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Abbotsford City Council candidate: James Breckenridge

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Interviewed by Katie Stobbart.

Since many students will be voting for the first time, what would you describe as the role of municipal politics? What can city councillors actually do?

Well, remember, they always say that — and it’s true — that the municipal government is the one that most directly affects your life, because if you think about it, they’re the ones that maintain the roads — or in this case, don’t maintain the roads — but your water, your utilities, they all come from the municipal government. They’re the one you have the most impact in your life on a day-to-day basis. And also, they also have a very big effect on the quality of life in a city that you don’t get elsewhere. They’re the ones who are in charge of supplying the amenities like pools or arts venues, things like that, so very much they have a very wide and direct effect on students, on anyone who’s planning to live here after they graduate. Their policies are what make employment in the area.

Who do you view as your constituents?

Anybody in the city. One, because of the way you’re elected at large, there are no ridings or precincts or anything like that, but I would say anybody in the city, anyone who has something they need from City Hall, or they have an issue with it, or they have an idea.

How will you receive the views of the entire population instead of just those most active around City Hall?

I actually have a website, and have had it for years. One of these things I don’t want to do this year, and I’ve been trying to avoid, is filling out the specific questionnaires, because it becomes a political game. Besides, on that website, right there, there’s probably a million or more of my words on issues about what’s going on in the city and the province, and so. I have every intention of writing about what’s going on, the issues before, the rest of the choices we face. People can email — I don’t think, you can’t as a councillor, answer all your emails, but you can certainly go through and see what’s in there, and see if any of them strike as you good ideas or anything like that. There’s always people who disagree with my point of view or want to discuss something have never had any trouble finding me, and I’ve always been willing to — if they go to that much trouble I’ll discuss things with them. It’s one of the things about this council, they seem particularly protected from public input. I’m a big fan of interaction with the public, because if you don’t explain things or let them know what’s — especially from a point of view, sometimes you have to — you need to be able to explain what the problem is and need to get their feedback or get ideas.

If you are soliciting feedback or discussing with the public, do you see that as something that would happen one-on-one?

Mainly online. Well, mainly it would be as it is now, where I write and it either goes into Abbotsford Today or, well, it always goes onto the website and gives people a chance to read it and respond to it. I was actually thinking about developing — because it’s easy enough to do, maybe — to get a blog for just much shorter comments.

Are you doing anything to address the lack of student interest in local politics?

Not directly, no. I know some students here at UFV. My approach I’ve taken is to talk to them about the importance of politics, period, and to encourage them to encourage everybody, because I think that’s in some ways the best way, although I think the newspaper publishing all this thing, especially if you put in some things about your first question there, about why it’s important, because you get to say we did this, but this is why — and I think that for students, not just municipal but provincial politics, and even federal [politics] will have, is having, and will have a much more direct effect on their lives, so they need to be more aware and more involved, because some of the things we take for granted … I do a lot with mental health, and it’s taken, well, I’d say horrific, but it’s taken a tremendous beating because it hasn’t had a budget increase in five years. And you’re seeing that effect, that’s — and it’s spreading in healthcare. So I mean, if I was worried about my healthcare, if I was young, I’d probably be a lot more politically active than I thought I would have to be then when I was that age, just because it’s going to have a much earlier — well, it already does. If you’re looking for a job in today’s economy.

My background is as a chartered accountant, and I have the unique experience of mental health getting me homeless, so I have a very different view of things because of the mix of the two. I honestly don’t think our government really understands our economy anymore. That’s something that voters, especially young voters, are going to have to invest time in, and then convince the politicians.

If elected, how would what you want to do as councillor be different from what council is already doing?

Very different. First of all, I’m open to ideas. Several of the worst mistakes, or things that cost taxpayers of Abbotsford literally millions and millions of dollars, were things where — well, I was against Plan A, and so were several other people, just because economically it was a bad thing. Council just refused to listen to anybody. And because of that, because one of the things we got into a discussion with them in was discussing approaching another level of government for funding. And we said, you’ve gotta do it now. And they said, no, we’ll do it after when we’ve got everything. And of course, after everything that got done, they approached the government, and what did the government say? “Well, you’ve got all the funding, you don’t need any money from us.” That was a particularly big one.

One of the biggest areas that I would be very different is about being fiscally and frugally responsible. I think this council has not done a good job of managing either the finances or the operations of the city. I was at a couple of the all-candidates meetings, and people were talking about, this is the responsibility of the provincial government, we need to get money from them for this, and — but if you really take a look at the provincial government’s budget, they’re pretty much broke. Not that they’re going out of business, but in terms of big capital investments and new programs, they just don’t have the money. That’s one of the reasons they’re cutting health care and things. So I think the City needs to be aware of that, and keep its financial house very much in order.

