Harrison politics was described as a “blood sport” during the 2018 Harrison Hot Springs all-candidates meeting Wednesday night.
Hosted by the Harrison Agassiz Chamber of Commerce, moderator Allan Main asked candidates questions about tourism, short-term rentals and online bullying.
Even the particulars of supposed spending allegations were brought to the stage, with the two mayoral candidates going head to head on the topic.
Compared to the serenity of the previous night’s meeting in Kent, members of the audience in Harrison were vocal about their disdain for particular comments – booing and heckling during parts of mayoral candidate John Allen’s answers.
But before any of that, candidates each received three minutes to briefly introduce themselves and explain their motivations for running.
Incumbent Leo Facio, seeking re-election as mayor, told the audience about his “proven ability, leadership” and role as a “team player” before launching into a long list of projects and initiatives he played a role in as mayor. His introduction made no mention of his plans for the future other than to say that, if elected he will bring in “the three C’s: Communication, collaboration, cooperation.”
Challenging mayoral candidate John Allen also read a list of his community involvements and projects, both on and off council. “I don’t have as long a list as Leo because he’s been here for 10 years and I’ve been, frankly, cut out of everything for ten years,” he claimed.
Allen said he wants to get Harrison “back on track with the objectives in our Official Community Plan (OCP).” He mentioned goals of cleaning up the Harrison Lagoon, the Miami River and protecting local forests.
Allen has been a vocal opponent to the current Village administration, both online in local Facebook groups and during regular council meetings. Some members of the crowd heckled Allen during his response, groaning or shouting “next.”
Councillor candidates introduce themselves
The councillor candidates were then offered a chance to introduce themselves to the crowd.
Leslie Ghezesan has lived in Harrison for 17 years. He said he decided to run because he cannot “sit and take the reckless spending going on.”
Zoltan Kiss, who has been a full-time Harrison resident for 20 years and served as a councillor for one term in 2011, said it’s time to review and re-write the “outdated OCP.” Kiss said the public should have a chance for input on things like “preserving the natural ambiance of the Village,” future uses of the Memorial Hall and an emergency exit from the Village.
Ray Hooper told the audience he has lived in Harrison for 10 years. Some of his goals include ensuring Village contracts are managed more efficiently and done properly, supporting economic growth and encouraging transparency around tax-dollar spending.
Michie Vidal, a top organizer in the movement against quarry development near the Village, said her goal and vision for the Village is smart and sustainable growth. “We need to manage the growth of Harrison in a deliberate and intentional way,” she said.
Incumbent Samantha Piper said her council and committee experience makes her more than qualified for re-election. “I am highly organized and a dedicated individual. I believe in [teams] and therefore believe in the importance of public consultation and engagement,” Piper said. “I will remain open minded [and] continue to listen…”
|Candidates from left to right: Allan Jackson, Gerry Palmer, Samantha Piper, Michie Vidal, mayoral candidate John Allen, Ray Hooper, Zoltan Kiss and Leslie Ghezesan. (Not pictured- Sung Wong and mayoral candidate Leo Facio.) (Nina Grossman/The Observer)|
Gerry Palmer is still a part-time Harrison resident, but said with retirement looming, he may be living in Harrison year-round soon. “I think I can be respectful, I think I can be positive and I think that I can provide an important voice on council [and] a different perspective,” Palmer said.
Allan Jackson told the crowd he had previously served on Harrison council for nine years. “One of the reasons I am running for councillor is my passion for the community I call home,” Jackson said. “I want to be part of moving [Harrison] into the future in a constructive, positive way.”
Finally Surrey man Sung Wong, also running for the position of councillor in Hope and the District of Kent, admitted that there are other candidates with “more knowledge of local conditions.”
“It’s precisely because I’m not from here that I can take an innovative, unbiased and non-partisan approach to finding solutions to problems and difficulties facing the Village,” Wong said. He later stated in his closing remarks that if elected, he would donate half or possibly all of his councillor salary back into the Village or to a charity of the Village’s choosing.
