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Thinning the herd

A Squamish campaign retrospective

Signs of the Times

An election without interest is like a horse without legs: lame and pitiful, surreal in a nightmarish kind of way, and, like it or not, fit for the graveyards of human memory. No service and no epitaph, just something to forget about.

But interest on its own isn’t enough. Rather, it’s all about where the attention lies: Does it roost with voters, or is it largely confined to campaigners?

Province wide, voter turnout for November’s local elections was 27.8 per cent, down from 30.73 in 2005. With 41.9 per cent, Squamish was well ahead of that average. This, after all, is a uniquely engaged town, one in the throes of intense growth, one with visions that sometimes square off like boxers under spotlights, fists tight and eyes narrow. A higher than average turnout is pretty much expected in an atmosphere so coiled and charged. In 2005, voter turnout was 44 per cent. In 2002, it was 62.2 per cent. Still, with healthy participation typically gauged at 50 per cent, apathy seems to be continuing its slow and vulgar dance, a jig cutting rugs all over the Western world. The key all-candidates’ debates, with their nearly naked attendance, are proof enough of that. And none of the district’s politicos is pleased with the turnout.

The wisdom here is pretty simple. Nothing galvanizes the electorate like a heated mayoral showdown, which, in a way, is kind of odd. While the mayor certainly embodies more power than any one councillor, he or she is still just a single vote on the chamber floor, no different than anyone else. And yet, there’s an inherent drama in the race for first place. It’s the rally for the gavel, the lunge for the sash, the guts and the glory – victory and defeat on an exaggerated scale. Riveting tales and popcorn sales.

Indeed, the 2002 turnout is widely attributed to the sparring between Paul Lalli and Ian Sutherland, with the latter victorious by under 500 votes. In 2005, Sutherland had no serious opposition, though protest candidate Terrill Patterson came within a few hundred votes of knocking him out of the fight.

This year, Mayor Greg Gardner had no such problem. While Patterson made another effort, it was mostly for show, more to kick the machine than pull its levers. Meanwhile, John Erickson’s candidacy, though fuelled by passion, was almost hallucinogenic, drifting in and out of reality as if a William Burroughs novel exploring local governance.

Neither man put a dent in Gardner’s 3,557 votes, and the finality of his victory resonated with some voters well before pencils met ballots. During the sparsely attended mayoral debate at the Sea to Sky Hotel, one of the audience took to the mic and, voice thick with derision, called the race embarrassing. Another tuned out of the exchange, turned to the person next to him and rued the farcical nature of the whole thing. It was, he said, like watching a sit com.

Meanwhile, B.C.’s municipal elections came at a time of political overload. From the Canadian federal election to the sensational run for the White House, people were plump with politics, and the need to unbuckle the proverbial belt was widespread.

And so interest was not the hottest of commodities this time around, at least not with voters, especially the sort supposedly living in a town like Squamish. Asides from community groups, it was the candidates for council who seemed to count among the district’s most engaged, if only by show of hands. After all, there were 18 of them, an absurd number, really.

The corner of Buckley and Cleveland was a perfect symbol for the overcrowding. Bristling with signage, it was almost like a campaign bomb had gone off on the sidewalk, and the shrapnel of slogans and mug shots was so intense it just blurred right past the eyes, leaving the brain gasping and bewildered.

When ballot day finally rolled around, the road to Brennan Park was even more littered. You hear surfers talk about the green room, that peaceful tunnel whipped out by curling waves. Loggers Lane was more of a panic room, a tunnel of campaign propaganda that inspired not so much peace as claustrophobia.

Candidates like Doug Race were easily able to rise above the fray and have their message heard. Same with Bryan Raiser and Patricia Heintzman. All three were flashpoints in the creeping black. They, along with Corinne Lonsdale, Rob Kirkham and Lalli make up the town’s new council.

But there were other viable candidates, people like David Clarkson, for example. And there were surprises, seemingly safe bets like Mike Jenson, who was just edged out by Lalli. Unfortunately for their supporters, each wound up lost in the crowd – just another face, as it were.

The Vanquished

Catherine Jackson looks tired. Her morning classes at Capilano behind her, the teacher and environmentalist sits with shoulders just a little slumped. A car key, rare in terms of her usual accoutrements, sits solo on a table at the Sunflower Bakery downtown.

“It seemed like I had overwhelming support wherever I went,” she says. “People said they were voting for me wherever I went.”

And yet, when the machines at Brennan Park spewed out the results, Jackson finished in eighth place with 1,614 votes. She was 147 votes behind Lalli, who, finishing sixth, re-entered public life by just 85 ballots.

