Three out of four candidates vying to be the next mayor of Saanich clashed sharply Thursday morning over a range of issues during a mayoral debate where candidates were able to ask each other questions, sparking the most robust exchange of the campaign thus far.
Early on in the debate, broadcast on CFAX 1070, Mayor Richard Atwell and Coun. Fred Haynes, who is seeking the mayoral seat, clashed over the appropriate use of the former Emily Carr branch of the Greater Victoria Public Library.
Atwell asked Haynes how residents could trust him if Haynes “continually flipped-flopped” because of his opposition to Atwell’s proposal of looking into turning the former library into supportive housing.
Haynes denied the charge.
While he agreed to give the issue a hearing during a special council meeting, he decided Atwell’s proposal did not merit his support.
“That was not a flip-flop, that was enabling you to have the opportunity to work with council and hear the wisdom of council,” Haynes explained, of the 4-2 vote against Atwell’s idea.
“I am disappointed,” Haynes went on. “You gave no advance notice to council, you did not discuss with staff ahead of time, and within that, you had discussed it only with Karen Harper. I did not see that as good legislative practice.”
Atwell in turn asked Haynes why he was not prepared to investigate the use of the library, accusing him of prioritizing process ahead of the community, and homelessness.
“Council is the place where debate needs to happen, not behind the scenes, not councillors making deals and figuring out what they are going to do ahead of time,” Atwell responded. “All I wanted to do is to bring something forward for debate.”
Haynes told Atwell he was only thinking of himself.
The two candidates clashed again when Haynes asked Atwell why Saanich residents “would risk another term” with Atwell as mayor, after campaigning as a candidate of change.
“You have been unable to lead this council,” he said. “Your answer is to bring a slate forward to have your own council of five.”
After defending his slate, Atwell then accused Haynes and the rest of council of failing to support him during the spyware scandal.
“When I held the press conference because I had gone to council, looking for his support to deal with it, I was simply thrown under the bus by Dr. Haynes, and the rest of council,” he said. “I was forced to go the privacy commissioner.”
Haynes responded in part by saying that residents need to decide whether they want to “continue this type of leadership” that gets Saanich into the national press.
“Dr. Haynes, we had to get the national press, because you wouldn’t take any action,” Atwell said, accusing him of using the incident as an opportunity for an early by-election to run for mayor.
But if the first half of the debate witnessed these sharp exchanges between Atwell and Haynes, mayoral candidate Rob Wickson did not hesitate to interject himself.
When Haynes made the argument that Saanich council managed to get things by virtue of the eight councillors working and supporting each other, Wickson pounced.
“The public perception of this is not the same as what you perceive,” he said. “When I go to council, I [feel] the tension, tension I have never felt before in the 20 years I have been doing this…it [council] is not just a happy place to be and it should be.”
Wickson said he would create a collaborative environment, if elected mayor.
He also challenged Haynes’ argument that council functioned better when Atwell was absent. “I have been watching council for a long time, and this council didn’t do any particularly better or worse than the last council.”
Atwell acknowledged that relations had not always been collegial. “What Dr. Haynes is talking about is a slate of eight that has stymied progress for a long time. It’s an invisible slate. It’s a hidden caucus, but it has been there for a long time, and residents know it.”
A fourth candidate for mayor — David Shebib — did not participate in the debate.