Confident and relaxed

The Newmarket Taxpayers Advocacy Group (NTAG) is grilling the Town’s candidates for Mayor and I decide a few days ago to wander down to Madsen’s Greenhouses to see them strut their stuff. 

Unfortunately, the accountant Talib Ansari pulls out at the last moment for personal reasons and so we are left with Joe Wamback, neatly turned out in jacket and tie, standing alone at the lectern. John Taylor has his own spot in front of the NTAG faithful on Wednesday, 3 October.

I last spoke to Joe in May of this year and came away wondering why he wanted to be Mayor. He had no prospectus to speak of; it was pretty much a blank sheet of paper. He wanted more transparency but these days who doesn’t?

Joe appears relaxed as he takes the stage. The acoustics are not great but this isn’t Thomson Hall. It’s a greenhouse with tables and chairs, full of shadows and ferns. He tells us loudly he doesn’t need the microphone. 

"I'm not a politician" 

He starts by reminding us he is not a politician though, in some respects, he behaves just like one. He is fluent and confident on his feet. We all marvel as he presents his glowing credentials to us. He has run a successful company. He spent nine years as an adjudicator in a Federal tribunal. We learn he crafted policies on victim support that are now the law of the land. By any measure it is an impressive CV.

And he is also a proud fiscal conservative. 

The Mayoral contest should provide something for everyone and the withdrawal of Ansari means the vote is not going to splinter three ways. This makes it easier for Joe though he clearly has a mountain to climb. John Taylor has a high profile with the kind of name recognition most politicians would die for.

The evening starts with NTAG President, Teena Bogner, firing pre-prepared questions to Joe. What made you decide to run? What about transparency and oversight? Can you identify and deliver cost savings? What do you think about Mulock Farm, the mooted new library and Newmarket Theatre which limps along carrying an annual deficit of $750,000. There is plenty of red meat there to get his teeth into.

The hunt for "cost savings"

Now I am listening to a series of intelligent questions from an engaged audience who live, breathe and dream cost savings and “efficiencies”. I too believe public money should be well spent but I live in a different part of the forest where people are more likely to see the benefits of public spending.

The questions don’t wrong foot Joe who is in turns combative and quietly sympathetic. A new senior centre and library? He understands. He says he is a senior himself.

He wants to see affordable housing on the 12 acre site at Mulock Farm – while preserving the park. He is trying to have his cake and eat it. Joe tells us: 

“We do not need a Central Park.”

On the proposed GO Rail station at Mulock Drive he is uncompromising. It’s not going to happen. The overpass or underpass would be very difficult from an engineering perspective and would, in any event, be prohibitively expensive. The new station is just not needed. It is too close to the Tannery on Davis Drive and Aurora. He is also concerned about the 281 jobs that would be lost if and when the land around the station is redeveloped. Joe skilfully refers to the number of families likely to be affected and condemns the $250,000 the Town is spending on its Mulock Secondary Plan. The car showrooms would go to make way for higher density development – the quid pro quo Metrolinx insists on as the price for getting the new station.

No to Mulock Station

As I listen to Joe I am shaking my head, imperceptibly. It is one thing for Doug Ford to axe Mulock Station to “save money”. It is quite another matter for the Town’s Mayor to sabotage an initiative which in the medium to long term will bring huge benefits to the area and to Newmarket as a whole.

We shouldn't turn down the offer of a new GO Rail station. But Joe Wamback says we don't need it.

Now Joe is telling us he wants to relocate the Eagle Street GO Bus Station to the Tannery. As I’ve been advocating this for years I decide to award him a brownie point. 

Now he is talking about building a new parking structure at Davis Drive.

He fields questions about the future of Hollingsworth arena, telling us the Town shouldn’t be a developer itself but should partner with the private sector. 

He is animated and energised about marijuana. It’s is a done deal. It’s gonna be legal. It’s impossible to wind back the clock but the Town can pass by-laws regulating the locations of shops selling the stuff. He is sceptical of bike lanes and would get rid of the waist-high yellow posts along the road that delineate them. He reads his audience well and knows this will get a laugh – which it does. Now he tells us:

“My heart is as big as anyone’s for those that need help most.”

But in the next breath – and just in case you doubt where he is coming from - he makes it clear taxpayers’ dollars are a limited resource. 

Contracting out Town services

He ridicules the idea of the Town becoming an internet provider and warns against encroaching on the private sector’s turf. But he goes further. He says the Town has a staff of 800 and we should be looking at ways of contracting out some of the services that are currently provided in-house. He doesn’t specify which and no-one asks.

Joe is not prepared to argue the case for amalgamating municipalities to save cash but he doesn’t see any reason why particular (unspecified) services cannot be shared. This is unexceptional stuff coming straight from the standard Conservative play book.

Now someone is asking him where he has been for the past four or more years. He has been the invisible man. He says he had to take a low profile and steer clear of controversy as a condition of his work as an adjudicator. Fair enough, but neither was he following events that have convulsed the Town over recent years. Last night he confessed to knowing nothing about the Newmarket soccer loan controversy. That surprised me but I suppose it shouldn’t have.

Now we are talking about the role of the Mayor and the Town bureaucracy. He believes in term limits – eight years would do nicely – as

“We need new blood and new ideas.”

The ideas, he says, come through the staff – the Bob Sheltons of this world – and the job of the Mayor is to make things happen. Seeking funding. Bending ears and, perhaps, twisting arms. Who knows?

Oh dear!

This dismays me.

Of course full time senior staff will have their own views on how the Town should grow and develop but to pass the initiative to them to “come up with new ideas” is to misunderstand the role of elected members. 

“I like Doug Ford”

Someone asks him what he will do if he loses. 

It is no big deal. He and Lozanne will move on to the next thing – whatever that may be. He repeats what he told me in May:

“I am not doing this for the money.”

The Chamber of Commerce debate next Wednesday (26 September 2016) promises to be a compelling clash of ideas and approaches. 

His opponent, John Taylor, is by nature and inclination an interventionist (though in a careful, prudent and “don’t frighten the horses” kind of way) and Wamback is a true-blue, dyed-in-the-wool Conservative. Joe tells us:

“I like Doug Ford.”

This man, Joe Wamback, tells it as he sees it. He is not going to dance around the issues. So I hope the format next Wednesday allows the two of them the briefest of pleasantries before locking horns.

They have very different approaches to running the Town and we have a clear choice in front of us.

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Update: Newmarket Today's coverage of the event is here.

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