The race for mayor in Brampton has largely focused on restoring accountability to city hall after this year's expense scandal but the tenor changed this week with the release of a new poll that shows Mayor Susan Fennell faces long odds of returning to office.
In a debate Thursday night hosted by the Brampton Young Professionals Forum, attention shifted to Linda Jeffrey's record. A poll conducted Sept. 27 by Forum Research put her at 42 per cent support, with her top two opponents – Ms. Fennell and Councillor John Sanderson – trailing far behind at 17 per cent each.
At the start of the debate, moderator Jahmeelah Gamble told the four participants she didn't want them to discuss overspending, a topic that has dominated much of the campaign. But they didn't need her direction; with Ms. Jeffrey's wide lead, her opponents instead targeted her, repeatedly accusing the former municipal affairs minister of failing Bramptonians during the last decade she spent at the Ontario legislature.
"Unfortunately a lot of the times when it comes to federal and provincial funding, we need assistance from our MPPs and for 10 years, we didn't have an MPP," said Mr. Sanderson, to an eruption of applause from the audience of about 60. "She wouldn't sit in the same room with the City of Brampton."
The night's debate focused on issues important to the city's young professionals. When candidates were asked how they'd attract big business to Brampton to create more employment, Ms. Jeffrey said she hoped to turn the city into a biomedical research hub based around the city's hospitals, including Peel Memorial Hospital, which is currently under redevelopment.
Mr. Sanderson seized the opportunity to take another swipe at Ms. Jeffrey, saying that instead of attracting companies to Brampton, she had "run a business out of Brampton into Caledon" – a reference to how Ms. Jeffrey stepped in to approve the controversial relocation of a Canadian Tire warehouse from Brampton to Caledon last year.
When candidates were asked what Brampton could learn from its next-door neighbour Mississauga, Mr. Sanderson said Mississauga had succeeded in development because outgoing Mayor Hazel McCallion had nurtured good relationships with the federal and provincial government.
"She had an MPP she could deal with," he said of Ms. McCallion. "For 10 years, [Brampton] got short-changed."
Ms. Jeffrey shook her head or rolled her eyes through multiple accusations from both Mr. Sanderson and Devinder Sangha, who is polling in fourth place, that she had done nothing for the city since being elected as an MPP. But halfway through the debate, she shot back.
"I want to dispel this notion that I didn't do anything for the last 10 years," she said, explaining that she, along with the rest of the Liberal government, invested $2.9-billion in Brampton and Peel since 2003.
"I'm the only candidate at this table who has a positive working relationship with the people at the province," she said.
When the subject of bringing a university to the city came up, Ms. Fennell, Mr. Sanderson and Mr. Sangha all said it was within reach for the city – Ms. Fennell went as far as to say if re-elected, she envisioned the first convocation at this yet-to-be-built institution would happen before the end of the next municipal term.
While it dampened the enthusiasm of many of the young people in the audience, Ms. Jeffrey tried to provide a reality check on her opponents. She said the application deadline for municipalities to make a pitch to the province is coming up this week and the city has missed its opportunity. "This council sat on the bench and did not chase the puck," she said.
"This is not going to come around in six months; it's probably not going to come around in four years."
While her pitch for what the city could be under her tenure as mayor was less ambitious than that of her opponents, she said this is because the city's finances aren't in the good shape current members of council suggest.
She said residents could choose to "maintain a cloud of corruption over city hall" or to vote for her.
An August audit report prepared by Deloitte Canada found Ms. Fennell had misspent $172,608 of taxpayers' money on everything from flight passes to luxe hotel accommodations while on business trips.
Mr. Sanderson was found to have misspent $2,744 of public funds.
The city invoiced all council members for a portion of what they are said to have misspent; Mr. Sanderson has paid back the $1,614 in full, but Ms. Fennell is in dispute with the city about the $34,118.02 she has been asked to pay back.
While the audit was released in the summer, Ms. Fennell in September threatened legal action against both Deloitte and the integrity commissioner, which effectively put discussion of reports prepared by both on hold.
Ms. Fennell may still face loss of pay or some other punishment once the integrity commissioner's report is tabled. The Ontario Provincial Police are investigating whether any crimes were committed by Ms. Fennell or the rest of council.