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It’s dangerous to go alone, take this: A preface to The Cascade’s coverage of the 2014 municipal elections

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By Michael Scoular (The Cascade) – Email

Print Edition: November 12, 2014

“How can we desire truth if we have no prior knowledge of it? This is the mystery of all mysteries.” — Simone Weil

“An interview is elusive because it is partly philosophical, partly biographical, partly theatrical.” — Geoff Hancock

If it is possible to go through our lives — at home, work, and school; through art; with or apart from friends; unemployed or in the rush of dreamed-for careers — without ever caring about a municipal election, do they really matter? We asked every mayoral and city council candidate in Abbotsford, Chilliwack, and Mission about the role of municipal politics. Most of them answered: This is the level of government that matters. It is your daily life. You cannot live without touching it; you lose part of your voice as a citizen if you do not care about it.

Yet here we are with an election coming up, and unless there is some invisible political momentum coming this Saturday, less than half the adults in the three cities will vote. Will they lead less full lives because of it? Many of the candidates pledging to give enormous amounts of time to the City say yes.

The student with an already tight weekly timetable looks at a system characterized by financial reports and rezoning proposals, predominantly occupied by senior community members and call it incomprehensible. I live in Abbotsford, and the only time I’m aware there’s a local government doing things is when they prominently build something, or take something away. In the last three years, everyone heard about the Abbotsford Centre, many about the failed low-barrier housing project, and the local newspapers often use their front pages to talk about what the police have been doing lately. Everything else, it’s possible to miss.

At The Cascade, we attempt to make it easier for students to know about the systems that determine much of what happens around them just by opening up a newspaper. There are a lot of ways we can do better, so we saw the upcoming local election as an opportunity: sure, we can do this.

Then we realized we did not want to be Abbotsford-centric. Then we took a look at how many candidates there were. Then we literally died.

We know now firsthand how convoluted and frustrating it is to find out what’s going on locally. At the same time, in the pages that follow, every candidate went on record to talk about what we asked them. The full interviews are available online, but we wanted you to be able to flip through a few pages, see each candidate’s own words, and choose whether you care based on how they actually communicate in person, rather than through a perception that politics are just distant and compulsive and weird. Reading them, a few things become clear; others are just as confusing as the status quo I’ve tried to describe. So, a few notes to begin.

Just what are you people anyway?

Most election coverage by Fraser Valley newspapers is done by emailing out a short, simple questionnaire into which candidates can plug in their answers, often repeating their promotional statements with minor variations. Centralized information is nice to have, but we felt this kind of reporting, while easier to organize and less taxing on writers, allows politicians to do almost nothing and does not serve the public well. Interview transcripts are not perfect either, but provide key differences. In person, we could push for specific answers. Even with a platform script in mind, candidates could not predict questions in the interview. If not the whole truth, you get something closer to how a person expresses her or himself, reacts, and communicates.

We asked questions that would be broad enough that candidates would not feel confronted, but pointed enough that it would be obvious if they weren’t actually listening or answering the question. This did happen; some simply repeated their stock campaign promises.

• What is the role of municipal politics? Who do the candidates view as their constituents? This was an easy question, and most answered that it was everyone in their region. So we asked how they would communicate and engage with those constituents, and included this answer in print.

• We asked how they plan to address student engagement specifically. Most answers were so similar and useless we didn’t include them in print. Many turned to social media, thinking this was the main way students communicate today, but most were at a loss, some apparently not having thought about this before the interview. Some answered that the interview itself was their method, but the paper has never interviewed every candidate before, and what would they have done if we hadn’t? The problem, it appears, is that since students are not a cohesive, issue-driven body of voters (like, say, seniors, or the arts community), showing up to talk to students does not guarantee votes. So it is not a priority.

• If they were running to be elected into council, what would candidates do differently from the current council? Chilliwack candidates were reluctant to criticize council, Mission and Abbotsford less so. Incumbents were asked instead how their job or expectations have changed since the last campaign. Some tried to say it went exactly as planned, which is believable only if you believe in platform rhetoric.

Many used the question to talk about projects they would want to take on, which spurred our next question, but with an additional criterion: it had to be specific.

• They could have talked about almost any specific project. The first thing they chose to talk about says something. We did not have the time to ask about every issue: the pipeline, the homeless, agriculture, transit, and so on. Organizing, interviewing, and writing this feature has taken hundreds of hours, even with just five questions each. It is imperfect, but we hope the first impulse, and how that is conveyed by each candidate, is helpful enough.

• Mayoral candidates were asked additional questions about the nature of the job, the police board, provincial and corporate influence, and campaign promises. We also asked some candidates about significant positions they hold and plan to juggle if elected; Sandy Blue works with the City of Maple Ridge, Vince Dimanno runs a blog platform called Abbotsford Today, and Tina Stewart is president of the Abbotsford Downtown Business Association.

