An incumbent city councillor, his predecessor and a political rookie duked it out over the past, present and future of Halifax South Downtown at an all-candidates meeting Wednesday night.
More than 50 people flooded the room at Spencer House, some watching the proceedings with one foot outside as they straddled the doorway.
Emotions in the audience ran high as the constituents questioned the current, former and aspiring District 7 councillors—Waye Mason, Sue Uteck and Dominick Desjardins, respectively—about the ongoing transformation many feel threaten their neighbourhood, such as the demolition on Young Avenue or the proposed high-rise construction on the site of a church near Saint Mary’s University.
Development concerns took centre stage at the debate, sprawling into issues like heritage protection, bike lanes, property tax, land use, election finance reform and arts and culture funding.
Uteck came prepared to fight for the seat she occupied in City Hall for 13 years before being ousted by then-newcomer Mason, who won the 2012 election by fewer 100 voters. She sparred with Mason over their respective records, each shifting blame for downtown’s development woes on the other’s administration.
Uteck accused the current council of procrastinating on The Centre Plan—a guide for downtown developers set to be released this month. She said the project has been stalled for three-and-a-half years, leaving the district’s heritage sites vulnerable to irresponsible renovation, but was careful not to cast development as a universal negative.
“In the absence of rules, people are going to develop,” said Uteck. “To blame the development community on the current ills of the city is actually simplistic, and just not well thought out.”
Mason said the plan is only running one month behind its original schedule, and people need to give it time to work. He took both his opponents to task for accepting donations from developers, boasting how he led the effort for campaign finance reform on his first day in City Hall to prevent that sort of conflict of interest.
Uteck denied that her political influence could be purchased. Engagement with developers is part of running an “inclusive” campaign, she said, hinting that Mason’s refusal to do so may reflect an anti-development bias.
“The issue isn’t being against development. It’s about being okay with development where it’s not going to damage our communities,” Mason said. “You can’t have corporations treating influencing an election as a business expense.”
As the political rivals traded barbs, novice Desjardins seemed intent on reminding the crowd of his existence. The Cineplex theatre manager has been running a scrappy campaign, capping donations at $200 and touting his lack of experience on council as his greatest asset.
“For the past four weeks, I’ve been inundated with phone calls, because someone is not answering their phone,” Desjardins said. “I can tell you every single call has been returned…That is not what we’ve had in this district in a long time.”
A recent Saint Mary’s University graduate, Desjardins has based his platform on reaching out to residents of District 7, particularly the young ones. Had the community been consulted, Desjardins said, the city could have avoided bedevilled projects like “bike lanes to nowhere” and instead, invested in existing downtown infrastructure people care about.
“Right now, we have city planners that are stamping anything they can get their hands on…when we need more heritage preservation,” he said. “Between my two opponents, with a combined 15 years on council, I think there was ample time that something could have been done.”
E-voting in the municipal and school board is open until Oct. 13. Haligonians can cast their ballots at in-person polling stations between October 8 and 11, or on election day on Oct. 15.