GANANOQUE – Mayor Ted Lojko was a target for criticism by challengers John Beddows and Greg Truesdell, on matters ranging from transparency to fiscal management. during an all-candidates meeting at the Firehall Theatre on Monday, Oct. 3.
The debate was hosted by 1000 Islands Gananoque Chamber of Commerce, and mediated by Amber Scott, the chamber’s president. The municipal election is on Oct. 24.
Candidates discussed a variety of issues such as transportation, affordable housing, the town's financial footing, use of the town's waterfront, employment, infrastructure, the Kinsmen Building, services for youth and seniors, and short-term rentals.
The tone was congenial for the most part, however, Beddows was on the offensive right out of the gate.
Beddows, who last ran for mayor in 2018, said his campaign is focused on affordability, transparency and accountability. Beddows questioned Lojko and council’s history of closed meetings.
"One of the most interesting things that happened with this mayor and this council is that before every single meeting there was a closed meeting and none of the minutes from any of those meetings have been published despite the fact that most of the reasons why you would hold a closed meeting is actually discretionary," said Beddows.
"I believe the mayor needs to be present, the mayor needs to be accountable, and the mayor needs to be forward."
Beddows also took Lojko to task over the town's integrity commissioner.
The town’s integrity commissioner, Tony Fleming of the Kingston law firm Cunningham Swan, is also the town's lawyer.
"To bring more transparency is to make sure the town doesn't have the same person who is also the town’s lawyer and the integrity commissioner of the town," said Beddows.
"We have the same man earning his income providing legal services to the town, whose job it is to investigate the conduct of the council and the mayor, on whose goodwill he depends. I don't believe this is an effective arrangement."
Lojko agreed with Beddows.
“We need to have two separate lawyers," said the mayor. "But you have to remember lawyers do not work for the town, they are contracted for specific things."
Truesdell said he's running for mayor to help the citizens who have "been consistently left out of plans and proposals of previous councils," adding that his main concerns are food security and accommodation security, as well as economic development.
"Providing potential businesses with service location and tax incentives is a good way in enticing businesses to locate here," said Truesdell.
He added the town's waterfront has been underutilized for years.
"Our waterfront has been a parking lot for tourists for 60 years," said Truesdell. "We have a beautiful waterfront but it has never come close to realizing its potential."
Lojko reiterated his desire to extend public transit from Kingston into Gananoque and to tackle the ongoing affordable housing issue. He added the COVID-19 pandemic delayed and affcted projects.
At one point, the candidates were asked what steps they would take to put the town on a firmer financial footing.
Lojko said the town already is on a firm financial footing. Beddows, meanwhile, said the numbers are concerning.
"We're not watching the details in the money and we're not watching the big money to understand where the spending happens."
He added the town can't count on gaming revenue from the Shorelines Casino.
"We have to make sure we spend wisely and maintain our infrastructure," said Beddows.
Truesdell said the town's money seems to be spent on "things that didn’t need to be done, like (the revitalization of) Town Park.
"Seems like it has gone way over budget and is something that didn't need to be done at all."
Questioned about his transparency over the town’s budget, Lojko defended himself and his staff.
"Anyone can open up the Gananoque website and look at every penny that's been spent on a regular basis," said Lojko, adding the treasurer provides monthly reports.
In his closing statement, Lojko said the mayor's role is to provide leadership and encourage discussion. He also listed his history of work with local groups.
"I firmly believe the mayor should encourage local involvement, but more importantly, encourage projects and undertaking local groups independent of town council," Lojko said.
If elected, Beddows said he plans to bring forward transparency and ethics.
"Honestly, I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think I could do a better job," said Beddow, taking a jab at Lojko.
"One of the things I'm going to do is I'm going to tell you everything that I own. I'm going to have a paper copy of a list of everything I have. My spouse works at Pharmasave (Gananoque), so I won't touch anything to do with the pharmacies because I have an invested financial interest in the operation of one of those businesses. My daughter is a part-time employee at a business in town, you will know where that is. You'll know when I should be voting, when I shouldn't (be)."
Truesdell echoed some of Beddows's thoughts, adding he’' looking forward to energizing the people of the town.
"People need to know what's going on," said Truesdell. "That would go a long way into getting rid of the apathy that seems to be prevalent in a lot of the voters right now."
(Keith Dempsey is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Brockville Recorder and Times. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.)