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A voters' resource: Five questions you should ask candidates 

Someone knocks on your door and says he or she is running for council. Here's what you do.

click to enlarge hand-knocking-at-door.jpg
You're sitting at home minding your own business when someone knocks on your door. You open the door and there's a candidate, running for city council, wanting to introduce him- or herself. Great! Good on the candidates for putting themselves out there, and here's your opportunity to put them on the spot, to get a direct answer instead of the dissembling feel-good nonsense they put on their campaign literature.

But unfortunately, few people are prepared for this golden opportunity. People are busy with their jobs, their families, their other pursuits, and not many have thought through the issues in a systematic way to be able to suddenly quiz the unscheduled candidate visitor. So here's a suggested cheat sheet for you. Print it up and tape it to your refrigerator so you'll be ready to pounce when you hear that candidate knocking on your door.

Five questions for council candidates

1. What will you do about the soaring cost of housing?

Rents are up, way up: over $100/month in many city apartments, this year alone. This is bad for students, for workers, for retirees and even for businesses, which have to pay higher wages to keep pace with housing costs, or to cover transportation costs for workers living in more affordable digs far from the workplace. Don't let your candidate get away with mealy mouth responses about density bonusing. Instead, ask them: Do you support rent control? (You and/or the candidate don't necessarily have to support rent control, but the candidate should be able to articulate an intelligent response to the question.) Also: Do you support an affordable housing bylaw requiring all new developments to have a certain percentage of affordable units? And will you make such a bylaw a council priority, something to accomplish as soon as is possible?

2. How will you improve the transit system?

Again, "I support transit" is a bullshit response. Make them get specific: What scheduling changes do you advocate? Do you support late night ferry service? Metro Transit has a relatively (relative to the past) decent expansion plan, but the biggest issue is How are we going to pay for increased transit service? Make your candidate get specific: Will the bill for more and better transit service come from increased property taxes, or from increasing the price at the fare box? Just for fun, see how closely your candidate is following transit issues by asking them this: How would you change the management structure at Metro Transit?

3. Do you support the Our HRM Alliance plan for greenbelting HRM?

If you're so inclined, here's a link for you to familiarize yourself with the greenbelting proposal. But the important point is that the Our HRM Alliance folks aren't advocating a single belt, but rather a series of overlapping zones that protect agriculture, forest and mining areas, limit new development to areas already mapped out in the city's regional plan and protects the identities of rural communities. As with all these issues, try to nail down your candidate: Will you vote to adopt the proposed greenbelt zones, and then refuse to vote for any proposal that violates them?

4. Do you support The Coast's proposed sunshine ordinance?

Go to this link, print up the editorial, hand it to your candidate, ask them to read it and if they agree with it, to sign it. If there are parts they don't agree with, let them annotate the page as they wish, so you'll have a complete written record that we can hold candidates to after they're elected.

5. How will you bring accountability to city hall?

If your candidate is a sitting city councillor, ask: Why didn't you vote to censure Peter Kelly for his misbehaviour in the concert scandal? (Note that only councillors Sue Uteck, Jim Smith and Darren Fisher voted to censure Kelly.) If your candidate is not a council ask: Would you have voted to censure Peter Kelly? From there, try to engage the candidate in the general issue of accountability: Was it right to push full payments for the convention centre off for 10 years, to leave it to the future to pay for? Are you prepared to fire the city's CAO should he, like the last two city CAOs, make huge screw-ups that cost the taxpayers millions of dollars? Will you call out your fellow councillors, by name, when the policies they advocated fail?

Bonus questioning

The above is just a short list of suggested questions. But there are of course hundreds of other issues, and no doubt some that you think are very important. Even if you're not exactly sure how to articulate your concerns, don't be afraid to ask your candidate about them—people shouldn't be running for office unless they can understand the sometimes confusing or muddled concerns of the people they hope to represent, and have some sort of thoughtful response to them. Whatever your concerns, don't let your candidate get away with vague "I support motherhood and apple pie"-type responses—pin them down: How are you going to do what you say you're going to do? What will it cost, and where will the money come from? Who's responsible, and how will they be held accountable?

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