Saanich Mayor Richard Atwell said he wants council to spend more time as a group planning the future direction of Saanich, a direction that he personally hopes will see the district review its tax rates.
Atwell made these comments during a wide-ranging interview at the halfway turn of his first term as the highest elected official of the District of Saanich, a tenure marked by various political controversies that often acquired a personal dimension.
Sitting in a local coffee shop, Atwell said he hopes council will use the second half of its term to collaborate on issues that matter to the community. This process does not mean spending more time in council chambers, he said. “[But] there is an opportunity as a group of elected officials to address some of the larger issues and provide guidance to staff about how we would like them to do the work.”
Specifically, Atwell said he hopes to address the growing gap between the demands as identified by the public and the formal documents of the district designed to capture those priorities.
“We have an Official Community Plan that has not been revised since 2008 and there is no plan to revise it,” he said.
Atwell also said he personally would like to see the district review its level of taxation.
“My other challenge I think is to lead the administration in a fiscal direction that is going to address the ever-increasing, ever-compounding tax load,” he said. “This is becoming an ever-increasingly expensive region to live in. Saanich in particular with its cost of housing is very, very expensive and at some point, we are going to reach the limit of that.”
Atwell made these comments towards the end of an interview during which he spoke at length about the various issues that have been the highlights – or some might say lowlights – of his first two years in office.
Atwell, a political newcomer by his own admission, claimed the mayoralty in November 2014, when he unseated Frank Leonard, a mainstay of local municipal politics, who had first served the district as a councillor between 1986 and 1996, then as mayor until his defeat in 2014.
Running on a platform of greater transparency, Atwell soon found himself in the centre of a scandal, when he claimed on Jan. 12, 2015, that Saanich municipal staff had been using spyware to monitor his computer between Dec. 2 and Dec. 11. “I had no knowledge of this software nor did I give my consent to have it put on,” Atwell said at the time.
A software engineer before entering politics, Atwell had made this charge at a press conference, where he admitted to having an extra-marital affair.
An investigation by the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner confirmed that municipal staff had installed the software on 13 stations, including Atwell’s, on Dec. 2, the day after Atwell and councillors had assumed their offices, confirming Atwell’s claim and blasting district staff for their “deep lack of understanding” about privacy rights.
But if the report vindicated Atwell, the whole affair starting with Atwell’s initial allegations severely tested relations around the council table, relations that have been rocky from the start, according to Atwell.
“I found myself dealing with a council who – to be frank – had not accepted the election,” he said. “That took some time to sink in.”
This said, Atwell also admits that it has taken him a while to find his place around the council table.
“Many of them have been there much longer than I have and there is no doubt that there is a level of wisdom and experience there that will take years for me to acquire,” he said. “But I have a very good connection to the public and I have a very good sense about how they feel.”
Overall, council has now arrived at a point where the major divisions have either been addressed or accepted, Atwell said.
Council works well together on some issues, but remains divided on others, he said, pointing to the ongoing debate about the district’s Environmental Development Permit Area (EDPA) bylaw designed to protect sensitive ecological areas. Several residents, however, claim that the bylaw is overly restrictive and selectively enforced by the district.
“It has definitely gotten in the way because there have been an inordinate number of public meetings, there has been an inordinate number of correspondence, staff meetings, site visits,” said Atwell. “I have never visited so many sites on so many issues.”