Hamilton’s three mayoral candidates debated a referendum on LRT Thursday. One said he’d support it, while two others said there’s no need.

Brad Clark, an LRT opponent and candidate in the Oct. 27 municipal election, said he'd be willing to have a referendum on the proposed $800-million transit project.

“I’ve never, ever had a challenge or been afraid of referendums,” said Clark, current councillor for Ward 9 in Stoney Creek. “They are a tool within the community and provide immediate advice.”

Challenger Fred Eisenberger, an LRT fan and Hamilton mayor from 2006 to 2010, said he’d rather see a citizen’s panel on the issue. Opponent Brian McHattie, a long-time LRT supporter and current Ward 1 councillor, said the issue has been going on for years and been discussed enough.

The trio made the comments during a Hamilton Business Leaders breakfast event, held by the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce, the Hamilton Halton Homebuilders Association and the Realtors Association of Hamilton-Burlington. Three-hundred people attended the sold-out event.

Topics included the local transit system, the city’s infrastructure deficit, transparency at city hall and how to draw more businesses to Hamilton.

Eisenberger said he supports a “citizen’s jury” on LRT so the public gives input. As for a referendum, it’s too late to include it on the municipal election ballot, he said.

Already 'lots of discussion': McHattie

“(Citizens juries) can decide on someone’s life,” he said. “Surely they can decide LRT.”

McHattie outlined LRT’s history in Hamilton dating back to 2007. The city has used Metrolinx grant money for preliminary designs, he said. It’s held public meetings and gotten plenty of input. In February 2013, council unanimously passed its Rapid Ready Report, which supports LRT if the province pays for the full capital costs.

“We’ve had lots of discussion,” he said.

LRT, Eisenberger and McHattie argue, has a bigger return on investment than the alternative, which is bus rapid transit (BRT).

A 2010 Metrolinx report shows LRT as having greater economic spinoffs than BRT. A 2010 report from the Canadian Urban Institute, of which Eisenberger is the former head, also trumpets higher economic spinoffs for LRT.

LRT reports 'skewed': Clark

Clark said those reports are “skewed” because pro-LRT information was added to them under the title of “city building.”

“Where you as a business would look at something as fact or expenses, based on cost, based on revenue, governments look at something like ‘city building.’”

The format didn’t allow Eisenberger or McHattie to respond, although both appeared to react. “It’s a big issue,” Eisenberger told the moderator.

Other highlights:

  • Eisenberger said Hamilton’s infrastructure deficit is a “perennial and ongoing problem.” He’d look at how to reduce costs and boost the commercial and industrial tax base to pay for it. McHattie said Hamilton needs a larger share of the gas tax and better relationships with the provincial and federal government, and more efficiency. Clark said the city should focus on “needs and not wants” to handle the city’s $200-million infrastructure deficit, and work on job creation.
  • One question focused on a city hall survey that showed low employee morale and fear of repercussions if employees reported a wrongdoing. McHattie said a mayor and city council need to lead by example and not intimidate staff, which has happened in the past. “We need to be much more courteous than we are now. We need to be much more proper and thoughtful in our debate at city council.” Clark said he spearheaded a whistle-blower bylaw that has been working at city hall. Eisenberger said the city requires a strong human resources department.

The discussion was fairly free of barbs, although Eisenberger pointed out that Hamilton's amalgamation was the work of "the Clark/Harris government," referring to Clark's time as an MPP under Mike Harris's Conservative government.

McHattie and Eisenberger also referenced Clark's previous votes in favour of LRT as long as the province fully funds it. Clark supported that too "until a month ago," Eisenberger said.

Audience reaction

Ashor Sworesho and Zaya Oshana attended the breakfast. Sworesho is a chiropractor at Hamilton Chiropractic and Oshana owns a Pita Pit franchise.

Both were undecided coming to the meeting, and still are, but liked elements of all three.

Sworesho is leaning toward Clark, who who felt backed up his ideas with facts and detail, he said. Oshana liked Eisenberger’s diplomacy. “The way he presented himself, the way he was sitting, he seemed very natural.”

If there was a so-called winner, local realtor Cameron Nolan said, it was probably Eisenberger or Clark. But it’s hard to pick.

“My first impression is that you have three caring people who want Hamilton to be a great place who each bring very diverse skills and intellect to the table,” Nolan said.

“It’s not like you have three people who have the same agenda. As a result, it becomes a harder choice.”

Michael Baldasaro, Ejaz Butt, Mike Clancy, Warrand Francis, Nick Iamonico, Crystal Lavigne, Michael Pattison, Phil Ryerson and Ricky Taveres are also running.

The Hamilton Community Legal Clinic and the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction are holding a roundtable discussion for the mayoral candidates on Monday, Sept. 22 from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. at the main branch of the Hamilton Public Library. Everyone is welcome.