County residents got their clearest view yet of the differences between their two mayoral candidates Wednesday at the election's first all-candidates debate.
About 150 people came to the Cardiff Community Hall the night of Oct. 9 for a three-hour debate between 20 of the 21 candidates running in the 2013 county civic election. Division 5 candidate Wayne Bullock was absent.
Run by the St. Albert and Morinville chambers of commerce, the forum involved written questions from the audience posed to the candidates.
Mayoral candidates Tom Flynn and Don Rigney showed sharp differences of opinion on almost every question.
Rigney trumpeted his role in fighting red tape and tax hikes in his opening remarks, and said he had drawn more investment and tax dollars to the county.
"One of my proudest achievements as a councillor and mayor came to life last year: the North West Sturgeon refinery," he said.
This project would nearly double the county's tax base, he said, leading to a better life for all county residents.
He repeated his promise to cut taxes by at least 20 per cent (after the upgrader comes online in 2016) if elected.
He accused Flynn and his supporters of supporting more red tape and the undemocratic Capital Region Board.
"My opponent is willing to sacrifice our autonomy and yield to the City of Edmonton, but I'm not," he said.
Flynn said he would bring leadership to council if elected – leadership that builds consensus and restores the respect citizens, the province and other governments used to have for the county.
"You do that by building relations, not by dismantling trust," he said.
Flynn vowed to be at all council meetings, attend town halls, and keep the county's taxes at the lowest rates in the region.
"I will lead a council that focuses on the growth of assessment in all parts of the county," he continued, and that focuses on roads, drainage, and other infrastructure.
He also promised to consult thoroughly with residents before investing any future upgrader money.
"This is up to you, not up to me," he said.
Flynn vs. Rigney
Rigney and Flynn were allowed to respond to all questions from the audience, as well as to several posed specifically to the mayoral candidates.
When asked how to draw more business to the county, Rigney said it came down to having a low tax regime and a quick approval process.
"You have to put in place an organization that can attract and retain business, and you can't do that with our current (Municipal Government Act) structure."
The county has to be ready for business if it wants to attract it, Flynn said, which means having the right zoning in place and reducing red tape.
"We have to have people out there who are chasing business," he said, and seeking companies that can fill gaps in the county.
When asked how he would improve relations with the Capital Region Board (CRB) and other governments, Rigney said, "We can't do it by surrendering," and said he had supported everything his neighbours had ever done.
"I just treat my neighbours like we'd like to be treated."
He also accused regional governments of wanting 45 per cent of the county's industrial revenue.
Flynn said the county needs to improve its regional relations.
"You may not agree (on everything) but you've got to be able to go for a beer afterward," he said.
The CRB may be "dysfunctional," he said, "but we have to be at that table to work at solutions."
When asked how he would improve road conditions, Flynn said the county should hire skilled people to manage development.
More money won't solve it, countered Rigney. Red Deer County contracts out its roads for less money, and he suggested the county should consider doing the same.
"Clearly our costs are too high."
When it came to keeping resident concerns on top of council's agenda, Rigney said the best way was to put council meetings online.
"We have to up our game and make sure people can watch what we're doing," he said.
But not everyone has the computers needed for that, Flynn said.
"We have to go back to town hall meetings," he said, and give everyone a chance to speak.
On transparency, Rigney said he had pushed for a significant reduction in in-camera sessions and lead the drive to videotape council meetings.
"We have to have full accountability."
Flynn agreed, and supported the recordings, as well as the online publication of councillor expenses.
"Have a good look at them, because they're rather interesting," he said.
When asked how to fix the divisions in council, Flynn said it would take a leader who could bring people together and support the decisions of council once they're made.
"Talk is cheap," said Rigney, who accused Flynn of bringing party politics to council. Council is far more orderly now than when he started, he said, and almost 95 per cent of council votes are unanimous.
On the subject of the environment, Flynn said the county needed to protect natural areas in its river valleys to prevent soil erosion.
The region does have air-quality issues, Rigney said, but will soon have "the cleanest refinery in the world" with the carbon-capturing Sturgeon upgrader. He hesitated on the suggestion of another candidate that the county preserve farmland, saying that the best way to do that was to instead pay farmers a living wage.
"We're not a zoo for the urban (area's) enjoyment," he said.
Rigney and Flynn will face off again on Oct. 15 at a Divisions 1, 2, and 4 forum at the Namao School.