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Chilliwack City Council candidate: Dick Harrington

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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?

It may be considered a cliché, but I think that city council provides the opportunity for people to have the greatest impact on what happens in their community. We all know that many different issues are made at the federal or provincial levels, and sometimes at quite a distance away from an individual in their own little community. If you’re serious about getting involved in an issue, the impact is municipal because you have an opportunity to talk to the individual — or more than one individual — face-to-face, and not just through a representative, a phone call, or an email.

Who do you view as your constituents?

Every single person who votes. I say that because everyone of age should vote. Easier said than done. It’s a cliché perhaps again, but in my experience — I’ve been at this for many, many years — some politicians focus on the elite, the people with influence in the community, the money classes, and I think that every single constituent who votes has an equal opportunity. In other words, you don’t show any favouritism based on money or influence or relatives or friends or whatever. You try to be really — the word democratic, I know everyone throws it around, but that’s my favourite word in the English language.

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

You have to talk to people, you have to put some real energy into it. It’s impossible to talk to 50 to 60,000 people, but you have to gain a proper consensus. You have to talk to a wide range of people. For example, three years ago, when I lost by 900 votes, I was particularly concerned because my background in Ontario came from an area with high voter turnout, and I was concerned with 17 per cent voter turnout, so I carried a little notebook with me, and wherever I went — to the barber, or shopping, or anybody I knew I’d ask them, “Why do you think there was such a terrible voter turnout?”

I gained a consensus from a wide range of people — not just friends, or people I associate with and all that — and you hear the same thing over and over again: decisions are made in the back rooms of Chilliwack City Hall and my (the individuals speaking) vote doesn’t count; no one listens to me; when we have concerns we’re not taken seriously because we’re not part of the power broker family in the community; there’s no public debate; when controversial issues are brought up, any debates that may have occurred occurred in the back room — it’s not public.

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

Unfortunately not specifically. I have a campaign team of a few people — I’m a much older generation, but they’re all young, in their early 20s, and I have a couple others on my little team who are 17-18 — one is a first-year student here. The reason you bring in the younger people — you might say they have more energy but actually I have more energy than they do, but they have fresh ideas that I may not think of, and that’s important.

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

Well, I’m a little biased, but I think there’d be a huge difference. For one thing — I’ve already stated it and the mayor doesn’t like me for this — every controversial issue that comes to city council should be debated in public, and it doesn’t happen. I know they might say, well then you get 20 people come to a meeting and they all want to speak for 10 minutes, it goes on for hours. You use common sense — the mayor says, this is repetitive and do you have anything new to add, otherwise you go on until 3:00 a.m.

We had a very controversial issue on the approval for a toxic waste recycling centre 150 metres from the Fraser River. There were 17 council candidates the other night [at the All Candidates’ Debate] and no one else wanted to talk about it, or even mention or bring it up, or anything. We had a very limited amount of time to speak, but I took the last minute — they give you one minute to close — and it was perfect because they had a question addressed on people who leave garbage when they go fishing on the rivers, and what do we do about this? I said, “Well, it’s pretty tough when the council is being a bit hypocritical. You’re asking people not to leave their garbage and you’ve approved a toxic waste site 150 metres from the Fraser River in a floodplain.” That issue should be debated — the council has already passed it with no debate.

So that’s the first thing. I would try to move a motion to enforce or mandate that we have public debate on all controversial issues. If there’s one member of the constituency there who wants to speak on an issue, they have a right. Throwing around the cliché “democracy,” we don’t have a democracy the way this council functions.

Do you have a specific project or bylaw you want to prioritize, change, or put into place?

The first thing that comes to mind is that I’m calling for a city-wide wi-fi network. If it’s bought in on a large scale by a municipality, they can come up with rates that are very competitive. In 1998 [Frederickton] invested, at that time, $65,000 to bring in the network. They were criticized at the time. But [in Frederickton] it’s owned by the city, and it is offered to businesses at very competitive rates, and it’s such a competitive advantage that businesses buy into it, and then there’s excess capacity, and that is put into government buildings — not just City Hall, but libraries and other buildings, where citizens can access it. It costs about $100,000 per year [for Frederickton] to maintain the network, but they make money on it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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