Mayoral candidates square off

By NANCY KING
Cape Breton Post
Thurs., Oct. 7, 2004

The two men seeking the Cape Breton Regional Municipalityís top job stressed their very different leadership styles in their first mayoral debate, but it was questions about campaign finances and their previous battles over the JAG process that caused the real fireworks.

Mayor John Morgan and challenger Dan Fraser faced off at the Membertou Convention Centre Wednesday, at a debate sponsored by the Sydney and Area Chamber of Commerce, answering questions from a panel including media, a political scientist and a youth.

While Fraser stressed the importance of collaboration and co-operation with other levels of government, Morgan countered that he is prepared to use other tactics when he thinks co-operation has failed.

The CBRM has started the process of suing the province, arguing an unfair equalization scheme means the region canít provide constitutionally-guaranteed comparable services at a comparable tax rate.

The province has no defence to the CBRMís threatened constitutional challenge, Morgan said, because the inequities in service levels can be objectively demonstrated. He then suggested Fraserís campaign has the support of people in positions of influence. "Their only defence is to eliminate the advocate that would protect the citizens of this region," he said, adding full public financial disclosure of campaign contributions should be made prior to the Oct. 16 vote, "so that they know if theyíre voting for a puppet or somebody thatís going to independently be able to represent the people."

Fraser countered the need to run a expensive campaign was created by Morgan during the 2000 campaign, saying his spending made it virtually impossible for an average citizen to run for mayor. "So you can thank yourself, Mayor Morgan, for putting the bar so high and buying your last election," he said.

Morgan said he financed his first run and provided "the principle funding" for the current campaign. He noted Fraser has said he doesnít know who is contributing to his campaign. "I donít want to know who has given me one red cent," Fraser replied. "I am beholden to no one."

The CBRMís constitutional argument is a political or moral, rather than a legal obligation, Fraser said. While he agreed the region isnít being treated fairly, he said a lawsuit is the wrong approach. "At the end of the day, after eight, 10 years in court, what do we have? "A decision that we must go and speak with the province, collaborate, co-operate, and make it happen that way." "We are entitled to not being treated as second-class citizens," Morgan said. "The question, why does my opponent bring forth this type of argument, whose side is he on?" "Iím on the side of our residents because spending a lot of money on a court case that will go nowhere is not very feasible," Fraser said.

The two clashed again when discussion turned to the Joint Action Group, which Fraser chaired, and its seven-year process of identifying options for cleaning up the tar ponds and coke ovens sites. Morgan was a vocal critic of JAG, arguing there should be clear timelines identified for the group to meet. "There was a basic mistake built in the process in that they provided financial incentives to a small group of people at the top of the organization to continue the program," Morgan said. "Each year that I was elected (chair) the government determined I could get a stipend and I took that stipend, yes, because I worked every bit as hard as you and harder," Fraser responded.

Morgan said the CBRM led the way in ensuring JAG wrapped up its work, but Fraser disagreed, saying the interference presented by Morgan and JAG roundtable member Coun. Vince Hall slowed JAG down. Before he took office, Morgan said, council was divided but under his leadership it united and its accomplishments included the harbour cleanup, downtown revitalization, cruise ship development and the Kingís Road project. It has reduced the regionís debt and has co-operated with levels of government to obtain capital investment, he said. About $20 million a year is required to reach the average service level for Nova Scotia municipalities, something the region wonít be able to accomplish without pursuing a better equalization deal from the province. Fraser charged the mayor and council had no difficulty deciding to borrow millions in capital for small district projects.

Fraser said "this election is about establishing leadership that works, not leadership that prosecutes." The CBRM has a myopic approach to managing major projects, he added, saying it hasnít learned from previous mistakes.

The debate was moderated by Ian McNeil of CBCís Information Morning.

nking@cbpost.com