Mantell persona non grata for Chelsea debate

Oct. 14, 2009 – At least four candidates for the Chelsea, Quebec municipal elections have threatened to pull out of an all candidates debate, citing concerns about its nebulous format and its moderator, the editor of this newspaper.

Liam Fitzgerald (mayor), Richard Herron (Ward 6), Geoff Bleich (Ward 2) and Peter Lloyd (Ward 3) all indicated to the organizing committee for the Oct. 21 debate sponsored by the Chelsea Chamber of Commerce that they are considering boycotting it.

Herron also demanded police be present in case of any violent or disruptive behaviour. He later qualified this request to the Low Down, saying it was meant as humour, though admittedly dark.

Herron said he was simply trying to explain his apprehensions about the debate to organizer Manon Leblanc, and used hyperbole about “riot control” to make his point.

He is wary, as someone campaigning for “sane, safe and reasonable development”, of entering a debate sponsored by the chamber and hosted at Camp Fortune, “the belly of the beast” when it comes to Chelsea’s development.

Bob Milko, Liam Fitzgerald’s campaign manager, objected to the lack of information provided about the debate, saying his candidate received an email from organizers asking him to keep the date free without providing any description about its content or format. He said he was also concerned about participating in a debate sponsored by a pro development organization and moderated by Nikki Mantell, who he said displayed bias in favour of the Meredith Centre in the Low Down’s coverage of the referendum last June.

Milko submitted a proposed format to organizers Oct. 13 that would feature three-minute speeches from each candidate, followed by a debate. Milko asked that debate topics be submitted to candidates at least four days in advance, and that questions from “the floor” be submitted and pre-approved by the moderator.

He said Fitzgerald would not participate in a debate where all questions were from the floor.

Fitzgerald said he would prefer the chamber to choose another moderator, but that he would still participate regardless as its “a good opportunity to meet the public.”

Herron is also leery of having Mantell as moderator, saying she’s too excitable and eager to generate news.

Both Herron and Milko suggested replacing her with Chelsea librarian Beatrice O’Byrne, although neither had contacted her to see if she was interested or available.

Herron’s main concern about the debate though, was who would attend, a question he said Leblanc wouldn’t answer. He has no interest in attending if the other candidates in his ward are absent.

In emails to the debate committee, Bleich said he would not participate unless each candidate is given at least 15 minutes of speaking time, and listed three topics he would discuss, but would not “be particularly interested in debating anything else”.

Bleich told the Low Down that “in the absence of any details from the chamber, it’s pretty hard to state one way or another” whether he will participate. He thought it might have to be held over a few nights in order to grant each candidate appropriate time.

Most of the candidates objecting to the debate have been campaigning on platforms of better transparency on the part of council that includes more open discussion about issues, something Mantell finds ironic.

“I thought answering questions from the media was part of the job of being a candidate,” she said. “Last time I checked, just about every big federal or provincial debate was moderated by a news person, be it from the CBC, CTV or TV Ontario. It’s pretty standard.”