There is a natural bias towards incumbents in muncipal politics. The electorate generally knows incumbents' names better, and incumbents have a good grasp of how municipal politics works on account of having done the job for a few years. In that sense, it is no surprise that Carl Zehr was more knowledgable than his competitors. But even after adjusting for incumbent bias, it is clear that neither Jon Heumiller nor Janis Hedrich are in any way qualified for the job.
I'm pretty sure that Heumiller is running as a joke/protest candidate -- he played to the audience for laughs and admitted in his opening statements that Zehr pummelled him in the polls last time he ran. His main message appeared to be that we should vote (for him or somebody else) because of his poppy. His platform consisted of bashing Zehr at every opportunity and not cutting down any more trees ever. One of the more frustrating aspects of his position was his insistence that Kitchener is not getting a medical school, just a pharmacy. He did not appear to understand the concept of having both a School of Pharmacy and a satellite campus of McMaster's medical school, despite Zehr explaining it to him at least twice. By the end of the debate, he was insisting that the University of Waterloo should put in a medical school, as if McMaster's campus isn't good enough for K-W. Add to this any number of Bushesque ridiculousness ("The sun is going to be a source of energy in the near future") and I got real tired of his presence
I got the sense that Hedrich might actually have wanted the job of mayor, which was odd because she did not have even a basic grasp of any issues. She kept on making statements about "thinking out of the box", but on very few occasions did she actually suggest any creative solutions to problems. Furthermore she had no ideas about amalgamation (she deferred the question to her opponents before answering), and spoke in endless contradictions. One minute, she was expressing admiration for the KW Symphony, and hoping it survived. The next, she was claiming that there's no need for a central library, because the existing one is good enough. She talked about the importance of the environment and how we all have to do what we can to live more sustainably, then complained about how hard it was to deal with water restrictions and only being allowed to water her lawn on certain days. Even Heumiller had a better grasp of reality than she did -- he at least knew about amalgamation and some problems with bike theft, and about the history of Carl Zehr's spendings as mayor -- which goes to show just how unqualified she was.
And Carl Zehr? Zehr was slick and mostly knowledgable, but he is far from infallible. The transparency issue is a big deal -- city council has been doing a lot of its most important decisionmaking behind closed doors. The issue of whether downtown is worth all the money that is going into it is debatable. But what bothered me most was Zehr's doublespeak about livable cities. Apparently he saw An Inconvenient Truth and converted to Environmentalism, but it's pretty clear he is a new acolyte. He talks about walking more, increasing public transit, and so on, but he won't put money towards these things. One woman asked an excellent question about lighting the trail system so that she could feel safe using the trails at night to go to public events. Zehr's response was a pretty clear no, on account of lights might disturb the homeowners bordering the trail system (oh noes! Let's turn off streetlamps at night, too!) and it would be expensive (because maintaining roads is not expensive). He knew all about where and how to build additional access to the 401, but did not seem to be very knowledgable about bike parking issues in the city. (To his credit, he said that staff was looking into the issue, but couldn't give any specific details other than "downtown gets racks" and "putting racks in suburbia is hard".) He wants people to use more public transit, but has no good solutions to address the question of improved service. And then there's the big hairy question of environmentally-sensitive lands -- which watersheds we should pave over to put up new suburbs.
Don't get me wrong: his answers were not all terrible, and even the bad ones had some grains of sense in them. But it's abundantly clear that he is not willing to put anywhere near the amount of attention and money to making livable cities as he is catering to car and suburban culture. That makes me worry about his pipe dream of the vibrant downtown -- without the infrastructure to facilitate sustainable living and transportation, the only ones who will use downtown are those who live there already.
To their credit, the audience members asked some pretty intelligent questions. They asked about watersheds, sustainable building on Centre Block, downtown businesses, closed door meetings, amalgamation, the 401, and the use of Atria's sale money for sustainable energy. To his credit, Zehr answered many questions head-on, but he dodged a few of them by changing the topic.
Both Heumiller and Hedrich lamented the low voting rates for municipal elections. I think they were running to try and get those rates up. But given their weak campaigns, I think they are doing as much harm as good. There's no question that running a political campaign is disruptive to one's work and one's life. But if you're going to run, you owe it to yourself and your constituents to bone up on your policy enough to answer questions at least as well as a well-informed citizen. I am far from well-informed about the issues in this area, but even I could have given better answers to many of the posed questions than these two candidates did. That's shameful. It doesn't particularly make me want to go out and do my civic duty this election.
Update: I read in the Record that there was a fourth candidate for Mayor who refused to sign a release or something. Sigh.