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CNN moderators in Biden-Trump debate: It almost didn’t matter that they were on stage

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NEW YORK (AP) — To a large extent, it almost didn’t matter that Dana Bash and Jake Tapper were on stage.

The two CNN journalists prepared meticulously to moderate Thursday’s presidential debate between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, the first ever between a sitting president and his predecessor, and asked several sharp questions.

Not only were many of them ignored, but the impression that some Americans were left with about President Biden’s fitness for the job essentially had nothing to do with Bash and Tapper or their involvement in the program.

“There’s no question this was not what the Biden campaign wanted or needed,” said ABC’s Mary Bruce. After the debate, CNN’s John King pointed to his cell phone, saying he hadn’t seen anything like the concern expressed to him in text messages as the debate went on.

“There’s a full-on panic about this performance,” said NBC’s Chuck Todd.

The event, organized by CNN and broadcast over most of the country’s main news and broadcast networks, was the earliest general election debate ever, before the two candidates had been formally nominated by their parties.

Did the moderators play a role?

Tapper and Bash asked about the economy, the war in Ukraine, climate change, the border, election denial — a litany of issues that most Americans, in polls, say they are most concerned about heading into the 2024 election.

Their problem was that, more times than not, the questions were ignored as the two candidates continued to squabble at their own pace.

“You have 67 seconds left,” Tapper said to Trump when he didn’t address one. “The question was, what are you going to do to help Americans in the throes of (opioid) addiction right now to get the treatment that they need?”

“This does pertain to it,” Trump said, moving on to talk about open borders and Soviet leader Vladimir Putin.

At another point, when Bash asked Trump whether he would support the institution of a Palestinian state, Trump said, “I’d have to think a bit before we do that,” and went on to talk about NATO.

Bash also had to go back to Biden to ask a second time what he would say to Black voters who believed they hadn’t made enough progress under his administration, after he recited a handful of programmatic changes. She asked Trump three times about whether he’d accept election results if he lost.

They weren’t designed to be referees

CNN determined ahead of time that Tapper and Bash would be questioners, not umpires. They didn’t follow up questions — except to repeat those that weren’t answered — and left it to the politicians to try and fact-check. Each called the other a liar.

CBS’ Gayle King said later that the lack of fact-checking benefited Trump because he was able to seem more in control with his answers. “If you don’t know the facts, you’d think he was making a lot of sense,” she said.

CNN’s Daniel Dale sent out several fact-checks on social media during the debate, but television viewers would not be aware of them unless they happened to look for them. Per CNN rules, other networks carrying the debate were not allowed to break in with any commentary of their own until the debate was finished.

Heading in to the debate, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow said that she did not envy the position in which Tapper and Bash were placed.

“The moderators at CNN have an impossible job,” she said, “and they are under nuclear hot scrutiny.”

CNN came under criticism before the debate by the White House Correspondents’ Association, which protested the network’s decision not to allow a pool text reporter into their studio to observe Biden and Trump off-camera. CNN said there was no room, although it promised to usher a reporter in briefly during one of the two commercial breaks.

The first debate between Trump and Biden in 2020 was seen by 73 million viewers, while the second had 63 million. Those were in the fall, when television viewership was generally up.

Following the debate, The Washington Post and The New York Times had nearly identical lead headlines. The Post: “Biden Struggles, Trump Deflects Questions.” The Times: “Biden Struggles as Trump Deflects Questions During Contentious Debate.”

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David Bauder writes about media for The Associated Press. Follow him at http://twitter.com/dbauder.

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A look at one year of strong mayor powers in Ontario

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TORONTO – In the year since so-called strong mayor powers were granted to the heads of council in a swath of Ontario municipalities, most mayors have used them sparingly — if at all — though in some corners a sense of unease with the sweeping authority remains.

As of this month, nearly 30 mayors have had the ability for a year or more to propose bylaws and pass them with the support of one-third of councillors, veto bylaws and hire and fire department heads, among other powers.

