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?
At its most basic level we are the stewards of the public trust. That sounds like a lofty statement, but what it really means is that we are given the opportunity to interpret the needs of our city, and then spend the taxpayer dollars wisely in providing those needs back to its citizens.[Municipal governments] are set up in such a manner that they do that in a committee-type structure. So, they are quite a bit different than provincial or federal governments, municipal governments are not really a government. It’s kind of an unusual concept for people to get their head around, but municipalities are all in corporations. In other words, they kind of act a little bit like a business; the city council and the mayor are the board of directors. It’s supposed to act that way in the best of worlds, it creates policy and guidelines, and through the pleasure of the provincial government will also be allowed to create bylaws.
All those things are done so that we can deliver services to the people who live on our community. Those services are even prioritized by the provincial and federal government. You can guess what they are: public safety, police and fire, infrastructure, and, lastly, recreation.
Who do you view as your constituents?
It should be everybody. I can tell you in just the last 48 hours I’ve met with people from all four corners of the community, every cultural background. I was speaking to a group this morning about how we can bring South Korean investors to our community. I was speaking to a group about chartering a plane to fly back and forth from Abbotsford to Northern India. And, last night, we were up at Sumas Mountain talking about gravel pits, and road maintenance, and protecting park land up on Sumas Mountain. These things are funded through economic activity, which touches all of us.
How will you receive the views of the entire population instead of just those most active around City Hall?
Staying engaged with the community is not the kind of thing you do when you have time as a city councillor; it actually is your primary function. When I was describing the role of municipal government, I said it was supposed to act as representative of the needs of its citizens. What that doesn’t mean is that you sit as a city councillor and you make up your own mind about what the community needs. We all have ideas, we all have our own observations, but, as an example, I don’t live on Sumas Mountain so for me to make a decision about Sumas Mountain, and for me to formulate an idea in my head about what Sumas Mountain needs or the way that it should grow would be very irresponsible.
The other half of the answer is there is a natural expectation that politicians campaign and when the campaign’s done they don’t need to talk to anybody anymore, they all of a sudden don’t have time. Speaking specifically for myself, since 2006 I’ve been involved in the political scene in Abbotsford. I’m the founder of the Abbotsford Ratepayers Association. When I felt people weren’t getting listened to I started my own website, Abbotsford Today. I have been active almost every week of the last eight years I have at least one moment in time where I’ve been face to face with a member of the public asking them for their opinion or their feedback, or for input on some issue facing this large city we all live in called Abbotsford.
What getting elected would do for me is give me even more purpose. Give me even more reason to engage the community, and not to step away and say, “Well, now that I have your votes I’ll go and do what I think is right.” Community engagement, stakeholders, you hear all these wonderful phrases, but what that really means is you go out and you talk to the people. The decisions that you make at council meetings, you talk to the people that those decisions are going to effect, and then you listen and sometimes you change your mind. That’s a key component of being a city councillor is having a mind that can be changed by public input.
You currently do work with Abbotsford Today. Would continue to do that work if you were elected? What kind of challenge do you think might come with trying to perform two jobs at once?
Abbotsford Today is a business that I own. I have written columns for the Abbotsford Post, a print newspaper back some years ago, and it would have been nice if the other medium had accepted my column, and when they didn’t I had some things left to say. As for Abbotsford Today, I am an owner, but it isn’t a priority that will supersede being a city councillor.
My partner and I have spoken about that and if I’m elected I won’t be publishing anything on Abbotsford Today. If I do run a blog it will be separate, and Abbotsford Today will have the choice of republishing some of that content just as they do with some of the other councillors.
Are you doing anything to address the lack of student interest in municipal politics?
I’m very interested in engaging that group because they’ve got some very important issues going on there. It starts at the bottom with parking, and it works its way on up to the impact of international students that have on class waiting lists. These are actually issues city council can have some effect on.
Right from the proposed U-District to how UFV will grow, city council will be involved in the zoning, development and access to the university. These are issues that affect not only students that are going there now, but ones that will come for decades. There is a culture at the moment that is communicating with the university that growing in Chilliwack is easier to do than growing here in Abbotsford, and we want to change that message. The university is an incredible asset to our community and I don’t think it has yet realized its potential in our community and we need to exploit it. We want the university to grow so that the students that graduate can help drive our economy. We want them to work here, we want them to stay here. We need to begin supporting that idea by supporting growth and development at the university itself.
Why did you choose to run on a slate, and what do you think this means for the organization of municipal politics?
As a society we are used to voting for parties, provincially and federally. The reason why we have parties at those two levels of government is because it’s really the only way to get anything done.
If you think to when we’ve had minority governments, provincially and federally, we always talk about the fact that we can’t get anything done. A minority government can’t accomplish anything. Abbotsford’s history is really a collection of villages, and when we were a collection of villages, having a bunch of independent community leaders made some sense because you could do business in those days with a handshake and some trust in the individual you voted for. And we still have a great bunch of people who get elected. They are community advocates, their activists, their leaders. But we’re a big city with very big city problems: highest unemployment rate in Western Canada is something that jumps out at me all the time. So, we need to move from the village attitude to the big city attitude, and we need to be able to get things done.
