This is not scientific, but as someone who’s covered more than a few municipal elections, let me offer this: You can gauge a community’s satisfaction with its mayor based on the number of candidate who step up to challenge the incumbent.
Take, for example, the 2014 municipal election in Sudbury. Certainly the fact the incumbent, Marianne Matichuk, didn’t seek re-election influenced the number of candidates for mayor that year, but it wasn’t the sole reason the slate ran so long.
The community was immensely dissatisfied with the city council under her. Councillors mostly didn’t back the mayor, who had real trouble getting her counterparts to back her agenda. Consequently, very little got done over the term.
As a result, when election season rolled round, people were practically falling all over themselves to run. In the mayoral race alone there were 10 candidates.
Voters wanted change. They wanted a council that could work together. That change was embodied in the form of Brian Bigger, who had been the city’s popular auditor general.
Bigger had developed a reputation as a guy who was willing to stand up for the taxpayer. During the campaign, he used his former position as AG as the main plank in his campaign. He claimed to know where savings could be found because, after all, he knew the city’s finances better than anyone.
He promised to save money, be open and transparent, and he was able to parlay that popularity (and capitalize on the sitting council’s lack thereof) into a solid win, taking 46 per cent of the vote.
Fast-forward to today. Including Bigger, there are currently 11 candidates in the race (as of the morning of July 27). What, if anything, could this signify? Well, to me, it indicates some level of dissatisfaction with Bigger’s performance.
There are always people who figure they can do a better job, but that at least 10 people are willing to run suggests the reason isn’t solely self-confidence.
Bigger hasn’t made any major gaffes and has had some successes (finally repealing the store hours bylaw, for instance), but he hasn’t been a particularly strong leader. He’s not a Jim Gordon type, who set a firm agenda then then did what needed to be done to make it happen.
The incumbent likes to see himself as a consensus builder. This has its merits, of course, but if not managed with a firm hand, the consensus-builder will run into problems. Ultimately, someone has to be — in the words of George W. Bush — the decider.
Personally, the prolonged and ongoing dispute over the Kingsway Entertainment District project is a symptom of Bigger’s consensus-building approach. Had the mayor set the priorities and parameters for it, had he taken a true leadership role instead of trying to drive from the backseat, the community might not be at its own throat as it is now.
That lack of leadership led to a vacuum that was filled with competing interests and confusion over the details of the project. Costs grew and the public didn’t know who was paying for what. In short, a mess.
That said, Bigger managed to build a team among the 12 councillors that supported his agenda and moved things along so council could accomplish something at least, which is more than can be said for its predecessor.
Still, looking at what some of the slate of current candidates have said so far, you can see how certain people feel Bigger has failed. Candidates Cody Cacciotti (the youngest in the race at 33) Bill Sanders and Bill Crumplin have mostly talked about their merits and areas of interest. We haven't heard from Rodney Newton, Ron Leclair or the newest and most high-profile candidate as of this writing, former Ontario PC candidate and NHL enforcer, Troy Crowder. And we know basically what David Popescu will run on, as the perennial candidate uses elections to espouse his fairly extreme Christian point of view.
But with the three other candidates their reasons for running seem pretty clear.
Dan Melanson, who came second to Bigger in 2014 with 19 per cent of the vote, finally announced his candidacy on Wednesday morning. Melanson has been sending letters to the editor on the arena project, the casino and other issues for the past few months. Fiscally conservative and not shy about sharing his opinion, he has roundly criticized Bigger for lacking leadership.
Jeff Huska, the biomedical tech. at Health Sciences North who took four per cent of the mayor’s vote in 2014, is firmly anti-casino and has said the costs for the big projects (arena/event centre, and the Junction arts hub for downtown) have ballooned out of control due to Bigger’s lack of leadership.
Patricia Mills, the head of the NEO Kids Foundation and the former publisher of Laurentian Media’s magazine group, has landed the hardest punches on Bigger so far, pummeling him for … you guessed it … weak leadership.
See the common theme? I’m interested to see if this opinion is widespread among the electorate. I’m also interested to see how Bigger will counterpunch.
Time will tell, and soon. The election is still three months away — the campaign isn’t even lukewarm yet — but it already seems like it will be a hot one.
What do you think of Brian Bigger’s leadership? Do you think it is an important campaign issue? Let me know in the comments below or send me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mark Gentili is the editor of Sudbury.com and Northern Life.