Tension felt between two frontrunners

As the race for mayor in Kelowna tightens up in the last days of the civic election campaign the frontrunners are getting testy.

As the race for mayor in Kelowna tightens up in the last days of the civic election campaign, incumbent Sharon Shepherd and her main challenger, former mayor Walter Gray, are showing signs of frustration with each other.

In a few feisty exchanges during the last all-mayoral candidates forum Tuesday night, Shepherd and Gray clashed over whether the city is “open for business,” campaign donations, proclamations and even Rutland’s name.

Appearing on stage with two of the other three candidates in the race, Ken Chung and Cal Condy (Kim Ouellette was again a no-show citing her ongoing health problems), Shepherd and Gray both stressed leadership as a key attribute, saying their approach is best for the city in 2011.

But Gray’s continued demand that the city show it is “open for business” seemed to rattle Shepherd, who served as a councillor on Gray’s three municipal councils from 1996 to 2005 and defeated him for the mayor’s job six years ago.

“We’re absolutely open for business,” said an exasperated sounding Shepherd in response to Gray’s continued attack that the city needs to be more business-friendly.

“Yes, we don’t have a big sign (saying that) and maybe that’s what we need, but we are open for business.”

Shepherd, who has been portrayed by some of her detractors as anti-development, in part because she does not accept campaign contributions from developers, said she is in favour of sustainable development as long as it fits in with the city’s official community plan vision and helps improve the quality of life for Kelowna residents.

Gray, who claimed businesses are leaving the city which is costing Kelowna much-needed jobs, has been painted by his detractors as too cosy with developers and too pro-development.

Unlike Shepherd, he accepts campaign contributions from developers, but Gray said that will not influence how he votes should any of the contributors’ proposals come before council.

On the issue of campaign contributions, it was revealed the union representing local firefighters has contributed $500 to both Shepherd and councillor candidate Gerry Zimmermann’s campaigns. Zimmermann, a former fire chief, has said he did not seek a formal endorsement from the firefighters’ union.

Gray expressed “shock” at the news Shepherd had accepted the donation but his opponent defended the contribution saying the firefighters are supporting her because, as both a councillor and mayor, she has supported them in the past.

Cpt. Larry Hollier, president of the Kelowna Professional Firefighters local 913, confirmed the donation saying his group supports candidates based on what they have done in the past, not what they will do in the future.

He said Shepherd went to bat for firefighters over the issue of coverage for firefighters exposed to potential cancer-causing chemicals when they are fighting fires when she was a councillor.

“We support those who support us,” he said, adding the union is also supporting incumbents Charlie Hodge and Michele Rule for their past actions regarding firefighter safety and challengers Mohini Singh and Maxine DeHart for their help with firefighter-supported charities.

But Gray said he is concerned about the donation to Shepherd’s campaign because the firefighters will have to negotiate a contract with the city in a few years and that will have to be approved by council. The last firefighter contract was signed in June.

“They support me because I support them. I don’t owe them (the firefighters) anything,” said Shepherd following the forum when asked about the contribution.

For Gray, the issue of proclamations continued to dog him during the forum. And he seems to be losing patience with those who ask him about them.

Answering a question from the audience, Gray reiterated his new position that, if elected, he will consult his council before deciding to sign one or not.

In his second term as mayor in the late 1990s, Gray ran afoul of the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal for removing the word “pride” from a requested Gay Pride Day proclamation.

While questions about that have continued to be asked during the campaign, Gray seemed irritated it had come up again.

“I really wish we didn’t have to take time to talk about this and deal instead with issues that affect the city,” said Gray raising his voice.

Following the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal ruling, Gray stopped signing proclamations altogether. Shepherd, on taking office in 2005, reinstated the practice and said she would continue to do so.

But the clash that really seemed to strain the pair was when the candidates were asked about Rutland.

When Gray started to tell what he called “a little story” about Shepherd, then a councillor, wanting to change the name of the city neighbourhood, Shepherd looked visibly annoyed and shook her head from side to side.

“I had to tell her it was named after John Rutland,” said Gray.

To which Shepherd responded: “And what did you want to call it?”

After prompting, Gray admitted with a laugh: “Hooterville.”

“Everyone calls it that,” he said as the name drew a reaction from the audience. “Just ask (former MP, MLA, city councillor and Rutland resident) Al Horning.”

“I told you not to bring it up,” admonished Shepherd.