You might not think College Ward would be an interesting. Rick Chiarelli is basically a forever-term incumbent, his experience in city politics dating back to the pre-amalgamation Nepean in the 1980s. Four years ago, he cruised to victory without a serious challenge. This year could be a bit different.
Don’t get me wrong. He’s still the clear front-runner. Incumbency has its privileges and all that, but this time ’round, he’s facing off against two competent and intelligent challengers who might just make this a three-way race.
Regular readers will know that I’ve had some issues with Chiarelli in the past few years. I think he’s a net negative on city council, often portraying the worst impulses of a suburban city council. But he also has his moments. He does stand up for better financial planning, memorably being one of the councillors behind the infrastructure levy motion that forced city council to divert more funds into fixing our roads and public assets. And he’s always willing to take on the mayor (even if their political outlooks tend to align.)
So if Chiarelli is getting a run for his money this election, that’s good.
It was clear in the debate that Rick Chiarelli was the incumbent. He had specific examples of city projects and personal initiatives from the past term of council. There was no question that stumped him–he was able to respond thoroughly to any challenge posed. He name-dropped Ben Franklin a bunch of times and generally came off as a sitting council member who knows exactly what’s going on, knows what can be done at council and knows what limitations there are on a councillor.
Emilie Coyle was clearly the least experienced candidate in the race. With a background in law and business, she certainly didn’t have the insider talking points down that Chiarelli had. Once or twice, she came off as the smart, involved, concerned citizen who maybe wasn’t quite ready for the job…
…but she was also forceful, determined and confident in what she had to say, and in what needs to change at City Hall. While Chiarelli was able to pull up details from past council motions and current city policy, Coyle repeatedly and successfully hammered away at him on accountability, communication and transparency.
She went after the lack of consultation in the ward and the lack of communication coming out of the councillor’s office. Chiarelli would respond (yes, he always had an answer) and explain what he had done, but he really failed to show that his record stood up to the criticisms of Coyle.
As much as Chiarelli is an institution, I think there is a noteworthy undercurrent of discontent in the ward, and Coyle seemed to channel it well. She wouldn’t let Chiarelli shut her down in the debate. She wouldn’t back down. She…well…persisted.
But don’t get me wrong, she wasn’t just critiquing Chiarelli; she has an idea of what needs to happen in the ward, in general, even if she admits she doesn’t have all the answers right now. It really seems like she would be able to get up to speed quickly if elected, so I don’t think this is really a weak point.
My main criticism of her performance would be her insistence that College Ward needed someone with real world experience, business experience. Yes, it’s fair to say that Chiarelli has been around maybe too long (and not to pick on him specifically, just new blood can be a good thing)–and Coyle got in some good lines about how his time has come–but I’m always hesitant to embrace the notion that we need people who now how to run a business at City Hall. That was the argument for Larry O’Brien.
The other challenger, Ryan Kennery, had a good showing, but wasn’t quite as impressive. I’ll admit it; I’m a little disappointed by what I’ve seen of Kennery’s campaign (though not being in the ward, I don’t know what his ground game is like). I was very intrigued when he announced and though I think he’d make a fine councillor, he hasn’t wowed me like I thought he would.
In the debate, he was able to make his points–he’s knowledgeable on the way the city works, having worked both for the city and for the mayor. He definitely has some good ideas for the ward and the city–but he wasn’t quite as good at making his case as Coyle. And he certainly wasn’t as good at attacking Chiarelli. And make no mistake about it, in this race, it won’t be enough to prove yourself, you have to really, truly beat the incumbent.
There were a couple of odd points in the debate, sort of own-goals, if you will, for Kennery. He spoke of his experience as a staffer during a situation in Hintonburg. I assume he was talking about the detoured buses during LRT construction–a situation that was handled extremely poorly by the city. He may have seen some very involved and active community members, but he would have been on the wrong side of the table in that fight.
He also mentioned a recent budget consultation in the ward where he was one of only 13 or 14 people who showed up. I think he was trying to make a point that current consultation efforts were failing, but it kind of came off like he was criticizing the residents of the ward…the people whose vote he was seeking.
Now, I don’t want to sound too negative here. He did fine, but he wasn’t able to score points against Chiarelli like Coyle was.
When it all shakes out, we’ll likely have councillor Chiarelli, again. No matter how good the two challengers are (and they’re both good), this a giant in municipal politics they’re trying to take down. But going by the debate, it’s clear that we’re actually going to have a real race with real challengers presenting real visions for the ward and the city.
It’s too early for me to make an endorsement in this race (that’ll come later), but I’m very happy that there are viable alternatives to the incumbent.