ELECTION 2014: Four strong mayoral candidates

No clear standouts at SOS forum Tuesday night as election battle heats up

Sidney’s mayoral candidates

Plenty of people were asking just who emerged as the front runner out of Tuesday evening’s Sidney mayors’ forum at the Mary Winspear Centre.

This early in the runup to voting day — and after only the first major forum on the Saanich Peninsula — that’s no surprise. What the Support Our Sidney-hosted event did show, however, was four strong candidates who will be fighting for each and every vote on Nov. 15.

Candidates Cliff McNeil-Smith, Steve Duck, Steve Price and Don Amos spoke to a large audience in the Charlie White Theatre during the two-hour session. While not every question people had was asked of the quartet, those that did get asked and answered addressed the most common issues facing Sidney.

Candidates were asked about Sidney’s economic conditions, specifically what steps they would take to reduce taxes — or how they might justify current tax rates. The question seemed worded to pit Price, a councillor for the last six years, against the challengers.

“You need to know where the money is going,” Price said, pointing to a Town list of previous years’ tax increases and the reasons for them.

“Increases have been, in part, to pay for things like policing costs,” Price continued, adding a citizen survey this year noted people appear willing to pay more tax to maintain or grow current service levels.

McNeil-Smith said tax rates have climbed more than the national Consumer Price Index and called for a review of all services to look for ways to reduce taxes.

Duck said taxes are too high.

“Past increases are not low,” he said. “Councils of the past have praised themselves for low tax increases, but they were still increases.”

Duck said he wants spending practices reviewed — including curtailing staff wages — to get spending down.

Amos, a former mayor of Sidney, called for a temporary freeze on town staff wages as well as a stop on staff-controlled expenditures. Amos said he wants to see more council control.

‘The taxpayer, you and me, have had it,” Amos said.

Council spending continued to be the main theme of the night, with candidates challenged to say what they thought of potential big ticket items like a $3.4 million pedestrian overpass at Beacon Avenue and a new fire hall near Sidney Elementary School.

Asked if the overpass is a good use of taxpayer dollars, McNeil-Smith said it’s about a million dollars in excess of the original cost and with few statistics to back up any safety concerns at the intersection, said there was no need for it.

Duck claimed the province doesn’t think it’s necessary and said a better investment would be in traffic calming initiatives and more multi-road-user projects.

Amos said a full look at the intersection is needed before rendering a decision.

Price, who has championed the overpass, defended it by saying it was promised by the province when the highway cut Sidney in two back in the 1960s. He countered Duck saying both the province and feds have not yet responded to his calls for more cash to help pay for it.

“We don’t want to lose another child on that highway,” he said. “It’s only a matter of time.”

On the proposed new fire hall, the division among the candidates remained basically the same — with Duck, Amos and McNeil-Smith calling it a nice-to-have project, but not necessarily needed. Price said it is needed, because the current one no longer meets earthquake standards. Nor could Sidney, he said, be served by fire departments in neighbouring communities, an idea floated by Duck and Amos as the matter of amalgamation of services on the Peninsula was raised.

“It has to be in Sidney to be able to respond to emergencies in Sidney,” Price said, adding that project will go to public consultation in the new year.

Since the forum was hosted by the SOS, candidates fielded questions about retail threats and how the municipality might better support private business. Having met that day with the West Sidney Industrial Group, the issues expressed by business owners there played heavily into the candidates’ answers. Issues of infrastructure needs and affordable housing for workers were raised.

They were also asked about traffic direction on Beacon Avenue. McNeil-Smith was the only one to categorically state no, he would not change it. Price and Amos leaned towards the same conclusion, but tempered their answers by stating there’s a need for more public input. Duck said traffic flow on Beacon is confusing and needs to change — but only after consultation on what’s the best answer for Sidney.

Sidney’s next all candidates forum is Nov. 4 at the Winspear Centre.