Turnout was good at the first all-candidates meeting of the 2011 campaign, hosted by the Queensborough Residents Association.
At the first all-candidates meeting for the 2011 civic election in New Westminster last night, Bob Osterman took me to task for making fun of his ugly election signs.
I don’t recall doing that, and I can’t find any posts in the archives that mock his signs, but Bob took me aside and said that last election me or someone related to Tenth to the Fraser did, and I guess I’ve got to believe him. Bob went on to explain why.
“I’ve been using the same ugly signs for the last 20 years,” Bob said with a laugh, “and I’m gonna keep on re-using those ugly signs every time I run. And you know what I do with the stakes in between elections? I use ‘em to stake my azaleas and my tomatoes.”
Whether Bob’s ugly election signs are a sign of pragmatic thrift, environmental consciousness (reduce, reuse, recycle!) or a kind of superstitious talisman – his version of growing a playoffs beard – I believe this anecdote illustrates a simple truth about New Westminster politics: there’s more than meets the eye.
Since we began blogging about New Westminster three years ago (we launched Tenth to the Fraser shortly before the 2008 election – though the timing was quite unintentional), the way I view local politics has changed profoundly. Three years ago, the names on the ballot were just names on the ballot. I’ve now had the privilege to get to know most of this year’s candidates as people.
My husband Will and I launched Tenth to the Fraser in part as an incentive for ourselves to dig deeper into local issues and get to know our community better. We have succeeded far beyond my initial expectations. Several of the council and school board candidates this year are now our friends, and most are friendly acquaintances. I look back at Will’s observations of mayoral and council candidates at the last Queensborough All-Candidates’ meeting and our endorsements in 2008 and it’s funny – we snubbed some of the people who we have grown to like and respect. Like most voters, all we had to go on was election flyers, the all-candidates’ meeting and newspaper coverage. In other words, we had to rely on secondary sources, and it’s very hard to get a true measure of a person via leaflets, reporters or 30-second stump speeches. This too is a secondhand report, but in it I hope to show a bit about the people on the ballot. If you are able, I encourage you to meet the candidates in person – many of them are quite different than how they come across on paper or in pixels.
This post will not offer any specific endorsements, just some observations and notes that I took during the all-candidates’ meeting. Given the disclosure above that some of these candidates have become friends, I do want to reveal up front who these are. I’m no journalist, and like everyone I am not unbiased. I’d rather be honest about my biases, and let you temper your own judgements about what I say based on this disclosure. Candidates I would call friends (people with whom I have shared a beer or other informal social time) include Jonathan Cote and Jaimie McEvoy on council and Jonina Campbell and MaryAnn Mortensen on school board. I am friendly (though not close) with John Ashdown, who was one of the early co-organizers for the inaugural Summerfest event, as well as James Crosty and Wayne Wright, who were my Quayside neighbours when I first moved to New Westminster. I have also had several friendly conversations with Betty McIntosh and incumbent trustee Lisa Graham. To be clear, being “friendly” with someone doesn’t automatically mean I would vote for or endorse him or her. I don’t agree politically with all my friends – it takes the fun out of talking politics if everyone agrees on everything!
Now, on to the all-candidates meeting report. I took a lot of notes at the all-candidates’ meeting – and in fact, was berated for it by a fellow citizen who accused me of being a City shill (and, when I said I was blogging, demanded I tell him who I was blogging for - as though it couldn’t possibly be for my own fun). This was the same guy who kept asking long-winded leading questions and then shouted down any candidate who dared try to answer them. All the politicos took it in stride. This won’t be the first, or the last time they will be loudly attacked by someone who takes advantage of a public question period to share an angry rant.
Here are some of the quotes, observations and paraphrased comments that stuck out for me for each of the candidates. They are in no particular order.
“No mayor walks by himself.” – Incumbent Wayne Wright, who said that he feels the current council works very well together, evidenced by the fact that there have been only two tied votes in the last six years. He appealed to voters to choose a leader and six to go with him. Wayne is running on his record, of course, and used the mic to remind everyone about the many changes he’s brought about during his term, particularly the transformation of Queensborough (since the all-candidates meeting was hosted by that residents association).
“Sports and music are ways to bring people together” – Francois Nantel, an affable Quebecker, mentioned several times that social events are important to build community. The mayoral dark horse suggested the creation of a mayors’ slo-pitch league to encourage more citizen involvement. He also said that he was unaware of any music festivals that were hosted in New Westminster, which was a surprise. There are several, including the 12th St. Festival, organized by council candidate John Ashdown.
“I’m neither an asteroid nor a star, just a guy with his feet planted firmly on the ground.” – Vance McFayden positioned himself as a pragmatic, middle-of-the-road populist, promising that he’d initiate a program of four open town halls per year where citizens could discuss the issues that matter to them with mayor & council. He told me prior to the debate that he was a good choice because he had “no ties.” I think he was referring to Wayne’s well-known connections to developers, and perhaps hinting that the other front-runner, James Crosty (who was absent) had his own “ties” to be wary of. The surprise mayoral contender wore a giant photo button on his lapel with a picture of his father – apparently a family tradition to celebrate the life of someone who has recently passed (Vance’s elderly Dad died on Sunday, and it is the reason why Vance didn’t announce his candidacy earlier).
As I mentioned, James Crosty was absent, but he sent several volunteers to distribute flyers bearing his apology and an explanation: he was at a residents’ meeting in uptown New West that he said he committed to two months ago. James has been visiting all the local residents’ associations to introduce himself and shake hands (I ran into him at the last West End residents’ meeting a month ago), as well as attending citizen-organized chats upon request. James has been the most visible challenger so far, having started his “citizen advocate” campaign months ahead of the official announcement that he was seeking the mayor’s chair. I was surprised that he did not show, prior engagement or no.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I shall be short because the chairs are hard…” - Crusty council candidate James Bell appeared frail but peppered the evening with irreverent one-liners. Quite genteel in our conversation following the debate, he was fiercely outspoken on a few issues, specifically commenting on the hazard to pedestrians and cars of open ditches in Queensborough. His final remark was, “Ladies & gentlemen I want to thank you for enduring these hard seats while you were subjected to word hypnosis.” James is also running for school trustee.
“When I got into city politics it was to answer the question, ‘can compassion and politics go together?’ The answer is yes, I believe they can.” – Incumbent councillor Jaimie McEvoy, whose day job is the director of the Hospitality Project in New Westminster, is an outspoken advocate for New Westminster’s most disadvantaged residents. He has a closer view of the impacts of poverty than most, on the front lines of one the largest food bank in the Lower Mainland, serving 3,000 people every month. Thoughtful and self-effacing in a one-to-one conversation, I was surprised to find that Jamie is a hell of a debater. I’ve never seen him in action before.
“My name is Chuck Puchmayr, and … I’m back!” - Former MLA Chuck Puchmayr introduced himself with a note of surprise, acknowledging his last-minute declaration of intent to run for council. He delayed his entry into the race until he got a bill of clean health from his doctor after his recent battle with cancer. Chuck is a polished politician and expertly reminded all of his successes as MLA and councillor as he responded to questions. Chuck’s got a cheeky sense of humour, as seen in his choice of URL: politicallycorrect.ca.
“I want to help build a better communication between the city of New Westminster and the people of New West. That is, your concerns and issues, we want them to be properly answered.” – A self-described “rookie” politician, Gerry Liu apologized several times for his lack of polish. Polish or no, he has heart.
“Development Cost Charges should be transparent so that citizens can see how the money is spent” – Harpreet Singh Sihota echoed a sentiment that ran strong in Queensborough. Many in the audience demanded more transparency in terms of how the money paid to the City by developers is spent. Some suspected that money levied in Queensborough was funneled towards improvements uptown, however all incumbent councillors said unequivocally that all DCCs collected in Queensborough are spent in Queensborough, pointing to water and sewer upgrades, new parks, the rec centre expansion and upcoming Ewen St. upgrades as examples of how this money has been spent.
“We’re one of the only cities that allows open delegation to council meetings. It’s risky, but you know what, we want to hear from the citizens of this city.” - Incumbent Lorrie Williams’ plain-spoken reply to a question about how citizens can voice their opinions to the City. A councillor for nine years, Lorrie was asked several times to defend recent council performance. She said this council had accomplished a lot, though it wasn’t enough for some critics in the audience. Lorrie pointed out, with the voice of experience, “Things take longer than you think.”
“It’s important that we have a city hall that cares.” – Jonathan Cote spoke about the social and environmental issues he is so passionate about. He mentioned there has been a 45% decline in the homeless population in New Westminster since establishing more shelters in New West.
“I will bring balance back to council.” – Veteran former councillor Cal Donnelly, who has served under five mayors, appealed to voters to bring him back to council. Cal was the only politician to include a QR code and a link to a Surveymonkey survey on his election flyer, though, oddly, not an official website.
“One of the most important things we’ve done in the last three years is the official apology to the Chinese community,” – Bill Harper, responding to a question about multiculturalism and inclusiveness in New Westminster, mentioned the apology for the city’s racist past was very meaningful for many Chinese-Canadians. Harper also mentioned that the controversial DCCs mentioned earlier used to be among the lowest in the region at $750/unit. Council has raised the fee to $6,500 per unit, which is closer to the middle of the pack.
“We need our fun. You can’t live in a city where there is no fun.” – Paul Mulangu, who recently made headlines for chaining himself to a door and launching a hunger strike to protest funding cuts to his Centre of Integration for African Immigrants, focused on the need to encourage more multiculturalism and culture in New West.
“It’s not up to City Hall to tell people what is good for them, it’s up to people to tello City Hall what they want and need.” – Former Arts Council Chair Susan Wandell, speaking about the importance of citizen involvement.
“This city is doing its share for the region.” - Betty McIntosh pointed out that because some neighbouring municipalities do not have homeless shelters and other services for the poor, New Westminster is shouldering more than its share of the responsibility for their care. She mentioned that New Westminster has 1,900 subsidized housing units – a lot for a population of about 60,000 people.
“Every councillor has personal phone numbers. If you need a private meeting, call us and we will come.” - Bob Osterman and the other incumbent councillors tried to stress how open they are for citizens to share their concerns. Communication and transparency in city dealings was a recurring concern voiced by citizens in their questions for the candidates.
Gavin Palmer was also in attendance, however I didn’t catch any quotable lines from him. He is an outspoken Queensborough advocate.
Several council candidates were no-shows, including: