The Italian Hall Events Centre was packed to standing room only for the mayoral all-candidates’ meeting on Oct. 4. SUSAN QUINN PHOTO

The Italian Hall Events Centre was packed to standing room only for the mayoral all-candidates’ meeting on Oct. 4. SUSAN QUINN PHOTO

ELECTION 2018: Port Alberni mayoral candidates grilled on record, actions

After an unofficial campaign season that began in mid-May with the first candidate announcing they were running for the mayor’s chair in Port Alberni, the public finally got to see the six candidates in question on Oct. 4. An all-candidates meeting just for mayoral candidates saw the Italian Hall Events Centre packed to standing room only.

Candidates Kevin Wright, Gary Robertson, Sharie Minions, Mike Ruttan, John Douglas and Denis Sauve faced nearly 30 questions from the public, most of them hard-hitting. People covered housing, crime, policing, how to increase the tax base, how to keep tax increases low, how to draw new families or tourists to the city.

Many candidates were grilled on their past performances, or on what they would bring to council in the position of mayor.

John Douglas, who has served as mayor and councillor in the past, was asked by retiring councillor Jack McLeman about his previous opinion on tax increases for the public—that they could handle an 11 or 12 percent tax hike. Douglas said after working with people in the community he developed a better picture of how taxes affect people.

“I guess I came to my senses,” he quipped, before adding that a zero percent increase and public consultation for anything more would be a common sense solution to residential tax increases.

Incumbent mayor Mike Ruttan said a zero percent increase would mean council “would immediately be in a position to decide which services were going to have to go”, and that the present council voted on a one-percent increase per year with inflation rates guiding any further increases.

Ruttan said of the forest industry that he sees it providing growing and providing more jobs, while Minions said she sees forestry declining, and in need of secondary forest products to sustain the industry as a whole.

Council candidate Cindy Solda, who stated in the all-candidates’ meeting the previous night that there was a “poisonous” atmosphere for staff at city hall, asked Ruttan how he communicates with council. Ruttan replied that he spends 60–80 hours a week on mayoral duties, meets once a month with each councillor and that his door is always open.

“There’s never a time council can’t get in touch with me to ask questions,” he said.

Sauve, who also got to answer the question, said the best way to communicate with council is where the public can see it. “I believe social media is not the place to debate city business,” he said to a round of cheers from the audience.

On the subject of wildfire prevention, Wright expressed frustration with forestry companies not doing a good enough job maintaining the fuel load on their property. Ruttan said Port Alberni’s biggest threat is interface fire and that he advocates a “Flying Tankers 2” program with dedicated aerial firefighting resources owned by forest companies and situated in the Alberni Valley.

Douglas and Wright both spoke to industrial development in the city. Port Alberni only has a half-acre of industrial property available for development, Wright said, adding that the city should be looking at developing a small industrial area outside of town and work to have industry pay for a ring road for commercial truck traffic.

Douglas suggested creating a special industrial zone out near Cameron Shops, building industry in a “no conflict” zone away from residential neighbourhoods.

Minions talked about making good first impressions with visitors to Port Alberni, including those that will visit via three different cruise ships in the spring of 2019. Most candidates agreed that the city needs to clean up the area around Harbour Quay and Uptown.

Ruttan said businesses past First Avenue were “a bit of an embarrassment” and need to be dealt with.

Ruttan was also questioned about his informal business advisory committee, made up of prominent local businessmen. “As mayor I go to lots of people for advice,” he said.

The format for the event, hosted by the Alberni Valley Chamber of Commerce and the Alberni District Labour Council, was different this year: instead of an open microphone where people line up for questions, each person was given a ticket when they came in the door. If their number was called, they were permitted to ask their question of one particular candidate, and another candidate chosen by the moderator would also have a chance to answer the same question.

Because there were only six candidates, the moderator eventually opened questions to the floor and a small lineup quickly grew in front of the mic.

Each candidate was given time at the beginning of the meeting for an introduction, as well as a one-minute closing speech.

Gary Robertson elicited the gasps of the night with his closing speech, where he said he would “drive out the worst criminals” by publishing their names, “disperse the addicts by shutting down the ‘drug overdose site’ (overdose prevention site) or move it onto hospital land” and “disperse the homeless by putting them on a bus and sending them back to where they came from and we’ll not allow a tent city to form.”

He finished off by echoing a well-known campaign statement from US President Donald Trump: “Let’s make Port Alberni great again.”

The all-candidates’ meeting will be broadcast on Shaw TV several times leading up to the election, starting with Wednesday, Oct. 10.