While it wasn’t the massive numbers of candidates Penticton has seen in past municipal elections, the Tuesday evening forum was no less nerve-wracking for those seeking the single mayor and council seats on Sept. 7.
In the 2011 municipal election, the stage was filled with 19 candidates, but for this by-election, there are only three running for mayor and five for the single council seat up for grabs.
The questions, however, remained much the same, ranging from tourism, jobs and the economy to openness and transparency.
Garry Litke, who gave up his council seat to run for mayor, admitted he was anxious going into the debate.
“I am fairly comfortable around the council table, I’ve done the homework, I know the issues,” said Litke. “This is like, what’s going to happen?”
Litke had cause to be nervous. As the only member of the current council running in this byelection, he was alone in facing questions challenging council decisions like those leading to the Eckhardt hockey dorm.
Vic Powell, also running for mayor, called the hockey dorm a back-room deal gone wrong, and it was ridiculous for the city to have let the developer start work before the final closing date on the sale.
“City council and staff let the taxpayers down. Now we’re on the hook for about $3 million,” said Powell, a position echoed by the third mayoral candidate, Brian Henningson.
Litke admitted the Eckhardt land deal “certainly went sideways,” but questioned where Powell had got his $3 million figure.
The city, he said, claimed a $50,000 security bond and used that to clean up the property. And while costs of the legal actions launched by the contractors were mounting, they are expected to be in the tens of thousands, not millions.
“My objective, if elected, will be to settle that. It is currently in court,” said Litke. “We need to get that title clear. There is a lot of interest in that property.”
A rumour that city council had voted in camera to give senior city staff significant salary increases to bring them to par with other communities, like Chilliwack, also targeted Litke.
Henningson, who only moved to the city a year ago, often found himself commenting that he wasn’t fully in the loop on some of the issues.
He said he just wanted to be honest with the audience.
“I didn’t want to make something up, I don’t have the full financials. I don’t want to play around with taxpayers’ money,” said Henningson. “I just want to let them know I am the straight-up goods, I am there to get the best taxpayer value.”
Those running for council had their share of tough questions to wrangle, like the recently adopted downtown revitalization plan.
Pat Buchanan worried there was too much concentration on improving the lower part of Main Street, and that the city should adopt a policy of seeing that needs are met first, a position that Lynn Kelsey agreed with.
The city’s infrastructure should be taken care of before beautification, said Kelsey, but there needs to be a balance between the two.
That concept of balance was shared by all the council candidates, though their opinions diverged when questioned about the value of the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen to Penticton.
For Kevin Andrews, the regional district has a valuable function.
Pat Buchanan agreed it has value, but Penticton has to come first and the city needs to care for its own needs before investing through the RDOS.
Lynn Kelsey was the strongest supporter of the RDOS, stating that communities working together build a stronger presence for the area.
The RDOS is an extra level of government citizens don’t need, according to Andre Martin, who would like to see outlying areas like Westbench and Naramata amalgamate.
“To me that makes more sense, it’s less government that we have to pay for,” he said.
Katie Robinson, who was an RDOS director for six years, had a sharply different opinion on amalgamation.
“People in the outlying area don’t want to pay the same taxes we pay nor do we want to take on their debts, said Robinson.
“Sewers and water systems are very expensive.”