Premier Doug Ford’s government later doled out the powers to many more mayors, even when they were not interested in receiving them, and Ontario now has a total of 46 strong mayors.

Many of them are in the province’s largest cities, and the chair of the Ontario Big City Mayors group said by and large the mayors have “exercised enormous restraint and responsibility” in exercising the powers.

“Where they’ve used some of those discretionary tools it’s been after careful thought and consideration of the best interest, long term, of the community,” said Marianne Meed Ward, mayor of Burlington.

Some of the higher-profile uses include Hamilton Mayor Andrea Horwath using the powers to advance an affordable housing development on two municipal parking lots, and then-Mississauga mayor Bonnie Crombie using them in favour of fourplexes.

In Caledon, Mayor Annette Groves recently rescinded her use of strong mayor powers to push forward 12 rezoning applications for 35,000 homes after the move caused pushback in her community. She said she will instead have the issue go through the regular council process, but defended the usage.

“I am not abusing the use of strong mayor powers,” she said in an interview. “I believe that I’ve used it only where it’s necessary to carry on … the priorities of the province to get housing built.”

The provincial government framed the powers as a set of tools in service of reaching the goal of building 1.5 million homes in Ontario by 2031. Time is ticking by, Groves said, and municipalities like Caledon need to meet current and future housing needs.

“If we don’t start planning, and we don’t start getting ahead of this growth, the growth is going to get ahead of us,” she said.

The strong mayor powers are broad, and only a few of them directly relate to housing, in law. The powers to propose and pass a bylaw with one-third of council support and to veto a bylaw must relate to building housing or related infrastructure.

The law also allows mayors to direct staff to conduct research and write reports, as well as appoint the chief administrative officer, department heads, chairs and vice-chairs of local boards, and establish and dissolve committees, though they can delegate those powers to council.

The majority of items on municipalities’ websites listing uses of the powers are the mayor “approving” a bylaw — in other words, indicating they will not veto it.

Mayors are required under the law to prepare and propose a budget, though some say they are in effect still working collaboratively with their council. Other mayors have used the strong mayor budgetary powers to impose a cap on property tax increases, institute a property tax deferral for seniors, reopen the document to add millions in new spending to revitalize a downtown, and add funding to put “Aurora” in capital letters outside that community’s town hall, similar to what is seen in Toronto.

Rachel Gilliland, a councillor in Aurora, said there is too much grey area in what the strong mayor powers can be used for.

“Strong mayor powers to me, really (do) attack democracy,” she said. “It certainly has not, in my opinion, done what it’s supposed to be doing, at least in Aurora.”

Aurora’s council received a legal opinion that the decisions are not reviewable or appealable, and the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing has said it is up to the municipalities to determine if the uses of the powers are in accordance with the law.

“(That) just really opens up Pandora’s box,” Gilliland, said. “It doesn’t matter what the mayor vetoes or what the mayor decides. The mayor has the sole discretion and control to do whatever they so choose.”

Ajax Mayor Shaun Collier, who has used the powers for housing projects involving more than 4,000 units, suggested the accountability mechanism for the strong mayor powers is the election cycle.

“People ask me, ‘Did you consult on certain things?'” he said. “Well, our consultation is every four years. It’s called an election. And if you don’t like what we’re doing, then that’s your opportunity to change.”

Collier said the powers have been “incredibly helpful” in speeding up the creation of housing in Ajax. In one case he used them to approve up to 62 storeys for two residential towers near a GO Transit station even though the town’s official plan has 25 storeys as the maximum. In another case a multi-residential development made design changes that resulted in the loss of some parking spaces and Collier used the powers to ensure the project didn’t have to go back through a committee of adjustment.

St. Catharines Mayor Mat Siscoe, who has used the powers a few times including directing staff to prioritize development applications, said the reception to the powers has been largely positive, though he understands some people’s hesitation.

