Five of the six candidates running for mayor of Prince George took questions from the public on Wednesday night in the final all-candidates forum ahead of the election on Saturday.
The sometimes-chaotic forum, which saw candidates occasionally struggling to be heard over people shouting in the crowd, was co-hosted by CFUR, CFIS and the Citizen. The forum was broadcast live on both radio stations and livestreamed on Facebook.
Candidates Adam Hyatt, Terri McConnachie, Lisa Mitchell, Roy Stewart and Simon Yu weighed in on topics ranging from the city’s vaccine mandate for staff to homelessness and accountability, along with other topics. Candidate Chris Wood did not attend the forum.
When asked if they’d continue the city’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for staff, McConnachie and Stewart pledged to uphold the mandate, while Hyatt, Mitchell and Yu said they would scrap it.
“I think the world is a much better place with vaccines,” McConnachie said. “I had cancer during COVID. The cancer I had is now treatable because of a vaccine. I have to support science, I have to support public health.”
Stewart said he has “no sympathy” for those who choose not to be vaccinated.
“If you go into a workplace during a pandemic without a vaccine, you are putting people at risk,” he said.
Stewart also questioned using religion as an excuse not to get vaccinated.
“What would Jesus do… he’d be vaccinated,” Stewart said. “Are you loving your neighbour if you are putting them at risk?”
Mitchell started to disagree with McConnachie on the effectiveness of vaccines, but then stopped herself midsentence.
“I do not believe the vaccine mandate should be kept,” she said instead. “It’s past its time.”
Hyatt and Yu went further, falsely claiming that COVID-19 vaccines don’t reduce the spread of COVID-19.
“Forced vaccine mandates are a scary concept,” Hyatt said. “It doesn’t protect anyone but yourself.”
Yu said he’d seen no evidence that vaccination helps reduce the spread of COVID-19.
A U.S. Centre for Disease Control study, released on June 7, 2021, reported that people treated with mRNA COVID-19 vaccines had a 40 per cent lower viral load than unvaccinated people and were sick an average of six days less – in short, they were less infectious, and infectious for a shorter period of time.
“While these indicators are not a direct measure of a person’s ability to spread the virus, they have been correlated with reduced spread of other viruses, such as varicella and influenza,” the study authors wrote.
Candidates were asked if they would be willing to leave their wallets and phones behind, and spend 24 hours on the streets of downtown.
Hyatt, McConnachie and Mitchell said they would be prepared to do it, while Stewart and Yu said they don’t need to spend 24 hours on the streets to understand the situation.
“We can all walk the walk, but can we talk the talk?” Mitchell said. “I would be willing to do it.”
Hyatt said if he didn’t need to work on Thursday, he’d be willing to start that night. While McConnachie said she knows other councillors have done it in the past, and said she would accept the challenge.
“A cook doesn’t need to drink a whole pot of soup to know what it tastes like,” Yu said. “I have walked around downtown. As your mayor, I’ll get things done.”
“I live and work downtown,” Stewart said. “I see it every day. I hear the screams, I see the fights. I don’t have to come downtown and bunk with you to know what’s going on.”
In addition, candidates were asked what they would do to apologize and make up for the shelters and possessions the city removed from the Lower Patricia encampment, called Moccasin Flats by residents, on Nov. 17, 2021.
“They made a terrible decision. Quite frankly, I don’t think they can make up for it,” Hyatt said. “I can make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Yu said “an apology without compensation isn’t an apology.”
“Building shelters is the best way to apologize,” he said. “Actions speak louder than words.”
Stewart agreed, saying “that is the only way we can effectively apologize for the stupidity of the city’s decision,” and saying if he were mayor, it wouldn’t happen again.
Mitchell said it was a bad chapter in the city’s history, but the only thing to do is to find shelters for people and then clean it up.
“It absolutely was illegal destruction of private property,” McConnachie said, adding that city council issued a formal apology for the incident. “All we can do is apologize, and pledge to do better.”
Candidates were asked a pair of questions on the issue of accountability, regarding cost overruns on capital projects and holding city staff accountable.
McConnachie said she stands by city council’s actions, after the extent of the cost overruns on the city’s downtown parkade came to light. City council took action to change the amount of money the city manager could authorize without council approval and other policy changes to reduce the risk of it happening again.
In addition, she would eliminate the city’s finance and audit committee, and have financial matters brought to a committee of the whole to make sure all of city council is involved, she said.
The city has some big challenges and big infrastructure spending decisions to make, she said.
“I will not forget whose money we are spending,” she said. “We have some really great people working for the City of Prince George. (But) if mayor and council are not exercising their oversight over administration, that’s on them.”
Mitchell said she doesn’t have the answers to improve the city’s capital spending, but “we need to be more accountable, we need to be like a private company.”
“As a taxpayer, I feel the fox has been running the henhouse,” Mitchell said. “We need to start getting value for our city employees.”
Stewart said the city’s cost overruns are a policy problem: the city’s bylaws leave too much up to the discretion of city staff, without proper reporting mechanisms.
“This (the parkade) was a failure of the council of the day,” he said.
However, city councillors rarely have the expertise to conduct that oversight themselves, so an independent project manager who reports to city council should be appointed, he said.
“We can stop this nonsense in that manner,” he said.
Likewise, permit delays and other issues are again a result of bylaws which leave too much up to the discretion of city staff, he said. Instead, the city’s bylaws should provide clear direction to project applicants, so they know exactly what they need to do to get their permit approved.
Good projects require a good design from the start, Yu said. And, regarding the parkade, city council didn’t know what was happening with the project until it was too late.
“We have to spend money like they are spending your money,” Yu said.
Yu said he doesn’t believe any city employee comes to work with the intent of doing bad work. However, the city needs to take a most customer-focused approach.
“As the city, we are the servants of the people,” Yu said.
Hyatt said the city needs to make sure when a project goes out to tender, that the full scope of the work is clearly understood. Contractors can’t deliver projects on budget if multiple additions and changes need to be made before the project is complete, he said.
“(But) we do need to hold these contractors accountable,” Hyatt said.
As a contractor himself, if he forgets to include a couple of wires or other components in his quote, he has to absorb the cost, he said, not his client.
The city’s senior administrators should have their pay based on performance, not just flat salaries, he added.
“The city has lost its way,” Hyatt said. “It is important to remind the city who are the masters, the public at large, and who are the public servants.”