Langford’s long-standing council reenforced its tight-knit unity at an all-candidates meeting last week, while only two new hopefuls sought to give voters an alternative.
Admitted underdog and one-time Langford tree sitter Chris Johnson is challenging six-term mayor Stew Young. Recent Belmont secondary grad Grant McLachlan is trying to unseat one incumbent councillor.
Councillors Denise Blackwell, Winnie Sifert, Lillian Szpak, Lanny Seaton, Matt Sahlstrom and Roger Wade are seeking another term guiding Langford. Young, Backwell and Sifert are seeking a seventh term, and have sat on council since incorporation in 1992.
Johnson, who lives in the Port Renfrew area, said he wants to give voice to people in Langford concerned about the rate of residential growth and development. The City needs to examine if it’s too dependent on development as a means to generate jobs, he said.
He also wants to make the public process at council more transparent and accessible to get more citizens involved. He admitted he was behind the curve in knowing all the issues facing Langford, but said he is willing to work hard and would move to Langford.
“People want an opportunity to feel meaningfully engaged. The people I’ve met have not been as meaningfully engaged as they want to be,” Johnson told the polite and attentive audience at Gordon United Church. The West Shore Chamber of Commerce sponsored the meeting, and former Kwantlen University president Skip Triplett.
“It’s not what happens, but how it happens. People feel left out of the process,” Johnson continued.
“I won’t deny that somebody needed to run (against the mayor) … and express a different point of view and have a dissenting vote. I offer everything I can and I would work hard.”
McLachlan, who is seeking a council seat, said with the pace of development, “many feel the environment is an afterthought.” He advocates for stronger labour policies, a new balance between ecology and development, getting youth involved in civic life, and reiterated the point that some citizens feel disconnected from council.
“There has been many changes in Langford, some I agree with, some I disagree with,” he said. “I’m ready to be the energetic, progressive voice this city desperately needs.”
Langford’s incumbent mayor and many of the councillors contrasted life in Langford in the 1970s and 80s — high unemployment, no services, derided as “dogpatch” — to life now, with City Centre Park, many new businesses, improved boulevards and relatively affordable housing.
“When I was growing up, we had no sewers, no sidewalks, no streetlights,” Young said. “Now tax decreases are the norm in this area. Nobody has reined in taxes and done the improvements this council has done.”
Known regionally as a pro-development council, the incumbents reenforced that notion, and credited that relationship as key to building infrastructure and public amenities through the recession.
“We are no longer a bedroom community, we are a city on it’s own,” said Sahlstrom, a four term councillor. “Growth is inevitable. People want to live and work in this community, and have no more one hour drives to Victoria.”
“We love development here. Our little town has grown up nicely and we can thank developers for that,” Sifert said.
Councillors also noted that the city’s economy needs diversity, tacitly acknowledging that residential development won’t do the trick forever.
“I’d like to see more government offices in this neck of the woods,” said Wade, a one-term councillor. “We’ve got to get people working here who live here and go downtown everyday. We’ve got to move jobs to this community.”
“Our biggest challenge is diversification. People want to work and play where they live,” said Szpak, a three term councillor. “We are open for business and we want to bring in more high-tech jobs.”
Councillors acknowledged growing traffic congestion in the city. Seaton, a five-term councillor, said council is focused on developing a trail and bike path network to give people options.
“We’ve started a plan for more bike lanes and trails to connect neighbourhoods so people don’t have to drive,” Seaton said. “But I don’t see getting rid of all the cars, but there is a great opportunity to get the E&N train going into town.”
“We can build more roads or spend $1 billion on light rail that goes to Colwood Corners,” Young said. “Or we could get the (E&N) train going, and going the right way. That should be the priority.”