TORONTO — What started off early as a concerted attack on front-running mayoralty candidate Rob Ford eventually moved smoothly into a debate on issues of concern to seniors as Toronto’s would-be mayors engaged in a debate at Shaarei Shomayim Congregation last Thursday morning.
Pictured at the recent Toronto mayoral candidates’ debate that focused primarily on seniors’ issues are, from left, Rocco Rossi, George Smitherman, Joe Pantalone, Sarah Thomson and Rob Ford. [Andy Levy-Ajzenkopf photo] (Video Here)
focused primarily on seniors’ issues are, from left, Rocco Rossi, George
Smitherman, Joe Pantalone, Sarah Thomson and Rob Ford. [Andy
TORONTO — What started off early as a concerted attack on front-running mayoralty
candidate Rob Ford eventually moved smoothly into a debate on issues of
concern to seniors as Toronto’s would-be mayors engaged in a debate at
Shaarei Shomayim Congregation last Thursday morning.
Candidates respond to questions
The candidates at last week’s debate were presented with five questions, chosen jointly by Association of Jewish Seniors and the Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee as ones that are of paramount concern to seniors.
• Given that a large number of seniors live on fixed incomes and have limited savings, how would you manage the city’s finances to ensure that they’re protected from future financial demands? Do you believe that the privatization of city services has a place in those considerations?
Organized by the Association of Jewish Seniors (AJS) and the Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee (CJPAC), the Aug. 19 event featured the five leading candidates: Rocco Rossi, George Smitherman, Joe Pantalone, Sarah Thomson and Ford.
In his opening remarks, Rossi told the 200 gathered seniors that the most important quality in any candidate is “the truth.” The remark was aimed at Ford, who earlier that morning had confessed to being charged with possession of marijuana and driving under the influence while on a trip to Florida in 1999.
Rossi’s remark drew jeers from the crowd, who seemed to want a debate on the issues and appeared uninterested in character attacks.
“Tell us what you stand for,” shouted one senior from the back of the hall.
Smitherman’s opening statement also took aim at Ford for remarks he made last week about the ability of the city to take in new immigrants when it’s having trouble, he said, serving its 2.5 million existing citizens.
“Diversity is our strength. This is an issue that’s important to the Jewish community,” Smitherman said. “We can count on organizations like Baycrest, UJA Federation and Mount Sinai. I want to discuss the things you need as seniors in order to thrive and live in dignity.”
Thomson, founder of Women’s Post magazine, opened by saying she would bring a fresh perspective that combined her history of success as a businesswoman with the goal of running the city like a “well-run household,” saying it needs to spend money but take care of people at the same time.
In the course of answering questions posed by moderator Michael Friedman, CJPAC’s director of operations, Rossi –the former CEO of the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario and a former national director of the Liberal Party of Canada – said that for 100 years, no mayor has been elected in Toronto who didn’t first serve on council, and he aims to change that legacy.
On the question of transit, Rossi said he’s against declaring the TTC an essential service, which would limit its employees’ right to strike. “We have to get beyond the politics and get to the business of transit.”
Smitherman, the former MPP for Toronto Centre and provincial cabinet minister, said he would support making the TTC an essential service and would also allow seniors to “ride free” between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
Thomson said Toronto should build up its transit system based on current fares and figure out how to lower costs and fees later. Free transit is a lofty goal, she said, but the city has to first figure out how to get there.
She also suggested adding rush-hour tolls on the Gardiner Expressway and the Don Valley Parkway, and putting the extra revenue toward training city workers and expanding affordable housing options.
Ford said seniors should have access to free transit, suggesting that the money for such an initiative could come from revoking the 21,000 free Metropasses that are currently in use.
“The majority go to TTC employees that get to ride the bus for free. All councillors get them for free,” he said, adding that, if elected, he would change this. “If anyone’s riding the TTC for free, it should be seniors.”
Pantalone, who supports Toronto’s Transit City plan, agreed that transportation is an important issue for seniors.
“Seniors have a particular role to play in our society, and using transit is part of it. In Toronto, transit is the biggest problem we have, and Transit City is the best solution,” he said, referring to an initiative of the current council under Mayor David Miller.
As part of the Transit City plan, Toronto would build eight new light-rail rapid transit lines that would extend to underserviced neighbourhoods, and would extend the subway to York University and into York Region.
As for the security needs of the Jewish community, Rossi said the city is obliged to protect its citizens, which is why Toronto’s police budget is “close to $1 billion” and would remain one of the top budget items if he’s elected mayor.
For his part, Smitherman said that the “security of anyone in our community is the business of everyone. We need to make sure the police are there to serve and protect.”
With respect to seniors getting value for their tax dollars, Smitherman reiterated that he’d extend free transit to seniors and that if elected, he would consider it “essential” to exercise “wage restraint” at City Hall over the next few years.
Rossi said that while he’s “not against” labour and unions, he thinks it’s impossible and unfair for the city to “sustain [municipal employees’ salary] increases” at the current rate.
On the housing question, Smitherman said it would be his “priority” to ensure the elderly are supported in their “current homes” instead of being forced to move for financial reasons.
“We want to help them stay in the places where they feel loved already,” he said.
Rossi acknowledged that subsidized housing could be “part of the answer” to accommodating the needs of seniors, but he emphasized the need for the city to “partner with the private sector” to get housing projects done on time and on budget.
If elected, Pantalone said he’ll fight for better services for seniors, including snow removal, adding that seniors are more vulnerable to injuries as a result of poor upkeep of city streets.
“We want to improve services for seniors… When there’s [cracks] in the sidewalk, rather than patching it up, the city should come in once, with cement,” he said.
According to Ford, the city can’t afford to build more subsidized housing units, but there are many empty apartments for rent that may be too expensive for seniors.
“What we have to do is subsidize people’s rent and move them in,” he said, adding that the city can’t maintain subsidized housing.
“[The units] are not safe. There’s cockroaches. We cannot build more public housing,” he said.
Pantalone said that, if elected, he would freeze property tax for seniors with household incomes of less than $50,000, which would enable them to stay in their homes.
Ruth Goldsmith, the AJS vice-president in charge of communications, who was at the debate, said she was disappointed by some of the candidates’ answers.
“None of the candidates really got to grips with the day-to-day responsibilities of running a city. They were full of clichés,” she said.
In particular, Goldsmith wasn’t impressed with Ford.
“He struck me as being out of touch with the community, out of touch with what people really want. He got kudos for saying, ‘I’m going to cut taxes.’ Anyone can cut taxes, but if we want affordable housing, good transportation, we have to be ready to pay taxes,” she said.
“On the other hand, he’s saying, ‘I’m going to cut spending.’ Where’s the money going to come from?”
Goldsmith also questioned Pantalone’s leadership abilities.
“I think he’s a very well-meaning man… but as a leader, he doesn’t seem to have a vision for the city,” she said.