“When the powers came in there was a lot of confusion as to what exactly they could be,” he said.

“I had folks in the development industry coming forward and saying, ‘Well, you know, I’m running into this problem. I need you to use your strong mayor powers to get me past this point.’ It’s like, ‘No, your issue, sir, (is) building code related, and you actually have to meet the building code. I can’t waive that.'”

Leanne Caron, a councillor in Guelph, is among those uneasy with the process. Guelph Mayor Cam Guthrie has used the powers a number of times, including to direct staff to research establishing a structured encampments site – which would involve tiny homes – and Caron said she supports what he has used them for, just not the actual use of the powers.

“Nothing that the mayor has done using strong mayor powers, in my opinion, is anything that wouldn’t have happened with the full support of council,” she said.

“We were all elected to have a voice in the direction our community goes and that’s what the Municipal Act was designed to do, was to put the power in the collective, and not the power of one.”

Guthrie said in the case of the encampments report, his directive does bypass the step of council debating whether they want the report to be done, but at the end of the day the council and community still debate the issue after the report is submitted.

“If we wanted to look at getting tiny homes, there was, in my mind, a very big issue of timing,” he said. “We needed to order them and/or build them much prior to the winter coming.”

Guthrie also noted that he delegated the personnel-related powers, saying it’s important to have a divide between the administrative and political sides of city hall.

The Association of Municipal Managers, Clerks and Treasurers of Ontario, which represents municipal professionals, said that a little more than half of the strong mayors have retained the power to appoint the chief administrative officer and about 35 per cent of them retained the power to appoint department heads.

“Right from the outset, we were very concerned with the opportunity to essentially politicize the municipal public service and we remain concerned,” said executive director Dave Arbuckle.

“Say a CAO is hired directly by a mayor. That staff is wondering where potentially that individual’s loyalties lie. Is it to the municipality as a whole? Is it to council? Is it to just the mayor?”

Innisfil Mayor Lynn Dollin is among the mayors who were not interested in getting the powers and have not used them beyond what the law requires, such as taking responsibility for the budget. She delegated everything she could.

“I’ve always been one of those people that think if you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together,” she said.

“I just simply believe you can only go so far by using those powers because you’re going to run into obstacles. So I’m convinced that if it’s a good idea, I’m going to be able to convince five of nine of my council that it’s a good idea.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 22, 2024.



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Evacuations end for Labrador City, N.L. a week after wildfire forced out thousands

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Labrador City residents will soon be returning home after a wildfire forced an evacuation last week.

Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Andrew Furey has said the evacuation order officially lifts at noon Monday, though essential workers and their families were allowed to return over the weekend.

Furey said in a statement Saturday the gradual return would “allow residents of Labrador City to return home in a safe and orderly manner.”

More than 7,000 residents of Labrador City were ordered to evacuate last week after a sudden shift in conditions reignited the once-smouldering fire and it moved toward the town.

Labrador City Mayor Belinda Adams said in an update on Facebook Sunday the fire that had threatened the city is now “very low risk,” and rain was helping crews who are working to put out hot spots.

Officials say there hasn’t been any damage to the town.

The Canadian Press. All rights reserved.



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Mom wants quicker reform on disaster preparations, one year after flood took son

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HALIFAX – The mother of a boy who died a year ago in a Nova Scotia flood says her grief returns daily, along with frustration over what she considers the province’s slow pace in reforming its preparations for climate disasters.

Tera Sisco’s six-year-old son Colton Sisco died after the vehicle he was in overturned during torrential thunderstorms on July 22, 2023. About 258 millimetres of rain to the municipality of West Hants — a rural area northwest of Halifax — fell during the overnight flash flood.

“It’s still a struggle, every day,” said Sisco in a recent telephone interview. As the one-year mark of her son’s death approached, she said her memories of being with him before the flooding are “on replay.”

