When Linda Jeffrey was elected to the Brampton mayor's office , voters gave her a daunting task list: Clean up perceived corruption, get the city's finances in order and open up communication between city hall and the electorate.
On March 10, she will mark her first 100 days in office and, from the perspective of her council colleagues and city-hall watchdogs, she's risen to the challenge of restoring Brampton's reputation and residents' trust. From slashing her own salary as a first order of business to bringing outside scrutiny to city hall, observers say Ms. Jeffrey's term has gotten off to a promising start. But with her first budget drawing near and more demons to face from the previous era, the road ahead has immediate challenges.
There has been a major turnover in council since the last election with six new councillors and a new mayor but the city bureaucracy remains largely unchanged. Some of the same staff who used public funds to purchase tickets to former mayor Susan Fennell's annual charity gala are still on the city payroll. Other staff are alleged to have withheld key information tied to a lucrative downtown development deal from council and are being investigated by the city's interim auditor-general for potential misconduct. And while Ms. Jeffrey's predecessor routinely boasted that the city was debt-free, a recent report from ratings agency Standard and Poor's said the city is in fact carrying $141-million of debt.
Although it's a common barometer for new administrations, the 100-day mark might not be the best measure of Mayor Jeffrey's ability to lead the country's ninth-largest city. She's faced a different set of expectations in these first months of her term than most of her counterparts, says Brian Kelcey, a political consultant who previously worked with Toronto mayoral candidate David Soknacki and who has closely followed Brampton politics for the past few years.
"Rather than measuring progress in terms of ticking off bylaws passed or budgets tabled or cuts made," Mr. Kelcey said, "progress is being measured in how much is city hall changing and how much is … the mood in city hall changing."
Purely from an optics standpoint, Ms. Jeffrey's decision to lower her salary by more than $50,000 has perhaps been her most successful move to date. The label of being the highest-paid mayor in Canada haunted her predecessor and became illustrative of a culture of entitlement in the mayor's office – one Ms. Jeffrey sought to distance herself from right off the bat.
"[The salary cut] was symbolic, but it was what I believe to be a cornerstone to a group of activities that need to occur," she said.
In keeping with the theme of transparency, Ms. Jeffrey has eliminated a $250 fee residents were charged if they wanted the city to investigate an alleged closed meeting between councillors (with a few exceptions, council cannot convene outside of public meetings to discuss city business). She is taking steps to establish a lobbyist and gift registry in the wake of an expense scandal that came to light in 2013 that involved both the former mayor and council. Ms. Jeffrey has also invited Ontario Ombudsman André Marin to review practices by city staff to see if protocols are being followed and if practices could be improved – but this week she said she might hold off on that as staff may be "fatigued."
Chris Bejnar, the co-chair of watchdog group Citizens for a Better Brampton, was impressed when he learned the mayor had recruited former provincial auditor-general Jim McCarter to conduct a financial review of the city – a move he saw as Ms. Jeffrey accessing her wealth of connections. Before returning to municipal politics in Brampton last fall, she headed up the ministries of municipal affairs and housing, labour and natural resources. She is known to have a close relationship with Premier Kathleen Wynne. To Mr. Bejnar's eyes, the most useful thing the new mayor has brought to city hall is her good relationship with the province, which he anticipates will be accessed later as the city moves forward on plans for expanding transit and trying to attract a university.
Mr. McCarter's report, which was released in late January, highlighted three pressing issues for Brampton: ballooning operating costs, a mounting infrastructure deficit and the lack of reserve funds to cover the growing city's needs.
Revelations from Mr. McCarter's report, especially on the debt the city has from the cost of the downtown redevelopment project, was "a real eye-opener for us," said Gurpreet Dhillon, a newly elected councillor. "We need to get our house in order."
Ms. Jeffrey and council's toughest challenge – which might come with serious public backlash – will be in the next few weeks as they make decisions about how to tackle the city's financial woes, says Jaipaul Massey-Singh, chair of the Brampton Board of Trade.
"Either they're going to have to put forward a significant tax increase or they're going to have to take the measures to avoid that tax increase," Mr. Massey-Singh said.
While Mr. McCarter's report brought to light a grim financial reality for Brampton, not all the city's skeletons have been dragged out of the closet yet. When she took office, Ms. Jeffrey inherited another big problem leftover from the previous era: a $28.5-million lawsuit filed against the city by a developer who says he was unfairly disqualified from bidding on a downtown redevelopment project. Allegations of improper conduct by city staff and the use of a controversial procurement policy related to that project are currently being investigated by municipal law expert George Rust-D'Eye, who has been appointed interim auditor-general.
Although the outcomes of the lawsuit and Mr. Rust-D'Eye's report could be deeply damaging for the city, Mr. Bejnar says Ms. Jeffrey must continue with the spirit of "digging up dirt" and moving on from it.
"We've got to deal with all our demons, get them out in the open and draw that line in the sand and say: 'We've got to do everything above board from now on.'" he said.
Ms. Jeffrey described Mr. McCarter's report as "tough medicine" and has taken notice of his recommendation that the city consider taking on debt to finance much-needed infrastructure repairs.
A promising sign for councillors bracing for storms on the horizon is Ms. Jeffrey's openness with both them and city staff.
While Ms. Fennell led a council with "divided loyalties," Elaine Moore, a councillor since 2000, says the new mayor treats council as part of the same team. She said Ms. Jeffrey and her staff have been "wearing a path" between the mayor's office, on the sixth floor of city hall, and council offices, on the fourth floor. Ms. Jeffrey said she is considering moving her office down to the fourth floor in the next few years.
Mr. Kelcey, the political consultant, says a key to Ms. Jeffrey's success so far has been her practice of seeking backing from partners, whether it's a contact at Queen's Park or a councillor two floors down, ahead of all her decisions.
"The most successful mayors in my experience are those who line up support before they pull the trigger so people don't fight back simply out of surprise," Mr. Kelcey says.