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My model campaign platform

With less than two months to go until the municipal election, I'm starting to get frustrated about the lack of clear platforms or policies from any of the candidates.

Many of them are really good at identifying the issues that Brandon faces — high taxation, downtown development, flooding — but I don't think I've seen any candidate at all offer a single idea on what they would actually DO about those issues.

Except, of course, that they would "address" them. After "consulting with constituents," of course.

It wasn't always this way. Last go-round, challenger Shari Decter Hirst released a huge number of specific campaign promises on her campaign blog, from keeping the Sportsplex open to holding "Coffee with the Mayor" meetings, to bidding for the Canada Games in 2017.

This year? Crickets.

Of course, after four years of her mayorship, we all have a pretty good idea of what Decter Hirst's priorities are, as well as what her abilities are to get things done on council and in the city.

But I'd still like to see where she sees the next four years taking Brandon.

And what about the main challenger this time around? Rick Chrest is by all accounts a nice guy, and he's got plenty of council experience, but what are his priorities? I can't go back on his years as council like I can with Decter Hirst — the city faces new and different challenges now than it did back in the '90s. Things like a pair of mega floods and Maple Leaf have dramatically changed this city.

On his website, Chrest has identified a number of issues, but despite the many hundreds of words written about "economic development," "air service" and "taxation," the actual ways that he intends to address those issues are pretty thin.

I give third mayoral candidate Mark Kovatch a brief pass on this, since he just entered the race yesterday, but he should be on notice that we're all watching.

Candidates for city council fare no better — they are really good at finding issues, and pledging that they'll address them, but there's almost no concrete suggestions on what they would actually DO about those issues.

If a normal campaign has a "platform" made out of "planks," so far in the Brandon municipal election, every candidate is basically showing us paper and pencil, promising that they see the need for a platform and have the tools needed to plan one.

Worse yet are the candidates who are pledging to spend the next few weeks door-knocking and listening to constituent concerns.

Um, I'm sorry — don't you have any ideas of your own? I'd like to hear them, please, and then I'll judge whether I think you'll be good to represent me. Door knocking to get ideas at this late stage of the game is a lazy gambit that makes you sound like you've been uninterested in politics until now and that you haven't got anything worth saying of your own.

That makes you a poor bet for a representative, in my books.

But, if you must know what I think — and since I desperately want some IDEAS in this darn race — I hereby present a model campaign platform, with suggested positions on issues that face this city:

1. Time for this city to grow up

Brandon has cracked the 50,000 mark, and we're growing fast. We have unique needs due to our high immigrant population and it's time to negotiate a new City Charter with the provincial government to address that.

My top suggestion would be to create full-time city councillor positions, but to reduce the number of wards to five (north, south, east, west and central). I'd also like to see the runner-up candidate for mayor be awarded an "at-large" councillor position, meaning we'd have a seven-member council, including the mayor, down from our current 11.

Full-time councillors would be expected to be more active on committees and in city governance overall. Council meetings should be held weekly, and councillors should be expected to provide written reports on their weekly activities.

City council votes should also be recorded. Every one.

I'd also like to see this new City Charter give Brandon more autonomy in setting tax rates and other policies, from building inspections to borrowing.

We should also take over the management of provincial highways that happen to run through the city — including portions of First Street and Victoria Avenue, as well as all of 18th Street. The province can pay us to take care of them, thanks, but it should be up to the city to determine when they get plowed and paved.

2. So long, school board

The Brandon School Division gets to collect taxes through the city, meaning that the city gets blamed for their tax hikes. That may have made sense a hundred years ago, when the city was much bigger than the school division.

But their budget now is $80 million a year. That's actually higher than the city's. So they can go ahead and collect their own taxes — and the associated taxpayer rage, thanks.

(I'm taking a page from Winnipeg mayoral contender Robert Ouellette here, who suggested the same thing. It's a great idea, let's do it here.)

3. Open up the data

There has been lots of smoke but very little heat from the city when it comes to open data. It's hard to believe that a few years ago, Brandon was ahead of Winnipeg on this file; we're way behind now.

What data does get posted is often manipulated and spun within an inch of its life, stripped of all meaning and impossible to use in a new or innovative way.

Right now, "open data" is an extra that city staff do when they have time. They take, say, the mosquito trap counts, and after they are done assessing them, they make an extra effort to make them public.

That's backwards. Simple data like that should be posted online as it comes in. When city staff need to assess the numbers, for example to decide whether to fog, they should go to the same website you and I go to, and pull the numbers from there.

The same goes for every other piece of city data, from the location of stop signs to the daily level of chlorine in the water. It's all on computers, make it public by default.

The Open Data Handbook is a great place to start.

4. Densify development

Many of Brandon's problems, from potholes to transit, can be traced directly back to the fact that we have too few people in too wide an area. It means the city's burdens have to be shared among fewer shoulders.

Brandon recently unveiled plans to sprawl further southwest and to the north, but there are plenty of vacant lots and low-rise developments that could be filled first.

Developers have shown they're willing to build condos and mid-rise apartments — but they're doing it in new subdivisions along south Ninth Street. They should be encourged to do it downtown and in existing neighbourhoods, too.

