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Feature - Squamish politics head in New Directions with coalition

Lack of action by current council a driving force behind new political organization

A growing number of people in Squamish are hoping for a new direction after the next municipal elections in November.

Squamish New Directions is the name chosen by a growing membership in the new municipal political movement, which now has four people running for the seven available council seats.

New Directions was created earlier this year after Ian Sutherland won a by-election to replace Councillor Shelly Smith, who had resigned. Sutherland was one of the leaders of a group that battled council over a proposed wood chip loading and transfer facility on the Squamish waterfront.

"A group of people wanted to stay involved and stay current on municipal issues following the by-election, and met on a regular basis," said Sutherland, who declared his candidacy for the mayor’s position last week.

He will be running against six-year incumbent Councillor Paul Lalli. Both are vying to replace current Mayor Corinne Lonsdale, who announced in mid-September she is stepping down from the top job but will be seeking a councillor’s seat in November after 15 years on council.

Lalli’s campaign got a boost recently when it was apparently treated to a workshop on election strategies and tactics by West Vancouver-Garibaldi MLA Ted Nebbeling’s successful campaign team.

Joining Sutherland on the New Directions slate are council candidates David Fenn, Sonja Lebans and Ray Peters. They will be competing for the six council seats with, among possible others, incumbent Raj Kahlon, perennial candidate and former councillor Terrill Patterson, Larry McLennan, Mohammed Asfar, Lonsdale, Gary Hastings, and frequent candidate Gwyer Webber.

Among the policies of New Directions are: open and inclusive government; promoting the economy of Squamish; downtown development; tourism; forestry; waterfront development; and outdoor recreation.

"We are all strong individuals with strong beliefs," said Sutherland. "We all agree on the big picture items, but we don’t expect to agree on every issue all the time. You can call it a slate, but we don’t have a full slate. We want to be open and honest about who we are.

"Besides the four of us, there are other people running who share many of our values and we are getting closer as we see who is running, and there are other people waiting in the wings."

Fenn said in the past, the concept of a "slate" has had negative connotations, but he feels this group is more positive in nature.

"We’re an independent group of people with strong opinions, and one of the major issues with the current council is the lack of debate. On council, to make the best decision possible you need debate, and that’s been missing."

Sutherland agreed, saying his style is to disagree in a productive manner, and not close his mind or refuse to listen to new ideas. He said that approach is shared by the group.

After Sutherland ran in the by-election, New Directions was a group of about 50 people who met on a regular basis at least 60 days before the coming election, which gives them the right to be identified as a group on the ballot. Membership is now about 300 residents, and Fenn said the number is growing as the election nears.

"There has been no real recruiting drive as such," he said. "People are approaching us."

"That is a strong movement for change, I’d say," added Lebans.

In a document presented at a public meeting organized by New Directions in July, many of the group’s policies were laid out.

Open and inclusive government includes the requirement for a full and honest appraisal of the facts on each issue, conducting public business with no hidden agenda. Respect for the public will to maintain the integrity and values of the Official Community Plan is also part of the policy, along with "delegate appropriate responsibilities and respect the professional advice of municipal staff."

Establishing an independent economic development office is foremost among the ways New Directions proposes to promote the economy. Others include recognizing and actively supporting major development proposals such as the 2010 Olympic bid and the proposed university, as well as addressing serious job losses in Squamish and the decline in the retail sector downtown.

The highest priority for downtown development is embracing the fundamentals of the Downtown 2000 plan, including high-density residential development and waterfront walkway development.

Tourism development is cited as a "critical component of an expanded and diversified Squamish economy," while a "reinvigorated and progressive local forest industry is a cornerstone of an expanded and prosperous economy."

Development of an integrated, multi-use port and waterfront area is proposed to answer the desires of residents to be able to access the waterfront. "The creation of recreational and residential opportunities along our shorelines, coupled with focused and appropriate industrial activity, will bring considerable added value to our community and local tax base."

The policy document also states council members must tackle tricky land use issues and support the needs of user groups to create a world class outdoor recreation environment to support Squamish’s claim as the Outdoor Recreation Capital of Canada. This should be done through elected officials actively fostering the growth of adventure recreation companies, expansion of the needed support services, and encouraging manufacturing enterprises related to outdoor recreation.

"There is lots of vision in this community," said Lebans. "But if it’s not implemented you have nothing. If we don’t plan for 20 or 30 years ahead, this is not going to be a place where our grandchildren can grow up and have a home."

Liveability in the community is also a common theme among the New Directions candidates.

