Dreschel: Mayoral candidates spar over LRT

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Councillor Brad Clark was authoritative in a know-it-all kind of way. Councillor Brian McHattie spoke more strongly than usual. And Fred Eisenberger subtly got in the most digs, nearly all directed at Clark.

But when the Hamilton Business Leaders mayoral forum was over Thursday, there was no clear winner. Each candidate demonstrated some strength. Each made some flubs.

Given that the audience consisted of some 300 business people, it’s no surprise the applause was only polite and never exuberant, though there may have been a slight surge for Eisenberger as the 90-minute Q&A session, quarterbacked by broadcaster Bill Kelly, wrapped up.

The event was organized by the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce, the Realtors Association of Hamilton-Burlington and the Hamilton-Halton Home Builders’ Association.

Overall, it was mostly a civil affair with the three top contenders to replace Bob Bratina broadly agreeing on most issues, if not emphasis and tactics. The only sharp difference of opinion was predictably over LRT, with Clark’s opposition making him the odd man out.

Clark continued on that track by being the only one of the three to support a referendum on the $811-million project. Eisenberger wants to toss the issue to a citizens’ panel. McHattie argued a referendum would let the province off the funding hook.

They agreed that growing the commercial and industrial tax base and creating more jobs is of paramount importance.

They agreed that ward boundaries should be redrawn for the 2018 election to correct urban population imbalances, though suburban and rural communities must be respected.

They all agreed that there are economic benefits to arts and culture, but McHattie was the only one who promised to increase funding if elected.

Clark’s body language was solid and unbending. Eisenberger, whose mother died the day before, understandably looked wrung out. McHattie seemed relaxed and in control, speaking without his usual ums-and-ahs. He was especially effective on the key question of how each candidate would get council to accept their vision.

Noting that pulling council together is one of the biggest challenges facing a mayor, McHattie said he’d talk to councillors about their top three priorities, offer to help achieve them, assign leadership roles on their favourite files, and then ask for their help on his priorities.

Clark talked about the importance of courtesy and civility, which he said hasn’t been the case in the last eight years, a shot at both Bratina and his predecessor Eisenberger.

Eisenberger noted that there are some lone wolves on council, a dig at Clark, and claimed he had great relationships with councillors during his term as mayor.

Both are on thin ice. Though Eisenberger grew with the job, he wasn’t exactly known as a good listener. He says he’s become better at that and has a “renewed perspective.” As for Clark, his council colleagues make no secret his lecturing tone gets under their skin.

Arguably McHattie’s only misstep was including the Airport Employment Growth District in his list of business opportunities. McHattie voted against the so-called Aerotropolis plan, which Eisenberger was quick to point out.

Clark smiled thinly when Eisenberger linked him to forced amalgamation under Mike Harris, a reference to his days as a Tory MPP and later cabinet minister. And, inexplicably, he made no attempt to counter his opponents’ charge that he’s flip-flopped on LRT, having twice voted in favour of 100 per cent provincial funding.

Clark has previously defended himself by saying he was actually voting for the city’s overarching rapid transit report not LRT, and that he’s questioned the affordability of the project for a long time. That may be weak, but it’s better than just sitting there letting egg slide down your face.

Andrew Dreschel’s commentary appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. adreschel@thespec.com 905-526-3495 @AndrewDreschel

Photo: Hamilton Chamber of Commerce

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