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The brawl for city hall 

Peter Kelly wants to keep his job as Halifax's mayor. Sheila Fougere wants to replace him. Both give a handful of policy reasons why you should vote for one over the other, but really it all comes down to a matter of vision.

INT. MAYOR'S OFFICE --- MORNING.

Peter Kelly---51, slim, comb-marked brown hair, grey suit, red sparkly tie---flicks on the kettle. Then he walks like a sommelier out of his office kitchen, a box of green tea in each upturned palm, approaching the reporter there to interview him.

REPORTER (pointing)

Oh, this one, please.

Halifax's two-term mayor and third-term hopeful tracks back to his coat closet-cum-country kitchen, removes and unwraps two tea bags and yells back.

KELLY

How strong?

REPORTER

Oh, anything is fine.

Kelly pours water into two mugs.

KELLY

Come have a look.

The reporter drops her stuff on a large wingback chair and walks slowly to the kitchen, making sure she gets a look at everything.

REPORTER

I take it with the tea bag in.

Kelly nods his head.

KELLY

So do I.

EXT. PERKS COFFEE --- MORNING.

Sheila Fougere---51, athletic, pink lipstick, gold claddagh ring on her wedding finger---flips her cellphone closed and slips her sunglasses up onto her head as she walks through the back door of the Quinpool and Vernon Perks. After a decade as councillor for District 14, Connaught-Quinpool, Fougere is making a play for current mayor Peter Kelly's job. This morning she has an interview with a local reporter.

REPORTER

Hi Sheila. Nice to meet you.

Fougere shakes hands and smiles broadly.

FOUGERE

Nice to meet you.

Fougere gets in line and orders---not tea; she's allergic---a big-ass coffee in a take-out cup. The two sit at a table next to the front door and start chatting. After 45 minutes, the councillor has talked so much she has barely had a sip.

REPORTER

Your coffee's getting cold.

FOUGERE

This is my sole coffee of the day. I would drink coffee if it was stone cold.

After an hour and a half of animated discussion, Fougere leaves, carrying the still mostly full Styrofoam container out the front door and down the street.

INT. REPORTER'S HOME OFFICE ---MORNING.

This is a story about your next mayor.

It's about meeting for hot drinks; it's about what can be read between the lines; it's about promises and diplomacy and, most of all, it's about vision.

And it's about you. Whether you choose to vote, to spoil your ballot or to just stay home during the municipal election on October 18.

Think about it this way: The mayor rules council. And council rules you. And every down and dirty little bit of your every goddamn day.

Pissed off about slow buses? Council's fault. Don't feel safe walking home across the Common? Council's fault. Can't keep chickens in your Musquodoboit backyard? Council's fault. Don't see enough cops on the beat in your neighbourhood? Council's fault. Overdue for a better recreation centre in your area? Council's fault. And on and on and on... .

You're a rat in a race; council's setting up the maze.

And yet...

In our last municipal election---2004---54 percent of eligible voters Xed-off their choice for mayor (Peter Kelly mopped the floor with his rivals, out-winning his closest competitor by 90,000 votes); voting for individual councillors on average was even lower in 2004---48 percent.

Anyway, this isn't a D250 campaign---maybe you vote; maybe you don't. But you live with the consequences either way and for the next four years, you'll be indirectly under the thumb of either Peter Kelly or Sheila Fougere.

A nod here to third contender David Boyd, who you gotta love for his "bringin' it back to the people" enthusiasm. I have a deep and abiding affection for---alright, let's call it fascination with---the current and historical political aspirations of David Boyd. But let's face it: He hasn't got a hope of unseating Populist Peter or going toe-to-toe with Slammin' Sheila.

So how do you choose?

Consider:

Both Fougere and Kelly are people persons. They are kind, socially fluid, good listeners and easy to sit down and chat with over hot (or lukewarm) drinks. They both circulate happily among the plebes.

