If there was any doubt who the frontrunner to be Greater Sudbury's next mayor, it was erased Wednesday night at what was the most eventful debate so far this election season.
Former Auditor General Brian Bigger came under fire from multiple candidates at the two-and-a-half hour event, sponsored by the Greater Sudbury Chamber of Commerce and held at the theatre in College Boreal.
In particular, Bigger was grilled on his promise to freeze taxes in his first year, while maintaining services and not cutting staff. That means finding about $13 million in savings next year, something that as an accountant, Bigger says he can accomplish.
With at least six new councillors coming in, and without business plans in place for each department, Bigger said it's unfair ask taxpayers to pay more in his first year.
But that response frustrated fellow candidates, who accused him of making a big promise without supplying the specifics of how he would do it.
“You did not answer the question,” said former Mayor John Rodriguez, who is a distant second in the race to be mayor according to recent polls. “Can you give him another 10 minutes to answer the question?”
“I did answer the question,” Bigger shot back. “No jobs will be lost.”
He was also accused of supporting a downtown casino – not so he responded. It's an issue he would discuss with his city council first.
Another rival, city council veteran Ron Dupuis, even went as far as to say Bigger was far from their first choice when Dupuis was on the committee that hired him to be the city's first auditor general.
“We had offered the job to three others first,” who turned them down, Dupuis said, prompting a loud reaction from the few hundred gathered to watch the debate.
After the meeting, Bigger said he expected the added attention since he is polling so well.
“But I was a little disappointed by one of the candidates, who seemed to seemed to be talking about some confidential information that was discussed in closed meetings,” he said. “But he's someone who voted against the ombudsman looking into closed meetings.”
It was that sort of night, when the fringe candidates generated a lot of laughs – or head shakes – and the mainstream candidates tried to land blows on Bigger.
In addition to Rodriguez, Bigger and Dupuis, Dan Melanson, Richard Majkot, Jeff Huska, Jeanne Brohart, Ed Pokonzie and Jean-Raymond Audet took part in the most heated debate so far ahead of the Oct. 27 election. David Popescu was absent.
Melanson, who is third in the polls, said he has specific ideas to address the city's problems, not just rhetoric and promises.
“Unlike the other candidates, I have a practical plan for all of these things,” Melanson said. “Ask yourself who actually has the solutions?”
Bigger said he moved back to Sudbury five years ago for family reasons, and now sees an opportunity to help the city on a deeper level. The way to fix the city's problems is to grow our economy, he said.
“We need to grow our city to catch up with our existing infrastructure,” he said. “I have a great plan to grow Greater Sudbury and make it the nucleus of Northern Ontario.”
And while receiving the brunt of the attention, Bigger wasn't shy about dishing out some barbs of his own. After Melanson talked about getting the private sector involved in renewing social housing in Sudbury, Bigger brought up Melanson's plan to sell off non-essential city services.
“I'm surprised to hear you talk about housing,” he said to Melanson. “I thought you were only supporting core business.”
“I'm not some ogre that only looks at the bottom line,” Melanson replied. “But the problem is how do you pay for it.”
“You are going to close Pioneer Manor,” Bigger responded, a reference to Melanson's proposal to privatize the city-owned long-term care home.
On the matter of the referendum on store hours, Dupuis said he moved the motion to put it to a vote so it would stop coming back to council.
“It kept coming back, like the Quebec referendum,” he said.
While he has voted to keep the restrictions in place, Dupuis said he would respect the result of the vote, even if voter turnout doesn't reach the 50 per cent margin required to make it legally binding.
Majkot said that as an economist, he knows about finances, but couldn't figure out where Bigger was going to find the $13 million in savings. If he knew where money could be saved when he was auditor, why didn't he speak up then?
“Now you're talking about $13 million in savings,” Majkot said. “Did you report that to council?”
Rodriguez also questioned why Bigger hadn't saved taxpayers money when he was auditor, if he suddenly knew where so money can be saved now.
“How much savings did you find in your audits?” he asked.
For his part, Bigger needled Rodriguez over the $50,000 ward funds councillors spend directly in their wards. Rodriguez said he wants to turn control of those funds to the local Community Action Networks, who will decide where the money will be spent.
“Those funds are not for a councillor to walk around the wards with a chequebook in their pocket,” Rodriguez said.
But Bigger reminded him that he was mayor when a former councillor Russ Thompson used his ward funds – dubbed 'slush funds by critics – to buy computers for students at a school where Thompson worked. And councillors rebuffed his calls to return control of the funds to city staff, Bigger said.
“In the meeting when I brought my report forward, I was not allowed to speak,” he said.
The candidates will go at it again tonight beginning at 6 p.m. for a debate on downtown issues. That meeting will be held at St. Andrews on Larch Street.