Your name in print

Our coverage also differs in appearance from city papers and your voting card. City papers are kept alive by advertising, so in addition to the studio-shot, smiling profile pictures of each candidate, there are advertisements — also of candidates — on every page, crowding election information. Charisma plays a large role in candidates’ ability to get elected, but you’re coming here for something different. So we don’t have the exact same photos and haven’t tried to summarize their resumés. We also haven’t marked incumbents or featured slate identifiers prominently by the names above the fold. It should be acknowledged that incumbents are experienced and that some candidates are running as part of a group, but we think there is too much weight given when this is the first thing mentioned. You can tell who incumbents are by the different wording of the second question in print, and candidates from slates, in addition to being the most difficult to get interviews with, were always eager to mention their alliance in interviews.

Tabula repleta

We are not slates, they said repeatedly. We are a team, we are a group of like-minded individuals — not like-minded as in thought control, like we agree on a few key things. See, we don’t even use the word “slate” in our pamphlets, they said.

Okay. Slates are primarily a force of branding. They choose names nobody can disagree with. Would anyone in Abbotsford say that Abbotsford is not “first” in a theoretical political sliding scale of importance?

In Mission, the Citizens for Responsible Municipal Government (CRMG) might be interested to know studies suggest few citizens are for irresponsible government.

With five or so candidates and only one name to promote in each slate, advertising is also easier. In addition to the largest signs in the city, both groups have put out advert-newspapers with “articles” on “key issues” — the plan being presumably to reach voters who, because of the confusion and disorganization of campaign season, are thankful to have any information, no matter the source. The CRMG’s “Mission Messenger” was apparently, along with the group’s designation on the ballot, instrumental in its sweeping win in the last election. Other candidates are named, described, and sometimes discredited in its promotional material, which has caused some animosity, if not distaste for the whole political structure in Mission.

Candidates have suggested slates are not the same as provincial or federal parties, since they will not be forced to always vote the same way. One thing is for sure: with the 2011 win in Mission, which could be seen as a model for the Abbotsford slate, there is the encouragement of municipal politics as an advertisement spending race, with borderline propaganda as the most valuable tool being used.

A vote for mayor is not one for change

Despite the prominence given to mayoral races in media coverage, the mayor has no more votes than any other city council member, and does not propose changes differently. The mayor can certainly attempt to sway other council members and is an influential voice in the community, but inside City Hall acts as merely one of a group.

In Abbotsford, at least two council seats will be filled by new members; in Chilliwack at least one; and in Mission there is, with incumbents leaving the CRMG over contentious differences, the greatest possibility of changeover.

Trust issues

So we have the interviews. But are their words real? Are they making it up? Online, we will link to relevant stories in city papers that provide context for what candidates brought up: past council dealings, city developments in progress, and so on. There are two points brought up by nearly every candidate that I can briefly summarize. These are complex issues where the consensus is money needs to be saved and services improved, which is inherently fraught with contradiction. How the public chooses in this election will decide how these proceed.

First is each city’s downtown core. Keeping crime away, attracting shoppers and new business, and making new business creation a relatively quick process are commitments in all three regions. The opposite poles of high business taxation and heavy process (which suggests a city “unwelcome” to business) versus a “welcoming” city with lower taxation and quick turnaround, both have their problems and reasons for existing. The current trend, at least according to candidates, is toward the latter.

This relates to the second point: each city’s tax structure. Municipalities get most funding from citizen taxation, the largest one being property tax. One of the main dilemmas facing municipal politicians is weighing property tax increases with what could be paid for with additional funds. All three local governments, at the end of their terms, pride themselves on low property tax increases.

All three must also consider debt. In Abbotsford, the largest contributor to debt was the construction of the Abbotsford Centre; in Mission, the Leisure Centre; and in Chilliwack, the Cultural Centre. Debt has been a particularly prominent issue in Mission; the CRMG has largely taken credit for efforts to pay it off, but plans for a debt retirement reserve predate the group’s election by a year.

How could we forget the children?

Unfortunately, we did not have enough people or time to include school trustee candidates in our coverage. Trustees appear to have little influence since it is the provincial government that sets curriculum, battles with teachers, and funds public schools. However, like city council, they work with infrastructure and planning, and can lobby the provincial government for change.

We view our coverage as a first step into municipal politics. It is our hope that with this standard of political coverage set, the next group of students and student journalists will build on what we’ve started.

Conflict of interest

Full disclosure: Katie Stobbart and Brittney Hensman have relatives running for city council in Mission. As such, they were excluded from conducting or transcribing interviews with candidates from that municipality. Business manager Joe Johnson managed the campaign of a Chilliwack school trustee, but had no input in our election coverage and wrote none of the words you see in this issue.

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