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Opinion, Dave Dale: Chirico not mayoral material, his neighbours say

All in all, this is the most interesting North Bay council election I’ve witnessed in decades. The depth of the 29 candidates seeking a seat in the chamber – both new and familiar – gives me hope no matter who gets elected
Sylvia Ross, 84, lives beside North Bay mayoral candidate Peter Chirico on Ski Club Road. She hopes he doesn't get elected and suggests the city sell off the road allowance between them so it can get some much-needed revenue.

Sylvia Ross and William Chalmers have only one thing in common – neither will be voting for their Ski Club Road neighbour on the lot between them: Peter Chirico, North Bay mayoral candidate.

Chalmers contacted me after reading my Oct. 5 column “Debate opportunity squandered” and we met twice to go over his beefs with Chirico. But there’s really no need to go deep into the weeds of how the past 12 years have been – suffice to say he’s not looking forward to Chirico being mayor and doesn’t recommend him to lead the city.

More important to the equation is that Chirico’s neighbour on the other side – who has never talked to Chalmers – has even fewer good things to say about the long-time politician.

Ross, 84, says they’ve been at odds for most of the 26 years he’s lived there. And despite her owning a vacant 70-foot-wide lot between her home and Chirico’s property, in addition to a 66-foot city road allowance between their properties – it’s still not enough to buffer their relationship.

Ross, the retired deputy manager of the North Bay airport, has a thick folder of correspondence with city staff concerning the Stuffles Street road allowance going back two decades. In 2002, she was advised the city was commencing the usual “closing process for a road allowance and that the closed portion of the road allowance will be offered to the abutting owners at the appraised value, plus legal and survey fees.” Three years later, in 2005, she was advised that council had not declared it to be surplus and “we do not anticipate that it will be declared surplus in the near future as it provides pedestrian access to the escarpment area.”

Ross said the strip of land is surrounded by private property. Also worth noting, Chirico was budget chief under Mayor Vic Fedeli when council tried to sell off surplus property across the city to pay down debt and offset tax increases.

She said she now hopes the city will auction it off and even muses about severing a dozen or so feet of her extra lot if someone needs enough frontage and depth to build a house between them.

Ross said she stopped a paving company in 2015 from extending Chirico’s driveway across the road allowance, with notes of a conversation with a public works manager stating permission was inadvertently given without realizing it was a road allowance.

Living beside Chirico has been a rocky road, according to Ross, as she followed his political career, first as deputy mayor, the time he stepped down to run under the Conservative banner for the Nipissing MP seat in Ottawa and then resigned his elected council seat for a city management position in 2012. She observed it didn’t go well for him when the Memorial Gardens project went $4 million over budget, leading to his being locked out of city hall before a less-than-transparent negotiated departure.

Nothing improved between them the past several years while he was the chief administrative officer position with the North Bay and District Chamber of Commerce and writing a weekly column in the Nugget. In 2018, they had a dispute about election signs from left-leaning candidates being put on the road allowance.

Neither Ross nor Chalmers are looking forward to next Monday night when the municipal election votes are tabulated.

It appears that Chirico’s closest rival for mayor, Johanne Brousseau, is in an uphill climb as she tries to close the gap between them.

Brousseau, after her first term as chairwoman of the community services committee, has not done great against the more experienced Chirico.

She held a media conference last Thursday morning to right the ship after the YourTV debate. It didn’t equate to a big splash. Only one reporter showed up to join this columnist, and I attended only because my office is down the far hallway from where she held it at 176 Lakeshore Drive.

She mostly whiffed at soft and hard questions thrown her way. Brousseau isn’t slick enough to realize the mounting opposition to the twin-pad arena slated for the Steve Omischl Sports Complex. Asked how much was too much to pay for the current design and location, Brousseau noted that council was prepared to put in $40M before the $26M federal grant, so $66M was her absolute line in the sand.

Personally, I don’t think she’s reading the room very well.

Her latest media release over council members taking city jobs was closer to the mark. She wants a rule for elected officials to resign their seat before applying for city jobs, avoiding both the appearance of conflict and saving staff the stress of interviewing their elected boss.

