Two all-candidates meetings held simultaneously in Colwood Wednesday has split council hopefuls into two distinct and largely polarized camps on how to best guide the city out of economic turmoil.
A meeting at the Presbyterian Church organized by the Concerned Citizen Coalition was meant to address a perceived bias at the longstanding West Shore Chamber of Commerce sponsored event.
The Coalition organizers suggested the Chamber event at the Chuch of the Advent favoured candidates who are members of the business association.
That the two meetings were scheduled for the same time was apparently an accident, and email negotiations between the two camps failed to bring the sides together. Candidates at both events claimed they merely attended the meeting for which they first received an invitation.
Both events had a similar size audience, with more than 200 people cramming their respective church halls. But the discussions at the events were markedly different.
Church of the Advent meeting
Attending the Chamber’s meeting were two mayoral candidates—Carol Hamilton and Jason Nault—and five people running for the six council seats—incumbents Judith Cullington, Cynthia Day and Gordie Logan, as well as Robert Martin and Shari Lukens.
To address the fear of bias, the chamber-appointed moderator, former Kwantlen college president Skip Triplett, had audience members randomly draw the questions and names of three candidates to answer them. Additional questions were also allowed at an open mic at the end.
There were few issues the candidates in the room didn’t agree on. A question on the Capital Regional District’s pedestrian and cycling master plan garnered three enthusiastic responses in support of it. And the three asked about the CRD’s sewage treatment plan all disagreed with it.
There was much talk about how to increase government transparency, with a surprise promise coming from three-term councillor Cynthia Day who said she’d figured out a way the meetings could be video recorded for the public to view online.
Mayor-candidate Jason Nault said he’d post his meeting schedule and expenses online and improve the City’s website, while Carol Hamilton, also running for mayor, said she’d make meetings more welcoming to the public.
On the issue of City staffing levels, Nault and council candidates Robert Martin and Shari Lukens all said they believe the current levels are appropriate.
“Colwood is getting to be a big city, and it needs a big staff,” Nault said.
And Martin pointed out that cutting staff would lead to delays in processing applications for things such as development permits, which ultimately generate money for the City.
“We don’t want to save a dollar today and lose two dollars tomorrow,” Martin said.
Lukens added that engineering director Michael Baxter has been, “taxed to the max” working out the City’s sewage fiasco in particular, but recent streamlining of the sewage tax will free up staff time for other projects.
On a similar question of reviewing staff wages, council candidates Cynthia Day, Gordie Logan and Judith Cullington all said they’d be willing to consider a review, but didn’t expect to find the wages inappropriate.
“We review costs every year at budget time,” Cullington said, adding that City departments are already bare-bones operations. “We only have two planners and their two assistants in the planning department … We’ll need to increase that at some point.”
The mayor candidates were asked—in light of Brian Tucknott promising zero tax increases—what they view as a reasonable tax increase each year. Nault and Hamilton both predicted increases of two to three per cent, in line with the City’s five year financial plan, which accounts for inflation and contractual wage increases for their unionized staff.
Unlike at the coalition-sponsored meeting, there was little mention of Solar Colwood, besides Cullington mentioning it only costs tax payers about $1.70 per year.
Instead, candidates harped on the attendance record of one absent candidate.
Cullington and Nault had compiled the attendance from the current council term, which revealed veteran councillor Ernie Robertson had missed one third of regular council meetings, half the budget meetings, and only once attended a parks and recreation committee meeting, which he was meant to chair.
Robertson has had a dispute with the mayor over granting money to the chamber, and a health issue, both which impacted attendance.
Nault said if he were mayor, he’d regularly post attendance records and demote councillors who missed their committee meetings, first bumping them from chair to vice-chair, then completely removing them from the committee if necessary.
“I’d make sure people were only assigned to meetings they were available for,” he added.
Finally, candidates addressed in-fighting and stressed the importance of electing a council that would work well together.
“It’s up to you who we have to work with,” Hamilton told the audience, challenging them to do their research and talk to their neighbours about who to vote.
The chamber meeting was video recorded and will be available at www.westshore.bc.ca.
Presbyterian Church meeting
Mayoral candidate Coun. Brian Tucknott and council candidates Teresa Harvey, Bill Wagner, Rick McKay, Duane MacNeill and Coun. Ernie Robertson were largely on the same page on a number of hot button topics – Solar Colwood, City staffing and overhauling City fiscal management.
Candidates faced questions from a packed house, including why there were two separate meetings on the same day, at the same time. Organizer John Read said pre-submitting questions through the West Shore Chamber of Commerce is “wrong and undemocratic.”
Most of the other candidates expressed a deep mistrust of the chamber, the format of the other meeting, or that they had first received an meeting invitation from the Colwood Concerned Citizen’s group.
“Some believe the chamber wields too much political influence,” said Tucknott, a one term councillor. Robertson, a five-term councillor, called the parallel meeting “a healthy sign of a living democracy left in Colwood.”
The meeting got off to a rocky start. One audience member waved an email that indicated meeting organizers wouldn’t allow candidate representatives to speak – which is against election law. Moderator Mike Geoghegan quickly reversed that to allow representatives to speak, although none came forward.
Many of the candidates spoke of high tax increases and fiscal mismanagement at Colwood city hall in past years, the need to refocus on core city services – police, fire and public works – and to dump non-essential programs, such as Solar Colwood.
“We’ve heard consistently that taxes are no longer sustainable. Some people in Colwood are thinking of selling their homes and leaving,” Harvey said. “We need to get our financial house in order.”
“Colwood is at a crossroads. We can’t continue toward a dead end with ill-conceived projects, fiscal mismanagement and secret meetings,” McKay said. “We need strict cost controls and to focus on core essential services. Council should think like a taxpayer.”
Wagner, an accountant, called Colwood “operationally bankrupt,” and slammed its budget process. Colwood staff are “overpaid and under-worked,” he told the audience. “There is bloated staffing at Colwood and bloated salaries. The sense of entitlement should be swept away.”
“Executive hiring has got to be put under review,” Robertson said. “We need to deliver services for people. We don’t need to hire more executives.”
Several candidates vowed to shut down Solar Colwood, a project where the federal government granted $3.9 million to subsidize home energy-saving retrofits.
“I’m committed to a zero per cent tax increase in 2012, and no more than the cost of living in the next two years,” said McNeill, who last ran for council about 20 years ago. “I would move to stop Solar Colwood. It is a financial drain on staff resources and taxpayer money.”
“We need to freeze taxes focus on core police, fire and public works and end the misadventure of the new green economy,” Roberston said.
“There are considerable hidden costs with Solar Colwood. I’d do my best to shut it down,” Wagner said. “The numbers don’t work.”
An audience member challenged Tucknott’s campaign signs vowing not to raise taxes, while keeping city services funded.
Tucknott said that zero mandate only applies to services under direct control of council. He said would look to freeze new employment, discretionary projects and overtime, conduct a full financial audit and possibly eliminate grant funding.
Most of the candidates promised more transparency at council and more public input into council decision making. Tucknott said he’d open city hall on Saturdays for informal chats. McKay said he wanted to bring in more citizens for advisory groups. Most advocated audio or video recording council meetings.
Some audience members questioned why Colwood council was struck with infighting and acrimony. Tucknott and Robertson agreed conflict at council is a problem, but both said the speak out against policy they don’t like.”
“We need the right people elected,” Robertson said.
“If we don’t elect a new council we are going to have a continuation of this disfunction,” Tucknott said. “It is inevitable. We need new blood.”
— by Sam Van Schie and Edward Hill