It was a polite and ordered night of electioneering at the all-candidate forum in Fernie on Tuesday night (October 4).
In attendance were 13 of the 14 council candidates (with one sending regrets due to illness), and both mayoral candidates. Over 250 residents made their way to the Fernie Community Centre to hear what those who had put their hand up to lead Fernie the next four years had to say.
There was no overwhelming theme that took over the night, but a few issues popped up here and there, such as communication, city infrastructure, and connections with the province, with candidates mostly able to be split between what they wanted to do differently, and what they were proud of having achieved.
With 13 candidates on the stage for the councillor forum, there was a lot of ground to cover – but for the most part, incumbents talked a lot about success and building on what they’d achieved (with Troy Nixon fitting 622 words into his three minute slot, at 3.5 words per second), while newcomers often zeroed in on communication and engagement, and said they wanted change.
In their opening remarks, candidates stayed very true to their original election pitches, which The Free Press has covered already.
Each candidate was given one different question to answer, and all of them had one opportunity to offer a rebuttal to someone elses remarks. The questions, which ranged from sewage to housing to childcare to development, rarely elicited rebuttals, with the only the question on communication triggering a flurry of input from newcomer candidates.
Patrick Burke got the question, and he said he believed the city had to be in constant contact with the people to know what it was doing and suggested more public input at meetings. Tracey Audia Kelly piped up to agree and recommended council meetings be held somewhere more accessible, while Harshan Ramadass used his rebuttal to encourage a complete re-think of the ‘Let’s Talk’ website, and Jonathan MacGregor said he wanted to see the city develop better relationships with community associations.
Zuzana Simpson, who is well-known locally for her opposition to pandemic public health measures, got a (randomly selected) question on whether she’d support mandatory vaccinations for city staff if another pandemic ever occurred. The audience revealed they were well aware of her stance by laughing at the question. (Her answer was no).
The mayoral candidates were given more time to make their case, with Ange Qualizza and Nic Milligan getting a 45-minute segment to introduce themselves, answer questions (with rebuttals) and deliver closing remarks.
Qualizza, who has been mayor since 2018 (and was a councillor before that) spoke first, and said she was optimistic about the future despite the challenges ahead.
“We know what’s coming down the road – more crisis, more and more housing and weather-related events, but again I’m optimistic. The last four years we build a really solid team at city hall, and despite the challenges of COVID-19 we did some great work together.”
Qualizza said her team has pursued items around affordability by going after grants to keep replacement costs down, and created an affordable housing fund (with $81,870 in it as of the 2022 budget).
She talked about the need to keep bringing the city’s finances into line, saying there was a $67 million infrastructure deficit the city couldn’t tackle alone, and talked up her connections through the Union of British Columbia Municipalities (UBCM), where she was recently acclaimed as vice president at the annual convention.
“There’s a lot of problems we’re facing and we need to do it with the province,” she said, finishing her pitch by asking voters to depend on her experience.
Her challenger, Nic Milligan, comes from outside council and hasn’t served in local government before, and came out of the gate saying he wanted to put “Fernie first”, which is his campaign lede.
He briefly talked about his experience working with local governments through his roles at Teck Resources as a liaison between the company and local governments, and then pivoted to talk at length about communication.
“If my experience has taught me anything, the key to success is through open and honest communication that builds trust and collaboration,” he said.
He said he’d re-instate committees of council with public participation, lean in to public input at meetings and hold twice-yearly town hall meetings.
“Together we can mobilise the intelligence and creativity of this community in a unified version of what Fernie can become.”
Beyond communication, Milligan touched on the city’s sewage infrastructure, and said he believed snow removal needed “another look”. He acknowledged the housing crisis, and said a multi-stakeholder housing committee was essential to tackling the issue.
“The primary issue for Fernie is to support the introduction of housing at every level of our economy,” he said, listing in-fill housing, multi-family developments and affordable housing as development to encourage through city tools.
Questions to candidates varied from being directed at both, to directed to only one with a chance of rebuttal from the other, with answers from candidates staying along campaign lines (experience and connections from Qualizza, communication and collaboration from Milligan).
Among other questions, they were asked about infrastructure, affordable housing, responsible development, engagement, decision making and dominant campaign issues (Milligan said communication, Qualizza said housing).
Milligan mostly dodged a question about giving the existing council a “letter grade” for their performance over the last four years, saying that his presence on stage said something, and it was up to voters to say the rest on October 15. Qualizza weighed in and gave the council a score of her own (a C), citing the difficulties of hiring and operating in a pandemic. “We didn’t do the things we told you we were going to do, but we still managed to pull in an unprecedented amount of grants and make investments in this community,” she said.
In the entire night, the only fully realised round of applause out of turn that wasn’t in reaction to a joke was for Nic Milligan’s remark that 2nd Ave was a “terrible place” for a fire hall, as preferred by the city of today, while Qualizza defended the plans and talked about the potential for the lot where the fire hall would go, mentioning a protective services unit, affordable housing and commercial space.
Closing remarks from the two reflected their opening pitches: Milligan talked about communication, while Qualizza talked about the difficulties of governing and the experience earned by her and her team that would be applied to another four years.
Watch the entire forum on the Fernie Chamber of Commerce’s youtube channel.
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