Forums help candidates show their colours

Voters who packed Thursday’s Chamber of Commerce candidates’ forum were treated to one of the more robust, informative sessions held in many years. It was a treat.

Voters who packed Thursday’s Chamber of Commerce candidates’ forum were treated to one of the more robust, informative sessions held in many years. It was a treat.

In the mayoral debate, newcomer Hilary Penko certainly evidenced an ability to think on her feet, to respond thoughtfully and eloquently, and to comport herself with the kind of poise that is rare in one so inexperienced.

Ultimately, however, the evening belonged to Mayor Morris Flewwelling, as does the election, in my mind. There’s just no substitute for the years of wisdom, insight and experience he brings to the job.

All of the incumbents for council were generally well-spoken with persuasive appeals on such predictable issues as: safety and crime prevention, affordable housing, Riverlands development, environmental sustainability, city finances, and snow removal — the undisputed issue du jour.

Two incumbents raised interesting calls for specific proposed changes. Frank Wong drew audience applause for pledging to improve traffic flow by synchronizing lights throughout the city.

And Gail Parks posed the question: “Are Red Deerians getting the most value out of our tax dollars?” when 95 per cent of the $232 million operating budget approved by council this year was never actually reviewed in any detail, and was not open for debate.

She refers to the “base budget” — the previous year’s operating budget, which simply carries over, unscrutinized and undebated. Council annually debates merely the add-on operating requests over and above the base (add-ons totalled $11 million for 2010).

She raises a critical issue. I don’t see how council can truly know if we’re getting the best value for our money, if they can’t account for, with any acceptable level of specificity, 95 per cent of the money being spent.

Former councillor Jeffrey Dawson pinned the city’s long-term debt at $300 million, while other incumbents challenged that figure. I called the city manager, Craig Curtis, to discuss the various numbers tossed about in the campaign.

Curtis clarified: $186 million is debt actually incurred as of June 30, 2010.

The $270 million figure is in the 2010 budget as the projected debt to the end of 2011 for projects the current council has approved (primarily expansions of the water and wastewater plants), some of which debt hasn’t yet been incurred because of a positive cash flow after tax collection July 1, 2010.

Dawson’s $300-million figure is the number administration recently adjusted up from the projected $270 million noted above, which Curtis said may not now be fully incurred until perhaps into 2012, due to construction slowdowns on the projects — but has definitely been approved.

Of the non-incumbents, Jason Chilibeck was strong on innovative ideas (like using Edmonton’s Waste Recycling Facility as a model to expand the products accepted here for recycling), with proven business experience; Jim Watters proposed carrying over any unused snow removal money into a dedicated reserve with a fixed cap; and Chris Stephan pledged to fight for reactivation of four city-owned ambulances dropped by the province when they took over ambulance services (which now sit dormant and depreciating on city property).

One a final note. I asked this question of Dianne Wyntjes at the forum: “Over the past decade, which of the political parties, both provincial and federal, have you supported or feel yourself most closely aligned with philosophically?”

Some later expressed concern that the question was unfair, targeted and inappropriate for a civic candidate, since council is non-partisan. I disagree.

We’re fine with inquiries about candidates’ educational pursuits, their professional history, their volunteer and community service. Heck, we even ask about the books they read, the music they listen to and the movies they watch. They seek public office; we want to get to know them. When did political affiliation become a taboo inquiry?

It shouldn’t be. There’s room at our council table for people of diverse educational, social, economic and political backgrounds. Every strong council will have a healthy mix of left-leaning and right-leaning individuals to reflect a similar mix in the community. That’s a good thing.

But we should have the right to inquire before voting as to candidates’ political inclinations, if they have any, since it gives us some indication how they think and what to expect of them if elected.

Wyntjes skirted my question with an elusive appeal to “non-partisan-ism.” The moderator, to his credit, also directed the question to Chris Stephan, who did not hesitate to answer my straight-forward question with a bluntly straight-forward answer.

We learned by his response that he’s conservative. More importantly, we learned that Stephan has the courage to answer honestly under pressure, knowing his response may not suit everyone. He isn’t afraid to tackle even a delicate issue like this head on, without parsing words or proffering platitudes.

That’s bold integrity. And integrity transcends all political stripes.

Vesna Higham is a local lawyer and former Red Deer city councillor.

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