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Contentious race underway for Newmarket deputy mayor

'It is clearly inappropriate for members of the regional council ... to place themselves under any obligation to those who could materially benefit from the decisions,' says challenger Gordon Prentice on incumbent Tom Vegh's record of accepting donations from developers
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Tom Vegh (left) and Gordon Prentice are running for Newmarket's regional councillor and Newmarket deputy mayor position.

The highest profile race of Newmarket’s Oct. 24 municipal election is shaping up contentiously as Deputy Mayor Tom Vegh faces challenger Gordon Prentice.

Prentice has begun the contest by attacking Vegh on his longstanding local political blog, criticizing Vegh’s voting record on regional planning matters. Prentice has also taken to emailing Vegh, asking his opponent to swear off taking campaign donations from developers.

“On a personal level, I don’t have a problem with Vegh,” he said. “I have a big problem with his politics … If you cannot raise these issues in an election, then when can you?” 

Vegh said he has no intention of getting into mudslinging.

“I put myself forward, my ideas forward. If you look at any of my campaigns … I never, ever spoke about my opponent. That being said, I’m certainly aware of what my opponent is saying about me.”

With Mayor John Taylor acclaimed, the two will face off in the biggest Newmarket race in the upcoming municipal election in October. Vegh has been on Newmarket council since 2000, while Prentice has longtime experience as a politician in the United Kingdom but is running for office here for the first time.

Vegh has served as a councillor for years but first stepped into the deputy mayor role with an election win in 2018. He has seen the development of Newmarket in that time, also serving in consulting and executive positions in the non-profit sector.

The pandemic left a big impact on the term, Vegh said. The term saw York Region create a new official plan to chart the course of the development boom expected over the next 30 years, with several divided votes. 

Vegh spoke about the need to consider seniors in the term ahead, ensuring housing and amenities for them with the expected population growth in the age group.

At the local level, he said there are many projects he would like to see to completion, such as the Mulock park and the Mulock multi-use path.

“I love this town, and I love the responsibility that comes with planning the future of Newmarket," he said about why he is running again. 

Prentice said he has entered the race because of Tom Vegh, adding he might not have run were anyone else standing for election.

The retiree had a lengthy run in politics in the U.K., serving as a municipal councillor before spending 18 years as an MP for the Labour Party. After leaving office in 2010, he retired to Canada after meeting his now-wife, becoming a dual citizen, and blogging about area politics.

“Why I’m standing is because of the way in which (Vegh has) bowed to the developer interests on key planning policy issues,” he said, adding that he would like to persuade other councillors in the role. “To change things, you got to have a case. You got to have an argument, you got to be able to articulate it. You got to bring people along with you, you got to build support.” 

At the heart of Prentice’s objections are contentious planning decisions over the past term, with York Region charting where it would develop. Whereas Taylor opposed many of the resolutions that expanded development into previously protected areas, such as the Oak Ridges Moraine or the agricultural “whitebelt lands,” Vegh voted in favour with the majority.

Taylor himself voted against the official plan and said it was allowing for too much sprawl instead of intensification, a concern echoed by many environmental groups, while Vegh supported the plan. 

But Vegh said he never voted for anything that means residential development on environmental land. He said compromise is important at the regional level, with nine municipalities and 21 councillors. 

The plan includes a phased 50 per cent intensification rate, ramping to 55 per cent starting in 2041, something Taylor argued was allowing too much sprawl. But Vegh said he was OK with where it landed, and that some would have preferred a 40 per cent rate. 

“This is a compromise, and I think it’s a good compromise where we landed,” he said, adding that he believes in what municipalities are deciding on within their borders. “I have a lot of respect for the municipalities and their elected officials.”

Another point of contention for Prentice is Vegh’s 2018 campaign. With Vegh nearly $30,000 in deficit after the election, he had to fundraise due to laws against self-financing campaigns, with those in the building industry contributing approximately $22,850. Prentice said he plans to run a modest campaign of about $5,000 and is swearing off any such developer contribution.

“It is clearly inappropriate for members of the regional council, whose bread and butter work involves planning policy, to place themselves under any obligation to those who could materially benefit from the decisions,” Prentice said in an email to Vegh.

But Vegh said he is not under any such obligation or influence. He noted that all development decisions that come before Newmarket council go through a rigorous planning process, getting vetted by staff before any council decisions. At the local level, he said he voted in lockstep with the rest of council in the past term, generally to approve applications that make it through that process. 

He said he received donations from other professions as well, whether from those associated with grocery stores or fitness studios. 

“Donations came in, many of them I didn’t know these people, but thank you very much for the donation because we’re put in a position where we cannot self-fund a campaign. It’s illegal,” he said, adding he does not feel his funders were expecting to have any influence. “The development process, there are so many checks and balances in that.” 

Prentice said he sees himself as an underdog in the campaign, and he is OK with that. He said he has a good understanding of how the system works and would question issues as they arise.

“I’m interested in the internal wiring of organizations. I’m not content just to accept advice that’s put in front of me,” he said, adding he “likes to ask my own questions and come to my own conclusions, while at the same time, collaborating with people.” 

Vegh said he has a 20-year track record serving the people of Newmarket that he stands behind.

“I’m proud of our accomplishments this last term. There’s a lot of great things going forward,” he said, adding that he feels it is better to start as a ward councillor before running for deputy mayor. “I have a track record of making good decisions. I have a track record of working in the best interests of the town and the town residents."