Both are experienced municipal politicians. They've put in their time at tedious council sessions, sat on boring committees, poured over staff reports and listened to bitching citizens. They have both, coincidentally, run this-close campaigns for higher level government seats. Fougere, as a Liberal, came within 1,000 votes of bumping Alexa McDonough from her federal seat in 2004; Kelly, as a Progressive Conservative, was 393 votes short in his 1993 bid for MLA of Bedford-Fall River.

But party politics don't matter a titch at City Hall. And that shows when it comes to Kelly and Fougere. Trying to distinguish between these contenders' platforms is like trying to tell the difference between a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a jelly and peanut butter one.

Of course, Fougere and Kelly wouldn'tsay that.

As mayor and councillor, the two have had their differences, certainly. Notable in the last year has been the widening of Chebucto Road, which Fougere loudly opposed and Kelly quietly supported. And then there's Halifax's bid for the 2014 Commonwealth Games, the cancellation of which Kelly now somewhat triumphantly calls "stopping the bleeding" and Fougere calls "a morass" she's trying to forget.

Point-form differences for the post-October 18 future? She's against the ASAP launching of the fast ferry. He's gung-ho. On all the other issues, their dissimilarity amounts to a fraction.

Kelly and Fougere speak from the same pulpit when it comes to beat cops and their importance to policing and when it comes to being noncommittal about de-amalgamation. Based on their recent voting on controversial developments, they have similar visions for downtown. They also share support for Halifax By Design.

Put together that way, it almost sounds as if it doesn't matter which one you pick.

Oh, but it does.

It really, really does.

Because twinned public personae and platform promises aside, there is still one considerable difference between these two mayoral hopefuls. It's nuanced, yes, but it's an essential element in where we're going as a city over the next four years. And it may be the most important reason our city---or any city---needs a mayor at all: to provide vision.

Vision---and the ability to guide people to that vision---is where the mayoral rubber hits the road.

By virtue of the simple requirements of the job, a mayor can't be less than the leader of council---the mayor chairs the meetings and cuts the ribbons. But a good mayor is much more than a master of Robert's Rules of Order and good at making small talk.

A good mayor is a visionary.

New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani stripped peep shows from Times Square.

Bogotá, Columbia, mayor Enrique Peñalosa closed roads at intervals to all vehicular traffic and directed tax money to build bikeways.

Mayor Ken Livingstone brought in London, England's congestion charge for vehicles travelling into the city centre.

People hated the changes. But these visionary mayors believed in them and pushed for them, looking beyond immediate municipal wants and past their own popularity. Now people look back and think, "Huh, I guess that asshole was right."

So where's Halifax's visionary?

I had waited a while to get my cup of green tea from Peter Kelly.

I called his office August 13 to book a sit-down for mid-September. First, because I know September is chock-full. And second, because I presume the mayor of a 385,000-person populated municipality the geographic size of Prince Edward Island, who's trying to get re-elected for a third term, is busy.

Oh, the receptionist told me, that's too far in advance. You'll have to call back at the end of the first week of September to talk to His Worship's scheduling assistant.

Mmmkay.

Three weeks later and after a little phone tag and daytimer wrangling, we settled ona date.

How long do you need with the mayor?

An hour.

Oh, his scheduling assistant told me, he only does half-hours.

We bargained. I got 45 minutes. And in the end, Kelly gave me 51, including the tea-making.

Peter Kelly's office is on the second floor of City Hall. Its entrance is tucked in beyond a brass plaque that reads "Mayor," which happens to be on the wall directly above---and which gives the effect of labelling---a large potted plant.

The mayor's chamber is a lot cushier than the wool-panel university chic of City Hall's first floor. Kelly's is a corner office overlooking Argyle Street and the Grand Parade. He's got abundant windows and plenty of space. It's comfortable, if formal. Prominent in the room is a glass-topped coffee table---under the glass is a collection of political cartoons featuring the mayor. He does have a sense of humour.

Sitting in my wingback chair, listening to the mayor settle in to the interview, it struck me how the process of getting there tidily reflected the way I have felt about the mayor for years---that he is at once approachable and personable but at the same time surrounded by an impenetrability. And I don't mean the formal office or its security and scheduling trappings. I mean the man. And his vision.

