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Mission City Council candidate: Ronn Harris

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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?

Politics? A thirty-second sound-bite. However the power, where it’s at — how to listen to it, bring it around to a consensus, and to the problems at hand, is the real challenge right now. I think it’s grand that you’re getting into student politics — politics is sort of a bad word, but active civic engagement to ascertain what is real and then bring it around to try and — I mean, I had the good fortune once upon a time of sitting on council, and you’ve got this little rice bowl full of money here and sitting here is Mother Theresa holding a puppy and a baby looking for help, and here’s a group over here that don’t have water running through a sewer. It’s tough.

Who do you view as your constituents?

You got to use everything at your disposal, and the big thing is people power. Active civic engagement.

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

In American town hall meetings, what they’re doing with apps and involving people — wow. I mean, given the polarization and all that kind of stuff, thirty-second sound-bites, wait a minute — arming the population out there with “You have a voice,” and “Yes, it is important that you know what’s going on in this discussion.” “Well I haven’t got time,” well who does have the time? Who is responsible for putting it out in a matter that you can understand, or make a decision on your behalf if you haven’t got time?

Most people are rather busy with their lives and they’re completely [inundated] with “Have you thought about this? Should we do this? etc.” And their social group is “Oh, have you tried seeing that new movie?” Well, if some guy comes up and says, “You know what, we really should spend some money on sewers,” well that ain’t very glamourous I can tell you. You don’t see big billboards out there for that. But I know from experience making do with what I’ve got that if you don’t look after things, you got a big problem. We have over $400 million of fixed assets, that’s what the municipality has accumulated over the years: roads, sewers, sidewalks, buildings, etc. We better start looking after this. Because if your toilet plugs, I can tell you the world comes to a screeching halt. It ain’t glamourous, and it ain’t a thirty-second sound-bite, but that’s the kind of focus this group has.

For instance, the apps that are being developed for phones. Get the app — there’s a pothole forming at a street, or I see a gutter that’s plugged up with leaves. We’ll send a crew out there in a pickup truck ASAP, because the cost of the flood as a result — a stitch in time saves nine. I don’t know how far we’re going to get, but we’re definitely gonna push this as far as we can. It’s the wave you haven’t seen yet.

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

I don’t know. I’m here, I’m trying to get our message out. Is it important? Yes, I mean go to rent a house and the rent is through the roof. Why? Because taxes are a big part of it and on and on. You’re up to your asses in student debt, whatever it took to get through school. I’m surprised there isn’t more activity. I don’t know how to harness it all yet. Active civic engagement may help, over time. It ain’t necessarily going to happen this time up, you’re basically limited to trying to communicate through the web, lawn signs, radio, TV, social forums here and there. There was a real good one in Mission. They had an all-candidates meeting put on by five of the social agencies in Mission. That I think is really powerful and a start, because they’re normally put on by the Chamber of Commerce and everybody’s talking about economics. I don’t know how many people we’re going to get out in terms of percentage here. Hopefully lots but we can only push them as hard as we can. Using the phone used to be popular, but now you get [inundated] with trips to the Bahamas.

Why did you choose to run on a slate, and what do you think this means for the organization of municipal politics?

I was approached by the current group and I knew what they had done and it was rather radical.

In what way?

Well in that they were going to live within their means. So they kept the taxes to zip. Something like “Live with what you’ve got,” well that set off bells and whistles in all directions, initially helped out by a core review of who does what, how they do it. Where are you buying this? Can you get by with this? Have you thought about that? You know, really get into things, not just fly at it. They basically kept taxes below the rate of inflation — maybe we do have some spare capacity here. At the same time, they turned around and they paid down [part of] the debt that the municipality had. Well that’s a saving of over $1000/day. You can build a lot of sidewalk with saving up a week’s work.

But I also knew from experience that the heavy lifting was coming down the pipe. Part of the change with the administration, within the staff had changed, and that had shaken things up in all directions. People tend to resist change and it’s manifested in many different ways.

One question people have is how if you have like-minded people, how are you really representing the diversity of the city?

It’s sort of like, just because you’re a member of the Liberal party or the Conservative party or you’re a member of the student union here, are you separate and distinct from everybody here? You’re a student at UFV. Where would that come from? It would only come from that jaded stuff where they didn’t like a political party because the political party put up a particular program, and lo and behold the members of that party went this way, so they’re all automatons. You know, it’s not well thought through. Just because you’re all members of this particular university, you all think alike?

There is a difference between a university student body and a council, where there’s six people.

Well, we’ve got 38,000 in Mission and they’re all going to pass their vote. And you know we’ve all got two ears and we all go home to our wives and girlfriends etc, we’re not listening? We just fell off the turnip truck yesterday? Give your head a shake. It’s not really well thought through.

Having been on a council once before, with six, seven new people, you have all the human dynamics that are going on, you’re trying to find out where everybody’s coming from, where they want to go, what their agendas are, on and on like that. And right out of the gate, you’re faced with a budget. Who’s in control of this? People say, well term limits. Term limits are going to reduce the capacity of the new people coming in because they’ll only start to learn the ropes, and then they have to go. Who’s going to be running the government? Minister, minister. The nice thing about CRMG is we’ve had some ongoing conversations. I mean differ, of course we do, but we’ve all sat down at the kitchen table and figured out what the economics are of our own households and how important it is to put our own household in order.

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

This is a gigantic sea change. Living within your means, doing with what you’ve got and be happy, and the big aspect of that is civic engagement, volunteerism. The amount of effort and energy and otherwise cost of volunteerism is astronomical. Polarized politics and that kind of stuff ain’t getting things done, ie. the U.S.

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

You can come up with any example you want, homelessness, or marijuana grow-ops or on and on, things like that, but what are the facts? We shouldn’t have a commercial marijuana industry? We might have a big skilled workforce out there. Who knows? We haven’t asked those kind of questions. Could it be turned around? Should we not have this because they attract grow rips. Well how many grow-ops do we have? How many bank robbers do we have? Banks attract bank robbers.

Childhood development is absolutely mandatory. Anybody that’s ever made a dollar in this world knows that a dollar spent in childhood development saves a bundle over time. Childhood development is probably the biggest social issue out there. In 1958 in the United Kingdom, every child that was born in the first two weeks of March had been monitored, and they monitored around 15,000 over the course of the next 25 years. The numbers proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that you should have one-on-one school to get him up to speed, because if you don’t Johnny’s a delinquent, and is costing social costs here, he’s costing the police, the prisons, the courts. If we could have solved his little problem when he was five. It just mushrooms. This is where we want to put our dollars and cents. Take a look at a lot of social problems today — homelessness for instance. We’re dealing with people that are primarily over 20 years old. I mean wouldn’t it have been better had we dealt with that drug problem, that mental illness problem way back then, we wouldn’t have that now.

And how would you then go about addressing that?

Well you want to bring all levels of government, but it’s on our doorstep so we got to do something. We don’t have divine powers, we don’t have a big rice bowl either. I mean we’re all compassionate, thoughtful, loving people, but we’re realistic, you got to balance it all. Realistically, what I would like to see done is carry on with the economic platform because that starts to prove out real dividends. If the city has its own house in order, see that kind of looks like an attractive place to live, you know they’re not just pointing the fingers at everybody else, there’s three pointing back at them, and they’ve done something about it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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