“I was extremely disappointed and quite surprised,” she says. “I’m still coming to terms with how I can move forward in a positive way so I can contribute and represent the people who voted for me.”

Though defeated, her dedication to those people seems resolute. Even with the gift of hindsight, with all its bows and ribbons, Jackson says she would change nothing. Throughout all those fireside chats and during the main debates, Jackson kept pumping her agenda, hitting on points about the Official Community Plan, the environment and job creation. Her message, she says, was as lucid as it was necessary.

“Of all the people running, I enunciated my message clearest. The results show that people are looking for representation of the environment and longer term planning of the community – and I represent that.”

Odds are, she’ll be back in three years. Certainly, people expect her to make another run. Raiser, for one, would be disappointed if she didn’t.

“I’m keeping my signs,” she says, leaving the café and forgetting her key.

For his part, Jenson, with his 1,676 votes, isn’t sure about his place in Squamish’s political future. No one looked more crushed than he did on election night, and, unlike Jackson, there are a few things he would’ve done differently.

Chief among them is the notion of political identity. Throughout the 2005-08 term, Jenson was the money guy, so much so that Gardner billed him that way in a farewell speech at council’s last regular meeting. But Jenson sought to add further dimension to himself this time around, and his rhetoric was designed to fill him out as a candidate interested in a larger pool of topics.

“I only realized this when, on Tuesday, Greg referred to me as the finance guy,” he says. “I was using personal growth, and I thought I could blend the two, but that may not have been the best platform because I think people still relate council to taxes.”

But there’s so much more to effective local governance. It’s been said often enough, but the campaign unfolded without one overriding concern. Rather, the debate was multi-pronged, here focusing on bike lanes, there on land use and planning, especially regarding the Oceanfront, the downtown and Garibaldi at Squamish. Taxes, the Squamish Sustainability Corporation and recreation also sent tongues sliding over teeth.

“Honestly,” says Jenson, “I think the new council represents the community well. And with the change in leadership, they’ll be able to face the challenges that, in Squamish and globally, we’re facing. In part, the Olympics are coming, and that didn’t seem to resonate with the electorate because it doesn’t resonate in the community, especially at council, where our relationship with VANOC wasn’t the best.”

Another concern of Jenson’s is incumbency. Generally speaking, political incumbency is viewed as an asset, a gun with bullets, rather than just a gun or just a bullet. Incumbency is name recognition and track record all rolled into one. While either can be damaging, popular politicians tend to remain that way, especially after a few terms. But, though Heintzman is grateful for her incumbency, Jenson is down on his.

“Newbies can say whatever they want,” he says. “An example is one of the candidates said they would promote the use of DCC (development cost charges) for some sort of recreation facility or maintenance. Well, DCCs are legislated for specific projects.”

That was Clarkson. He made the pledge during an all-candidates’ debate, and, after, caught flack from a few of his opponents.

“I meant to say amenity packages,” says the 21-year-old, who finished eleventh with 1,219 votes. “Mike and Corinne gave me a hard time for the rest of the campaign for that.” He shrugs a little and laughs. “I’m sorry. I misspoke.”

As he did in 2006, when he ran in the by-election that brought Gardner to council, Clarkson turned a lot of heads. He’s smart and a little bit jaunty. His platform was thick with detail: It dug into zoning bylaws and committee structures, balancing the unique with the mainstream, standard fare like job creation, transit and recreation.

“A lot of the candidates didn’t have platforms,” he says. “And I didn’t like that. Maybe I misread municipal politics, but I think a lot of people get elected on name recognition instead of credentials.”

As a somewhat interesting aside, had the election been in the hands of Howe Sound Secondary students, Clarkson would’ve been at the top of the pile — this according to a poll taken at an all-candidates’ debate organized by the school. It’s the whole identity thing again. Young bloods identify with candidates who embody their worldview, all the more so if that candidate is near their age bracket.

Whatever the case, Clarkson’s future is uncertain. With school and travel pulling him out of the community, the coming council term was his surest shot at a dedicated run. For the time being, he’s not making any commitments.

Donna Billy was another candidate picked apart by identity politics. The only First Nations member on the ticket, Billy tried to present herself as a human link to the district’s largest business partner, Squamish Nation.

“They won’t get anywhere if they leave it to administration,” says Billy, who also sits on band council. “It has to be council to council.”

She finished tenth with 1,299 votes, just behind incumbent Jeff McKenzie, who lost his seat with 1,474 votes. The problem wasn’t that she identified herself as a Squamish native, but that she didn’t go to the hilt with the idea.