Peter Kelly? Hand-shaker, tea-maker, literacy volunteer and pancake flipper? Him, I know. Peter Kelly? Big city mayor of the most populous metropolis east of Quebec City and of all politicians in that geographical zone the one voted in by the most people? (Consider it: The federal riding of Halifax is Atlantic Canada's most populous and the MP that takes it can, at most, get about 70,000 votes. The mayor of HRM can get up to 279,000.) That Peter Kelly? Nope. Haven't a clue.

Peter Kelly started out in politics with a fizzle rather than a pop.

He ran for council for the first time in 1981. That was in the former town of Bedford. He was 25. He lost.

He ran again in 1983. And lost.

Then in 1985. And this time he won.

Kelly took Bedford's helm as mayor in 1991, bet a losing hand at becoming MLA for Bedford-Fall River in '93 and then grabbed back a Bedford council seat for '96, under the newly amalgamated Halifax Regional Municipality.

Not that he was happy about it.

Kelly was one of amalgamation's most vocal critics.

The former Bedford mayor boycotted the April 1, 1996, opening ceremony for HRM's new council, telling the Daily News, "It would be hypocritical of me to celebrate when this community did not endorse the process."

Kelly might have been a Progressive Conservative and a traditionalist (during a pre-amalgamation planning vote in February 1996 he gave the nod in favour of HRM council adopting the Lord's Prayer as its invocation) but he was definitely a rabble-rouser.

He took umbrage at council chambers' expensive leather chairs and brought his own crappy one in from home. And he hated---hated---all the secret meetings. By the end of 1996, Kelly was boycotting in-camera "councillor sessions" and had lobbied (unsuccessfully) for the city to release minutes from closed-door meetings.

Daily News columnist Arnie Patterson, during the first year of HRM council, said this about Peter Kelly: "He protests too much. While he is a gentle, quiet young man, he could be accused of political opportunism."

Twelve years and two successful HRM mayoral elections later, Peter Kelly now counts the city's most notorious secret meeting as having happened under his watch---the tete-a-tete with Rodney MacDonald and co. that killed the Commonwealth Games bid. And as for protests? Journalists view the mayor as much less a firebrand. Chronicle Herald columnist Jim Meek summed it up in March, calling Peter Kelly, "a man who has built a cautious career on prevarication."

Kelly is uninjured by the comparison between his current and former selves.

"As a councillor, you have to be very clear and very focused on where you want to go. As mayor, it's a different perspective.

"You don't have to yell and scream as much."

Kelly answered only indirectly Meek's charge of being a waffler, saying a lot of the real work of a mayor happens on the QT. The mayor's job, he says, is to use the office "as a stage." Not in the higher, louder soap-box sense, but as a means of being heard in different ways---"the office does give you the opportunity to pick up the phone, talk issues, build partnerships and get to the point where you need to go."

Is there a visionary quality behind this understanding of the mayor's work?

Kelly makes a sensible case: It's big-picture policy work behind closed doors.

A cynic's view? The mayor's job is to grease palms and wheels and to wrap up decisions in backroom chats, before due process runs its course.

Call it backroom chats (Sheila Fougere did, in the Chamber of Commerce mayoral debate September 25), or call it honest facilitation, Kelly says his approach works---that he understands the connections to make and the people to chat up to get things done.

Being a visionary for Kelly, perhaps, isn't proselytizing from the mountaintop. It's moving the mountain rock by rock from underneath. It's quietly making the city run smoothly.

His proof the city is on the right track?

In 2007, employment was up over the year before and municipal GDP was up and on the rise. Kelly brags, too, about eight years of balanced budgets and the $90-million in municipal debt the city has paid down since he took office.

Are these reasonable claims?

Well, it's not so tricky to pay down the debt when assessments---and tax bills---are up 20 percent every year. And none of these accomplishments is Kelly's alone to claim. Employment and GDP are the business sector's to share. Balancing municipal budgets is legislated, not chosen, and the budgets themselves are the sphere of council as a whole. So, too, is the will to pay down our debt. (And on the topic of who owns what decisions at City Hall, Kelly, this summer, claimed more personal ownership of Harbour Solutions than some councillors were willing to allow. Sue Uteck called him out on it.)

