By Collin Gallant on October 6, 2017.
Four candidates vying to be mayor appear to have accomplished what they wanted at Thursday’s election forum.
Incumbent Ted Clugston worked to defend his record while being set upon by three challengers on issues of service cuts, city spending and council transparency.
John Hamill, the loquacious former alderman, reintroduced himself to the electorate while arguing against “asinine” decision making at city hall.
Scott Raible, a local teacher and businessman, painted himself as a passionate voice for the community.
And Tom Fougere, who operates a local web company, stressed accountability and advocated for medicinal marijuana as a cure for local economic malaise.
Despite several tense exchanges, the 300-person audience at Medicine Hat College Thursday night was treated to a fast moving, generally genial debate that began as a pile-on of the one-term mayor.
“I’ve had that stoic hand on the rudder for four years and I’ve served this community for 10 years (as an elected official),” said Clugston to open, arguing he had brought leadership and focus to council. He supported a return to energy division profitability and a city-spending slowdown after major civic building program.
“You said you’ve brought focus to council, but I’m not sure what they were focused on when they approved transit changes,” said Fougere, referring to a council reversal of major busing changes that was to save $650,000, but has halted after riders vehemently complained about dropped services.
Hamill too hit on transit, saying it’s a symptom of poor planning and a tone-deaf city hall.
“Layoffs in transit were asinine,” he said. “You gained $600,000 (from changing routes) on the backs of the elderly, young families and moms and pops that go to work.”
Raible expanded the argument into other areas of the economy, saying not enough has been done to attract business.
“There’s a disconnect with city council, there’s been a lot of economic hardship in this city and the response is to increase taxes, increase fees,” said Raible. “The job is to make Medicine Hat the best place to raise a family, open a business or retire.”
At one point Clugston paused during his allotted time in open debate but loosened up the crowd, stating “I can’t possibly respond to so much misinformation in 30 seconds.”
Later in summation, he answered the charges.
“Keeping taxes low is very, very difficult,” he said. “We’re trying to do something different and save some money (on transit), but what the other candidates are advocating for… I don’t hear any solutions about where the money is coming from, obviously it’s going to come from the taxpayer.”
The night, sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce, mostly revolved on business issues, with Raible stating incentive packages are needed to attract high-paying jobs and industrial development.
All four candidates said they approved of the city’s current program to pay from 40 to 90 per cent of land developers infrastructure charges on their projects. It expires at the end of 2018, but similar measures have been in place for more than a decade.
All supported downtown development, saying it should become a festival and activity hub. Fougere said he supported a referendum to do away with the City Centre Development Agency, which collects a levy as a business revitalization zone. Clugston and Hamill pointed to grant programs to improve buildings and other work they approved on council.
All want business attraction, and in different degrees supported breaks of taxes or utilities to new companies.
“These are things we’re already doing,” Clugston said, echoing the thought again in terms of business support when aspiring businesses arrive at city hall.
“It’s a good suggestion that we’ve already done,” said Clugston.
Fougere stated several times marijuana production is a billion-dollar and growing industry, and an obvious avenue for local economic development.
Hamill said he can sell the city as a place to do business but private industry is a key player in business landscape.
The forum turned to city finances with a submitted question that blasted the current city financial position.
Clugston repeated his argument that there are “myths” about the city’s well-being, there is no operating deficit, that municipal debt has levelled off or fallen, new borrowing was backed by utility rates, and city finances are in good shape.
That was followed by passes by Fougere and Hamill, followed by Raible who said wording may be incorrect, but citizens are worried.
“The concern is ‘what is the city going to do to make sure we’re operating with in our means?” he said. “We need value-for-money audits in every department to make sure we have solid budgets and making sure we’re living within those budgets.
“We have to be accountable to you, because if you have to tighten your belts, so should the city.”
It is true that the city is forbidden by law to post an operating deficit, but it is using $18 million this year of savings to bridge a budget gap caused by the elimination of energy dividends. The financially fit budget plan proposes tax increases and budget cuts to cut resource profits out over ten years.
Hamill said the blame a lack of energy profits lands on the doorstep of most-recent council.
“They’ve overspent and the excuse that it’s the previous council’s doing is rubbish,” said Hamill. “You need to make a budget and stick to it.”
The event was the third in three nights of forums that included 19 candidates for councillor earlier in the week.
General voting takes place on Oct. 16.
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