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Mission City Council candidate: Michael Nenn

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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?

It’s the most immediate effect on the citizens — it’s not glamourous, but your sewer, your water, your bylaws, these are sort of things that impact you immediately. The role to me is, you shape the community and you take the trust of the citizens, and why they’re living where they live, right, so Vancouver, people are living because they appreciate the urban area. Being in Mission, I would say that Abbotsford’s a city in the country, whereas Mission is a town in the country. It’s to keep the character, what the citizens living there feel they want their community to continue into the future. So rezoning issues, what you want to see in your neighbourhoods, what you want to see in future developments, I think is key. And then besides that, I would say green spaces, ecologically, environmentally, there’s so many things you can do at that level, so making sure that you have a development that there’s proper green spaces and such, public transit, all of those amenities that people expect and need. So at a broad scope, I would say just the character of the community.

Who do you view as your constituents?

Everybody. To me in any politics, you’re there to represent everybody, and it’s not just those that voted for you, so in 2011, I think 7000 people turned out of the eligible 24,000 and if you look at the specifics, the mayor was 3500, and the lowest councillor was 2500 votes. It’s like 10 per cent and to me, it’s almost like a minority is electing a majority. So I think that what we see today is that disenfranchisement of people who are getting cynical, they’re apathetic. It’s almost like, politically, you want to reflect the interests of your core supporters because that’s what you need to get back into office to get re-elected, and I think it’s a really bad way to go about protecting democracy and encouraging an engagement of everybody. And I think when you’re in office, I might be shooting myself in the foot by saying no I’ll represent those, even those who didn’t vote for me, but isn’t that really what you’re doing as a public servant. It’s not to further the interests of yourself or that core group that’s supporting you, but everybody.

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

I think it’s engagement past the campaign. Campaigns happen and all of these people come out of the woodwork, door-knocking, going, “Hey, vote for me,” they promise you the world. But when the election’s over and the dust has settled they all disappear. Other than your letter in the mail saying “Hey, we’re doing a great job,” or perhaps something you read in the paper, municipal rezoning or an application, you never really hear from them.

There’s town hall meetings, but people don’t have the time to get out. This day and age you’re trying to put food on the table. It sounds crazy, you’re thinking of one of the richest countries in the world, second-largest land mass and we still have people in poverty and I don’t want to digress into that, but I think it goes beyond. I think once you’re in, yes, you’re busy, but I think, still, why not door-knock or have community hall events? If I know there’s a really big development happening, I would actually door-knock, go out to touch, reach out to those residents, and say, “Do you know this is going on, and what are your thoughts and opinions?” and then go from there.

I find especially that in municipal politics you have City Hall, and yes, there’s feedback in public meetings, and people can go up to the mic and say, “Yeah, I support this,” or “I’m against this motion,” but you know how many people show up to the actual public meetings in City Hall, not very many. So if it means you actually have to go out and bang on some doors and say, “Maybe you don’t care, but do you know that this is going on?” Then people can respond in kind, or they can shut the door in your face. That has to be done, and it’s old-school but I think it’s an imperative, it has to be done.

The funny thing is, when I go, people always ask, “What do you stand for?” And I’m like, “What are your issues?” Because am I not here to represent what you want to see in your community? And most people, they don’t have a clue. They just sort of get the glassy stare like the deer-in-the-headlights look because they’re not tuned in. So to me it’s how do you tune those people back in and how do you engage them? And it’s not an easy process; I can say what I think, but I think the answers are a lot more complicated than just saying door-knocking even, right. But I like to say that even if City Hall can extend out through social media or have a, “Hey, would you be willing as a citizen to have an email [sent to you]?” and we just send out a broad email once a week that you’ll get in your inbox, because how many people read the newspaper anymore?

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

To be honest, I’d have to say no, unfortunately not directly. Obviously I’m going hard on the social media, Facebook, Twitter accounts, all that stuff. I have a website going. But to actually draw into those, no, I haven’t.

I remember when I ran provincially UFV had an all-candidates debate here, which was great. And the high school actually had an all-candidates debate, and I thought that was a fantastic idea. We don’t seem to have those civil society courses anymore, social sciences is going the way of the dinosaur even, in some ways at [public schools]. I think that, I really firmly believe that, our society, there has to be some sort of a course in there. I remember when I went to school and I graduated in ’87, but we actually had a course on different levels of government and how they work and Westminster parliamentary system and all that stuff. And I think it needs to be taught at an early level to get people engaged. I think what happens is you can’t just expect to not show [people] what’s going on and expect them suddenly, now when they’ve got families and jobs and no time, to say, “Oh, you need to get interested and come out and vote,” especially if you only do it once every four years.

We can talk about the optics, just like any all-candidates debate — can you really get a sense of what a candidate’s about in a one-minute answer, canned speech for two minutes? I don’t think so.

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

My whole life I’ve, that old adage, walk a mile in the other person’s shoe and I completely believe in that. I’ve always believed that I will listen to anybody and anybody’s opinion and I’m never going to be one of those who go, “No, I don’t agree with you.” That to me is not common sense. Government should represent society as a whole, and is not society made up of a diverse group of people? So moving forward it would just be civility, it would be listening, it would be obviously hard debates, making hard decisions, but also making sure everybody has full knowledge of the facts of both sides of any issue. And obviously reaching out to the people, because that’s where I think there needs to be that grassroots input where people are engaged.

So it’s not even what we think as six people and a mayor, but what is the feedback from the citizens? [There is the] philosophical debate about how a core group of people may have the better vision and know leadership-wise that they may have to make the hard decision that may not be accepted by the people as a whole but in the long run they’re better decisions. But at least you have to be honest with the people and tell them why you’re doing it. The CRMG certainly, as a slate, I don’t agree with that. You may as well get rid of the six councillors and have the mayor as a dictator and he’ll run the show and then it is what it is. That’s why we have so many elected representatives at whatever level of government, although we know that with backbenchers and party whips at those levels it doesn’t work. Aren’t we here for the good of the people as a whole and not to get into petty arguments and petty politics?

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

Right now, I don’t agree with the downtown revitalization project. I agree that a healthy and vibrant downtown is the pulse of any community. In Abbotsford, obviously I’ve seen the changes they’ve made so far, it’s a work in progress, but I see for instance with the latest Berry Festival, it was great to go, closed the entire downtown.

[But] I don’t understand why, in this day and age, why they want to run a highway through the middle of a downtown. I think it should be bypassed, and I think the feds and the province need to pick up the tab on that, being under the ministry of highways and the province. Both Railway Avenue and 1st Avenue then come under the control of the municipality, keep it as a one-way street. There’s logistical nightmare problems with that, I’ve talked to business owners on that, on them making it a two-way street and then pushing all of Lougheed Highway onto North Railway. I think the businesses on North Railway are going to suffer.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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