If you see a tall, curly-haired man on a Bixi bike in the west end, it may well be Russell Copeman, the former Liberal member of the National Assembly for N.D.G.
He has a different route these days and won’t be heading downtown to his office at Concordia University where for the past five years he was a senior administrator—at least until the November 3 civic election.
Copeman, 53, has taken a leave of absence from Concordia to run for borough mayor in Côte-des-Neiges—Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, under the banner of mayoral hopeful Marcel Côté and Coalition Montréal. He hopes to take over the reins of the city’s largest borough, which has 165,000 residents.
He is the best-known candidate among those who have entered the race. His main opponents: Kevin Copps, brother of former federal Liberal cabinet minister Sheila Copps and successful operator of a Tim Hortons outlet in Verdun, has joined the Denis Coderre team; and Michael Simkin of Projet Montréal, a lawyer and consultant to not-for-profit community organizations.
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Why is Copeman returning to the political world he left in 2008, leaving aside a job he says was a “fascinating experience and very satisfying”?
As associate vice-president of external relations, he’s been dealing with all three levels of government to advance Concordia’s interests and “really learned a lot about how the city operates.” He also taught a course in Quebec public administration.
“Biking and driving around N.D.G. and seeing the state of our infrastructure, I became increasingly interested in the state of our city and borough. And we saw what was happening with the leadership of the city.”
When approached by the Côté team, he says he “felt a sense of responsibility” and confidence in the group that seeks to run the city.
“I felt that they were people with some experience and some desire to see positive change, and if people with integrity don’t come forward, the situation will never improve.”
Public service, he says, is his only goal, and if elected he’s ready for the late-night meetings, sudden crises and the cut-and-thrust of political life.
“It’s a big change, but my wife (writer Bev Akerman) and family (Alex, 27, Romney, 24, Emma, 18) were all very supportive.”
When the testimony began rolling out at the Charbonneau Commission into corruption in Montreal, Copeman said he was “surprised by the depth of the problem, very distressed.”
“One had heard rumours and speculation for a number of years, but the testimony seems to indicate that there was a fairly well-organized system of inflated costs, and potentially defrauding taxpayers to a degree that I really had not imagined.
“We have to hope that the Charbonneau Commission will make some very concrete recommendations on how to fight what appears to be systemic fraud.
“We need people of integrity in politics, but also a systemic response,” he said, and the Quebec government has started.
The rot is alleged to have included the borough he wants to run. The previous borough mayor, Michael Applebaum, who went on to replace Gérald Tremblay as mayor of Montreal, has been indicted on 14 counts of fraud, conspiracy, breach of trust and corruption. Saulie Zajdel, a former borough councilor, has been indicted on five counts of fraud, corruption, breach of trust and payment of secret commissions related to construction permits issued in 2006-11.
“We have to let the courts do their work,” is all he would say about these allegations.
Copeman was equally discreet when asked about former federal Liberal MP Denis Coderre and his group, and that of Richard Bergeron and Projet Montréal.
But he says he knows and likes Côté, whose firm SECOR produced an economic impact study for Concordia, and a similar one for McGill.
“I heard him at a number of Board of Trade events and have always been impressed. He is a man of great personal integrity, an economist by training with a business background.
“Marcel understands the absolute need for economic development and social development. The two go hand in hand.”
Copeman says he’s committed to “integrity, transparency and accountability.” He notes that in his previous roles, as an aide to Premier Robert Bourassa and 14 years as an MNA, his integrity has never been questioned.
“Improvements have to be made at city hall and the borough level in terms of the transparency issue,” he adds, without being specific.
If elected, he pledges to be accountable “first and foremost to the citizens of the borough, not to a political party, not to any political master.”
He suggested he would not be confined by party discipline as it functions in the parliamentary system, referencing his own tenure in Quebec City where he felt “too constrained personally for many years.”
“A city administration doesn’t have to be that way.”
When it comes to specifics, he commits himself to “efficient delivery of public services, with an “absolute priority to repairing and maintaining roads, sidewalks and bike paths.”
Because of his experience and contacts in Quebec City and Ottawa and knowledge of how governments work, Copeman says he is well-placed to elicit their cooperation and help.
The vacant, city-owned Blue Bonnets raceway is a unique opportunity to erect “a model community, with up to 20,000 people.” The nearby Namur-Jean Talon triangle, covering 40 hectares, can add another 4,200 residents to the area when it is fully developed.
“We need a mix of housing and mix of population, a range that includes social and family housing,” he said.
As for working alongside sovereignist Louise Harel, the Vision Montreal leader who is part of the Côté coalition, Copeman said: “There aren’t sovereignist streets and federalist streets in Montreal, there is no sovereignist garbage and federalist garbage—as Montrealers we all have to work together. You don’t transpose those things on the municipal level.”
And to those who are cynical and boycott municipal elections Copeman’s message is, “Nothing will change if people stay home on election day.”