Toronto’s leading mayoral candidates squared off Thursday night in a debate that saw some lively exchanges around congestion, safety, local democracy and the fate of the Gardiner Expressway.
Former police chief Mark Saunders found himself on the receiving end of several attacks during the debate, with a number of candidates calling out his record as police chief and his ties to Premier Doug Ford.
Responding to a comment from Saunders that his plan to make the TTC safer is the "best plan,” Brad Bradford shot back that he “can't take Mark Saunders seriously when 86 per cent of frontline police officers voted non-confidence in his track record as a failed police chief.”
Bradford went on to say that all the metrics were "moving in the wrong direction" when Saunders was police chief.
Ana Bailão chimed in with a similar comment at one point, saying that homicides and auto thefts went up “under his (Saunders’) leadership.”
The former chief responded by taking aim at the city for constraining the police budget during his tenure.
“It's funny being schooled about policing by anybody on this podium,” Saunders said.
He also said he was trying to implement important changes when his approval rating was low among officers.
“When I got that approval, it was because I was fighting,” Saunders said. “I was fighting to make sure that those officers were going to wear body-worn cameras; I was fighting to make sure that a 37-year-old shift schedule was changed to today's times to give better delivery of service. I was talking about using special constables towards the frontline to add the same value and not diminish the quality of policing. That's called leadership. But as soon as they (councillors) got challenged, they put their hands up to take guns away. That is not leadership.”
Mitzie Hunter piled on that “leadership is also about results.”
“Under your watch as former chief, crime has gone up and that's the result,” Hunter said. “You know, as a former education minister, if kids aren't learning in our schools, I have to account for that.”
Bailão clarified that she voted to remove certain types of weapons, not all guns, from police use.
Saunders has positioned himself as a law-and-order candidate who can restore calm to the city’s troubled transit system. While Olivia Chow has maintained a dominant lead in the polls, Saunders has often placed second.
He wasn't the only one who found himself under fire though. Josh Matlow took aim at former councillor Ana Bailão, accusing her of now supporting progressive ideas that he's advocated for years, ideas he said she voted against at council when she was aligned with former mayor John Tory.
“It is amazing to hear such progressive wonderful rhetoric from some of my peers here who are announcing the very things that I've been advocating for for years as a city councillor, and many of them voted against,” Matlow said. “You know, Ana, I didn't go along to get along just to get appointments.”
Bailão then shot back “you didn't get anything done.”
The 90-minute debate was sponsored by the Toronto Region Board of Trade and was moderated by TVO host Steve Paikin.
Candidates also squared off on gridlock and how best to make sure that goods can move around the city easily.
Matlow and Chow drew fire from Bradford for their plans to move the eastern portion of the crumbling Gardiner Expressway to ground level instead of rebuilding it as council decided seven years ago.
Both candidates have said the plan would save hundreds of millions of dollars and would unlock space for housing, but others have contended that it would create traffic chaos on an important artery into and out of the city.
"This would add significant delay to a decision that was made in 2015,” Bradford said. “You would take an elevated expressway, build a ramp down at grade for 240 metres and then you would ramp it back up to the other elevated expressway. That's ludicrous.”
Matlow responded that there is no question about the fact that the crumbling section of highway needs to come down, but he said what gets built afterward will make a huge difference for the city. He said it would "stick out like a sore thumb" if the city committed to 1950s-style planning and rebuilt the elevated portion.
Bike lanes also came up, with Chow asking Saunders why, if he's so concerned about safety, he isn't concerned about cyclists’ safety, referring to his plan to tear up bike lanes on University Avenue and put a moratorium on further bike lanes on arterial roads.
Saunders responded that he is not against all bike lanes, but that he does oppose them when they are "politically lead.”
The former police chief's ties to Premier Doug Ford also came up during a discussion about democracy, with Matlow accusing Saunders of having gone to an infamous “stag and doe” party for Ford’s daughter.
Saunders later clarified that he had not attended the Stag and Doe event and said his wife was his witness, because he had been elsewhere with her that night.
Chow also took aim at Saunders in the democracy discussion.
“I will (not) operate in the back rooms that now have Doug Ford's luxury mega-spa wrecking our waterfront, or the destruction of the Science Centre as proposed by some of the candidates here,” Chow said, referring to Saunders, who was a special adviser for the Ford government on the Ontario Place redevelopment.
Chow, Bailão and Hunter said they would not use the controversial “strong mayor” powers granted to the city by Ford last year. Matlow has in the past spoken out against the powers, which allow the mayor to override council issues deemed provincial priorities, namely housing.
In early debates, Chow was the one who found herself under fire as the front-runner.
The latest debate comes with one month left to go in the election campaign. Toronto voters are set to go to the polls to choose a new mayor on June 26.