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Chilliwack Mayor candidate: Sharon Gaetz

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Interviewed by Vanessa Broadbent.

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

When I first came on to city politics I had been part of the school board and I thought it would be so boring because I thought that it would be all about sewer, water, roads. I had been around kids and I really enjoyed education. I found that it was way more than that. The city looks after all of the infrastructure, it looks after every pipe under the ground, it looks after sewers, building parks and cultural centers, all of those kinds of things we do. We look after streetlights, we look after out water system, all of that. We also look after the RCMP, our fire fighters and there are things that I never knew that we would get involved in.

It’s basically because the province doesn’t have enough funding for things like housing. That’s really a provincial responsibility, but it’s been handed down to municipalities. To some degree, we share with the province on it. I had no idea that we would be facing drug addiction in our community and trying to work through the effects of people that have drug and alcohol addictions and the kind of work that they need behind them. Every single day for me as a mayor is different. I can come into my office and I will have a letter from somebody about crime in the neighbourhood, about a break-in that they had, about a response time by the police officers, [or] I may receive a letter of gratitude from someone who had a really quick response.

The mayor is just one vote. Members of council, there’s six, and they all have an equal vote to the mayor but the mayor has additional powers in the community charter that will set them apart. There are some things that they can do that council doesn’t have the power to do. They are also the chief executive officer of the entire organization. That’s what I get to do and I love it.

Who do you view as your constituents?

My constituents are anyone who is within the boundaries of the city of Chilliwack. My responsibility doesn’t stop there, because I was elected to the chair of the Fraser Valley Regional District and that represents three hundred thousand people on areas of common concern in the region, [so] mine is a little broader than just the constituents within the city of Chilliwack. For eight years as well, I stepped down this year, I represented all of local government to the Union of BC Municipalities. That organization lobbies the provincial government and informs them about the governmental issues.

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

We just finished a process of our official community plan. Our official community plan will guide us to the year 2040. We really tried to work hard with social media, knowing that there is a whole demographic that is either working shift work, doesn’t have the time to come down to City Hall, doesn’t have the interest to come down to City Hall, but they might poke around on the website and tell us what they think of the city. Se we engage the community, talking about our future online, and got all kinds of information from people that we really treasured. We also took the show on the road. We went out to community cafés and we talked to people about their views, about densification, about policing, crime, housing, all these issues that are near and dear to our heart.

We also have a group that I have appointed called the rural advisory committee. That committee goes out and takes our staff with them to places like Rosedale, Greendale, Yarrow, Ryder Lake, Promontory, those areas that are a little bit outlying. They take out staff with them and they go have a public hearing. We’ll hear things like where a pothole is, where people are trespassing on dikes, we’ll hear about public safety, we’ll hear about a stop light that is needed in that community, and we try to engage with the community as well.

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

Students are so busy. Honestly, I don’t know how students keep up with everything they have to do. Their first concentration is their studies because it’s their future, it’s what they’re going to do for the rest of their lives. I get why students are not engaged, they also have friends and family and all other kinds of interests, trying to keep physically active. The last thing lots of students want to talk about is sewer, water, and roads. Really? What difference does it make, the city will carry on the way it is and everyone will look after their job and everything will be fine.

But you know, when I look at the demographics in our city, the student age group is one of the growing populations and one of the ones that will define our future. We are trying to engage with the university. We actually just set up a campus downtown. The city and our economic partner’s corporation bought the building and remodeled it and we’re trying to bring students closer to downtown. I know it’s part of the business school, but students will see the issues downtown and maybe become more engaged in the city than they have before. We also try to engage students on issues that are really important to them. Right now UFV agriculture is really important and the city had funded part of the groundwork for the school. We supported the university on our Chilliwack economic partners corporation board.

We’ll try very to get your voice, but we understand when you’re just too busy to give your voice. There will come a day when there will be an issue that will be a burr under your saddle and you’ll know that you have to talk to somebody at City Hall. My goal at City Hall is [to be] accessible, any questions can be answered. Really, the mayor is a phone call away. That’s how close it is. We’ll keep working on that. We have one younger councillor and we’ll probably have a couple more in the next election. I know students don’t just vote for someone because they’re the same age, but there is something about someone who understands the demographic and the culture surrounding your generation. I think it’s important for students to get out and talk to those people that are running that are new and young and fresh, and maybe even idealistic, and to get behind what they believe and see their point of view.

