Raucous debate puts Jeffrey’s struggle on centre stage
Playwright and wicked wit Oscar Wilde once said there are two tragedies in life: not getting what you want, and getting it.
Four years ago, Linda Jeffrey got what she wanted: the mayoralty of Brampton.
Standing on a stage Tuesday night she seemed caught in Wilde’s conundrum.
In 2014, she scored nearly 50 percent of the vote to beat out a long list of challengers, including incumbent Susan Fennell, who hoped to be chief executive of Canada’s ninth largest city.
For Jeffrey, the win was the culmination of nearly three decades in politics. It put her in charge of a city she and her family had called home since 1983. In her first days upon returning to municipal politics, she took a $50,000 cut in pay to show that the freebooting ways of her predecessor were over.
She then summoned former provincial auditor Jim McCarter to rummage through the city’s books to help put its spending scandals and irresponsible budgeting behind it. She was eager to airbrush the city’s reputation as a discordant mess and put city hall on a more professional footing.
One of her first orders of business was the debate over a proposed Light Rail Transit line up Hurontario Street from Port Credit and into Brampton. Jeffrey liked the LRT’s proposed Main Street route into the downtown core. A large faction on council didn’t.
The thrust and parry between the two opposing forces turned nasty and morphed into a long-running battle that lasted throughout her first term as mayor.
The past four years “have been some of the most challenging times” of my career, Jeffrey admits. The next four weeks promise to be even more heated – if Tuesday night’s debate at the Rose Theatre is any indication. Jeffrey’s performance often failed to convey the sense of someone in full command of her vision for the city and confident in her support from voters.
The community media group Brampton Focus, in planning its 2018 mayoral candidates debate, invited what its board of directors deemed the four top contenders: Jeffrey, Patrick Brown (former leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives), John Sprovieri (long-time regional councillor from Wards 9 and 10), and Bal Gosal (former federal sports minister in the Stephen Harper government). Three other candidates, Wesley Jackson, Mansoor Ameersulthan and Vinod Kumar Mahesan, were not invited.
If Jeffrey hoped to ease into a re-election win on Oct. 22, those hopes were shattered by the announcement that Brown would run against her. And if she thought bitter politics was behind her, it was there, flowing out from her on centre stage at the Rose, in front of a raucous crowd that filled the entire lower portion of the theatre.
Candidates discussed a laundry list of the issues of the day: Vision 2040 (a future plan to remake Brampton), the Light Rail Transit (LRT) route, the residential versus commercial real estate mix, rising violence on the streets, pressures arising from extreme growth, the need for another full-service hospital, diversity issues, rising mental health concerns, public housing, the City’s response to new cannabis laws, money for the arts, and whether the city was wise to bail out the Brampton Beast ($1.5 million over three years), or a failing golf club ($11.6 million).
The debate was moderated by Michael Charbon and driven by questions from four panelists: Dezso Farkas, Dr. Kulvinder Kaur Gill, Dave Kapil and Marilyn Verghis. It was highlighted by a mid-debate forum when candidates were allowed to ask a question of another candidate. That’s when the Jeffrey-Brown rivalry, and her contempt for his candidacy, played itself out most forcefully. But more on that later.
Jeffrey set the tone early in her opening statement. She said the stakes are clear: her stable leadership, or the risky, unproven promises of others. She warned voters they can’t return to the drama of the past, adding that she has held the line on taxes and voted against dubious uses of taxpayer money, such as the bailout of the Brampton Beast hockey team (she has yet to explain why she remained completely silent during the debate over the golf club bailout, then became suddenly outspoken about how bad a deal it was, after the vote had already set things in stone).
In a direct attack on Brown, she said, “I’m not just visiting here to resurrect my political career.” That statement drew hoots from the audience, which seemed loaded with Brown supporters who had risen to their feet when he took the stage and started yelling “Patrick … Patrick … Patrick.”
Earlier in the year, Brown was ousted as Ontario PC leader, months before it scored a majority at Queen’s Park in June. He was then prevented from running for chair of Peel Region by newly elected Premier Doug Ford, who returned that office to an appointed position. In the end, he was a last-minute entrant into the race for mayor.
Brown didn’t take the bait from Jeffrey, but in his opening chat made reference to a local political legend. He said that when William Davis (“Brampton Billy”) left office as Ontario premier in 1985, “Brampton was the envy of the GTA.” Brampton has since descended. It has a 79-to-21 percent mix of residential to commercial real estate. That ratio tells one a lot about the city’s ambivalent decline into post-war American-style suburban status, creating a lopsided tax base that has stymied its economic growth and raised the tax burden on homeowners. It’s also a clear sign of absent leadership.
