A debate between the two mayoral candidates in Bradford West Gwillimbury ended up being one-sided, as only one of them showed up to the event Monday evening.
Incumbent Rob Keffer answered questions from a Bradford Board of Trade emcee — ranging from traffic, to budget savings, to development — but his competitor Pat Roberge was a no-show.
When contacted by BradfordToday, Roberge cited “personal reasons including bad timing” for his absence.
“Events out of control happening lately that put me way behind in my campaign that make reconsidering my position in the race,” he wrote in an email.
Keffer shared the debate stage at the Bradford and District Memorial Community Centre with the two deputy mayor candidates, incumbent James Leduc and Iftikhar Ahmad.
The other 19 ward councillor candidates did not debate, rather they sat at tables representing each ward to allow residents to approach them with questions one-on-one — a format that received mixed reviews among candidates.
“The debate is important. I just wish the ward candidates had an opportunity to debate,” said Coun. Mark Contois, who is running for re-election in Ward 6.
He said, as a current councillor, he has received flack from some residents about advocating for more apartments in BWG to assist families who cannot buy expensive homes, and accusations that council is not diverse, which he had hoped to address.
“I was a little surprised (by) this format,” added Coun. Gary Baynes, who is running for re-election in Ward 2. “Not too many drifted back to the tables.”
Munawar Chudary, a candidate in Ward 5, said he liked the face-to-face interaction with residents instead of having a long debate.
Coun. Ron Orr, running in Ward 4, said there is no problem to try something new and a debate with too many candidates “sometimes loses its effect.”
Ward 7 candidate Dave Minnema said he preferred this format because it was more personal.
“I liked it… one-on-one. I’m talking on the street in my ward,” he said, adding most residents came to the event to see the mayoral and deputy mayor candidates speak.
“They wanted to hear from the leadership, and we’ll follow right along once we get in there to help them out,” he said.
Traffic flow a ‘serious problem’
An always controversial topic in BWG, what to do about traffic flow in town was the first debate question posed to Keffer, Leduc and Ahmad.
“Everybody who lives in town realizes it’s becoming more and more of a serious problem,” Keffer said, adding it could be five years before the Highway 400-404 Connecting Link gets started.
He said part of the solution is getting the County of Simcoe and York Region more involved to help solve traffic-flow problems.
“This is a regional issue,” he said.
Leduc agreed, saying “getting in and out of Bradford is our biggest problem right now.”
He said the town is overdue for a new transportation master plan study.
“I think we can get some great ideas through that. I think we can solve this problem — the speeding in our community, the people coming through our community,” Leduc said.
Ahmad said the community needs more solutions now.
“So many long-term plans, but what is the short-term solution?” he said. “Police or volunteers to monitor the traffic (at rush hour) and at that time to make a steady flow… We should go for the short-term solutions.”
Baseball, curling to remain at community centre?
When asked about the future of the community centre, all three candidates had strong opinions on its future.
A proposed $75-million plan for the property, which includes the land around the building, takes out the two baseball diamonds — with relocation plans in place and a new diamond to be constructed at Joe Magani Park this fall, plus two more in the works.
Keffer acknowledged this was a hot-button issue for the community and said he is in favour of keeping a baseball diamond at the community centre.
While the future of the Bradford Curling Club is yet unknown because the town does not own it, Keffer told residents not to worry: “There will still be curling in Bradford West Gwillimbury if I have anything to do with it.”
The other candidates echoed their support for the community centre, with Leduc calling for it to remain a gathering space, and Ahmad saying the town should keep its original heritage.
East versus west
In terms of where to spend money in town, Keffer, Leduc and Ahmad agreed they do not see it as an east versus west issue.
“I see it as a new and a heritage area. I really love the downtown. It’s a niche area,” Leduc said, adding the town recently purchased the old Royal Bank property.
Ahmad, a broker, said BWG needs more commercial development and local jobs.
“Development brings people here. It helps us. But we have to fix the problems if we are bringing people here,” he said, pointing to a need for more services, roads, leisure facilities and school spaces. “We should be managing first before we bring more people here.”
The candidates also pointed to specific examples of how the town has grown but some construction is decreasing.
“We’re slowing down with the number of houses” being built — 800 a couple of years ago and about 400 this year, Keffer said. “We can take a deep breath and get the roads and streets, the infrastructure in place.”
Leduc pointed to successes such as MiTek moving into the Highway 400 Employment Lands with a 320,000-square-foot facility that is expected to house five businesses, as well as a 95-room Hampton Inn and Suites and a standalone drive-thru restaurant approved for the southwest corner of County Road 88 and Highway 400.
“This council has delivered on the needs of this community,” he said.
BWG ‘biggest cash cow’ in Simcoe County
Leduc said BWG council does not take its annual budgets lightly and Simcoe County should be chipping in more for local services, as BWG is “probably the biggest cash cow for the county.”
“It’s my dollars coming out of my pocket, too. I’m a pretty cheap bugger when it comes right down to it,” he said, sparking laughter from the crowd.
BWG is in a higher tax bracket because of how close it is to places such as Newmarket and Richmond Hill, said Ahmad.
“People are very much concerned about their taxes. Bring an accounting agency… They will give us a better understanding. Right now, everyone is unhappy with the taxes,” he said.
Keffer said municipal taxes are not skyrocketing, rather county taxes and the last MPAC assessment are to blame for higher numbers.
“We’re hoping it’ll even out by 2020. At the local level, I feel like we’re doing a really, really good job,” he said.
Election Day is Oct. 22, but BWG residents can vote anytime between Oct. 12 at 10 a.m. and Oct. 22 at 8 p.m. through Internet or phone voting. For more information, including for times and locations of voter help centres, visit the town’s election website.
— With files from Miriam King