Welcome, good morning and thank you for taking the time to be here. My comments will be approximately 10 minutes in duration, followed by a 20 minute Q & A session.
With that, let me begin by saying that my journey leading up to this day has roots that go back 25 years. It began with Henry Teichrob, a District of Matsqui Councilor who encouraged me to think about serving in public office. During the ensuing years many more added their voices. However, as President and C.E.O. of Pacific Northern Rail Contractors Corp (PNR), Canada’s largest privately held railway construction company and employing 350 employees with offices located across Canada, I simply felt that I could not give the time that was necessary and so my response was always “no.”
That all changed when I retired in 2003, following the sale of PNR. Fast forward to the summer of 2011 and a time when I became increasingly concerned with some of the things that I saw happening in Abbotsford.
I have lived here for 60 years, and I care about Abbotsford. This is where my children and grandchildren were born and live. In fact, it is the only home that I have known. At the age of 13, my parents fled from the Mennonite villages of the southern Ukraine during World War II and ended up in Paraguay, where they married and where I was born. We immigrated to Canada in September 1953, lived in Steinbach, Manitoba for a few months and then moved to Abbotsford, where I have lived ever since.
During my time here I have met many wonderful people who contribute to the life and vibrancy of this city, which makes Abbotsford one of the best places to raise a family, despite some of our more recent shortcomings.
When I ran for public office in 2011, my campaign message was “forward thinking/fiscally responsible,” coupled with the need for greater transparency and accountability to taxpayers and residents.
I believe that elected officials are servants of the people and NOT masters of the people! We bemoan low voter turnout and rightfully so; however, we need to examine why many voters are disengaged. Have they concluded that the elected leaders are not listening? Have they concluded that their best interests are not being represented?
Being a servant to the people means that we listen and then make principled decisions which will serve the interests and needs of Abbotsford as a whole and not only special interest groups, or that we do not build monuments to ourselves with no thought about how it will impact citizens, as well as future generations. We must weigh all of the competing interests and then make decisions based on principles supported by our citizens and achieved through public consultation.
During these past 2.5 years, I have asked many hard questions: questions that should have been answered before proposals came to Council. Was it easy? No, but through it all, I made decisions that I believed were in the best interests of Abbotsford. This is my pledge for as long as I am in office.
I have enjoyed my first term in office, although I acknowledge that the first 15 months were more difficult than I had anticipated. Whether I succeeded in making a difference and whether this has led to some positive corrective changes, I will leave that to the people of Abbotsford to decide.
Since our new city manager arrived in February 2013, changes I whole-heartedly endorsed and advocated for early in my tenure, are being implemented, especially on the fiscal side. Structural deficits that were embedded in our Master Plans have been corrected; however, we still have a ways to go.
Policy and governance is not glamorous work. It is hard and difficult work! And it is absolutely necessary work for an entity that employs 800 people and annually expends $250,000,000, to be organized, efficient and one which provides good value to taxpayers.
When we enact policies and bylaws, we need to adhere to them ourselves before we expect adherence from others. If we are not prepared to enforce them, we need to change them so that we will enforce them. When we simply ignore them or set some aside, we designate winners and losers, which is unfair. The playing field should be level for everyone. To favor one person or special interest group because it may be to our political advantage is not the way government should be run, especially when they are incompatible with our policies, including those from other levels of government who have jurisdiction over specific matters.
When we blatantly disregard these, we not only confuse our staff, who are charged with the responsibility of carrying out policies and bylaws that we enact, but we also confuse others who are watching flagrant violations without any consequences taken by the City. This is not the fault of our staff; rather, this is the fault of Council who send mixed messages to the point where our bylaw enforcement staff does not know what is expected.
If we create policies and bylaws, but will not do anything when they are violated, we mock the very principles that undergird our democracy. In other words, if our citizens see that others do not follow policy and obey bylaws, they understandably wonder why they should.
We must also improve efforts at demonstrating transparency and holding ourselves accountable to the public. There are many matters dealt with in closed Council session that in my view should be discussed in an open forum so that the public is aware of what is being considered and have the opportunity to engage and provide input before decisions are made which often affect them, sometimes in profound ways. We are unjust to our citizens when they learn about our decisions after the fact and when it is too late to respond.
I have repeatedly stated that we have lost trust with the majority of our citizens and that trust has to be re-established. We have to earn it all over. Without the trust of the people we serve, it is difficult to move Abbotsford toward a preferred future.
The Abbotsford Entertainment & Sports Complex, the Abbotsford Heat contract, the Stave Lake Water Referendum, the YMCA, and the defeat of the 21 unit Housing First proposal by Abbotsford Community Services have all contributed to a steady undermining of the people’s trust in local government. Despite a massive PR campaign by City Hall, costing taxpayers $320,000, the Stave Lake Referendum was soundly defeated and rightly so. I dedicated an enormous amount of time researching this proposal and, while many other candidates seeking a seat on Council in the last election were on the “No” side of the referendum, I was the only one who came out and stated that I was voting “No,” because the actual data did not support the “drumbeat” that we had a water crisis, nor did we need a new water source for another 15 – 20 years.
The $5.5 million payout to the Calgary Flames was the lesser of two evils – pay $5.5 million now or pay $12 million over the next 5 years. One of the many questions that Kevin Mills of the Abbotsford News asked me during his interview and reported in his January 2013 article was this, “The Abbotsford Heat hockey club has cost taxpayers millions. Is there any way for the city to solve the ongoing problem?”
My reply 18 months ago was: “That’s going to be a little harder to fix. There are solutions but they are all going to cost money. The question then becomes how much money. Maybe we should cut somebody a cheque for five or six million dollars.”
We also need to increase the level of respect for our community – the shame and embarrassment that the chicken manure fiasco has caused our citizens is undeserved and deplorable! This is not who Abbotsford is and we have a lot of work to do to rebuild our reputation and standing with regard to how we treat the homeless.
I could go on but these are some examples of the colossal failures and poor decisions that have made or were about to be made had it not been for some very probing and relentless questioning during my term, especially during the first 15 months.
In closing, Abbotsford has enormous potential…we are a city in the very heart of the Fraser Valley, surrounded by the most productive agricultural land in Canada. Unlike Metro Vancouver cities, the urban core of Abbotsford is not attached to any other city, which makes us very distinct in the Valley. We already have many of the ingredients that other cities are envious of. It is now time for Abbotsford to capitalize on our strengths and begin to plan a City that is livable and walkable, a place where people gather, and in so doing build community, where young families, live, work and play. Done right, the future for Abbotsford looks very promising.
This being said and after a lot of thought as well as wise counsel from many people whose opinions I value and trust, I am announcing that I will be seeking public support for the office of Mayor in the upcoming civic election. This concludes my prepared remarks. I would now like to open it up to your questions.
Abbotsford Ramada Plaza Hotel & Conference Centre
Media Press Conference (10:00 a.m.)
Apex Boardroom – 4th Floor
June 11, 2014