Gosal touted the fact he is a small business owner who has been a resident of the city for 35 years. His community service includes a stint on the police services board. He said as MP for Brampton and sports minister, he saved the country billions in tax dollars (how he did so, remains unclear). As mayor, he wants to lead the charge to bring in more businesses to the city.
Sprovieri says a lack of health care and higher-order transit, as well as safety concerns on our streets and the need to work better with the province to deal with growth projections, are issues he wants to address for taxpayers and for his sons and grandkids.
Kapil asked the candidates if they supported the Vision 2040 plan for the city, and what role the LRT would play.
Jeffrey downplayed the Vision 2040 plan, led by a renowned Vancouver-based urban planning consultant hired by the City, as just an aspirational document, refusing to shy away from her continued support for the old Main Street LRT route, which council voted against in the previous term, and then again in 2015. “That is where the traffic is,” she said. The city’s own transit numbers raise questions about her claim. They show heavy ridership on the “Main Street” route is actually between the Mississauga city-centre and Steeles Avenue, on Hurontario Street, which is not part of the corridor beyond Steeles that Jeffrey is championing. Jeffrey has been prone, over the past four years, to presenting misleading information. During the LRT debate in 2015 she was called out by Bill Davis, Jeffrey’s choice to head a panel to bring a university to the city. When she wrongly claimed that the Main Street route was a precondition to getting a university, Davis publicly corrected the record in an open letter he issued. She lashed out at the former premier for issuing his letter, claiming he overstepped his role and that he was personally motivated because he owns a property in the heritage area along Main Street.
Jeffrey has envisioned her preferred route running all the way north to Mayfield Road as part of a pan-Ontario integrated transit policy.
She thinks talk about a route north is moot at the moment, however, because the city doesn’t have a commitment from Queen’s Park to build beyond Steeles Avenue. She said it was “foolish” for council to earmark millions towards studying alternative routes up McLaughlin and Kennedy Roads.
Sprovieri voted against the Main Street route and wants something that would provide economic benefits and redevelopment opportunities, as he envisions might occur on McLaughlin or Kennedy.
Brown said more than 13,000 residents took part in developing Vision 2040, which Jeffrey distanced herself from on Tuesday. But he wondered aloud why Brampton seems to settle for so little when it comes to transit. Scarborough is getting a $3 billion subway, “and we deserve our fair share,” he said. “I’m tired that we are forgotten. it’s time we stood up for our city.”
Gosal said the city has to be aggressive in going after provincial and federal financing for transit.
A Forum Research poll conducted in late August that surveyed 999 voters for The Pointer showed Jeffrey with 41 percent support among decided and “leaning” voters, with Brown at 33, Sprovieri at 10, Wesley Jackson at 6, Gosal at 5, Mansoor Ameersulthan at 3, and Vinod Kumar Mahesan at 2 percent.
This was the third mayoral debate this election season, and the first since The Pointer’s debate at Sheridan College last week. In that one, Jeffrey begged off because of sickness, and was not present to answer a question about her misleading comments regarding her claim that the Main Street route was a requirement if the city wanted the province to award Brampton a new university.
Brown and Jackson, both lawyers by trade, struck a chord with those in attendance by talking about the need to show a united front at city hall. Jackson’s strong showing made the choice by Brampton Focus officials not to invite him all the more curious.
He did show up at Garden Square to meet some of his supporters, before returning home to monitor the debate and live-tweet. He wouldn’t say he was upset by the decision, but noted that Brampton Focus is made up of private citizens, and they are the ultimate decision-makers. “I’m not going to diminish what they consider to be relevant,” he said. “They shall reap what they have sown.”
Jeffrey seemed particularly perturbed by Brown’s meandering political ambitions, which finally settled on the mayor’s race in Brampton. From the get-go, she questioned his commitment to the city and its future, and afterwards, she wanted to know whether he was “all-in” in his commitment to the city. She said if he was elected mayor, she wouldn’t be surprised if the next day he put his name in to seek selection as regional chair.
But she saved her most telling commentary when she slipped from her seat and confronted him at mid-point in the debate. It was her turn to ask a question.
“So, Patrick,” she said, “you claim the city is going in the wrong direction. I disagree. A cloud hangs over you, a cloud of allegations of sexual misconduct.”
The reference to allegations made in a CTV report, over which Brown is now suing the network, was followed by questions about questionable nomination processes in local ridings when he led the party, at least one of which is the subject of an ongoing police investigation.
“How can my residents trust you?” she asked.