The first bylaw I'd pass as a councillor would be a mandate that all new commercial development include two floors of residential above. Imagine if every strip mall in town had apartments above it? Those stores would have locked-in shoppers nearby and we'd have no more issues with housing.

5. Put the Chamber in its place

The Chamber of Commerce is a lobby group. It's a well-funded and successful lobby group with a broad membership base, but it's just a lobby group. It's insane that important city events like an annual State of the City address are done for a paying membership as a fundraiser for this lobby group. Put an end to that practice.

People will still want to see a State of the City address, so hold your own luncheon. Or why not make the rounds — one year make a speech for the Chamber, the next have it for the Arts Council lunch, and then the year after that at the Friendship Centre.

6. Hold up on salaries — especially protective services

My back-of-the-envelope calculations show that, over the past five years, nearly 75¢ in every new tax dollar went to protective services. The largest budget line there is salaries.

Beat cops and firefighters regularly make more than $100,000 — an unaffordable extravagence in this low-cost city.

While police sometimes do dangerous, difficult work, many of their calls are for drunks, shoplifters and teenage pot dealers. This is a safe city, and policing compensation should reflect that it's easier here than elsewhere.

So-called "firefighters" spend many of their days in the backs of ambulances, taking elderly patients to and from their hospital appointments. There were only 17 structure fires in all of last year. That's just one every three weeks. Meanwhile, they did 3,700 ambulance calls — more than 10 a day.

Of course, council has backed itself into a corner with the mathematically unsustainable "comparator cities" model for setting salaries. Job No. 1 should be to remove that clause. No. 2 wlll be to let inflation catch up to the inflated pay packets.

7. Focus on non-car transportation

Brandon's bike paths are great, but they're decaying. We embarassingly bobbled the installation of a "share the road" lane along Lorne Avenue last year.

Meanwhile, other cities are racing to install separated bike lanes and other bike infrastructure. Not only does that get cyclists off of city streets, making them safer, it also gets people on their bikes instead of behind the wheel — it's a win-win for drivers, too.

In 2002, Brandon had a plan to create a network of cycle paths through the city. We've barely done any of it; and it's all very low-cost, certainly better than a "road to nowhere" on the north hill.

Aside from more bike paths, stat, I'd rev up the city's transit network. It, too, is low cost compared to many other things, but it's tragically underused. Time to move from a hub-and-spoke model (which is impossible for casual users to learn) and switch to a grid model (which matches our street layout).

Finally, I'd tweak the city's planning bylaws to take parking minimums for all new development and make them parking maximums. Current parking lots should also be taxed at a high enough rate that would encourage their development, especially in areas like Pacific Avenue.

8. Downtown matters

It's almost a cliché that Brandon's downtown needs to be revitalized, but it's true. Without a strong, dense central core, we're not a city, we're just a suburb.

Downtown is what makes Brandon distinct from any other cookie-cutter burg, and we need to invest in it. For decades, we've tried to make downtown "successful" by copying what worked in the suburbs — more traffic, more parking, single-storey commericial.

But that's like using your nail clippers to cut your hair. Successful downtowns focus on people — wide sidewalks, narrow streets, loads of residential above first-floor retail.

Along with encouraging the above, I would reverse the one-way traffic on Ninth Street, and tear out the wrong-sided angle parking. But I'd go two big steps further in making Rosser and Princess avenues two-way traffic as well.

9. Revive the riverbank

After being hammered by two huge floods in 2011 and 2014, it's fair to ask if we need to reassess our level of commitment to the Assiniboine River.

I think it's clearer than ever that development along the flood plain shouldn't be allowed. That leaves either fallow fields (ugly) or recreational development that's designed to drain quickly and be easy to clean.

Guess what gets my vote? Time to double-down on our riverbank development. Embrace the flooding by creating things that adapt, and ensure that there's something to do — skating and skiing come to mind — in the winter as well.

Oh, and why was it so easy to open up Grand Valley Road as soon as the water went down, when the walking paths buried under dikes in 2011 are still buried under dikes?

We need to get people back using the riverbank parks within days or weeks of the flood receding, not take years.

To be clear, I am not running for city council, and do not intend to run for city council. So if you're running, please steal my ideas.

PS. I typed this up on Friday, with no notes. If I can do this off the top of my head, every candidate should be able to do something similar.

Ideas, please.

Not issues that you've identified. Not feel-good platitudes about "leadership" or "representation."

Ideas.

Please.

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Half the ideas put forth would actually drive business away from Brandon. What developer in their right mind would come to Brandon to jump thru even more hoops to put a development in under these suggestions?

Lots of ideas; most of them are political suicide but at least you are willing to speak what you feel. A detailed political platform is too easy to fall off or be pushed off by naysayers. If you do,or say nothing; you can not be wrong.

I agree about the crazy wages the fire/police service get, but don't forget the crazy wages the city workers now receive courtesy of SDH's $6.4 wage budget in her first budget.
I think the candidates are afraid to take on the unions because they will lose those votes, they forget they would gain everyone elses votes though......

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