“I see a vision for a better city and I’d like to lead council to make that happen … the mayor needs to be somebody who leads a team, who works with all the other members of council.”
by John Devine
When asked why he wants to be mayor of Barrie, Jeff Lehman says he is “the right guy for the times.”
“I think there is a tremendous opportunity right now for the city to grow in a different way and for us to have a little bit more long-term thinking in terms of the way city council does its business.”
Decisions that need to be made over the next two or three years will have a profound impact on the city during the coming decades, says Lehman, who is vying for office in a hotly-contested race. “It’s hugely important that we get it right.”
Unlike previous municipal elections that came and went with nary a whisper, this one has been a noisy affair as eight candidates battle it out for the big chair. Candidates included former mayor Rob Hamilton, current mayor Dave Aspden, former MPP Joe Tascona, and current Ward 1 councillor Mike Ramsay.
Recent polls put Tascona, Lehman and Hamilton all within striking distance of the chain of office, with a sizeable chunk of the electorate undecided.
“I see a vision for a better city and I’d like to lead council to make that happen. I’ve watched recent mayors … and I’ve really felt there’s a much better way to do the job. The mayor needs to be somebody who leads a team, who works with all the other members of council.”
Citing examples of that consensus-building style, Lehman says he has worked with most members of council to get things done.
“I’ve had joint motions with eight of the other members of council. I think I have tried to work with others to solve the issues of the day over the past couple of years. That’s how the job needs to be done.”
The candidate says his ‘day job’ as an economist provides him with the tools needed to guide the city.
“For the last 10 years I’ve been working with cities all over the country on … managing their growth, and on building their economies. It’s what I do. I’m an economist. I was an academic for a couple of years, but for the last 10 years I’ve been an advisor to governments at all levels.”
The owner of a small business, Lehman says he has an appreciation for the entrepreneurial skills required to build the economy of a city like Barrie. He says the city should be spending more time and effort helping businesses already here to expand and find new markets.
“There are some studies that say you generate three out four new jobs from companies that are already (in the community). If you just think about that for a second, that’s where we should be putting the bulk of our resources – taking a small company of three or five people, and saying, ‘how can we help you, or at least get out of the way of you become a 10-person or 20-person company?’
“A lot of that can be about the city using its own efforts to help these companies find new markets. I think that is really the key to job creation, more so than specific marketing or trade shows, that sort of thing.
“In terms of adding to Barrie’s job base … I think a lot of what we need to do is growing what we’ve got.”
The statistics indicate that “a heck of a lot of jobs” in Barrie are created by small business, says Lehman. “That’s an area where I don’t think the city has put a huge amount of focus on over the past years.”
One way the city could promote the growth of small businesses is to create what’s known as an incubator concept, in which entrepreneurs work from a shared office environment, getting access to a variety of shared resources, talents, etc.
The city has access to federal funding, about $330,000 to study an incubator model, and see how it can work in Barrie. In other communities, including Waterloo, Calgary and Markham, the municipal government works with post-secondary institutions to offer this support for small businesses.
The Creative Space in downtown Barrie is an example of a working incubator space. A number of businesses in the creative fields work from the space, sharing talents and resources.
Post-secondary institutions can also have a direct impact on the successes of local businesses, through programs and funding, says Lehman.
“Georgian College opened up the lab for the centre of applied research, which actually works with companies to develop new products. That is an absolutely fantastic initiative. It’s the kind of thing that can really turn into something great – bringing a new product to market, bringing a new service to market, that sort of thing.
“We’ve never done that in Barrie and I think it’s great that Georgian is doing that.”
Many of the issues facing Barrie, says Lehman, are going to take some time to resolve, and will require long-range thinking and planning.
“You have to be willing to make decisions that last beyond the election cycle, because you have a personal investment in the future of the city. That’s the approach I would bring to the job.”
The term of council now coming to an end could be described as fractious and contentious. Lehman responds that fractious and contentious could also be seen as lively, democratic debate, but regardless of perspective, he says there have been a number of achievements over the past four years, including a resolution to the boundary dispute with Innisfil.
“(It had) gone on for seven years and was starting to hurt our ability to bring companies to Barrie. Ending that was a big thing because we can now plan for our future.”