A group of like-minded people, like a team or slate, can come together with some basic philosophies, and in our case it’s a philosophy of economic development. We can come together and say on these five or ten things we agree, and so we can work together and with the votes we have on council we are going to be able to put that vision in place. That vision is generally made up of promises. So, Abbotsford First feels we can make commitments that we can deliver.
We take great care in how that will affect politics in the future, and in our constitution, the Abbotsford First Electoral Society’s constitution, we specifically have a clause that says that each candidate will vote on every issue according to their conscience. So, unlike the provincial and federal government, we have no party whip, we have no mandate. We’ve been very careful to maintain the independent nature of our ability to vote on issues, and social issues would be a great example of that. But we do agree on some very basic things: we need to revitalize growth in the community, we need to get economic development going, we agree on densification. These are some basic things. We have plans and ideas and visions for the community around those basic principles, and we want to bring those to the community and have Abbotsford realize its potential.
If elected, how would what you want to do as councillor be different from what council is already doing?
There are some basic things we can start with right away. First, we’ve been without an official community plan for a long, long time. This is extremely rare that the last time our official community plan was updated was nine years ago.
Wasn’t there a recent document related to that that was just released?
There are subcommittees of the official community plan, and one of those is the transportation master plan. That was recently released. I commented on that in the recent all-candidates’ debate where I said the transportation master plan would be obsolete in a few months’ time, because it was finished in advance of the official community plan.
We need an updated official community plan so we can plan things like infrastructure, transportation, all of it starts from the official community plan. That is our vision on paper, our vision for the growth of the community. And even though they work for five years at a time, they are supposed to be forward thinking for 20-30 years. The effects of going without one are absolutely evident. The arena over by UFV was not in the official community plan, Highstreet wasn’t in the [plan], the YMCA proposal that came up last year that we were lucky enough to not give our money to wasn’t in the [plan]. It even goes down to little things: the friendship garden by city hall wasn’t in the [plan]. This is a lot of projects that many millions, hundred millions of dollars in fact, we have gone ahead and built without a plan and all the plans that come underneath that (the infrastructure plan, transportation plan, etc) they all now need to be changed and updated to work with these existing projects that have been built.
Do you have a specific project you want to prioritize or bylaw you want to change?
We [Abbotsford First] are about resolving some of our fiscal and employment issues through economic development. It’s a running theme for us. As we look around the city, we start to create an inventory of what our assets are: a regional hospital, an international airport, a university. We add these assets up and then we begin to think to ourselves which of these assets are underexploited. What can we build on to create new economies?
A really big focus for us initially is the airport, and maximizing the economy that can be created around [it]. We have a very unique license at our airport for transhipment cargo aircraft. This has never been used. We are one of the few airports in Canada that has this license, this ability to bring cargo in from all over the world, and we have no business built around that at all. Cargo haulers are going to Pitt Meadows, and asking if they can fly into there and Pitt Meadows Airport doesn’t have this license. Abbotsford has this license, and those cargo carriers are not coming to us. So, we need to do a much better job of marketing that aspect. We can then create jobs through the construction and distribution plans, trucking distribution to the United States. We are a geographic hub here in Abbotsford, and converting that to an economic hub is priority one for us as a council.
About projects, if we determine that the airport is a future economic driver for us, we need to service the airport to make sure we bring the infrastructure to the airport that will allow that business to flourish. So, the focus for us is the Fraser Highway corridor and the Mt. Lehman corridor. Not so dissimilar to what [Bruce] Banman spoke about in Abbotsford News, but it would be the top of our priority list. Fraser Highway has a safety issue. Just this morning there was an accident on the freeway and the radio was telling people to go to Fraser Highway, and it was bumper-to-bumper, completely unsafe. It’s illegal to make a left-hand turn on Fraser Highway; it’s double yellow all the way down. So, we look at [that] and think that part of our plan must be to five-lane Fraser Highway, to harmonize the way on that corridor to pave the way for agro-industrial zoning, and for commercial industrial zoning alone that pathway. This will open up the Mt. Lehman interchange as well. This will give us the ability to service the people who want to get in and out of Highstreet.
I have mentioned that I may not have agreed with Highstreet, but now that it’s here it’s an economic driver. Disagreeing with it is one thing; now we’ve got to make Highstreet work. We have to do that with the community investing in it, which means we have to resolve our traffic problems, we’ve got to resolve the transit issues, and we have to make that work in an area that is largely industrial.
We’ve got to open up our doors and start being welcoming to businesses, and become competitive with our sister cities, Chilliwack and Langley, and at the same time collaborate as a Fraser Valley economy. If we work with our neighbours to draw general investment from all over the world can be done through our airport. We then can become that economic hub we think we have the potential to become.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.