But I think I get why Kelly takes such pride in the economic-strides pace of his watch. He's the numbers guy.

In fact, I read the mayor some numbers---our $12.6-billion GDP and average five percent unemployment rate in 2007, to start. Then I asked him what other benchmarks we need to look to...perhaps something alittle less...

"You can't," he jumped in. "It's all partand parcel. Because if you don't havethe numbers..."

This time I interrupted...but, I guess I'm saying, we have the numbers, so...

"In the last eight years we have had $4.6 billion in economic activity. That's new construction. That means to me jobs. That means to me family stability. That means quality of life in terms of being able to enjoy the elements that we have to offer---recreation, passive parks, active parks, bikeways and pathways, transit. All these things are intertwined. So, while sometimes we like to break off the numbers, they are always back here." He gently tapped his head.

There was more. Ten thousand jobs in the financial service sector over the next 10 years. Two-million square feet of new office space. Peninsula construction totalling $1.5 billion in the next decade. A billion in economic activity at Dartmouth Crossing.

"All this activity means stability for families," he said, "which is paramount for a community which is caring and wants to ensure quality of life. It's all intertwined. But it all comes back to the numbers."

Kelly sticks by the numbers. Even if questions dog them---what about the US financial collapse's impact on our province? Can residential development support that many new workers? Where? Is Dartmouth Crossing's business new? Or is it just shifting driving shoppers more kilometres from downtown Dartmouth, Main Street or Mic Mac Mall?

That's Peter Kelly's vision. Keep your head down and pay attention to the economy and everything else falls into place.

Sheila Fougere may only have had one coffee today. But she would like to stand up and loudly disagree.

Before I met Sheila Fougere, I had two pictures of her in my head.

One was her on a bike.

And fully decked-out, too---tight shorts, gloves, a sweat-wicking shirt and one of those expensive well-fitting helmets. Zoom. There she goes.

Now while I didn't expect Lance Armstrong in a wig walking into Perks the September morning her coffee went cold while we talked, I was surprised she was on foot. And that she looked like a normal politician looking for votes in Timberlea and Shubenacadie and Sheet Harbour and Cherry Brook.

My second image was only formed in May. It was Fougere, in jeans and an oversized hockey shirt. And I came up with it after I read in the paper that the councillor was putting in eight-hour shifts volunteering at the International Ice Hockey Federation Championships at the Metro Centre.

Look, I don't actually know what Fougere wears when she bikes and I don't know what she wore at the IIHF so people recognized her as not just another hockey fan but a take-no-guff security guard.

My point is this: I have always thought of Fougere as a walk-the-walk kind of person. A bike advocate who's actually been doored on her way to work. A councillor looking to streamline governance who has actually voted---twice---to reduce the size of council.

And I have always thought of Fougere as an out-there, everywhere, doing everything kind of person, married to an out-there, everywhere, doing everything kind of man. (That would be Joe Fougere, one of Halifax's two full-time, year-round bike cops and possibly Halifax's most recognizable police officer.)

And I have always thought of Fougere as someone with strongly held opinions who doesn't hedge her views waiting to see if she's on the right side of popular judgement.

Problem is, being this kind of headstrong politician might be the one thing that loses Fougere the office she's trying to capture.

Fougere's entry into politics was as big a surprise to her as it was to anyone.

She was pissed off about the crew of usual suspects up for the June, 1998, District 14 by-election and Joe asked her what she was going to do about it besides complain. Fougere said, Screw it. I'll run.

OK, I'm embellishing a little there. Looking back now, Fougere says she thought "You know what? If they can do this, I can do this."

Indeed.

She took more than double the votes of her nearest competitor. And she was basically a nobody.

Not for long.

Fougere made cosmetic marks on HRM council as the first woman and first councillor who hadn't served in any pre-amalgamation municipalities. Then she started making real marks (initiating---as a very lonely voice on council---HRM's bike plan, backing the return of beat cops and buffeting the coffers for more money for policing). She got re-elected---in 2000 with nearly 90 percent support and in 2004 with more than 80 percent.

