Saskatoon Mayor Charlie Clark is speaking out against what he calls "the politics of fear" and is accusing one his opponents in the 2020 mayoral election, Rob Norris, of running a slate of candidates Clark says would only cause "political gridlock" on city council.
Norris, who has previously denied that he is running a slate, said the persistent claim is "nonsense" and "disappointing."
"I've seen Mr. Norris door-knocking with other candidates, I've seen him supporting their statements on social media and other different ways," Clark said Friday from his downtown campaign office. "It has the clear indication that there are some allegiances."
Clark's remarks, made while officially launching his re-election campaign, also touched on rival candidates' desires to hit "pause" on plans for a new $134-million downtown library.
Both Norris and fellow mayoral contender Don Atchison have called for a halt, although in different ways.
Norris said that if he's elected on Nov. 9 — and should he corral the necessary amount of votes from other like-minded councillors — he will seek to rescind council's November 2019 decision to approve $67.5 million in borrowing by the Saskatoon Public Library board, which has direct authority over the project.
Atchison said he wants to hear first from city officials whether what Norris wants to do is even possible.
"I'm hearing a lot from other candidates about wanting to go backwards to revisit and reverse decisions to undo progress that is made, to cling on to outdated ideas from the past," Clark said.
Doing so in the case of the library project could actually put the city in legal hot water, Clark said.
"On the basis of that decision, there has been land purchased," he said, referring to the library board's buying up a lot on Second Avenue N.
"There have been contracts let out. There has been a whole process underway so that if, now, some council wanted to go and revisit that decision, it would entwine the city council into potential lawsuits and [a] frayed relationship with the library that on good faith has gone forward and made decisions."
The library board recently told CBC News that a request for proposals (RFP) for the design of the new library is expected to go out this month, with the winner selected in November.
As Atchison put it Friday: "The train has left the station."
Asked how his plan for a re-do would work given those circumstances, Norris said, "Well, the design is a long way from the construction. The library board would be very prudent to push pause and wait for the outcome of the election and wait to hear the will of city council."
Now is actually a good time to move forward on the project, Clark said.
"I hear this from the building industry," he said. "This is the best time to be out there putting out contracts and for construction because interest rates are low, prices are low for construction and and we need to have infrastructure projects to create jobs."
While denying he's running a slate, Norris said candidates running in other wards have applauded his stance on the library, though he declined to specify whom.
Norris also denied he has talked to other would-be councillors about voting together to rescind the borrowing decision.
Clark cited Norris as the candidate most obviously participating in others' campaigns. A slate would be antithetical to municipal politics, he said.
"After an election, if there's definitely an active sense that you have a mayor — who's meant to be the captain of the team — who has actively worked against some of the colleagues who were there on council, in the midst of a pandemic, and trust is low, that's going to affect the ability to to move forward and and keep the city moving. And we can't afford to be distracted. That's what we're seeing in the United States."
Clark acknowledged city council has already been split on some issues, resulting in close 6-5 votes, but said cordiality has always reigned.
"What we have not seen is where councillors or the mayor are taking those as personal divisions within council," Clark said. "At the end of our debates, we always make sure that we're talking to each other. We get together. We respect and understand that there are different opinions."
Asked about Norris' previous denial, Clark said, "If it looks like a slate and acts like a slate, it starts to look like a slate."
While not naming Norris directly, Clark said he's been concerned with the tone of some campaigning so far.
"I've seen name calling," Clark said. "I've seen attempts to use crises in our community to attract attention on Facebook. People watching the campaign, they're surprised at the tone and the negativity that's already coming out.
"I've already seen the politics of fear creep into this civic election campaign in a way that I have not seen in the five campaigns I've been involved with so far."
Norris has sought to characterize Clark as a weak leader, calling him "passive" during his own campaign launch speech in late June.
On Friday, Norris stepped up the language, calling Clark "Dr. Doolittle" and accusing him of a "get nothing done" approach.
Clark touted his work in establishing the city's first economic growth strategy as well as his more recent contribution to a Saskatoon Tribal Council-led project that will seek to find permanent housing for the vulnerable.
Clark has also spoken proudly of helping co-ordinate efforts he credits with having prevented COVID-19 from having spread widely among Saskatoon's homeless people.
Norris is not the only candidate who has made cutting remarks about an opponent.
Ward 7 candidate Carol Reynolds — who, like Norris, has come out against the $134-million library — is seeking to unseat incumbent councillor Mairin Loewen.
"Most people I spoke to don't even know who their councillor is," Reynolds said on an episode of her campaign podcast. "And I just say, 'You know what? That's okay. I'm Carol Reynolds and I want to be your current councillor.'"
On another episode, Reynolds said of Loewen, "There's definitely a lack of empathy and a lack of accountability that's being demonstrated by the incumbent."
Norris has criticized "Charlie and company" for voting against amending a sector plan to include a green neighbourhood proposal from Arbutus Properties (which has denied funding Norris' campaign).
Clark suggested that's an ill-advised approach for a politician looking to curry potential future support on council.
"If you spend your campaign trying to undermine your future colleagues, you can make whatever promises you want," Clark said. "But good luck getting them to vote for any of your proposals if you make it to the other side."