Former mayor addresses controversies from first term as he prepares to enter 2014 race
Rodriguez, 76, admits he underestimated current Mayor Marianne Matichuk in 2010, who came out of nowhere with a short and successful campaign to unseat him. He'll formally announce Friday that he's running.
“I will not underestimate my opponents again,” the longtime politician said Wednesday, sitting at his unofficial office — Bertolo's in downtown Sudbury. “If they want the mayoralty, they're going to have to fight for it.”
The story detailed how the mayor and city council went along with a plan to cover up the fact a senior manager had been let go over questions about his competence. The manager was paid $350,000 in severance, and under the terms of the agreement with him, the city's official line was that to be he had left voluntarily.
He couldn't comment on the story, Rodriguez said, because of privacy issues. But the impact of a story that ran so close to the election day was devastating, he said.
“It was a personnel matter,” he said. “And I had been 10 points ahead in the polls” before the story ran.
Rodriguez also addressed other controversial issues from his four years in office, in hopes that as the election unfolds, he can focus on what he wants to do if he wins another term. His biggest single regret, he said, was allowing city council to follow an existing policy to buy concert tickets for the Elton John concert in 2008 before they went on sale to the public.
The public reacted angrily, he said, and they viewed council as having an outsized sense of entitlement. While many tickets were eventually returned, and a new policy was passed banning the practice, the damage was done, Rodriguez said.
“If I could do it again, I wouldn't have said, 'Let's follow the policy.' ”
It was to be the first (but not the last) time Ontario Ombudsman André Marin would investigate Sudbury councillors over an alleged meeting they held where they decided to return some the tickets. Marin cleared them of breaking closed-meeting rules, but publicly criticized them for their actions. It was a process that would be repeated again and again — until councillors voted to fire Marin in February 2013.
That decision led to more bad press and public anger directed at city council. But if he wins, Rodriguez said he would fight to bring Marin back to Sudbury.
“I have no problem with the ombudsman,” he said. “I will introduce a motion to bring him back.”
He has no regrets about trying — and failing — to get support to build an arts centre and multi-use recreation facility. He had hoped at least to get the process to the business plan stage, but lost that vote at the council table.
“If you don't dream big, nothing will happen,” he said.
As far as the sale of the former St. Joseph's Health Centre, Rodriguez says the public doesn't realize it would have cost taxpayers as much as $6 million to demolish the building if the city purchased it. The city had offered $1.1 million, but only if the old hospital buildings were demolished first.
When the Sisters of St. Joseph told him the building was being sold to the private sector and the city had 48 hours to respond, he tried — and failed — to get an extension.
“I asked for 96 hours,” Rodriguez said.
But it wouldn't have made a difference anyway, he said, because it was more than the city could afford. He regrets, however, letting the deadline pass without informing city councillors, who were unaware that a deadline had come and gone.
“Maybe I could have called the councillors.”
If elected, he would work to take away spending control of Health Community Initiative funds from individual city councillors, to get rid of any public concern of chequebook politics.
But the funds are important, he said, because they ensure communities have a way to access funds for smaller, neighbourhood projects. So he would give control of the funds to the Community Action Networks, which would make recommendations on where to spend the $50,000 allotted each year. The recommendations would then go to city council for approval.
While the office of the auditor general was created under his administration, Rodriguez says he opposes making the office permanent. Instead, he would renew staff on three-year contracts as long as the city was still getting value from the audits.
“We don't need to start building empires here,” he said.
His priorities if elected again include making progress on the $125 million Maley Drive extension, upgrading infrastructure in Greater Sudbury's industrial parks, and, most important, getting the province to give Sudbury and other mining communities a share of mining revenue.
While not the first time the issue is being raised, Rodriguez says he can succeed where others have failed. And if successful, they wouldn't have to increase development charges that builders in the city say are stifling new home construction. He compares it to the deals First Nations are working out with governments in the Ring of Fire and other areas — agreements unheard of even 10 years ago.
“I know I'm right on this one,” he said.
With a minority government expected to emerge after the June 12 provincial election, Rodriguez said the time is right. Minority governments have to be open to ideas that governments wouldn't otherwise consider, he said.
“We wouldn't be able to get it done with a majority.”
It's a far better option than increasing development charges, which he opposes as a hidden tax on development.
“And I'm supposed to be the socialist here.”
He would also focus on developing the city's arts community, to help attract professionals who are looking at quality of life in Sudbury.
“The cultural community can be assured they will get support from me,” Rodriguez said.
Older and wiser, now, the longtime NDP MP for Nickel Belt said he has learned much about modern communications, and would handle “brush fires” like Elton John before they get out of control and take on a life of their own.
He doesn't expect Matichuk to run for re-election, since one of her major backers, Dan Melanson, has already entered the mayor's race. The bitterness he feels towards them is evident, describing the mayor as little more than Melanson's mouthpiece.
“He's running, so why would she?” Rodriguez said. “It was my understanding they were like Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy.”
Whatever else anyone says about his four years in office, Rodriguez said he was open with residents, even inviting people visiting Tom Davies Square on other business into his office for impromptu chats. And when he flew somewhere on city business, he never went first class or made lavish expense claims.
“It's not my money,” he said.
“And I don't smoke crack,” he added, referring to the problems with Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. “I don't drive if I had a drink. I don't associate with drug dealers.”