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Toronto mayoral candidates Josh Matlow, left to right, Olivia Chow, Mitzie Hunter, Brad Bradford, Mark Saunders and Ana Bailao take the stage at a mayoral debate in Scarborough, Ont. on May 24. Former police chief Saunders called out Chow's proposal to raise the city's vacant home tax in Thursday's debate.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Six of the leading candidates in Toronto’s mayoral by-election traded barbs in a combative televised debate Thursday evening as they each tried to position themselves as the best leader to tackle public safety, housing and congestion.

The 1½-hour debate, hosted by the Toronto Region Board of Trade and TVO in front of more than 500 people at the University of Toronto’s Isabel Bader Theatre, took place a month before the June 26 by-election to replace John Tory, who resigned earlier this year after acknowledging an affair with a staffer.

Debate moderator Steve Paikin of TVO led the candidates through questions on the major issues currently facing Toronto and the city’s expected growth. Topics included fiscal responsibility, shelter, public safety and congestion, with about 10 minutes for open debate on each. It was the fourth mayoral debate in two days.

Olivia Chow, a former NDP member of Parliament and a former city councillor who is currently polling as the race’s front-runner, was the first to be challenged on her policies by former Toronto police chief Mark Saunders, who ran unsuccessfully as candidate for Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative Party in the past election.

Mr. Saunders called out Ms. Chow’s plan to raise the city’s vacant home tax to 3 per cent from 1 per cent and suggested that she would have to raise property taxes to fund her platform promises. He told the audience to “grab your popcorn” as he complained that Ms. Chow failed to provide specifics on her plans for taxes. Ms. Chow has said the vacant-home-tax increase would go toward affordable housing and has promised to introduce a luxury home tax, but her platform does not specifically address property taxes.

Mr. Saunders said he wouldn’t raise taxes above inflation.

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The candidates, standing at podiums side by side on the theatre stage, mostly sparred over each other’s past records. Mr. Paikin frequently jumped in to provide the candidates a chance to respond to criticisms and allegations from their opponents.

Mr. Saunders said both current and past councillors failed to do enough on housing over several years in office. He said the candidates had “great dreams and schemes and ideas” but didn’t take action.

Both former councillor Ana Bailão and current councillor Brad Bradford have each chaired the city’s housing committee and both were strong supporters of Mr. Tory’s housing plans during his time in office.

“They’ve been in charge. It’s not acceptable,” Ms. Chow said, pointing to the city’s slow housing approval process. Many of the candidates complained that it can take three years for housing approvals in the city, among the slowest approval times in the country.

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Mitzie Hunter, who recently resigned as Liberal MPP for Scarborough-Guildwood to run in the by-election, focused on the need to build affordable housing and her plan to quickly build 2,000 supportive housing units by using existing buildings.

Councillor Josh Matlow, who was often a critic of Mr. Tory during the latter’s tenure as mayor, was targeted for frequently being the voice of opposition on council.

“I didn’t go along to get along just to get appointments,” Mr. Matlow responded after Ms. Bailão called him out for being a recurring No vote on council.

The other candidates took shots at Mr. Saunders’s record as police chief and partly blamed his leadership for the public-safety challenges currently facing the city.

Mr. Bradford pointed to a 2018 Toronto Police Association poll in which 86 per cent of respondents said they didn’t have confidence in his leadership as chief. Mr. Saunders had his contract extended a year, but he resigned before it was up.

The candidates also said the city would need support from higher levels of government both to fulfil their plans and overcome a projected budget shortfall of more than $1-billion this year.

Mr. Tory and deputy mayor Jennifer McKelvie, who is currently fulfilling many of the mayor’s duties, have repeatedly called for the Ontario and federal governments to provide the city with a financial bailout.

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