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Abbotsford City Council candidate: Les Barkman

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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?

Sometimes people think the city can just shake this magic wand, and things happen. We have all these people from federal, provincial, different charters and environment and other areas that come in, and it’s not as easy as, somebody says, “Why don’t you just go change it?” There are a lot of things we have control of and a lot of things we don’t. The most accessible politicians are your city councillors, and I don’t think people take advantage of this enough; we are in town, we’re in supermarkets, we’re at local activities while provincial and federal representatives are either on the road or in Victoria. We are always in the community, and I encourage people to take advantage of local politicians and see what it’s all about.

So for specific examples, if someone was asking what exactly can a municipal politician help me with, what kinds of issues can they approach councillors about? Are there specific things councillors do day-to-day people might not be aware of?

Well, without getting into specifics — well, I will get into specifics. Let’s say somebody’s got an issue in building. I think my job as a councillor is to connect them with the right people. I’m not running a department. My job is to connect people. A lot of times people come to City Hall and they’re overwhelmed because they only go there maybe twice a year, once to pay their taxes and whatever else, and if they have an issue they don’t know where to go. I used to work in public works, and 90 per cent of what I do is connecting people. I had one the other day, it was a bylaws issue and they didn’t know who to talk to, so go see this particular lady in bylaws. I don’t know the bylaws; I know some of them, but we have people who run those departments and my job is not to run a department. It’s to connect people with the people who we hired to do that job.

Who do you view as your constituents?

Everybody.

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

I strongly believe that I do the same thing on November 16 as I do on November 14. I think my job is to — I won’t use the word “campaign,” but I will… I find I get my most production if, like today, you say, “Come over here,” I’m on your turf, we don’t have no barriers — some people are intimidated by City Hall — I don’t like the stamp on my forehead that it’s election year and it’s nice to see you around and then we don’t see you for another three or four years, so I spend a lot of time on the road going to people who have concerns, so for example I go to Bradner Store, Tony’s Restaurant, I go to Tim Hortons, I want people to feel comfortable, and I think a person gets a lot more honest answers going on somebody else’s turf, and I have met with everybody and anybody. I’m in the wrong place if I’m — I may not agree and they may not agree with me, but we’re listening and getting their views, so it’s important that we make people feel comfortable on their conditions rather than mine so I try to go out of my way. One thing that I pride myself in — I’ve got three As: available, accessible, and accountable, and I think that makes me community connected. In these four walls we don’t get a lot of things done at City Hall, we go through all these bylaws and rezonings but you’ve got to get out on the street and where the people are, and I enjoy that.

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

That’s why I’m here. I was at your new student union building [during a hardhat tour] and people don’t think that this position is full time. In the middle of the afternoon if I get a call saying this is happening, I try to make myself available to those types of things, and I think the university is very valuable. The student union is sort of the hub of what the students are all about — it’s a gathering place. You get ideas and you’ll get every culture you can imagine in there, so yeah, I, it’s very important to be part of that.

How did what you were doing at city council change over the past three years compared to what your initial goals were during the last campaign?

I think the most frustrating part for me is it seems we’re in a culture of, “If I’m not involved in it, there isn’t that big a value in it.” That’s one thing I really want to work at. I don’t have to convince you of my point of view; I have to give you all the facts and if you don’t support something then I still think I’ve done my job. But it irritates me that people don’t get engaged. But if it’s a money issue, then when it’s all said and done, then they’ll get engaged. I’ll use an example: our budget. We spend $250 million a year; we get no more than 10 people out of 140,000 people. Then when it’s all said and done … well, if you’d come to council on all these budget items, we discuss them, we see value for the whole city rather than just a special interest group. [People say] “Well, yeah, but you guys [have] got your minds made up before the process is even done,” and I’m going, “Well, no, that’s not true.” I have to be objective. When you’re on one side or the other then you can be biased — that’s what I’ve been told — and I’m supposed to be objective. So that’s the part I’m going to work the hardest on: communicating all the information I have so when somebody says, “I don’t agree with you but I understand why you made the decision,” then I’m okay with that.

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

No, but I have something I’ve been working on for six years. I’m not a fisherman, but I’m just bringing this up. For six years I’ve been trying to get a boat launch underneath the Mission bridge — and this will sort of confirm the information I’m giving you about how little power we actually have — our parks are part of the GVRD, the City, and the FVRD, but the GVRD actually has the biggest clout … so we have all these different levels and we’re really excited to have this in, we have all the planning and it’s all ready to go and through the GVRD they go, “Well, should we really be in parks in Abbotsford, should we give it to somebody else, should we take it over?” That’s been a six-year project … and I thought we had it going and the control we thought we had we didn’t … We have the best sturgeon fishing in the world, we can be in the river and underneath the bridge in Abbotsford in under 15 minutes, and that whole industry goes to Chilliwack. [People] fly to Abbotsford, they use our hotels, it’s a huge tourism industry, we have the airport, hotels, restaurants — all that would be affected by that, and it’s not a big ticket issue but it brings in a lot of dollars to our city.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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