Saanich gets second look at byelection candidates

The second forum for the up-coming municipal byelection held Thursday night at a local church could have easily turned into a case of deja vu all over again. Thankfully, it had a different dynamic.

Sharing the stage at the Church of the Nazarene, Nathalie Chambers, Keith Davidoff, Michael Geoghegan, Karen Harper, Marsha Henderson, Rebecca Mersereau, Shawn Newby, Art Pollard, Ned Taylor and Robert Wickson answered familiar questions about affordable housing, fiscal accountability, amalgamtion, regional transportation, food security, and the eventual fate of the Environmental Development Permit Area (EDPA) bylaw among other issues.

They had debated exactly 48 hours earlier during the first all-candidates forum St. Aidan’s United Church and Thursday’s forum differed by degrees, not in kind. Many of the questions had a familiar ring, as did the candidates’ answers.

But the evening had nonetheless a different feel as at least four members of the current council — Coun. Susan Brice, Coun. Fred Haynes, Coun. Colin Plant and Coun. Leif Wergeland — watched from among the 300 people, who filled the church pews for the debate that candidates themselves had organized following an initiative by Rebecca Mersereau.

Whether intentional or not, several candidates upped their criticism of the current council compared to Tuesday’s debate. Some used humour, others bluster.

“It is said politicians and diapers should be changed regularly for the same reasons,” said Henderson during her closing remarks.

Geoghegan meanwhile opted for the latter. “My election will send very strong signal to both Saanich and the [Capital Regional District] that you voters have had enough,” he said. “You have had enough of the tax increases, you have had enough of the incompetence, you have had enough of the corruption.”

He was especially critical of news that Saanich paid its retiring police chief Bob Downie a severance of nearly $380,000, then rehired him for two years, with an annual salary of more than $220,000. “We have the equivalent of a million dollar pay out to our police chief — $379,000 severance after he retires and the next two years, $221,000 [per] year,” he said. “Nice gig.”

Karen Harper — who like Geoghegan is running on a platform of fiscal accountability and rescinding the EDPA — tried a more somber approach when she said councillors spend too much arguing with each other.

“Right now, in Saanich, if you go to a council meeting, there [are] often a lot of people there, and it is usually not a fun time, because there is a lot conflict going on,” she said. “From my perspective, the one thing that could be done to reduce the conflict in Saanich and to allow council start spending its time on more important issues like getting the budget under the control and starting with local area plans is rescind the EDPA and start from scratch.”

Others sounded less dogmatic concerning the EDPA, but nonetheless cited its implementation as an illustrative example of how council has failed to consult with the public. “I think the EDPA has its purpose, but it has its issues, and it has some serious issues,” said Taylor, lamenting the lack of accurate maps. “But what is even worse is the implementation of the EDPA. It was done without adequate consultation.”

Several candidates meanwhile lamented Saanich’s perceived slowness concerning new developments. Newby promised to work with developers, while easing regulations. “I will do what I can to make Saanich more efficient,” he said.

Perhaps the line of the evening went to Mersereau. Describing herself as a “policy geek,” she promised an open, more collaborative approach towards governance that would see her hold regular townhall meetings. “It is no secret that Saanich council, Saanich more broadly as a municipality has been in the limelight a lot in the last few years. Fortunately, we have Nanaimo to take the heat more recently,” she said, drawing laughter. “But nonetheless, it has really our municipality’s credibility and that urgently needs to be addressed.”

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