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Four out of Five ain't bad.

Notes from the Ward 18 2010 Mayoral Debate, September 13, 2010, by Henrik Bechmann

Four of the five Toronto mayoral candidates came to a scheduled debate at the Brockton Learning Centre for the Ward 18 debates on September 13. Rob Ford, Joe Pantalone, Sarah Thomson, and Rocco Rossi answered questions and provided rebuttals for a little over two hours, under the able chairmanship of Toronto Sun writer Sue Ann Levy. George Smitherman, though he had a chair and name sign reserved, didn't appear. A couple of hundred local souls came to witness the debate.

  • Rob Ford proferred himself as a representative of his "customers" the voters, and promised to do whatever they want, particularly reduce costs
  • Joe Pantalone insisted things are working well, if only more support would be forthcoming from the Province.
  • Sarah Thomson was confident and assertive, often repeating that she is against bad planning, and in favour of consultation, and listening to front line workers. She is open to public private partnerships, and relying on the non-profit sector
  • Rocco Rossi was the most animated, shouting in apparent exasperation, in favour of his position that agencies and boards of Toronto should be run by private sector professionals with appropriate skill sets, not by politicians.

The candidates may have revealed their core positions through the detailed questions posed, particularly their varied approaches to the most common theme: money. The depth and consistency of their positions was veiled however, so doubt remained: who can run this city? Consider their stated priorites:

  • Rocco Rossi: institute multi-year planning; manage our money better; reduce labour cost increases, and stand up to the unions if necessary; sell assets to pay down debt; tie accountability to compensation
  • Rob Ford: abolish land transfer tax, and car registration tax; scrap "fair wage" policy; given 6% personnel retirements are expected, refill only 3% of positions
  • Joe Pantalone: The city has lowest business tax; no deficit; Moody's AA1 rating; freeze taxes for seniors.
  • Sarah Thomson: City has $18B in unused assets, sell $3B to pay down debt, save $450M in interest; cost overruns in public sector are about 25%, private sector are about 5% - bring these in line with fixed price contracts; keep hiring freeze and get rid of middle layer of bureaucracy to make front line workers more prominent and accountable

You'd think it would have been a riot, given a ward that had elected an NDP candidate (Adam Giambrone), hosting candidates who have a pretty tough agenda, hosted by a moderator with a withering reputation. It wasn't. Though there were certainly barbs thrown between candidates, the debate on the whole was straightforward and informative. It was also practiced; they're debating a couple of times a day now on average.

How to make sense of it? This is the first time I heard from the candidates unfiltered by the press, so I was looking for the core of their positions. Unfair perhaps, impossible no doubt, but at least it kept me engaged in the proceedings.

Here are some windows to their mindset:

On bedbugs:

  • Sarah Thomson wants the Toronto Housing to get back to being good landlords (and less social intervention responsibilities), including eradicating bugs
  • Rocco Rossi favours right to recall and term limits for councillors to make them accountable for this and other issues

On clean trains for the airport corridor, and transportation issues:

  • Rocco Rossi wants "skills based" TTC board, as opposed to politicians, to apply "best in class" governance. He supports the Presto smartcard system because it is being supported by the Ontario Government, and implemented by GO Transit
  • Rob Ford says it's just "common sense" to get a cost of electrification before proceeding; get written commitment from politicians to stop changes
  • Sarah Thomson considers herself a centrist and supporter of clean trains. She supports the OpenCard transit card system claiming that it is the emerging international standard, and adds only 1-2% to the cost of transit, as opposed to 6-7% of the competing Presto system

On affordable housing:

  • Sarah Thomson supports portable rental subsidy, and is against designing "pockets of poverty" in condensed housing projects. She would demand 10% of units in private developments be allocated to subsidized units
  • Rocco Rossi promotes leveraging value of lands, to revitalize housing and provide developers opportunities
  • Joe Pantalone claims there are only 7000 vacant units in Toronto, whereas there are 70,000 people on waiting lists for subsidized housing

All candidates derided the Peter Street Shelter cost overruns, though Joe Pantalone stated that "Governments make mistakes" like anyone. Sarah Thomson would delegate such ventures to non-profits, who she thinks know better how to manage such things.

The moderator asked if the candidates would be willing to ban aggressive pan-handling. Rossi, Ford, and Thomson were in favour. Pantalone said that current programs were working, with 2800 people having been moved from the street to transitional housing.

So who are these people, and what are their qualifications to be mayor?

  • Rob Ford boasts that he has answered over 200,000 phone calls during his term, and made 10,000 home visits. He vows that all city staff will return phone calls. He references his company Deco Labels & Tags which employs 250 people as his proof of management competence.
  • Sarah Thomson represents herself as a successful entrepreneur (including Women's Post) who left home at 15 to make her way in the world, made a (small) fortune, then returned to university to obtain a degree. She says she's a communicator and consensus builder
  • Joe Pantalone represents himself as the man with experience, a City Builder
  • Rocco Rossi cites his background in both private business and non-profit (Heart and Stroke Foundation) sectors, as well as politics (John Tory's campaign manager for Mayor).

One questioner from the audience suggested he would like to disassemble the candidates and reassemble selected pieces into the ideal candidate. Picasso would be proud, but I was personally not yet able to assemble a coherent whole from this sampling.

Content last modified on October 01, 2010, at 09:27 PM EST