He lists the 2010 budget, with a 1.2 per cent tax increase, the lowest in 10 years, he says, as an achievement of the current council, particularly in light of spending commitments made by previous councils.
Failures include situations when council didn’t listen to the concerns of residents. “That’s another reason I’d like to be mayor.
“I think for many, many years in Barrie, people have felt that City Hall has been getting further away from them; City Hall doesn’t listen to them, council doesn’t listen to them.
“The cities that I have worked with that are really successful in making big changes are the ones where the public has a much stronger relationship with City Hall.”
Lehman points to the Historic Neighbourhoods Strategy, which he chaired, as the prototype for how (City Hall) should be dealing with the public in all parts of the city, in all neighbourhoods.
“That was, in some ways, my pilot project to address what I’ve seen as a failing.”
A guiding principle of that strategy, he says, is to get issues out before the community so that residents can respond and have input, well before they reach a planning or official stage.
“There have been … issues from time to time where on a planning application, or something else, people find out about it too late, and there wasn’t enough work done ahead of time to allow people to get information … and to really know what’s going on.”
Often, when a development of importance is being planned in an area of the city, people don’t hear about it until it’s before city council, says Lehman.
“At that point they are reacting to something when the decision is being made. A lot needs to be done ahead of time to ask people what they think about these things.”
It’s a common perception that people don’t care about municipal politics. That assumption is turned on its ear when people pack council chambers to participate in an issue near and dear to them.
“Part of this problem is just the way council operates. On those nights when council chambers are flooded with people, it’s often at the final decision stage.
“Our procedural bylaw only allows you to make a deputation to council if you are opposed to something that has already received initial approval. There are public meetings under the planning act, but they often happen before the issue is very well known in the community.
“As mayor, I would like council to change the procedural bylaw right off the top, to say that every … second meeting there would be (time) for an open-mic segment, where anybody could come in and speak to council, and have their five minutes on any topic.”
Lehman says that will help to some extent, but the bigger challenge is to change the culture of communication at City Hall.
“When (issues of substance) are being conceived at the earliest stages, when someone is first talking about realigning roads to move traffic onto different streets, that’s when you hold a meeting in the neighbourhood.
“And you may not be required to do that by provincial legislation, but as mayor, I’m going to require you to do that. I would want our staff out there having meetings in neighbourhoods on these concepts long before this stuff gets to council.”
Bringing about change is a leadership function, and the mayor needs to be a team player and consensus builder, says Lehman. “That is the job. It’s the leader of a team, and not a one-person show.”
Another area in which he’d like to lead change is in the city’s traffic flow. He says residents are increasingly concerned about the speed and flow of traffic.
“As I have been knocking on doors … I have heard a huge amount about cars speeding on local roads to cut through traffic. It’s one thing to have a lot of traffic moving quickly on an arterial road, but it’s something else entirely for them to be on a two-lane road cutting through the middle of the neighbourthood, going way too fast.”
To slow the flow and speed of traffic through neighbourhood streets, Lehman is in favour of traffic-calming measures; the city has a pilot program running now, and will issue a report to the next council. Measures include a speed bump on Eccles Street.
Still with roads, Lehman says he understands the frustration with the current level of roadwork in Barrie, but says it’s required.
“When the city did a poll a couple of years ago about (top priorities) for people, the number one issue was road maintenance, as in we’re not doing enough of it … and they were not wrong about that.
“Our own asset-management staff, their preliminary assessment is that there is a huge backlog of road repairs. And that’s because in the 90s, and at other times, roadwork was put off – capital work was put off. We now have roads that are long overdue for repair and rehabilitation.
“It was put off mostly for budget reasons, I think. If you are trying to fund a zero-percent tax increase, one of the ways to do it is to put off road repair. Unfortunately, the bill comes due later.”
Lehman says he gets the feeling people want a change in the way council, and the mayor, works.
“They are looking for somebody who is going to lead a team and listen to all parts of the city, and try to pull the council together instead of ending up in a fractious debate. They want a complete community, where you can live and work. Those are the big issues council should be spending a lot of time on … during the next term.”