What LRT ceasefire? The barbs keep on a-coming
Whitehead takes exception to Eisenberger’s ‘building bridges’ wisecrack
What promised to be the beginning of a LRT ceasefire is off to a shaky start.
Less than 24 hours after councillors approved moving forward with the project in a new spirit of co-operation, Terry Whitehead was complaining about Mayor Fred Eisenberger’s leadership style.
Whitehead is rankled that during the speeches Eisenberger took a cheap shot at his call for “building bridges” across the LRT divide.
“I do accept the fact that Terry wants to build bridges and — I’ve said this to Terry personally — I’m on for building bridges but it’s hard to cross a bridge when it’s always on fire,” Eisenberger said.
The duo have been prickly adversaries throughout the LRT debate, with Eisenberger steadfastly supporting light rail and Whitehead relentlessly criticizing it.
Whitehead thinks the wisecrack was out of line with the conciliatory spirit of the moment.
“I don’t know if he felt he was being witty or funny, but it certainly didn’t come across as magnanimous.”
Boys will be boys, whether on the playground or in the political gymnasium. But in promoting his grievance, Whitehead raises the interesting argument that part of the reason there’s so much political and community dissension over light rail is Eisenberger pulled a fast one on voters.
He notes that Eisenberger ran for mayor promising to create a citizens’ panel to study all rapid transit options, but shortly after being elected, he scurried off to Queen’s Park to successfully pitch LRT in private meetings with Premier Kathleen Wynne and Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca.
According to Whitehead, Eisenberger acted alone and without council direction, relying solely on supportive motions for LRT approved in the previous term and not binding on the new council.
“Who’s he to talk about setting bridges on fire?” said Whitehead.
“You’d think with leadership, courtesy and relationship-building, you might want to go back to your council first to see if that’s still their position or to reaffirm that position.”
For his part, Eisenberger “regrets” his remark and reiterates he wants a more productive working relationship with Whitehead. He says he was only trying to point out building bridges works both ways and requires all parties to stop “aggravating” issues.
As for his personal appeal to Wynne, the mayor says he was acting on a standing council policy that was reconfirmed prior to the $1-billion announcement.
Nonetheless, Whitehead argues that by securing the funding through his unilateral actions and short-circuiting his own transit panel promise, Eisenberger undercut the LRT versus BRT debate and boxed council in.
“The $1 billion became the driving factor behind the decision and not the merits of the project.”
Listen, it’s no secret that over the years Eisenberger has been criticized for his lonewolf leadership style and inability or reluctance to personally work with councillors to build consensus. Think stadium. He claimed to have learned his lesson after his 2006-10 mayoral term, but for some that’s more talk than action. At heart, he’s still the same old Fred.
Certainly when LRT was in imminent danger of croaking, Eisenberger strove to get the community onside and in the final days before the big vote, he was, according to one source, reduced to begging councillors for their support.
Be that as it may, leadership takes many forms, including audaciously sizing up and seizing the moment.
Anyway you look at it, Eisenberger’s Midas touch meeting with Wynne was a brilliant coup de main, the results of which will be blessed (and cursed?) by Hamiltonians for decades to come.
If, however, today’s voters disapprove of the end-run Eisenberger did around his own campaign promise, they’ll have the opportunity to say so in the 2018 mayoral election.
Meanwhile, now that Whitehead has got this off his chest, he’s back to cobbling together bridges.
He says he’s looking forward to working with the mayor. “We’ve had some pretty good discussions in the last few days.”