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 don’t think it has changed to be honest. Our biggest focus in the city over the past while has been revitalization of our downtown. When I first came on as mayor, I had heard at all-candidates meetings that people had given up hope for anything every happening downtown. We had a big hotel that was full of sex-trade workers and drug dealers. We had a motel downtown where we had 360 RCMP calls every year from that building. Fifty 911 calls, which cost about $10,000 at that point, so this was costing the city money and we knew we had to change the downtown somehow.

It used to be the mecca of shopping if you can believe that. There used to be women’s fashions stores, and bakeries, and all kinds of things downtown. Of course that changed when malls came in, and this can be changed again as online shopping is more and more popular for busy people. We’re making a concerted effort into buying property in downtown. We’re buying 1.7 hectares of land. We’ll be taking down some buildings, we’ll be building a neighbourhood, and we’re going to put residence in there. This is a plan: there will be shops, pubs, restaurants, on the bottom floor; second floor will be doctors, offices, dentists; up above that will be beautiful housing, green housing. Imagine Garrison: that should be replicated, or something similar, in the downtown. That’s where my energies are going, and where my vision is going. Our current council is 100 percent behind that.

The next step will be marketing developers. We’re just about finished buying all of the property. Then it’s carry on. They told us in the beginning that it would take 20 to 30 years to revitalize downtown if we didn’t do something about it. That’s why we’re doing something. I wanted to see in happen in my lifetime and I wanted to see it happen for my kids and grandkids. I want our town to be proud about the heart of our city that is right in our downtown core. It has to be a place that people are excited about and with the UFV campus right there, it’s going to be.

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

We’ve improved transit, and I have to thank UFV first of all. When I first came on as mayor, I remember arriving on the Chilliwack campus. The students presented me with petitions to get a U-Pass for buses and honestly, they clinged to my arms and it was a heavy load of signatures and paper. Students who are protesting pipelines and talking about those kinds of issues which are near and dear to all of our hearts, want to walk the walk too. When they brought that to me I realized that these guys were serious. We went to work with BC Transit and with the Fraser Valley Regional District and with our staff to create other options in transportation. You will see a great addition as we put the B-line from downtown Chilliwack to your campus. We modified it so that the bus would actually drop people off at the door, rather than having to walk. We’re working right now on a shuttle called the Fraser Valley Express. We’ll be able to have transportation that goes from Chilliwack to Abbotsford and to Langley.

A further thing is parks and trails. They’re so important as our life gets busier and busier. We know the importance of physical activity. We want to keep adding to the trails. The Rotary trail goes 8 km down through the Great Blue Heron Nature Reserve and we want to hook it up to the other side, perhaps along the railway bridge. We’re buying property so they’ll have a nice loop there eventually. We also are planning, as soon as money comes in from the province and the federal government, we put money aside, to widen the Vedder Bridge for people who are coming from Abbotsford through Yarrow.

How will you actually propose this change, pay for it, and involve the community?

With transportation, 50 per cent of that is being funded by BC Transit, 26 per cent is paid for by this city, and 24 by riders, so it is subsidized. We’ll continue to ask for that and that is how that will be paid for.

For things like trails, I am really proud that we have no debt in the city of Chilliwack, not on penny. We have a philosophy and we work hard so we don’t have to pay interest payments. We save up for them and for that reason we have a 10-year plan. We paid for them by carefully planning and budgeting in advance. I wish I could take credit for [Chilliwack having no debt], but in fact, when I came on council 18 years ago, that was part of the philosophy. I’m very proud of that, and I give full props to all of the mayors that came before me that adopted that philosophy.

What kind of communication will you try to have with the police department?

I have a wonderful relationship with the police department. First of all, being the mayor awards me a special privilege in that I talk directly to the superintendent of police. I have audiences with her usually once a month. I can pick up the phone and talk to her anytime there is a problem. We have a public safety advisory committee: community members go in by application, and the RCMP are part of that. Our communication with the RCMP is great.

How will you manage the wishes of the province or private companies vs. the desires of the public?

