Today marks Day 108 in Brandon’s mayoral election campaign. And with 66 days left in the race, we are now well past the halfway point.
However, other than a few feel-good campaign pledges from candidate Rick Chrest, voters are no closer to understanding how he or incumbent Shari Decter Hirst plan to make Brandon a better and stronger community.
On Thursday, Chrest sent out his third platform media release, in which he noted that the daily WestJet service between Brandon and Calgary has been a significant success. But he cautioned that Westman “still lacks any vital routing to points east,” and promised that expanding air service in Brandon would occupy a “permanent spot” on his agenda if elected.
That’s all well and good. We can all agree that Brandon would love to have an eastern route added to our recently acquired air service. But sorely lacking from Chrest’s announcement — much like his previous pronouncements on taxes and economic development — was any detailed plans or policy statements.
This third weak press release from the successful Brandon businessman thus became an easy target for Decter Hirst.
“Air service east? Bigger terminal? Now, why didn’t I think of that? Perhaps because we’ve been working so hard to make it happen! #bdnmb,” read a Friday morning tweet from @Electmayorshari.
And on her “Team Shari” Facebook page, Decter Hirst casually ridiculed Chrest for his stand on air service, and said she looks forward to the topic of Chrest’s next platform announcement.
“Perhaps flood protection? Transparency at City Hall? Open and inclusive government? Sunday bus service? Affordable housing strategy? Diverting (50 per cent) of our garbage away from the landfill because of recycling and curb side organics collection?” she wrote — all of which she has laid claim to as accomplishments of her administration.
It’s one thing to smirk at the foibles of your opponent, but Decter Hirst herself has done next to nothing to drive discussion since the start of this election period. Unlike her initial run for mayor four years ago, when she came out in force with campaign platform announcements every few days — and thereby kept incumbent Dave Burgess on his heels — Decter Hirst has not issued any formal campaign statements since she quietly announced she would seek re-election back in April.
Perhaps she feels she doesn’t need to against Chrest. And perhaps she’s right — to be honest the former councillor and deputy mayor has not forced Decter Hirst to even break a sweat thus far.
As well, we would remind both candidates that air service in Brandon has always been about business decisions made by large corporations — not about the wishes of a small city council. That was the case when Canadian Airlines International decided to reduce and eventually cut commercial air service to and from Brandon in the late 1980s. And that has been the case with WestJet and its decision to fly a turboprop between Calgary and the Wheat City.
But from our standpoint, this lame back and forth between the candidates is simply unacceptable, especially when there are definite questions regarding Brandon’s future that need answers. “Motherhood” policy pronouncements from Chrest that offer little more than anodyne buzzwords and snarky comments from Decter Hirst’s re-election Twitter account in reply do nothing to inform voters about their plans for this city.
In fact, we don’t care that candidates for mayor and council can identify these issues. The issues are pretty obvious for anyone paying attention over the last four years, and if you don’t know the problems facing this city already, you probably shouldn’t be running for office. What we need now are concrete ideas and solutions to both new and longstanding issues that continue to make headlines.
Both Decter Hirst and Chrest are no strangers to the inner workings of city hall, and both have track records during their time in office. They are not coming to the electoral table as ignorant first-timers who have no clue about how to run a city or implement policy.
Brandonites can expect the candidates to start campaigning in earnest in the month leading up to the Oct. 22 vote — six months is, after all, a long time to be on the campaign trail. Too long perhaps. And there has been an intervening summer flood that captured public attention and demanded a muting of public debate. But with the floodwaters having long since flowed downstream, the time to turn our direction toward electoral issues is nigh.
However, since the candidates don’t seem to be interested in initiating public debate by making concrete proposals for change, development and improvement, we think it’s time to start driving the conversation.
In our opinion, here are some of the major problems that need to be addressed during this election cycle.
Taxes and salaries
A little more than two years ago, Decter Hirst and an feckless council faced a throng of hostile ratepayers who had crowded into the city hall foyer to vent their anger at their elected officials. As we editorialized at the time, they didn’t come armed with pitchforks, but there was palpable anger in the crowd, evidenced by catcalls and audible groans that followed several answers provided by our city leaders. They believed their property taxes were going up to pad wages at city hall, and ultimately they were right.
Earlier that year, the proposed 2012 budget had surpassed the previous year’s by $8.1 million to just under $92 million. As part of that budget, council had decided to add nearly
$6 million to city employee salary lines, in a bid to “catch up” to salaries in nine comparable cities in Western Canada and the Manitoba government.
Though council ultimately backed down from a 15 per cent tax hike, the $6-million salary line remained largely intact. As we have reported since then, salaries for both union and non-union employees — city hall staff, firefighters/paramedics and police — have increased substantially.
We don’t mind paying taxes if we can see that the money is being wisely spent on the greatest needs for our city. But over the years we have shown that city salaries continue to climb higher than the rate of inflation, and council has not been able to temper that rise.
We have a great number of roads that need repair in this city, as well as aging sewer lines and lead water pipes in older homes. There is still no concrete plan for the Eighth Street bridge, which continues to crumble and needs attention.
There are dozens of empty lots downtown that stick out like a sore thumb, even as the present mayor and council worry about increasing the size of Brandon’s developmental footprint into the Black Farm property and southern reaches of the city.
The perennial issue of a floundering downtown has never been successfully addressed by any mayor and council for the last 40 years. How can council pay for all this and more, without going bankrupt?
Brandon’s relationship with the river
Flooding along the Assiniboine has become a major issue in Brandon, as the province, feds and city have spent millions in flood prevention and repairs. And more is yet to come.
Nevertheless, at least $170,000 in newly planted trees near the Riverbank Discovery Centre meant to shore up the bank have likely been destroyed by the flood of 2014. Eleanor Kidd Park has been closed for years and Brandon’s once proud trail system along the river remains unusable.
The Optimist Park soccer pitches have been flooded out regularly over the last few years from spring melts and the huge rainfall southern Manitoba experienced this past summer. The Wheat City Golf Course reopened several previously damaged holes just days before flood of 2014 wiped out all of that work.
If this is to become the norm for the next few or several years, how do we address our changing relationship with the river?
From the irritating delays to address the partial collapse of the Brown Block on 10th Street, the extended wait for Eighth Street Bridge repairs, and the comical farce that has been the mosquito fogging tug-of-war between council and administration, to the decade-long debacles of the fire hall and police station locations, there appears to be an ongoing battle over who really runs city hall — the bureaucrats or the politicians.
What political power there is seems concentrated in the mayor’s chair, despite that position’s single vote. If our elected councillors have become ineffectual political eunuchs, and managers — at the behest of the mayor’s office — are steering the city ship without public oversight, where then does authority sit?
As a city, we have grown tremendously with the construction and expansion of Maple Leaf. But when Maple Leaf catches financial flu — in this case, it is currently experiencing a lack of hogs for slaughter — Brandon sneezes.
What can this city do to expand its economic base? Our current mayor and council have given this considerable thought and effort — the addition of commercial air flights in and out of Brandon are a significant achievement. But for Brandon to grow, we need to attract new business from the agricultural sector that surrounds us, and from the oil industry that is parked on our doorstep.
These are all important issues that deserve deeper answers than we have currently had from candidates. In the coming weeks, the Sun will be exploring each of them in turn, and putting those vying to lead our city on the spot for some solid answers.
Their answers will tell us a lot about whether they are entitled to your votes.