Karen Harper has won the byelection to fill the seat left empty since the death of Vic Derman
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Karen Harper has won the byelection to fill the seat left empty since the death of Vic Derman

UPDATED: Harper wants a more “responsive” Saanich after winning byelection

Harper, a critic of the EDPA, wins narrow byelection against Rebecca Mersereau

Saanich’s next councillor says the municipality needs to become a “more efficient” and “more responsive” organization.

“Saanich needs to start listening better to its residents about the issues, particularly about budget and land use planning issues,” Karen Harper said in an interview, when asked about what message her election sends.

Harper won a narrow victory over Rebecca Mersereau in Saturday’s Saanich byelection to fill the seat left vacant by the death of Coun. Vic Derman in March. Harper finished with 2,340 votes, ahead of Mersereau with 2,238, followed by Nathalie Chambers with 1,856, Michael Geoghegan 863, Ned Taylor 597, Rob Wickson 577, Shawn Newby 465, Marsha Henderson 334, Keith Davidoff 163 and Art Pollard 83.

A longtime council watchdog with experience at the community association level, Harper joins council with little more than one year left until the 2018 general municipal election and immediately confronts two issues that constituted central parts of her platform: the fate of the controversial Environmental Development Permit (EDPA) bylaw and financial accountability.

Harper’s victory comes after she had openly campaigned against the EDPA, one of only two candidates to have done so.

While Harper said she could not be sure what role her firm opposition to the EDPA played, people can expect the same kind of clarity once she is on council. “People knew with me what my position was,” she said.

The EDPA is a flawed bylaw that has divided and distracted Saanich from more pressing issues, she said. Saanich needs to rescind it, then start afresh, she said.

Harper said she is “modestly optimistic” that she can achieve this goal, while acknowledging that not all of her future council colleagues share her agenda, at least not now.

That process begins later this fall once council starts receiving public input on a long-awaited report into the future of the EDPA. Council received the long-awaited report from Diamond Head Consulting in July, but delayed public input on it until after the byelection.

“This is something that should be debated and decided on by a full council,” said Coun. Fred Haynes at the time.

A second, less immediate, but perhaps equally pressing issue is next year’s budget.

Harper will join council as a former senior vice-president of the B.C. Pension Corporation and a member of a federal committee that helped the Canada Revenue Agency create savings in their business processes and pension plans.

Harper stressed her financial credentials during the campaign and will get the chance to put them on display as council sets out to reconcile competing demands.

This year’s budget raised property tax revenues by 3.53 per cent after council was trying to cut overall expenditures, while reconciling requests for additional staffing – the financial equivalent of trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.

While the budget process has not yet formally started, council last month once again asked staff to prepare a report setting two scenarios for cutting the overall budget, a path that has raised the prospect of service cuts.

Yet the subject of financial accountability has gained prominence after the public heard less than two weeks before the election that Saanich paid Chief Constable Bob Downie $378,790 following his retirement on July 31, only to rehire him as a contractor for two years (plus an option year), with an annual salary of about $222,711 plus benefits, vacation, leaves of absence and expense reimbursements.

Mayor Richard Atwell has defended the payment, which has drawn considerable criticism from the media and the public.

More broadly though, he has advertised himself as a defender of public finances, and gains an ally in Harper, who has been critical of Saanich’s financial management through her work as a director of Grumpy Taxpayer$ of Victoria and Amalgamation Yes.

In fact, Atwell endorsed Harper during the campaign. “Yes, I was happy to provide an endorsement in her flyer because she is highly qualified and has been greatly involved in the community and at council these past few years,” he said. “Now, she also has the confidence of Saanich voters and I look forward to her swearing in on Oct.16,” he said.

For Mersereau, Saturday’s second-place finish marked her second narrow defeat. During the 2014 municipal election, she finished 30 votes behind Coun. Leif Wergeland, the eighth and final councillor elected.

A geographic breakdown suggests that Harper received most of her winning margin in the Gordon Head area, where the polling station at the Gordon Head Recreation Centre showed her having won 144 more votes than Mersereau.

The Gordon Head Recreation Centre was also the subject of criticism from at least one caller to the Saanich News, who complained about long wait times for casting her ballot.

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