Affordable housing, transportation and the nature of leadership – but not amalgamation – dominated discussion during the first all-candidates forum held last week in Saanich.
Deborah Curran, acting executive director of the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria (UVIC), moderated the forum held at the former Gordon Head United Church.
An estimated crowd of 150 people heard from 17 candidates for councillor and three candidates for mayor during the evening, which organizers split into two sessions – one for the council candidates, one for the mayoral candidates.
This first of eight scheduled forums occurred against the backdrop of one of the most feverish periods in Saanich municipal politics, just one week after police had forced the closure of a homeless camp that had sprung up in Regina Park earlier this summer.
News also broke last week that two of the four mayoral candidates – Mayor Richard Atwell and Coun. Fred Haynes – find themselves in a legal dispute over Atwell’s association with Amalgamation Yes, a society favouring significant revisions to the governance of Greater Victoria and its 13 municipalities.
Thursday’s seating arrangements added to this tension as Haynes and Atwell sat next to each other, albeit separated by the chair left empty by the absent candidate David Shebib.
While the legal issue between the two candidates did not come up during the evening, the two nonetheless clashed over the nature of leadership.
Atwell said the last four years have been a study of what can wrong in lamenting a lack of cooperation and in-fighting around the council table.
For things to improve, the mayor must have a high level of support on council, said Atwell, in justifying his presence at the head of United for Saanich, which advertises itself as a “non-partisan slate.”
“We cannot afford a repeat of the past, where we simply decide, we are going to pick a random assortment of people, and hope that it works out,” said Atwell, who said that Saanich currently finds itself in “morass.”
This drew a sharp response from Haynes, who accused Atwell of failing to lead, as evident by the number of 8-1 votes, with Atwell as the lone voice of opposition. Leadership is about getting ahead of the issues, he said.
Curran followed this exchange by asking candidates to refrain from disparaging each other. But Haynes appeared unsatisfied in rising to respond.
“The mayor just disparaged council, by saying that we are a dysfunctional council, and that is clearly not true,” said Haynes.
Rob Wickson, who sat to the right of Haynes, tried to hover above this dispute, by saying that Saanich deserves a collaborative spirit.
“Our community needs a mayor, who is independent and can collaborate with everybody on council,” he said.
The evening opened with the candidates for councillor answering randomly drawn questions after Curran had introduced them.
Under the format of the evening, candidates answered exactly one question and received two minutes to make a concluding statement.
Candidates tried to use their limited speaking time in different ways.
Non-incumbents either chose to present themselves as disrupters like Trevor Barry, who coupled a happy-go-luck persona with policy ideas likely unfamiliar to most audience members, or as candidates of substance, drawing attention to their research experience and credentials, with Teale Phelps Bondaroff and Rebecca Mersereau clearly falling into the second category. Non-incumbent Shawn Newby stressed his involvement as chair of the organization representing Saanich’s community associations and his role as co-founder of the Saanich Sunday Farmers’ Market. Two other candidates – Vernon Lord and Art Pollard – presented themselves as independent voices, if not outright outsiders.
Two of the incumbents — Coun. Susan Brice and Coun. Colin Plant — used theirs to highlight their accomplishments, with Brice linking her campaign to the promise of improving regional transit.
“Let me have another shot, because we can have better regional transportation in Greater Victoria,” she said.
A third incumbent – Coun. Judy Brownoff – appeared to refrain from such tactics, and instead used her speaking time to link Saanich’s future to social diversity, and measures to improve ecological sustainability among other measures.
As for substance, many, if not all candidates, stressed the need for more affordable housing.
Thursday’s meeting happened against the backdrop of the events at Regina Park, Ravine Way, and Goldstream Park, and several candidates referenced it.
Lord said he entered the race because he wants to help solve the issue of homelessness, which he considers the most important. He also argued that the voices of residents and businesses near camps like Regina Park often go unheard.
Transportation also played a prominent role, as the group behind Thursday’s forum – the Gordon Head Residents’ Association – plays an active in local transportation issues.
One of the candidates – Rishi Sharma – sits on the association’s board, and is one of the leading voices of Fix Ash Road Now. Not surprisingly, he pushed for improvements.
Other candidates also mined the subject of road safety. Mersereau said she has increasingly heard from residents, who feel unsafe in Saanich, not because of crime, but because of unsafe sidewalks, and inappropriate speed limits.
“We need to reclaim our streets for our neighbourhoods and for our communities,” she said.
Perhaps the most substantive election promise came from one of the incumbents, Coun. Colin Plant, who said he would favour a default traffic speed of 40 km/h for Saanich – it is currently 50 km/h – and a speed limit of 30 km/h for residential roads without a centre line.
Saanich is currently lobbying the province for legislative changes that would allow it to make this changes on its own.
Cory Montgomery, who answered the very first question of the evening about why youth should vote for him, was visibly nervous did not get much beyond the argument that he would be youth’s voice. He appeared more comfortable during his final remarks, which he used to highlight his experience in the private and public service.
Ian Jessop, a former broadcaster, came across more confident in calling on Saanich to develop a vision that would see it become the most cost-effective community in British Columbia. He returned to this theme in his final remarks. He also attacked the current council for having too many closed-door meetings, which can also be read as an implicit critique of his slate mates, Atwell and Harper.
One declared candidate for councillor – Benjamin Allen – was unable to attend Thursday’s forum.
Editor’s Note: Incorrect information about Vernon Lord’s position concerning amalgamation appeared in an earlier version of this article. The Saanich News regrets this error.