for that. And our airport will cost us more per capita than Carberry's will. You can't account for those jumps in spending — the big-city amenities we love to have — through inflationary growth alone.

    Best-case scenario: Taxpayers don't pay more, but they don't get any more, either. The city fills potholes but can't afford to do anything new.

    My take: A growing city needs to do more. Chrest may have a point that recent tax hikes have been too large and difficult to swallow, but it seems to me that years of artificial zeroes left the Brandon budget well behind where it needed to be.

    Candidate: incumbent mayor Shari Decter Hirst
    Signature idea: Planning for growth

    Over the past few years, Brandon's population has ballooned. That's brought great new opportunites that we've been happy to take advantage of, like the Lieutenant-Governor's Winter Festival. But also expensive new challenges that have been tough to tackle, like a growing need for EAL instruction in schools.

    Affordable housing hasn't been the issue this election that it was in 2010, but Decter Hirst's many campaign promises have all been of the same ilk: That a growing city is starting to put the squeeze on what we have, and we need to invest in growing our resources before we run out.

    That's the theme running through her plans for an airport business park and for increase in serviced industrial land.

    Is she right that we need to have a welcome mat rolled out for for new growth? Sure.

    But will there be as much new growth as she expects? I'm not convinced.

    Certainly, the 2011 census showed a stunning 11 per cent jump in the city's population. But I think much of that has been due to Maple Leaf — and they're not just topped out, they're starting to cut back.

    A bit of growth can be thanks to the Bakken, too. But what's next? What's the next big home-run industry that is going to bring hundreds of families to Brandon?

    I think everybody would be very surprised to see 11 per cent growth in the 2016 census.

    And you don't have to look back very far to see that any growth at all can't be taken for granted.

    In 1991, the population actually declined from five years earlier. It rebounded a bit through the 1990s, but from 1986 through 2001, the population of Brandon grew by only 1,000 people.

    It's pretty easy to plan for that kind of "growth" — it's stagnation. There's no growth at all. And it's a waste of resources to run roads, power, water and sewer to a newly planned neighbourhood that lays fallow for a decade because the boom never comes.

    Best-case scenario: Brandon's next census tops 50,000 and that puts us over some kind of tipping point, where growth compounds without the need for a catalyst like a new Maple Leaf. The city will have development dollars flowing in to pay for anything they can imagine, and it'll be all they can do to keep up.

    My take: Brandon's best growth days are behind us, for now. It's time to plan for smart, slow growth. We can still expand, but we've long-since been leapfrogged by the Alberta oil boom, and there's no sign of a new home-run on the horizon for us.

    Where do we go from here?

    All four mayoral candidates have their hearts in the right place, I think.

    John Paul Jacobson, unfortunately, doesn't appear to have a firm grasp on current issues, and is fond of saying that if voters give him a chance, he'll be quick to get up to speed. Inarguably, he loves Brandon and wants the best for the city.

    He seems to be willing to listen with an open mind, and is quick to adopt new ideas, but his obscure and unusual references don't always endear him to voters. I hope he takes his impending loss well, and spends the next four year writing intriguing letters to the editor.

    Mark Kovatch would get Most Improved Politician, if I were handing out awards. I didn't expect much from his relatively late entry into the race. He hadn't had much of a public profile before, and I thought he would be an also-ran.

    But he's proven to have the most outside-the-box thinking — and it's hard to argue against his idealism, even if some of his ideas would prove difficult to accomplish (I'm thinking of 80 per cent voter turnout — laudable, but not possible).

    I wish Kovatch had run for city councillor. He'd be much more likely to get elected, and he'd be an asset around the council table. If he'd had a bit more political experience, he'd be a much tougher foe for the two front-runners.

    Rick Chrest appears to be bringing his past council experience to the table with a no-new-investment-needed strategy that worked perfectly during the no-growth ’90s. With Maple Leaf pulling back due to a shortage of hogs, he might very well be right that now is the time to consolidate what we have and not expand faster or further than we can afford.

    Shari Decter Hirst has more energy than all the other candidates put together, and sometimes it seems like she expects the city and everyone in it to either keep up with her or fall behind. That energy alone makes her well-suited to lead the city through either a crisis or a population explosion, if either is ahead.

    • • •

    They say that hindsight is 20/20 and the corollary to that must be that looking into the future is blind.

    In many ways, the future is a guess. And your vote is a bet on which guess is right.

    Any one of the four mayors will be joined by at least six veteran councillors, and the hordes of civil servants at City Hall aren't going anywhere. They're professionals who will support the politicians no matter who is elected.

    But that doesn't mean that the mayor is unimportant. Rather, they set the tone for the next four years. And in large part, they set the direction, too. As the only position at City Hall elected at-large from the entire population, the mayor is a bellwether for popular opinion.

    He or she is the sum of all bets, then.

    I don't expect Jacobson or Kovatch to wind up in the mayor's chair, despite their relative merits.

    Between Chrest and Decter Hirst, the choice seems to be whether you believe Brandon is big enough and not getting bigger (Chrest) or whether you think it's just getting started (Decter Hirst).

    Trouble could come if the city grows faster than Chrest expects, or slower than Decter Hirst's plans require.

    For Chrest, any growth that does come, he's said, he'd "listen to the experts" — meaning developers would pull the strings when it came to when and where to build.

    That hasn't worked out well for us in the past. In fact, we're still dealing with the fallout from a barely-planned Corral Centre.

    But running services to vacant lots that never get developed isn't a good strategy either, and that's a risk under the Decter Hirst model of planning to plan for plans — her hoped-for growth might never come.

    In reality, Brandon's likely set for a period of slow, steady growth. It won't be as stagnant as in the ’90s, but it won't grow gangbusters like the early 2000s.

    So lay your bets: Will it be closer to Chrest's vision? Or Decter Hirst's? And would you rather overplan and overbuild? Or underplan and fall behind?

    Tough job, this predicting the future.

    Tough job, being mayor.

    Congratulations to all the candidates for putting their names forward. I've campaigned, and it's hard work — let alone the job ahead. I wish them all the best next week.


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