Co-organizer John Schmuck addresses the crowd at St. Aidan’s United Church prior to the start of Tuesday’s all-candidates forum for Saanich’s upcoming byelection. Candidates Rob Wickson, Art Pollard, Michael Geoghegan, Karen Harper, Keith Davidoff, Shawn Newby, Natalie Chambers, Ned Taylor, Rebecca Mersereau, and Marsha Henderson await the start of the debate. Wolfgang Depner / News Staff

Candidates try to differentiate themselves during Saanich byelection debate

How do you distinguish yourself from nine other candidates?

That question confronted the 10 candidates, who running for the open seat on Saanich council as they faced off before an estimated audience of 400-plus people at St. Aidan’s United Church during the first and likely only forum featuring all 10 candidates.

The answers sounded as diverse as the candidates themselves as they answered questions from the organizers of the forum and audience members, with Deborah Curran, an environmental law professor at the University of Victoria, serving as moderator.

Saanich residents will fill the open council on Saturday, Sept. 23 in a byelection. It became necessary after the death of Vic Derman in March of this year.

The 10 candidates are Rebecca Mersereau, Nathalie Chambers, Keith Davidoff, Michael Geoghegan, Karen Harper, Marsha Henderson, Shawn Newby, Art Pollard, Ned Taylor and Rob Wickson.

The evening opened with candidates introducing themselves to the audience with snippets of their personal and professional biographies, educational credentials, past and current community involvements, and accomplishments.

Some sounded polished, others more organic in their opening remarks. Audience members had to remind Davidoff to tell them his name after he had finished.

The first half of the evening featured six questions from organizers and the first of these about the the role of community associations in Saanich underscored the difficulty of standing out.

Everybody agreed that community associations are important institutions that connect citizens with council in holding it accountable. The better answers however sought to stir up a measure of controversy. Geoghegan, for example, accused community association of fostering NIMBYism, a charge Harper refuted in pointing to the eventual resolution of the controversey surrounding the redevelopment of Townley Lodge. Merserau, meanwhile, suggested that community associations faced questions about their legitimacy.

Questions about local area plans and affordable housing followed. Several candidates said council is not moving fast enough in updating local area plans. Concerning affordable housing, candidates offered familiar answers that called for greater density, taxing unoccupied homes differently than occupied homes, and allowing a large range of housing types. This said, effective answers drew a direct connection between themselves and their candidacy.

A question about regional governance (read: amalgamation) followed. When Curran introduced the last subject, audience members could be heard groaning. “It’s okay —they only have sixty seconds to govern,” said Curran, drawing laughter.

The second-to-last question of this phase concerned the status of the Environmental Development Permit Area (EDPA) bylaw.

Newby said Saanich needs to do a better job to understand the nature of the EDPA. While Chambers acknowledged that the EDPA “was not rolled out as well as it could have been,” it was a “visionary piece of legislation that Vic Derman…really cared about.”

Taylor criticized the implementation of the EDPA. Mersereau, who works as an environmental consultant, said it was “incredibly irresponsible” by council to pre-empt the EDPA review process by temporarily suspending the EDPA. “That will effectively make it very difficult for any future councillors or councils to undue, giving how much of a hit Saanich’s credibility has taken,” she said.

Henderson said the EDPA has become a “very divisive” issue that has damaged long-term relationships in agreeing with Newby to continue the conversation about the EDPA. Wickson also lamented the lack of pragmatism concerning the EDPA and called for an independent review body. Pollard said the EDPA has affected a few people, who are nonetheless angry. “If you are aggrieved by it, yeah, it hurts,” he said.

Geoghegan said he would vote to rescind the EDPA because of its poor implementation, lack of transparency and fairness. “It is a mess, it needs to be rescinded, we have federal and provincial environmental legislation,” he said. Harper, a long-time critic of the bylaw, also promised to rescind it, adding that she would replace it with a stewardship program. “When you look at the recommendations in the entire [District-commissioned report reviewing the EDPA], it comes this close to saying, ‘rescind it.’”

Davidoff said he would involve the public in defending property rights.

The second phase saw candidates answer questions from the audience, but with a twist. Presented with two questions, they could choose which one to answer. The first round gave candidates a choice between ways to improve transportation or protect agriculture. Notable, perhaps controversial answers came from Wickson, who called for a regional light rapid transit system, while Pollard called for the cull of local deer to protect local farms and gardens among other measures.

The second round asked candidates to choose between questions about improving the budget process and getting youth involved in local politics. This round offered Harper to stress her credentials as a financial watchdog. Others choose the youth question, including Taylor, the youngest candidate at 18. “I’m not sure why, but I feel a need to answer the youth question,” he said, drawing laughter.

Henderson used her closing remarks to highlight her abilities to work with others in promising a more proactive, less reactive form of governance.

Wickson used his closing remarks to highlight his experience at the community association level, pragmatism and partnership building.

Pollard promised “caring, compassionate and competent” governance, if elected as councillor during his closing remarks.

Geoghegan used his closing remarks to frame his campaign as an attack on existing practices and policies in offering a populist vision of low taxes and accountability, stressing his prior experience as a lobbyist and ministerial assistant in the provincial government.

Harper (who sat next to Geoghegan) used her closing remarks to promise a balanced approach that draws on her corporate skills and protects property rights.

Davidoff meanwhile framed himself as a non-traditional politician, who might not be polished, but hard-working and open to public input.

Newby offered to balance environmental protection with economic development during his concluding remarks.

Chambers framed herself as a dedicated conservationist, who will put people and planet ahead of profits during her closing remarks. In this way, she appeared the polar opposite of Geoghegan.

Taylor offered himself as a fresh, young voice during his concluding remarks.

Speaking as the last candidate, Mersereau said Saanich finds itself as a crossroad. Saanich needs to do a lot of work to restore its reputation with residents and businesses, who have by-passed Saanich, in promising a co-operative approach in the tradition of the late councillor Vic Derman.

A second forum was scheduled for Thursday evening. Not all candidates were expected to attend.

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