Brown was quick to counter. He said that four years ago, when she took office, there was a lot of hope in the city, and she’d received Bill Davis’s blessing. “But now it’s reduced to this: personal mudslinging. We’re better than that here.”
Was Jeffrey being aggressive because her poll numbers are slipping, or did she simply want Brown to answer the hard questions? She acknowledged afterwards that she was looking “to break a few eggs” that evening.
In an earlier debate hosted by the Brampton Board of Trade Jeffrey used a similar approach. One of her first references during that event was about many of her council colleagues (those she has not seen eye-to-eye with) having been under criminal investigation during the last municipal election. She was referring to a vote by the previous council to send the findings of a forensic audit by Deloitte that probed spending by the previous council, to police for a review. The focus of that effort by council was to have the police review spending violations found by Deloitte of more than $130,000 by former mayor Susan Fennell and her staff. In fact, it was many of the very councillors Jeffrey accused of being under criminal investigation that voted to send the audit findings to the police for review. (That review was concluded without any further police investigation, and Fennell later said she was vindicated when an arbitrator reduced the amount she had to pay back to about $3,500.)
Brown faced a pointed line of questioning by Jeffrey on Tuesday. The process in the lead-up to last spring’s provincial election brought allegations of authoritarian heavy-handedness under Brown’s leadership. Ridings such as King-Vaughan were riddled by complaints of confusion over voter rolls and foul play. It got so heated police were called in to the nomination meeting. In Hamilton-West-Ancaster-Dundas it got worse when police initiated a criminal probe to investigate possible vote-rigging and ballot-stuffing. Leaked emails from Brown to senior party officials appeared to suggest that he was seeking a particular outcome.
Jeffrey was also aggressive in trying to take out one of her most heated council and now mayoralty opponents, Sprovieri. She addressed the “elephant in the room” and talked about an incident in 2017 when, responding to a constituent’s question “Why are white people still planning Brampton’s future?” he “embarrassed” the city with his answer defending white people for creating the democratic institutions others so admire. Sprovieri told the audience he meant to say Canadians, not white people, but Jeffrey said the damage was done.
Jeffrey told the audience that as an MPP and cabinet minister she fought hard for Brampton. In 2004, she pointed out, the city had only one hospital, with one working elevator.
She said the new Civic and phase one of the new Peel Memorial are achievements that can be improved upon with full funding, and based on Brampton’s census (she did not explain who will provide this funding or what she did as head of council for the past four years to secure the money). It’s projected the population of Brampton will rise by 300,000 over the next 20 years. “We need proper funding based on our census,” she said.
Brown said the shortage of hospital beds in Brampton was serious. The current number works out to 1 per 1,000 citizens, far below the provincial average of 2.3. “We deserve more than accepting the worst health care in the province,” he said.
When the debate shifted to the “rapid fire” portion of the questions, the first query dealt with what the city should do once cannabis is legalized this fall. Should it license sales?
The incumbent mayor said it’s unrealistic to not accept legal pot as the new normal and use it as a revenue generator, like alcohol. Brown said the bigger question is whether Peel Regional Police will be given the tools to prepare for drug-impaired driving, which he said will surely spike with the new laws.
A question about whether the city should have given $1.6 million over three years to support the ECHL Brampton Beast at the PowerAde Centre was followed by one asking why the city decided to pay $11.6 million for the Riverstone Golf Club and turn it into a recreation centre.
Jeffrey voted against both decisions and said it was money ill-spent. She was particularly perturbed about the golf course bailout, calling it a council deal to help out buddies in the development industry; a response sure to infuriate those who watched her remain absolutely mum on that point until after the vote, despite the Brampton Guardian’s extensive reporting that raised the very concern she voiced Tuesday, but that she failed to raise when it actually mattered. A fact Sprovieri called her on, questioning on Tuesday why Jeffrey went public with her concern about the golf club deal only after the vote, but remained completely silent about it when she had the chance to change the outcome.
It’s not her only questionable silence on a matter related to a development deal. Jeffrey has maintained that the $28.5 million lawsuit by Inzola Group facing the city (which should see a decision, after seven years, in the coming months) has been a “distraction”. Her indifference toward the troubling evidence in the case raises more questions about her idea of leadership.
Her performance Tuesday evening, opting to "break a few eggs", stood in contrast to Brown’s strategy. He spent far less time in the ring, choosing instead to offer a sense of Brampton’s potential.
Jeffrey was effective in raising doubts about whether he’s the person to help the city reach those goals.
However, between her thrusts and parries, one was left to wonder where she stands amid the conundrum raised by Oscar Wilde.
Leadership, for those naturally suited to it, is easier gained without being aggressively pursued.
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