Print Edition: November 19, 2014
The campaign signs are (mostly) gone, the parties thrown, the conclusions drawn. The candidates now await the removal of “-elect” from their titles before they get to work, and the public, having survived another sudden grab for their attention, can go back to wondering if their interests will be noticed in City Halls.
Municipal decisions rarely bring more than half of eligible residents into the process, and this year was no different, but across BC there was a slight increase: in Mission, about 1,000 more voted than in 2011; in Chilliwack an increase of over 5,000 reversed a downward trend that plagued the city’s political discourse; and in Abbotsford, voting numbers remained the same even without an additional controversial referendum question as there was three years ago. Data from decades past suggests these rises and falls tend to fall within a limited range in the current system, but there is also the possibility suggested by Mission councillor Jenny Stevens: “I think particularly this generation of young people are probably better informed than earlier groups; [they are] less gullible.”
Mission slate shut out
Mission’s changes were the most dramatic. After three years following a complete election of a newly formed slate called the Citizens for Responsible Municipal Government (CRMG), all but one incumbent (Stevens, who left the group prior to the campaign period) was voted out. The slate’s approach to City Hall prompted harsh comment from numerous community members and multiple candidates. Jim Hinds, one of the five new councillors, described the block-vote tactics of the CRMG as a repetitive scenario where “an item comes up, the council votes … and that’s it. It’s been described as a benevolent dictatorship, because you have no say.”
Stevens and Hinds are joined by Pam Alexis, Danny Plecas, and Rhett Nicholson, who ran and finished with the seventh, ninth, and 12th-highest number of votes, respectively, in 2011, and Carol Hamilton, who was an incumbent school trustee.
Randy Hawes, who was mayor of Mission in the 1990s prior to three terms as a Liberal MLA, was voted in as mayor. His return to municipal politics was prompted by the CRMG term, which he initially supported before coming out in opposition against.
In Mission, work in the downtown area, which is also an area where the town’s drug-addicted citizens have become a priority, has taken up a prominent amount of City Hall attention. Hawes described his approach to the issue when he said, “I think we have now a situation where some of the people running say that the homeless problem is not our responsibility, [that] it’s the responsibility of the health authority and the government. But it’s our problem and it’s getting worse, and so I believe that we have to do something about it. You can’t talk about revitalizing downtown until you deal with that problem.”
Chilliwack re-elects Gaetz, and two new young council members
In Chilliwack, the fact that there were candidates besides the incumbent mayor at all was one difference from the 2011 ballot. Though Sharon Gaetz was re-elected by a wide margin, the city’s two other candidates for mayor (Cameron Hull and Raymond Cauchi) spoke of the need for choice, and cited that as significant reasons why each ran without any prior political experience.
All but one of the city’s incumbents who ran again remain at city council, but the two new candidates elected, Chris Kloot and Sam Waddington, are relatively young representatives of, respectively, the farming and business community.
Gaetz said before the 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.”
Waddington, running for the first time, led all council candidates by almost 1,000 votes.
Chilliwack’s downtown was a major topic throughout the last mayor and council term and the 2014 campaign, both for its crime-rate and its widespread changeover, as the City continues with its plan of purchasing land, clearing buildings, and readying them for new purchasers.
Re-elected incumbent Ken Popove, who will be re-joined by Sue Attrill, Jason Lum, and Chuck Stam, addressed the project saying, “My kind of line there is doing nothing hasn’t worked. That’s a work-in-progress.”
A narrow margin for mayor in Abbotsford
In Mission, people turning online due to CBC and Global coverage focusing almost solely on Vancouver, Surrey, and Victoria could follow results by an automatically refreshing results page, while Chilliwack had hourly tracking for voter turnout and instant updates for voting station reporting.
Abbotsford, on the other hand, had a dead website, and a mayoral race separated by a handful of votes. Henry Braun ended up ahead of incumbent Bruce Banman, but by a narrow margin: 16,171 to 15,594.
While the two candidates were pitted as combatants in debates and various forms of advertisement, Banman, like the candidate he narrowly defeated in the 2011 election (George Peary), was affected by a small number of notorious decisions made during his term as mayor, most notably his involvement in embarrassing “action,” and later a decision to halt action, that would have addressed, in part, the homeless in Abbotsford. Braun, who attempted to clarify statements made in public forums on his blog and ran as a voice of reason next to Banman’s political performance, will be working with all but one incumbent who sought re-election (Bill MacGregor) from the last term.
A council of no majority
The major force of change in this election in Abbotsford came from a new slate dubbed Abbotsford First, which saw four of its five members elected to council: Sandy Blue, Kelly Chahal, Brenda Falk, and Ross Siemens. Running together, the group was able to arrange public speaking events, afford larger signs, and assert itself in the community’s landscape at a scale that eclipsed individual candidates (of which there were 30, a higher-than-usual number partly owing to the opening up of at least two council seats).
Online, however, their campaign followed in the management tactics seen used by Banman and the CRMG slate in Mission, where dissenting views or questions were deleted from Facebook and individual accounts were not used on Twitter. MacGregor and incumbent Dave Loewen were the target of criticism from the group; how council collaborates or emerges divided with the shift in representation will be a point of interest in city council. As Abbotsford First member Vince Dimanno was not elected, the slate does not hold a voting majority; the four other spots are held by incumbents Loewen, Les Barkman, Moe Gill, and Patricia Ross.
Council candidate Tina Stewart asked during the campaign about the group’s online identity, suggesting the common practice of indicating initials for posts on shared accounts: “A step towards transparency and away from hiding behind your slate. Somehow I doubt any of your candidates are actually manning any of the social media outlets.”
Blue elsewhere described the process of engaging with the community as a focus of the slate’s approach to politics, taken in conjunction with communication with the group’s advisory board: “It’s not just reaching out, but really listening and trying to assimilate that into our collective learning,” she said.
Mayor-elect Braun, speaking before voting day, described his process for avoiding the trap of keeping within a small group of people in local politics: “I make it a habit to get out of City Hall, because if you stay there long enough, you have a skewed view of the city … I make it a practice to get out in the community, to talk to people, to go to the highways and byways and coffee shops, to hang out with university students to get their input.”
Politics in practice
How the promise of listening to university students translates into the practice of the next four years of municipal politics depends on numerous factors, but according to the past month of speeches and interviews, “transparency” and “openness” were voted in.
Inauguration of the new mayor and council will take place December 1 for Abbotsford and Mission, and December 2 for Chilliwack. City Hall meetings can also be streamed live or viewed after completion online.