It was a decent veiled dig at Chirico for his city management stint but I was wondering if it didn’t apply to some other candidates this election. It’s more than a whisper that candidate Jamie Lowery, former chief executive officer of Cassellholme and former commissioner in Brampton, might be capable of the city administrative officer role if it became vacant.

Chirico is pledging to have a third-party review of city operations as part of his platform. He also suggested moving all the managers to the bottom floor lobby to shake things up on the public access front.

Under three-term Mayor Al McDonald, there was a veritable parade of CAOs with a total severance budget during his terms likely higher than most mayors. We never really heard what it cost the city when Tim Sheffield departed when Vic Fedeli moved into the fifth floor.

Remember Jerry Knox, the “corporate advisor” after retirement, and that other guy, Keith Robicheau? I’d say Dave Linkie was smart to retire after McDonald got his bearings that first year.

Chirico, of course, didn’t take kindly to McDonald’s management style either, and still might have a burr in his saddle over it all based on the thinly veiled jibes sent the outgoing mayor’s way.

David Euler is the current CAO, following Keith Robicheau and Jerry Knox. I believe David Linkie is the only one to decide on his own it was a good idea to retire.

Important to note, Lowery, as CEO of Cassellholme, and Euler as CAO of the city, were in opposing positions as council and the Cassellholme board jousted over the financing of the $122-million refurbishment and expansion project.

I asked Lowery yesterday if he would apply for a city management role if a position was advertised, noting Brousseau’s media release about the subject.

“I actually completely agree with Johanne on this one – I have signed on to represent citizens and I am committed to the role of councillor (if I have the privilege of serving) – even if I am not successful, I will be working on projects to help our community,” he replied, adding: “There should also be a "Fairness" advisor appointed to oversee the hiring process to ensure there is no undo pressure applied to the hiring manager.”

From my perspective, I just wish Chirico had accepted my invitation in March to do a podcast interview before or after he announced his intention to run for mayor. I said he could answer my questions about several Canadore College projects – seeing he’s on the board – and in our casual conversation, he seemed to have perfectly sound answers.

It was the last time we shook hands until noon on Oct. 5 when we crossed paths at the Oak Street parking lot. I invited him again for an interview, this time as part of my series of candidate interviews, with 23 completed so far.

Chirico said, “I go where they tell me,” and joked that spending 90 minutes going back and forth with me was not an ideal proposition.

That just whittles it down to one question on my mind … who are they?

Election notes:

My fingers are crossed that Chantal Phillips, North Bay zone trustee candidate for the Near North District School Board, and Erika Lougheed, running for the East Ferris-area zone seat, are elected. It would be delightful to see long-time politico Jay Aspin having to deal with such capable and passionate representatives.

The only North Bay council candidate I fully endorse is Lana Mitchell, long-time manager of the Low Income People Involvement (LIPI) office. No matter who wins the mayor seat or other chamber perches, she is an excellent person to help the city deal with social issues.

That said, I would enjoy watching Dave Mendicino and Lowery sitting side-by-side in the chamber, mostly out of morbid curiosity. I’m sure they’d eventually bury their Cassellholme-related hatchets but it would be interesting until then. 

As for Mac Bain, his performance at the Elk’s Lodge debate last Saturday tells me he just might need a political holiday after all – another candidate standing too firm on the squishy civic ground that doesn't address public desire for better access. When it comes to the right-leaning Mark King and Derek Shogren, I know both are capable and would stand up to Chirico if needed, but I can only wish them luck. Chirico himself has called for a change in perspective and that doesn't necessarily help those who would actually assist his need for council votes going forward.

All in all, this is the most interesting North Bay council election I’ve witnessed in decades. The depth of the 29 candidates seeking a seat in the chamber – both new and familiar – gives me hope no matter who gets elected.

Dave Dale is a veteran journalist and columnist who has covered the North Bay area for more than 30 years. Reader responses meant as Letters to the Editor can be sent to [email protected]. To contact the writer directly, email: [email protected] or check out his website