Friday 24 October 2014

For mayor of Peterborough, do we vote for a rising star, or a setting sun?

Peterborough This Week recently ran an opinion piece titled “What Peterborough needs in its next mayor”. The local news outlet, which is owned by Torstar Corporation, matched up what it considered to be the skills needed to do the job, as well as the various contenders.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mayor Bennett took top honours due to his “successful leadership roles within the community” and his ability to “make tough choices”. Maryam Monsef, lacking experience managing large groups, “oversimplifies the  job” and is “in over her head” – a pejorative talking point familiar to those who have heard the federal Conservative attack ads against Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau. Patti Peeters is “not a team player” and “lacks diplomacy” (as opposed to Mr. Bennett, one assumes). Alan Wilson can “react badly under pressure” but “has the skills and experience to make him capable of the job”. The other candidates, Terry Leblanc and Tom Young, are simply not up to the task.
Ms. Monsef at the Sales and Ad Club mayoral debate

In its opinion piece, Peterborough This Week made some interesting assumptions. The first was that a well thought out policy platform is of little relevance. Ms. Monsef has one of these, but only “on paper” (perhaps she should have hammered it together with plywood, or used a 3D printer). The second, and of greater relevance, it would seem, is a business background. There is something to that, but, in La politica’s opinion, Mr. Wilson, and Mr. Bennett in particular, are unqualified for the job precisely because their own business experience is not relevant to Peterborough’s future economic needs.

The reasons are simple enough. Mr. Bennett’s business, the Liftlock Group, is a private company. It does not operate by consensus, as its finances are not visible to the public. Mr. Bennett has taken this experience to City Hall, where he runs things as if he were the boss. It has been a magnificent failure that has resulted in a process that lacks transparency, with Mr. Bennett’s undiplomatic style leading to his suspension from the Police Services Board, with 11 allegations of breaching the code of conduct. The city has also been threatened with legal action from the Agricultural Society due to Mayor Bennett’s heavy-handed approach regarding future plans for Morrow Park.

For Mr. Bennett, who owns development and transportation interests – and who does not live in Peterborough – the city’s future will be built on roads leading to suburbs. According to most leaders in urban planning, this is a false assumption, but Mr. Bennett’s business experience, understandably, tells him otherwise.  It is hard to see him agreeing, or even understanding, the Wikipedia summation of urban theorist Richard Florida, who “asserts that metropolitan regions with high concentrations of technology workers, artists, musicians, lesbians and gay men, and a group he describes as ‘high bohemians’, exhibit a higher level of economic development.” The real question for Mr. Bennett, one imagines, as he thinks of all this new found wealth, would be: but how quick is their drive to the casino? This isn’t just not getting it – this is not getting getting.

As for Alan Wilson, he is agreeable, but his ideas – and ideas do matter – are poorly thought out. Like Mr. Bennett, he seems to be coming up with new plans every day, suddenly aware that the electorate actually cares about policy. So, we are to turn part of George St. into a pedestrian mall, despite the fact that there has been no consultation with business or residents, or any transportation assessment. The reason for Mr. Wilson’s idea is that, when an executive at Quaker Oats, he saw lots of pretty towns in Europe with pedestrian malls. If Peterborough This Week were serious, they would call Mr. Wilson out on this, and suggest that his “experience” as a Quaker Oats executive isn’t doing him much good. Neither does his stint as a senior advisor to federal MP Dean Del Mastro, who has been charged with election fraud.

Both the Peterborough Examiner, owned by Sun Media, and Peterborough This Week have, in La politica’s opinion, been giving inordinate coverage to long-shot Patti Peeters. The reason, we suspect, is that they hope she will eat into the Monsef vote. That could happen, but Peeters has a small team, and was hurt recently when her campaign manager jumped ship. She tends to fly solo, but she knows council inside out, and has a real passion for the people. The problem is that her focus is too narrow, as it is almost exclusively based on social issues. It is hard to imagine her accepting a vote that doesn’t go her way.

That leaves us with Ms. Monsef. At times she seems to confirm everything her opponents say about her. At the recent Sales and Ad Club mayoral debate she sparred well, suggesting that the city could save money by reducing litigation costs, but then mentioned that the funds could support a mentorship program to “make some memories”. The snickers and groans from the pro-Bennett crown were audible. Her early campaign videos looked like SCTV skits, and at times she sounds like a high school valedictorian. Many are convinced that she simply isn’t up to the task.

But there is another side to Ms. Monsef, and we have seen it. You don’t come to Canada with your single mother and sisters as a refugee from Afghanistan, survive bullying in middle school, and achieve what she has, without having some smarts and a backbone. No candidate had accomplished what she had before their 30th birthday, including raising $130,000 for women and children in Afghanistan as cofounder of the Red Pashmina Campaign. Her respect for process might seem like light fare, but you don’t accomplish a task like that by sitting around. We have observed her in action – and could imagine how her intelligence would make a real difference at council. This is a person who has supported herself through her own business initiative – nothing was given to her. She made her way with no social or cultural capital, running her own business right here in Peterborough, and now wants to do more. This is a person with real-world experience who understands the job at hand.

So, how does running a taxi company, or working for Quaker Oats, somehow out-qualify the real-world, against-all-odds achievements of Ms. Monsef? They don’t. As a young adult, were the other candidates given the YMCA's Peace Medallion, or recognized as one of Peterborough's 20 most influential people? No. And were the other candidates, at her age, making a study of how city council works, as she has? No. She knows how council operates. She can run a meeting, and understand a budget. To suggest that businessmen have some wizardly hold on this mysterious world is patently false. If Mayor Bennett would open up his Wednesday meetings with City Staff we would see to what extent he is using their services, and relying on their expertise. But under his wise leadership we are not allowed access to that arcane world. He has, after all, learned from his business experience.

At the end of the day it must be acknowledged that, although Mr. Bennett has clear powers of persuasion, his heavy-handed push for the parkway and a casino has rubbed many people the wrong way. And it must also be acknowledged that many people in Peterborough are happy having the kind of mayor that can “make the trains run on time”. If those are the only qualifications, then Mayor Bennett is the man for the job, but many citizens also see the mayor’s job as including a respect for due process, a respect that brings people together – even for policies they might not otherwise agree with.

Ms. Monsef is fond of saying how much Peterborough has given her, and how she would like to give back. If she is elected mayor, she’ll be giving back – a lot.

After all, at the end of the day, does it make more sense to put your money on a setting sun, or a rising star?

(TE Wilson is the author of Mezcalero, a Detective Sánchez novel.)

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