"I’ve been labelled ‘green’ because I’ve been able to save a thin strip of land through the community," said Peters. "I’m not trying to stop development. I just want a place that’s liveable. You can’t build from valley bottom to valley bottom and from side to side and have it liveable. I know logging jobs and industrial jobs are important. I’ve worked hand in hand with Interfor loggers, and that’s been good for the loggers and the residents."

Peters also said Squamish needs a "welcoming committee" at city hall when people approach with new business ideas.

"You go into city hall and are given a form and told to fill it out. We should have someone greeting these people and showing them what’s available."

Fenn agreed. "We’re under no illusion that we need new processes and new understandings among the players to move ahead in Squamish," he said.

"Bringing the industrial, commercial, recreational and residential users together so we can all use the waterfront is a good objective, and that co-operation could spread through the whole community."

Why they decided to run:

Sonja Lebans

Since moving to Squamish six years ago Lebans has volunteered in the library, joined the board and for the past two years has served as chair. A nurse, she represented Squamish on the Community Health Council and Coast Garibaldi Health Services Society until it was disbanded. Lebans now represents the Sea to Sky Corridor on the Interim Community Advisory Committee for the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority.

As an avid skier, she is a mountain host on Blackcomb and also volunteers for the local Hospital Foundation golf tournament.

"My advocacy for the library, education and social needs in the community caused me some frustration. I saw that we had a ways to go in these areas, and that’s where it started," she said.

"The other thing I was concerned about was the divisiveness. Nobody seems willing to listen and work together to be creative, and that’s not just in Squamish but in small towns across Canada. I believe council can set the tone for that."

Dave Fenn

Currently the owner and manager of the Howe Sound Inn and Brewing Company, Fenn was born and raised in North Vancouver, and has several university degrees, including a Master Degree in Public Administration, University of Victoria; Certificate of French Language, Universite de Savoie; and a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Political Science from UBC. He has been a university researcher, worked as an analyst with the Treasury Board Secretariat in Ottawa, and since 1988 has been a management consultant in Public Policy Analysis with clients including the federal government, 10 ministries of the B.C. government, trade organizations and native bands.

"The biggest issue for me over the last decade is the inaction from municipal hall on downtown development and the development of the waterfront," said Fenn.

"The Downtown 2000 plan has not even been adopted by council and the reason for that has never been made public. A vital and vibrant downtown is absolutely critical to any community. The result of the inaction by council is that something like 40 businesses have closed in the downtown area.

"According to B.C. Stats for the last five years, there has been 80 per cent growth in Pemberton, 30 per cent growth in Whistler, and less than one per cent growth in Squamish. From an economic point of view, we’ve been doing lousy business. There is an economic boom in the corridor but we’ve missed it. We need more people working locally to sustain us."

Ian Sutherland

Sutherland is a graduate of the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton and belongs to several professional organizations. He is the co-owner of a company that publishes and sells educational books to schools and colleges across North America.

"I got more involved as the wood chip issue went on," said Sutherland. "But the bigger issue, when you pay attention to what is going on at city hall, is that there are too many studies and not enough action. There is a lack of vision. The level of debate is less than desirable. And there is the perception that who you are when you walk in the door dictates the reception you get from the staff and mayor.

"We’ve got to let proposed projects be decided on their own merit, not on who brings them to the table. We have a good quality staff, but there is a perception that staff doesn’t get things done quickly enough for the community. But the fact is that staff has not been allowed to act.

"Council changes its priorities so often what was number one last week is number 5 this week. They can’t work under those conditions. We have to rely on staff expertise, give them clear direction, and we can develop a positive attitude. This is a $27 million business at city hall and you can’t run it like a coffee club."

Ray Peters

Born in North Vancouver, Peters received a high school education before landing full-time employment with North Vancouver City Hall as a laborer and then a firefighter. He retired as a captain in 1996 after more than 30 years with the Corporation of the City of North Vancouver. His volunteer work has been extensive, including chairing the Mayor's Committee of Parks and Recreation.

Inaction on many fronts is behind Peters’ bid for a council seat.

"Some of my friends have said this is the most beautiful community they have ever seen," said the retired firefighter who has had a hand in building most of the trails around Squamish. "But I’m not proud of the downtown becoming a ghost town. If they had followed the Downtown 2000 plan we would have a proud community and everyone else would be happy too, but council has done nothing. The downtown is the heart of the community, but through council inaction that heart is dying. The downtown is too pretty to become all industrial. There can be commercial and light industrial development in spots, and there don’t have to be clashes. There are already good plans, they just have to be implemented."

He also said there has to be a proper infrastructure for outdoor recreation.

"Even though council says it is behind that idea, they’re just not putting up the money. The Trail Society doesn’t get one penny from council, and the whole recreation industry is getting minimal help.

"And it’s not just for tourists. Even for locals, the lack of facilities and signage is a disgrace."