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Editorial: KED politicking now bleeding into economic development

Saying the Greater Sudbury Economic Development Corp. board moves too slowly seems a weak justification for a major overhaul of a decades-old system
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Greater Sudbury mayor Brian Bigger. (File)

Reading a person’s mind is no easy feat. But what we can say is this, the Mayor Brian Bigger we see today is a different version of the Mayor Brian Bigger we saw prior to the election campaign that culminated on Oct. 22, 2018.

That Mayor Brian Bigger seemed reluctant to take the reins of power, thinking perhaps he could govern Obama-like by building consensus. Look how well that worked for the former U.S. president. Bigger is a nice man, but he’s no Obama.

Brian Bigger’s seeming refusal to lead, his unwillingness to champion an agenda, is why we’re still living with the fallout of the KED. It’s why that project is being fought over with pens instead of moving forward with shovels.

Since the October election, though, Bigger is a changed man, a man suddenly willing to lead from the front. Perhaps it’s the advice he’s now getting.

Nowhere is this more evident than in his decision — seemingly out of the clear blue sky — to launch an attack on the Greater Sudbury Development Corporation (GSDC).

And an attack this is. For reasons we will address momentarily, the mayor is trying to fire the current independent GSDC board members and install political animals — city councillors — in their places. At the same time, he wants to create a cabinet of hand-picked advisers on economic development.

The GSDC is an arm’s length corporation of the city tasked with championing, vetting and promoting development in Greater Sudbury (much as the name suggests). 

It is overseen by an independent board of directors, appointed by the city and specifically chosen for their expertise (hypothetically, at least), a sort of senate to offer sober second thought on proposed projects. That independence aims to protect economic development from petty political considerations so projects can be evaluated on their own merits by experts from the private sector, and with the benefit of the community in mind.

In an interview with Darren MacDonald, the mayor justified his actions with really only two points: 1.) During the election campaign, economic development and growth were key planks of his election campaign, and; 2.) The city needs to be more “nimble” when opportunities present themselves.

Bigger’s justification for his proposal rings hollow to us.

The mayor wants council to support a major overhaul of how Greater Sudbury manages economic development, but his only criticism of the current model is it’s a bit slow. 

And his plan to rectify this supposed lack of nimbleness is to politicize what was an independent, arm’s length body by making it a tool of city council, and to introduce another layer of bureaucracy through the creation of a hand-picked cabinet, which in essence would mirror the function of the current board.

Is this what nimbleness looks like? We think not.

But there is, perhaps, another reason for the mayor’s manoeuvring. As MacDonald wrote, the GSDC paid consultant John T. Dinner to conduct a review of its operations. Presented in November 2018, one of Dinner’s conclusions is particularly illuminating.

He recommended the GSDC board should not have any city council representation at all. The board’s independence would therefore be maintained, while elected officials would still have ultimate authority and accountability.

We don’t think it is mere coincidence that half a year later the mayor is trying to fire the board and replace it with members over whom he can exert more direct control.

Hanging over all of this, in our view, is the KED and the mayor’s seeming urgency to bring this legacy project to fruition — or at least get shovels in the ground — before the 2022 municipal election.

A board is only as effective as its members, and perhaps the current makeup of the GSDC board could use an overhaul to get some better people in there. There is no doubt the board is already politicized, at least partially.

We know several members oppose the KED, the most prominent being Mark Signoretti, the councillor for Ward 1. It’s safe to assume he’s not the only one standing in direct opposition to the mayor’s agenda.

Bigger could have framed this as an attempt to de-politicize an activist board who were working against his priorities; he could have simply fired the entire board and replaced them. He didn’t need to invent a justification for doing so. If the members of the board are simply patronage appointments to stroke the egos of influential supporters, the mayor should say that and act accordingly. 

He didn’t. He’s trying to rush through a drastic reorganization that would politicize a supposedly independent body, and replace it with a model that would not address the only public criticism he’s made: that the board is too slow.

With the KED out of his control (and as time drags on, a project that seems less and less likely to come to fruition), it appears the mayor is trying to exert more direct influence, perhaps in the belief he can provide a steady hand at the tiller, his mere presence serving to move things along.

This is folly. He might have been a good auditor, but Brian Bigger is no magician.

We are not the only ones uncomfortable with what the mayor wants to do. On behalf of the business community, the Chamber of Commerce wrote to Bigger on June 21, arguing the mayor is moving too quickly and should allow stakeholders to have some input on the decision before rushing headlong into such a drastic overhaul of a system that took decades to build and has a proven track record.

We agree. 

The question remains if Bigger has the votes to get this done. Our hope is that council sees fit to vote it down, or at the very least to defer a decision and seek independent consultation from stakeholders.

Because, much like in economic development, sober second thought is important, and this is too important to rush.
 




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