“This is not a challenge to other councillors,” he said.
Each candidate had one minute to answer the question: “What would you do to prevent social media bullying, specifically targeting mayor and council?”
“Those remarks are done by keyboard warriors,” replied incumbent councillor candidate Samantha Piper. “And it’s keyboard courage.”
Piper said council should have a policy in place for addressing bullying behaviour.
Gerry Palmer said “politics in Harrison is somewhat of a blood sport,” before citing two solutions: One: that candidates should lead with their own example…and two, for municipal government to be as transparent as possible. “Many of the negative things that are said are fueled by the fact that there’s some confusion or its easier to come up with things that aren’t valid,” he replied.
Councillor candidate Allan Jackson said that while he was on council there were over 250 letters written to him. “And each one of those letter defamed me or someone else on our council and they weren’t very nice,” he said. “Those things have to stop and I do hope we will never run into that again in this community.”
There was a shift in answers when the microphone moved down the table.
Leslie Ghezesan said that if the council was more open, people wouldn’t make comments online. “How many times [did] I try to speak at council meetings – they just shut me down,” he said.
Zoltan Kiss replied: “We should embrace social media” because “it’s a way we can communicate.”
“If you want to go ahead and bully me, go for it,” Kiss said. “I don’t have to read it, I don’t have to reply, I don’t have to like it, I don’t have to ‘put tears on it,’ [I’ll] just ignore you, you’ll go away.”
Ray Hooper said candidates in the current election have been attacked online. “These people don’t deserve my anger, they get my pity instead,” he said.
Finally the mayoral candidates had a chance to address the question.
Facio mentioned ‘fake news’ and said social media users should attack the issue, not the person.
“Take the time to find out the truth,” he said. “If you need to get information either ask the council or come into the office and get the right news…”
Allen rolled his eyes at Facio’s response before replying himself, saying: “Bullying is when somebody is using superior power to victimize a person,” he said, adding that he uses Facebook pages like ‘Harrison Hot Springs News and Views’ for news and opinions – a page where is also a frequent poster and commenter.
Allen’s reply was met with boos and heckling from the crowd.
“We should not let this allegation of bullying be confused with censorship,” Allen added. “I, for one, will be opposed to any attempt to shut down the public’s right to express their opinion or ask their questions. I’m fully in support of community-based social media as a means of communication in the Village of Harrison.”
Mayoral candidates Facio and Allen were put head to head after Main read a question about costs submitted by a community member.
“There has been a number of questions from the community about various costs the Village has undertaken in recent years,” said Main. He then read a part of the question addressed specifically to Allen. Each candidate had only two minutes to address the question.
“You have stated that the bowling green cost the Village $50,000 and the exercise equipment cost $1 million. This is not consistent with other cost estimates on these [items]. Could you confirm and explain what these numbers are based on?”
Allen said he was confused and asked for clarification on the question a number of times.
Finally he responded, alleging the bowling green was installed without council approval or public discussion. “The speculation in the Village has been that it cost $50,000. We don’t know what it cost, but in the absence of facts, you’re going to get speculation…”
Allen said he estimates the cost of the exercise equipment, installed atop the publish washrooms on Harrison Beach, was closer to $1.5 million.
Facio struck back, saying the bowling green area was done before his administration, but that council did put up fencing and other aesthetic measures that cost $10,000. He claimed the exercise equipment cost the Village $23,000, not $1 million.
Tourism and short-term rentals
All candidates were asked about tourism, of which most said that more could be done with things like the Circle Farm Tour and encouraging tourism during off-season. Wong even threw out the idea of a casino boat on Harrison Lake.
Still, all candidates stood staunchly against short-term rentals in the Village, saying the noise and disturbance outweighed any tourism benefits.
Next week’s Observer will include questions and answers with councillor candidates from Kent, Harrison and Electoral Area-C. The General Voting Day for Harrison Hot Springs is Oct. 20 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. at Harrison Hot Springs Elementary.