“It’s hard. … there’s part of me that still doesn’t want to believe it happened.”

Natalie Harnish, six, died in the same vehicle as Sisco, while 52-year-old Nick Holland and 14-year-old Terri-Lynn Keddy were swept away from a vehicle on the same road and also died.

The tragedy has drawn repeated calls for the Progressive Conservative government to improve the province’s emergency alert system, as severe weather events are hitting the province with disturbing regularity.

A recent review released by the municipality of West Hants said two hours and 41 minutes passed between the first rescue responses and the province sending an alert urging citizens to “shelter in place.” Blair Feltmate, director of the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation at the University of Waterloo has called that “far too long a delay.”

Sisco said she was disturbed that during flooding in the Annapolis Valley on July 11, it again required about three hours between the first reports of rescues and an emergency alert going out. On that night, 13-year-old Eli Young was swept into a drainage ditch in Wolfville an hour before an alert was sent.

“My heart breaks for that family and for that boy, and for the community,” said Sisco.

John Lohr, the minister responsible for the Emergency Measures Organization, said in an interview Thursday municipalities had the responsibility to send alerts to provincial authorities for distribution. He has sent a letter to wardens and mayors asking they “be more vigilant in issuing alerts,” and asked them to “schedule refresher training for appropriate municipal staff as necessary.”

However, Sisco said the bottom line is that government, a year later, didn’t seem to have made significant improvements to the alert system’s timeliness.

“It’s a finger pointing thing currently, and I feel like ultimately all levels of government need to sit down and really focus on how we move forward to fix the problem, rather than play the blame game,” she said.

Lohr said there is training available for regional emergency planners and other municipal staff who want to directly send alerts, and there are also courses provided on how to fill out the forms to send to the provincial emergency centre.

The minister said the government plans to bring in legislation creating a new department responsible for overseeing regional emergency measures. He also has promised to establish a new volunteer group for emergency response referred to as the Nova Scotia Guard, and to modernize the emergency management and alert system.

Lohr said the Nova Scotia Guard will permit citizens to enter themselves in a database indicating skills they can offer after emergencies — “whether handling a chainsaw or making sandwiches” — and he said the province would call upon the volunteers when needed.

The opposition parties have criticized the concept, saying they fear it could potentially drain existing volunteer pools.

Sisco is concerned potential firefighters, who carry out crucial rescues during emergencies, may choose to join the new volunteer group rather than take on the heavier training workload in the fire or rescue services.

“There’s still a lot that has to be worked on and figured out before we really start saying whether we should implement it (the Nova Scotia Guard),” she said. “I’m not sure at this point how it is going to help.”

Sisco is instead urging the minister to focus on reforming existing systems, such as ensuring that regional emergency co-ordinators are full-time positions, rather than part-time roles carried out by officials with other responsibilities. In addition, she’s lobbying for effective, on-call systems to ensure a municipal official is constantly available to either request or send an alert.

Lohr said moving towards a quicker system has been complicated by consultations that indicate many volunteer fire departments are reluctant to become directly responsible for sending emergency notices. However, he said his department is working towards more firefighters and police taking on the role.

“A year from now, my expectation is that we’ll have the Nova Scotia Guard … we’ll have a new department; we’ll have fire services trained with this tool,” said the minister.

Brett Tetanish, the chief of the Brooklyn volunteer fire department, which responded to the scene of the four deaths, said in an interview there are now 15 members trained in water rescue and the department has acquired several boats. However, like Sisco, he’s looking for governments to work together swiftly to allow quicker alerts, and for better cellular service in his rural area.

“I just want these levels of government to work together. They owe it to the citizens of this province and to the rescuers,” he said.

Meanwhile, Sisco said this week she’ll have to step back from advocacy and try to look after herself.

“I’ve had to learn the fine balance of researching ways to improve emergency preparations, and giving myself some grace and time to breathe,” she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 22, 2024.



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