I think we may need to make a very big change in how the City does business, to make it fair. We have an international airport, we have the border right there, and we have the Trans-Canada. And yet, businesses, employers, either drive by us or they stop before they get here, and it’s because, if you talk to people, Abbotsford has a terrible reputation as a place to do business. Especially it’s noted if you’re not one of the “old boys’ club” members that deals with the city hall. If you come in here, some of them start their projects before they even get the zoning changes and things like that, and then other people will come in and want to do something and it could take them two years to get rezoning, or more. I don’t know if you remember Paliotti’s, but they ran into that problem. They had a restaurant further up, they were going to build it, and instead of it taking a few months — they thought they’d be closed for a few months. Instead, they were closed for two years before they could get everything. You don’t attract business that way. I think we need to have a program of maintenance on our roads, because our roads are terrible. There’s a lot of things I’d like to see changed about the way the City Hall runs to make it more streamlined and to give the city a reputable as a place to do business, and fairness. and I’d also like to see City Hall, maybe just in its behaviour, promote community a lot better. I always get people saying, “I’d like to do something about homeless, but I don’t know.” At City Hall we could, it could always act as a bit of a clearing house, and things like that. It is a community, but it’s not very community. I did some enumerating for Elections Canada and one of the things that we found was most of the neighbourhoods here, not all, but most, the neighbours didn’t even know who the neighbour was. And you got into other neighbourhoods, a few pieces, and it was like, man, they knew everybody on the block, and what was going on. And that’s a much healthier way for community because you can do more as a community.

I think one of the things I want to see on council more than anything else is variety. If you think about it, our council is just the same person. Same background, same person, same experience, same way of looking at things. Abbotsford’s a very different community now than it was even ten years ago. And I think we need to get council to reflect that much more than it does, because Abbotsford’s made a huge change. Council in some ways still treats it like it’s a little small city in the country, and it isn’t — 140,000 is a big city, and you need to run like that. And you need to behave like it’s a big city. It’s not a small town government anymore.

Do you have a specific project you want to prioritize or bylaw you want to change?

No. I’ve got two priorities I’d like to change. Well, as I said, I think we have to change the way we do our budgets. Budgeting should be an extremely good tool, and they almost don’t… well, they’re required by law to do it, so we don’t really make good use of that to keep our financial house in order.

The big thing I’d like to see changed is how we approach homelessness. And I’m not sure if that means specific bylaws. In a way, it needs a bit of a change in attitude. But I think it needs more of a reflection of reality. It’s not something that you can — especially because it’s gotten so bad and it’s getting worse, it’s not something that you can address just quickly. It realistically takes someone, especially someone who’s using a substance to deal with some issue, two years or more for them to get to the point where they’re stable enough to be in housing and to keep going forward on their own. So it’s not a problem that has any quick solutions.

So the tricky part is you need to remember what we’re doing, because there are enough best practices out there about how to get somebody to that stage. We just don’t do it. We need to start doing that. We need to remember that that’s the goal, that the goal is to help people become well enough that they can afford on their own to be housed, because we don’t seem to do that.

Otherwise, I’m totally against spending more money on shelters and things like that — that comes back to the budget mentality. We have a limited number of dollars. We need to spend them where it’s going to have an effect. I don’t know if you’re aware of Vancouver. But [there,] if you have a permanent year-round shelter bed, you’re not defined as homeless. They have 1277 year-round homeless shelter beds, and they add more every year — but that’s not doing anything about moving people out, and at some point it becomes expensive. I think the thing is that at some point you have to be willing to accept a little mess, and you have to be willing to stand up to people and say, “I’m sorry, but we have to deal with this, and this is a reality.” Because I think one of the things is because it takes time, we’re going to have to come up with something that we can live with for them to live somewhere. And that’s — that’s the trickier part. And take council to be willing to stand up and take the heat.

I really think in the short term it’s more a case of the community deciding which parks or pieces — because the city has a bunch of little pieces of land — are acceptable for the public to use, and that we can — I was going to say police, but not in the sense of the police, but in the sense of keeping it a certain cleanliness, and keeping it from becoming a huge problem for the neighbourhood. That’s one thing I think council and the community really has to look at. Council’s biggest thing is that they’re going to have to be — well, it becomes a leadership issue. Too often, [with] politicians, it’s about finding which way the crowd’s headed or what they want to hear and telling them that. And that’s one of the reasons we are as messy as we are on all levels of government today. This is one of those issues where you almost have to be willing to stand on your own and say, “We’ve got to do this, and this is why.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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