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Abbotsford City Council candidate: Sandy Blue

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Interviewed by Michael Scoular.

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?

I think the role of municipal council in particular is a governance role. It’s one where we’re not actually doing the work the city staff does, what we’re doing is making sure the direction is set and the leadership is there to ensure council is setting a lead for the work that needs to be done by city staff. So if that includes us being more welcoming to business, and if it includes making sure there are provisions in place to work with other agencies for affordable housing or whatever that might be, we’re setting the framework for that. As that relates to students in particular, making sure your voice is heard is really important. In my experience students often will come out against something that incites them as opposed to for something that’s really important, and I can’t think of anything more important than not just these next four years that we hope to be on council, but it sets the framework, the stage for the rest of your life, so when you’re finished school you’ll want to work, and wouldn’t it be good if you could work here and have a great-paying job, and wouldn’t it be good if you could afford to live here and if it was a great place to raise a family, and so those are pretty practical things and council could have a big part to play in making sure that actually takes place.

Who do you view as your constituents?

I think everybody in Abbotsford: those who are here today, and those who will come. I think we should be a magnet; I think we should be a preferred destination, so that people, instead of leaving are doing everything they can to get to be here because it’s such a cool place. So I think when you think about the future, the future includes those who are not here today, so if we can set the stage so that the conditions in the community are welcoming and partnering and all those things that someone wants, and then you say, man you’ve got to go there because there’s all these things to do, and there’s jobs, and we’ve taken care of the homeless issue and we’ve managed all these other things, in the way that we’re looked to as great government. There are places around the world with great government, and I think we can do that here, and I think everyone’s ready for that. I think the fact that 30 people are running for council means people are very ready.

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

I think you have to reach out; we’ve had a couple of interesting opportunities so far; we were invited to go to Bradner Hall a few weeks ago, and it was the Bradner Ratepayers, an official group of people in a big neighbourhood, and it’s a farming community and they have lots of issues that farming communities might have. But there are lots of other issues. We were also at the Hindu temple [one day] and there are these various groups that organize themselves either around business like the Chamber or ADBA or others, or there are groups that have either a cultural or religious or other organizational affiliation that that’s often the way to get to them, to say bring out everybody you know and care about and we’ll listen to you. It’s hard to do, and people often will dismiss it, particularly older people as not being particularly savvy with the internet and social media; I haven’t found that to be the case, actually. People have a lot of time and are taking the time to learn how to communicate; we’re hearing from a lot of people who are very well informed on issues and want to connect and they will use social media to connect; I think that’s a great way to get a platform out there. But if I say to you, as an individual, “I want to talk to you and I want you to talk to anyone you know who cares about that,” you can say, “Yeah no, nobody’s interested,” or you can say, “Hey yeah, I’ll ask.”

What I hear from people is that they feel City Hall’s not accessible, and that they don’t care and they’re not treated well. And I believe there’s good people working at City Hall obviously but the leadership in terms of saying, everyone who walks through that door needs to feel welcomed, and you need to understand how to respond to them in a way that makes them feel valued and that they’re being heard. So there’s a different role with staff than there is with council, but I think for council to really have their ear to the ground is critical and one of the ways we’re doing that is to have an advisory council, and there’s about 20 people who for the most part are long-term residents — they might be businesses, they might be farmers, they might be influential people — who care about Abbotsford and are advising us as well. That helps you to reach out even further, and they’re saying “people are asking me, what about this, and how do we respond to that, what do we think about that, is it important or is it not important. Is it one person’s issue or a trend emerging that everybody cares about?

During this campaign period we’ve been meeting every week with those advisors for about an hour and they come prepared with tough questions and points of view to share and after the election we’ll meet on an as-needed basis, but I’m hoping at least quarterly if not monthly just to touch base to say, hey what’s going on out there, what are you hearing, are we doing a good job, are we doing the right things, and get us in front of the people we need to talk to. It’s a challenge, people are busy, busy, busy, but being able to be open; so if all the people know is that we are open and welcome to that then absolutely. I don’t have to agree with you but I will listen to you, and I will say, “Hmm, I hadn’t heard that point of view.” Let’s figure out how that fits in. Sometimes people will complain or have a long-standing issue with something and we’ll throw it back and say, “what would you like us to do about it?” I think that’s a really good technique to say, clearly there’s something you want—what is it? So it’s not just reaching out but really listening and trying to assimilate that into our collective learning.

