When it comes to choosing who to vote into office, it can sometimes be hard to tell one candidate from another.
Questions, especially “motherhood” issues, often result in answers couched in language appealing to as many voters as possible. But get the candidates into a debate, and soon enough, the cracks begin to show.
That’s just what the Western News did this week. Taking the mayoral candidates out of the standard forum format, we gave a panel of community leaders and a pair of our reporters the chance to put their questions directly to John Vassilaki, Jukka Laurio and Andrew Jakubeit. And we gave each of them the chance to challenge the positions taken by their peers.
Things started to heat up, when Donna Verbeek, representing the city’s seniors, asked about affordable housing and easier access to facilities like the Penticton Regional Hospital. Vassilaki soon found himself defending his position that the city should be giving land to groups that will build affordable housing.
“I believe we have to donate land, which the city has a lot of, to a non-profit group for a dollar, where along with the city of Penticton, provincial and federal governments they can get financing to build those affordable places,” said Vassilaki.
Laurio agreed the city needs more affordable housing, but not by giving away land, though he supported the idea of partnering with groups but only if the city could expect a return on the land it invested.
“I am not into the idea of giving anything away,” he said, explaining that the city could partially participate in such projects as a silent partner, with a return on the land invested.
Jakubeit said affordable housing is part of his platform, but that council didn’t have a good track record of dealing with the concept.
“It has come to council, but then we realize this is a bigger issue than the half hour we have slotted for it and we have never really been able to take action on a larger scale,” said Jakubeit, who also suggested that as a wealthy successful businessman, Vassilaki didn’t really understand problems faced by seniors on fixed incomes, though he identified himself with that demographic.
Vassilaki defended his position, suggesting that if the city didn’t make a significant investment, provincial and federal governments would not get into a cost-sharing project before refuting Jakubeit’s comment.
“We weren’t always as well off as we are today,” said Vassilaki, telling of how his family arrived in Canada with all their possessions in four suitcases.
“We were very poor, my parents had to work three different jobs per day in order to make ends meet,” said Vassilaki. “How can I feel the way I feel about people. I went through what they went through.”
After a question from Mike Magnusson of JCI Penticton, who wanted to know how the candidates would draw new business to the city, Vassilaki again found himself on the defence, this time for a decision made during the budget process last year.
“We need to put our money where our mouth is and fund economic development programs, which didn’t quite happen last development cycle,” said Jakubeit, pointing out that he had championed adding $100,000 to the economic development budget, only one other councillor was willing to vote it into the budget.
“I am just curious if this is something we are saying for the sake of being in an election cycle or will we ever be able to take action?”
Vassilaki countered that he didn’t vote in favour of the budget addition because the economic development officer didn’t want the extra money.
“She had no place to spend it. So why take money away from the taxpayers, when the person that is supposed to be using it, doesn’t want it?” asked Vassilaki. “We don’t have the personnel to give them an extra $100,000 to go out there and get the work done in the community.”
Debate again became heated between Vassilaki and Jakubeit when Leigh Follestad of the Downtown Penticton Association raised the issue of conflict of interest. Recently, Vassilaki was under fire when he didn’t recuse himself before a vote giving a permissive tax exemption to a property he owns. Despite the large amount of property and businesses owned by himself and other members of his family, Vassilaki, who owns the Last Call Liquor Mart, contends that the only time he has a personal conflict of interest is if it has to do with liquor regulations.
In the case of tax exemptions for Cheers Church and the Legion building, Vassilaki was quick to point out that it was the leaseholders who applied for and got the benefit of the permissive tax exemption.
“I just voted for the Legion as I always did. It was unanimous, it wasn’t as if it was close and they were going to lose,” he said, turning the question back to Jakubeit. “Many occasions he hasn’t stepped out when it comes to hockey. He’s on a board of a hockey association that always comes and asks for money. He has the benefit that the organization gets the money.”
Jakubeit pointed out that he is no longer involved in local minor hockey, though he does sit on a provincial board.
These are only a few of the issues debated during the 75 minute forum, which includes questions about downtown revitalization, transit, fiscal responsibility, city staff, and more from the panel, which included: Frank Conci, Penticton Industrial Development Association; Donna Verbeek, Penticton senior; Mike Magnusson, JCI Penticton and Leigh Follestad; Downtown Penticton Association.
The full video of the debate can be viewed online at: