Now that the dust has settled and the result is no different than last election (Is it just me or does anyone else have deja vu from October?), perhaps there’s no wonder that a proportion of New Westminster’s citizens voted (in a completely non-binding way) to increase the electoral cycle from 3 years to 4 – perhaps this proportion of the population believes that since nothing will change, why go to the expense to have elections so frequently?
I’m sure that in the coming weeks, editors, electors and candidates will toss around theories for the lack of change of the council, the apparent dearth of an expected “Grimston Park Effect” and as to how to deal with a 50-year age gap between sole newbie, Jamie MacEvoy, and the rest of City Council, but I am pretty confident that it can all be boiled down and neatly answered with my pet theory about New West – I call it the “One Highschool Effect” or OHE for short.
I have long held that it is the peculiar makeup of New Westminster’s school district that has kept the politics, neighbourhood relationships, development plans and even traditions bound to a small town mindset. One highschool of 2200 kids (when I was there) provided the sort of demographic funnel that kept almost everyone in the population within 4 or 5 degrees of separation – just enough to mean that you wouldn’t stop everyone on the street for tea and cakes, but just right to mean that everybody’s mom, dad, uncle, realtor, dogwalker, dry cleaner, Waffle House owner knew whose kid you were, and likely what elementary school you went to (and thus your neighbourhood and socio-economic status).
In a town where most families have children who grow up, leave, and then come back to raise their kids, often with three or four generations of one family having attended the same high school, memories are long and tradition is revered. In a town where it must seem like most “newfangled” developments seem to fail – the once shiny and bustling Quay Market now dreary and empty; hundreds of shiny new condos built on the old Penn lands all leaky, and an apparent inability to keep any sort of floating vessel at the Quay for long, and the loss of Royal City Centre as a viable retail space – perhaps there is some suspicion of new ideas, and the people who bring them? Perhaps this small-town feeling that has preserved New West’s historical charm, has kept residents wary of change – especially where their government is concerned.
Certainly it seems that the longest serving members of Council are those who are also older – whatever happened to Jerry Dobrovolny, who was the youngest – and cutest! – thing to hit council when I was a teenager. He was the first one to use large-format campaign signs, the first to put his face on his signs and the first one to use colour. The net effect was to send the message that perhaps Jerry, a late-thirties family man and city engineer in Vancouver, was perhaps the only candidate running for council in 1995 who knew how to use a computer. When did he leave?
One quick look at New Westminster’s Mayors shows how this city likes to hold onto its leaders. Muni Evers’ service spanned three decades, from 1968-1982; beloved Mayor Betty Toporowski served almost 10 years (despite the “racy” painting incident!), and with a third term looming ahead of him, mayor Wayne Wright is likely to top up to 9 years himself. There hasn’t been a single-term Mayor since J.L. Sangster in 1949-1950! (Take that, Sam Sullivan…)
It seems obvious that New West values its history and perhaps is wary of change. This is bound to change given the rapidly changing demographics of both the city and the provincial population in general, however I can’t help but wonder whether there isn’t still a silent majority block of voters whose wishes are felt every three years when they again vote in a comfortably familiar set of Mayor, Council and School Board.
Perhaps if the lack of change in governance across the board is part of a larger community effort to thwart change through historical preservation, the mayor and council may need to watch out or they might find themselves on display in Irving House one of these days.