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

Well, I know a lot of young people — they might know me personally or their parents might know me, and they’ll say, “Oh, you’re running; that’s interesting.” And I’ll say, “Why is it interesting?” And they’ll say, “Well, I don’t know.” So I say, “Will you vote?” and “Yes!” and “Will you vote for me?” “Yes,” then I say, “Good; why?” So not just because they know me or like me, but because it’s actually going to make a difference to what they’re doing. We also have had a couple of high school students who are old enough to vote, they might be in a civics class or something, and their parents or a family member might have some involvement with us, and so they might be asking because it’s a school project, “Well, what about this?” And so I had one girl from Mouat the other day come and she said, “Will you come talk to our class?” I said, “Of course … what do you want to know about?” And she said, our future, our jobs, and why are you doing this? And I said I’m not doing this because of me.

The minute you step up and say you’re going to run for politics you’re up for everybody’s opinions about you and everything else you’re doing, but I think one of the things that’s really important for anybody who steps up is that it’s a huge personal commitment. Just saying, why are people running and why do they care enough about their community and their future to run, so that people can connect. So that students and young people can connect. Oftentimes we hear doom and gloom and we hear bad stuff about youth; I don’t hold that view. There’s all sorts of different circumstances, but I think we have a very bright future. The people that I talk to today are really better informed than any generation I think has ever been. They have the opportunity and the point of view, and I think they’re becoming more aware generally that heir voice can be positively heard not just when they are rising up against something, but when they are rising up for something.

You mentioned your other commitments. You have a position with the City of Maple Ridge, what kind of challenge do you think might come with trying to perform two jobs at once?

Other than that they’re both a huge commitment, I also do many, many other things. I think sometimes people who are critical of one’s ability to do that think that doing something else takes away from the other thing instead of adding something to it. For many years, I was working full time and going to school … and when I was in Burnaby I was working there volunteering with the RCMP and with Community Policing and various things, and I had 4000 hours of volunteer time while I was raising my family and working. I’ve always served on boards and volunteered, and I always do everything excessively, and I’ve also had a lot of governance roles when I was a police commissioner … there are things there, too, that could be a conflict and you have to keep separated, and I don’t have any issue about being able to do that whatsoever. I’m a very ethical person, and I would declare a conflict if I saw one and I would act appropriately.

Why did you choose to run on a slate, and what do you think this means for the organization of municipal politics?

That’s a great question. First of all, I had no inclination to run — I’m not a political being; I tend to stay behind the scenes and work really hard to do things that I think need to be done. But I was getting a lot of pressure… I was actually pressured during the last two elections to run as an MLA, and that’s just something I hadn’t contemplated at all, and didn’t do, clearly. But I really started paying attention to what’s been going on. This group that’s been formed, and what I agreed to do a year ago was to help to guide them from a communications and strategy point of view Sometimes I call it calling BS on things; people get very involved in political rhetoric, but: “what does that mean?” I kind of do that, and say clear communication on complex issues is really important. So they’d be talking way down deep in a subject and I’d be like, “Ah, get it where it’s common language so people understand.” So I started spending some time through that with the folks who are now running and through that I got to know them really well and I got to see that everyone brings something different, but collectively we had a lot of strength and we had a lot of opinions and I was eventually convinced I should be part of that team, so that was a huge step for me. But what I know from experience regardless of where I’ve worked or what I’ve done is that it’s really possible to get things done through a team, and I’m not interested, personally, in raising funds and putting signs out and doing whatever; my interest is in making a difference.

And so with a team what that allows you to do is bounce ideas off each other, agree on which things you think need priority, and … any individual running for council can promise anything they’d like but they have no hope of delivering [it] whatsoever because they’re just one vote. So for us, what we see is running the strength of a team, we’re all very independent-minded people, the two gentlemen who are running with us say, “Are you kidding me, there’s three women, oh my god — how can we ever have a voice?” [Laughs.] You know, teasing.

But what we can do is we can vote independently, and I might disagree; I might agree this is a really important issue, but I might disagree with your point of view on it. But the only hope that we have of actually making a change is having a group of people who are like-minded who’ve already had a year of thinking about the issues and are ready to hit the ground running, and actually bring forward the important issues that are there rather than individual, personal points of view that I see sometimes around many council tables. I see people with a single issue or a single point of view. We all have different points of view; I’ll give you an example. We heard from one of the people at one of our meetings actually, it was about how “It’s so bad that housing prices are so low in Abbotsford.” I said, hold on a minute — that’s a huge issue that’s so important. The fact that we have a range of affordable housing doesn’t mean we’re all the way there. That’s a huge thing to attract businesses and families here. That’s good news. And they said, “Really?” … From their perspective, which was more development-focused, more pro-development and pro-growth, they saw low house prices as a bad thing. So it’s just a different perspective; they’re not right or wrong, it’s just, we’re thinking about what people are complaining about and what are challenges for families and all that. This is a good thing. So I think we’re able to bring different points of view together to collectively work on the really important issues, get some of the groundwork laid for those things, and then move on.

[In response to] another question that [has been] raised, I’m for less government rather than more. I think municipal government in particular should stick to the things that they need to do, the things that are the right place for government to be, and other things should be left to the private sector — things where you’ve got either a business case for it or expertise or funding or whatever it might be — and just facilitate that happening. Welcome them in and say, “Hey, how can we help you do this good work that you’re doing over here?” Taxpayers don’t need to pay for that, especially if it’s being funded by the provincial or federal governments. Our role would be more advocating for and creating relationships with those senior levels, so we can help to ensure that the resources and funding that are needed here come here.

With the slate then, you used the word “like-minded,” but also said you’re free to disagree on issues. How do you see that working?

I think of it more like a team, so we have one campaign manager, one fundraiser, and one financial agent. It’s an effective way to manage resources as we would if we were elected. Brenda Falk was asked — this question came up of how can you possibly manage the two, and she said, “I’ve been married for 30 years,” which, I’ve been married for 32 years so I can relate to that, “and clearly,” she said, “we’ve raised four children and have four grandchildren, and we do not agree on everything, but we’re committed to our family and to our business and so sometimes we agree to disagree. But we don’t dissolve our relationship and start attacking each other.” And I think it’s a similar kind of a way, when you… you know, we all like each other a lot, and I don’t think I knew any of these people other than by reputation or having met them, and they’re my teammates. But over a year, when you’re talking through some very complex, contentious issues … and potential solutions, you get to know somebody pretty well, and so I think the analogy of a marriage might be a good one, where you’re committed to something that makes a lot of sense to you, but you say, I just don’t agree with your approach. Let’s find a way to work together to make this thing go forward.

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

I don’t see a lot of things that are for the good of Abbotsford actually taking place on council today. I hear a lot of criticism about council being undecided and unwelcoming and businesses leaving town and just a lot of uncertainty and a lot of things that, as I said there are 30 people running for council — that’s got to be reflective of people pushing and saying, please make a difference out there, let this be a place that’s more welcoming. I think if you elect a group of like-minded individuals such as ourselves, we’ve got the background and the skillset, and together as a team we have the ability to deliver some things that will make an instant difference like being welcoming to business, and setting some ground rules so that when people come in they know what they can expect: some certainty and process. I know from investors, the thing that sends investors running for the hills is a lack of certainty. Investors and developers are there to make money; they can choose to invest anywhere. The decision they’re making is going to be a $10 million, 20-year decision at minimum. Why would you go somewhere that you have no certainty your project is going to take place, or that you’re going to be welcomed, or that there isn’t going to be just this litany of additional things that you hadn’t heard about to begin with, that they’re going to stop your project and [that may mean] you don’t have your cash flow.

Do you have any examples? There was that instance with the downtown businesses and the housing project that was voted down because it was said there were promises to businesses; so in that sense there was something that kept to what businesses had expected.

I don’t know about the issue fully, but my understanding of it is this: businesses said, “We don’t want bad people living near us.” It’s the NIMBYism [not in my backyard]. There were millions of dollars being committed to a supportive housing project by the province that the City had supported for years. The issue may have been one where people didn’t really understand what type of housing was, that it’s for marginalized people, for people who are ready to be in that kind of housing so that it actually helps them. I’ve heard it said that we should have at least three such projects by now that the [provincial] government was willing to fund. If the issue was around finding the right place and informing people so they made a good decision, I don’t think that’s a business decision; I think that’s a decision made out of a lack of knowledge. What we should be doing is advocating… that’s where the money comes from. There’s only eight cents on every dollar of taxpayer money that comes from the municipal level. The issue of funding and supportive housing and all the rest of that, the social services aspects, and all the rest live with the province and the feds at different levels. Advocating for it and making it happen so it’s in the ground when it needs to be so we can move on to other pressing issues is really critical.

Business is about business; it’s not about special interest groups. In a way the way I think that decision was handled was like a special interest group as opposed to things that are good for business. It’s really good for business when you can have density, you can have people living nearby so they don’t have to rely on a transit system that’s not yet fully developed — students here know what transit is like — but that’s not really the business case or business issues, that’s people saying, “not here.” Business in general is about a business case: what is it you’re going to do? Businesses need to make money, they need to get a return on their investment, and they need to employ people. It’s a long-term thing; it’s not a flash in the pan.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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