The four candidates hoping to lead Prince Rupert through the next four years gathered at the Lester Centre on Nov. 4 for the first – and only – mayoral debate.
Challengers Lee Brain, Tony Briglio and Sheila Gordon-Payne joined incumbent Jack Mussallem for a 90-minute public forum that saw each answer six questions, two prepared by forum organizers and four from a panel of Prince Rupert media representatives. Each candidate also had the opportunity for rebuttal based on the answer given by their opponent.
The forum began with candidates introducing themselves and outlining their vision for Prince Rupert as the next great port city.
Gordon-Payne, who pointed to her leadership experience with Northern Health, began the evening by telling those in attendance that a bright future was closer than some imagined.
“We need to make LNG and port developments work for us now … we don’t have to wait, we need to start today,” she said, adding her vision included a council that was the envy of others in the region for what it has accomplished.
While touching on ideas including the regionalization of services and maintaining a full-time the fire department, Mussallem said planning was key to success.
“We require a common sense, balanced approach … it is critical to have a plan to approach proponents and other levels of government with concerns about development and ask for help,” he said.
Brain, who said he was inspired to pursue community development after seeing the socio-economic challenges facing some, said the time for a change in leadership is now.
“Prince Rupert is crying out for inspired leadership … I believe it is time to move away from leaders who divide rather than unite,” he said.
Briglio, who said he was experienced leading organizations “very similar to council”, said a future as a port city must not discriminate when it comes to benefits.
“We must be mindful that the opportunities are made available to all residents, not just a chosen few,” he said.
In terms of growing the tax base, Brain said the key is to both be more welcoming and offer more support to new businesses and to look at all industries.
“If LNG doesn’t go through, there are others there. We need to be seen as a community that is welcoming to new industry,” he said, pledging to provide a welcome package from council to new businesses.
For Briglio, bringing new industry into Prince Rupert starts with how the city conducts itself and presents itself to potential business.
“The first thing to do is go back to what we are going to do for ourselves before going out to business with our hands out … we constantly talk about how down the economy is and then expect people to want to locate here,” he said, adding it is time to “take our destiny into our own hands”.
Gordon-Payne similarly said the city needs to make itself an attractive place for business to want to give Prince Rupert a chance.
“We need to be seen as being interested in rebuilding or industrial sector … we need to be welcoming, responsive and respectful to any interested industry,” she said.
Mussallem pointed to the available land the city has as what could be a catalyst for business development.
“We need to look after the raw land inventory we have and work toward the industry we want … it’s up to us to determine what we want in this community and go out and attract them,” he said.
When it comes to increasing engagement between the community and council, Mussallem pointed to the Committee of the Whole meetings and his open-door policy.
“I am there every day and people are welcome to phone … I am open to appointments or people can come to council,” he said.
Brain pointed to initiatives such as monthly town hall meetings and monthly written updates to improve engagement.
“As it stands there is no space to come forward to air your concerns outside of the Committee of the Whole or getting on the agenda,” he said.
Acknowledging restrictions placed on officials by the Community Charter, Briglio said he would be as open as legally possible.
“Whatever I could tell you, if I were mayor, you would know,” he said.
Gordon-Payne said bringing more voices to the table was the best way for council to move forward.
“We have to stop going it alone. That is not getting us anywhere … you need to bring the users of the infrastructure to the table,” she said.
To create an environment where small business can thrive, Gordon-Payne said the city should focus on reinvigorating the industrial sector, Mussallem said a balanced approach was needed, Brain again pointed to welcoming new business and removing restrictive policies and Briglio said restrictive bylaws need to be removed.
On the matter of waterfront access, Briglio and Mussallem both said ownership is ownership, with Briglio saying the city could ask for small parcels of private land from industry for residents and Mussallem saying Digby Island and an expanded Butze Rapids trail could be options, while both Brain and Gordon-Payne said the city needs to be involved in every environmental assessment to make sure the needs of the residents are met, with Brain also pointing to the proposed Kaien Island Trail Network.
In their closing comments, each candidate made their case as the best candidate for mayor. Gordon-Payne again pointed to her experience working with a large budget and staff as a manager with Northern Health, Briglio pointed to his leadership experience and business experience as the “skill set” that would make him the best choice, Mussallem pointed to his experience as both a three-term mayor with more than 20 years in municipal government and Brain pointed to the need for a change in the municipal government and his fresh perspective and ideas.