Fougere hasn't just been well liked by her constituents.

Citizens for Halifax, one municipal lobby group, is pushing hard for change in leadership at City Hall. The group despises what it sees as Peter Kelly's muddling manner and lack of vision. And that's a de facto votefor Fougere.

But Fougere's big struggle isn't wooing people looking for a leadership change or her die-hard constituents.

Fougere's challenge? Getting the suburban and rural votes she needs.

Let's face it: Her loud fight against the widening of Chebucto Road put Fougere on the wrong side of many off-peninsula commuters. Her bike advocacy is seen---rightly or wrongly---as an urban issue. Plus, Fougere is a downtown councillor. And that's a liability in a not-so-long-ago amalgamated, still sour, and in some pockets clamouring-for-secession municipality. At least Peter Kelly can straddle the urban/rural divide from his comfy bedroom community.

Fougere's answer? Hanging her campaign on transportation.

Fougere says she wants to keep putting in bike lanes all over HRM. And she wants buses running more hours of the day and more days a week, despite that Metro Transit is subsidized 34 percent now---"we have to afford it," she says. (She's far from out of line---the American Public Transportation Association's most recent figures from 2004 show on average, US cities pay 50 percent of the cost of public transit. Canada is about the same. Many European countries are higher.)

Fougere wants to expand the LINK bus system and she wants to make sure the $30-million in funding Peter Kelly is pushing in the direction of a Bedford fast ferry goes to improving the bus system first. (It's their only major platform difference.)

Fougere also says she isn't just talking about adding buses to the peninsula, or between downtown and bedroom communities. "If you're in a rural area, you need transportation to get to and from ," she says. "Or they may as well be on Mars."

Transportation is Fougere's specialty, it's a pan-municipal difficulty and it may be, if she can spin it well enough, the galvanizing issue that gets her enough votes to takethis race.

But more than that. If Fougere gets in, talks tough, argues hard, pisses people off and then wins them over, she might build a truly grand transit system. One the city can be proud of, one that the world talks about, and one about which locals will say: Sheila Fougere did this.

If Peter Kelly is elected, our transit system will improve, no doubt. But it will be an unremarkable if necessary part of life in a big city.

I asked a question earlier: Where is Halifax's visionary?

And in a manner of speaking, the city has two to choose from.

Peter Kelly's vision is that he continue to promote the growth the city has seen (and which he's fostered) during his tenure. His big-picture vision is all about small details. It comes down to numbers---it's the mayor's job to keep his head down and do the behind-the-scenes work to keep the economy chugging. It's not that Kelly is oblivious to the other things that make a great city. But his focus is the economy. Because for him, from that well, all the other kinds of wealth spring.

Sheila Fougere's vision is louder and prouder, if less easy to pinpoint and make promises on. She thinks Halifax needs to go big---to imagine the place as we want it to be and line up our ducks to get there. She's driving her platform on transportation, but I think there's an overture there to something even bigger---liveability.

What's that mean?

She told the audience during the Chamber of Commerce debate. "Important, charming and beautiful architecture, state of the art education and research facilities and a thriving business community."

It's being "the most accessible and easy-to-get-around community, that is environmentally friendly with a healthy, active population and a safe, secure environment. And"---she took a deep breath---"that we have the best transit system and the healthiest people in all of North America."

Remember I said there are so few differences between Fougere's and Kelly's platforms that it's hard to tell them apart? Well I suspect it's fair to say that Kelly wants all those things for Halifax's future, too.

But here's the crux.

We can choose Peter Kelly, who's the mayoral equivalent of a GIC---low-risk for a fixed rate of return. Or we can go with Sheila Fougere, who's more like a hedge fund---not as crazy as betting the whole treasure chest on craps at Casino Nova Scotia, but enough aggressiveness and speculation that the payoff could be big.

Put another way? Peter Kelly and Sheila Fougere are driving in the same direction toward Halifax's future. But they are travelling in two very different vehicles.

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