The province doesn’t generally impose its will upon local government. In the north you’ll see some of that, but we have a really good relationship with the province. I meet regularly with our two local MLAs and talk to them about provincial and municipal issues. We’re always trying to get more funding out of the province and federal government because our dollars don’t go that far. If you want to raise $600,000 dollars, you have to raise taxes one per cent and that’s a lot. We count on them for things like flood protection and we work really hard to be able to get our piece of the pie for that.

Housing as well. BC Housing plays a huge role in our community and they subsidize a lot of buildings. I don’t think they ever impose their will. There’s some things that we don’t agree with and we’re allowed to speak into: marijuana grow-ops on farm land, arable land, we know medicinal marijuana can be grown on bunkers. We’re not convinced that it needs to be grown on agricultural land. We would love to be able to save that.

We really do hear the view of the public. I think oftentimes when people come to a public hearing at city hall, some of them do not understand the process. They don’t understand why if they have a room full of people and they say, “We don’t like this project,” why council would ever pass it because it seems like that is going against the people and voting in favour of the developer. When council comes to the position where we have a public hearing, it’s a quasi-judicial process. We sit at a table, it’s very formal, and the rules of order are read out. There’s a process that has to happen where the information we posted in the newspaper has to be posted on their site on the property line. When council comes to decide what should happen, whether they should approving zoning or not, or development, you weigh the information that staff have given you. Council reads staff’s report and phones them and asks questions, but by the time public come, council is very informed on the project. They take in what the people have to say and oftentimes people will bring historical knowledge that we may not have about a plan. They may bring other aspects for council to consider. Then we weigh what we believe to be true.

I know that in any community people will say their council doesn’t listen to the public. That’s a huge accusation against council. Council does listen to the public. Generally, there is 50 per cent that agree with you and 50 per cent that don’t. The side that we approved will always say council listens to the public and the other side will say we don’t. It’s a tough position to be in sometimes.

What would you change about the way the city currently uses its agricultural and urban spaces?

Our city has a value of protecting agricultural land. We have over 900 farms. We treasure agricultural land. We have agricultural advisory committees. We help with the agricultural centre of excellence at UFV. We had farm tours so that people could see how food is grown. We highly support agri-tours. We’re experimenting more and more. There’s a community garden downtown where the Paramount used to be. Fifty percent of the produce that is grown there goes to the person that grows it and 50 per cent goes to Ruth and Naomi’s, a shelter for homeless people and people on the streets so they have something to eat. We’re learning more and more about what people want to grow and where they want to grow it and the opportunities are endless for community gardens and space.

Many people do not vote because they say they never see real positive change started at a local government level. How do you address that without resorting to unrealistic promises?

I think we are the luckiest people on the face of the earth to get to live in Chilliwack. I have traveled throughout the world and I’ve been in places where you have to do water treatment for just simple things.

I think people don’t get involved because they are satisfied and they don’t know what they would change if they could. I know I can’t wave a magic wand and make everything free because money has to come from somewhere. I think people are very proud of what happens in the city of Chilliwack. I think the last time around lots of people didn’t come out to vote because there wasn’t a mayoral race. It has nothing to do with me, it’s just when you have strong contenders they come out to vote. When people are unhappy they come out in droves all around the world, it’s not just common to Chilliwack. I think people really do know that they can exact change.

I place great value in the letter, I respond to absolutely every letter and it helps me realize how our community is changing and how it needs to change. Keep talking to your politicians. Most of them will want to hear you. There will always be some that don’t or are too busy, but find the ones that you can get a listening ear and keep working towards a change that you want to see.

Don’t give up on voting. I think aside from making a difference and that’s huge, what I watch happening in Hong Kong right now and what happened last year in Yemen and Syria and all around the world, people fought for the right just to have a vote and not have interference from political body. It makes me realize how blessed we are. We’re coming up to November 11 and you think of the sacrifices that each and every one of those people made to ensure that we have freedom to do exactly this and vote. Don’t take it for granted. If you do, we may not have it forever. My call out to people, and lots will say that they don’t know who to vote for, vote for the ones you know. Go on their websites, make yourself as informed as possible, and ask questions. Above all, just get out and vote. Do it, it’s not hard or painful. It’ll take a few minutes of your time. It’s done in complete privacy. It’s put through an automated machine so you’ll be able to get the results right away. You might even want to start a pool or two just for fun.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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