“I agree,” she says.

Still, she’s happy with her numbers. And she’s also proud of shining a light on social issues, banes like homelessness and addiction.

“I’ll do a better job next time.”

The Victorious

There’s something about victory that runs up a bar tab. The same can obviously be said for failure, but that’s escapist alcoholism, and it’s bereft of all things celebratory.

Happy tabs were running high all over town on election night, and the centre of attention was Rockwell’s, where Gardner and his team tracked results on a felt board. When the numbers were tallied, the jubilation began, and it was all hugs and serving trays, pints and rock glasses, food, speeches, applause and music.

Dodging the melee and ducking out of the din, Kirkham, the new money guy with 1,988 votes, nailed down the central facet of his political personality. “The first order of business is getting ready for the budget,” he said. “I think everybody’s thinking about that.”

People were thinking other things, too. Depending on where you stood, they were either positing the conspiracy theories that persist throughout Squamish politics, or sounding the genuine alarm bells triggered by political collusion. That, like many things, is a matter of perception.

Patterson was the campaign’s central slate promoter. While others played gadfly inside, he stood in the Rockwell’s lobby, all decked out in his rain gear and wide brim helmet. Ever the agitprop, he called voters stupid, saying they were sucked into a new slate, an undeclared one led by Gardner and beefed up by Race and Kirkham, with room left for Lalli and Lonsdale.

Kirkham shrugged it off. It’s a small town, he said, and you can’t be any kind of involved without bumping into the same people. The Rotary Club, the Squamish Community Foundation, the Chamber of Commerce – these are narrow corridors trod upon by many of the same feet. Besides, Kirkham said he would’ve voted for something like Paradise Trails in a heartbeat. Gardner, on the other hand, railed against it.

Race, meanwhile, seemed of few words that night. He sipped his wine and looked a little exhausted, maybe not much of a surprise given the amount of votes his campaign generated. But, just over a week later, with each of his 2,625 votes having sunk all the way in, he’s back to the easy, almost offhand style he personified throughout the campaign. Far from being intimidated by his score, he views it as the ultimate form of encouragement.

“You kind of just have to go with it,” he says.

Low voter turnout, the enormous amount of candidates and the absence of a defining campaign issue are all things he’s considered.

“From my perspective, it almost overwhelmed the system,” says the former lawyer. “You get into these all-candidates’ meetings, and you’d like to be able to have a dialogue. You’d like to be able to discuss these issues. I’ve never had it like that before. You get a client in the office and you just rattle on. It takes what it takes. But this was different.”

Still, having managed Gardner’s 2006 campaign for council, Race had learned a few tricks to see him through. Buttons, website design, availability and clear messaging were all top of mind for his strategy. He also positioned himself in Squamish’s significant Sikh community.

“That’s probably one of the largest single blocks of votes in the community,” he says. “I think I got some support there. But apart from that, that was kind of it. You’re out in the community. You’re in the grocery store, and you just chat. You get the buttons out, and the intent is you get them on as many shirts as possible and they start conversations.”

As for the slate, he shrugs it off. Sure, there are connections between people, he says, but that’s to be expected.

Observers of local politics might also draw links between Bryan Raiser and Patricia Heintzman. The two finished within a few dozen votes of one another, with Raiser’s 2,297 votes landing him in third, while Heintzman’s 2,260 secured her in fourth.

“I definitely felt like I was never quite on top of it,” says Heintzman. “I relied on my reputation and what I had done on council in the last three years. I didn’t have the time to go door-to-door and really get out there, but I did well.”

Her interest in bike lanes and job creation makes her an almost natural alley of Raiser, who wore the pedal-powered commuter identity like no one else.

“I’ve never worked harder in my life,” says Raiser. “I’ve been campaigning for six years. Everyone always says hard work pays off. I’ve had my doubts about that expression. I’ve seen people get far with nothing, but I don’t feel I was lucky. Hard work does pay off.”

Another potential duo could be found in Lalli and Lonsdale, who developed an amiable political relationship when the former earned his political stripes so many years ago. While Lalli only squeaked in, Lonsdale reaffirmed herself as a stalwart of municipal politics. She finished behind Race with 2,458 votes, thus blazing the way deeper into her second decade on Squamish council.

“I honestly think it’s the voice of reason,” she says. “Common sense: I believe that’s how I come across. That’s how I certainly wanted to come across. Someone spoke to me about platforms and said everyone has a platform. It’s easier for those of us already elected to drill right down into the issues. It’s clear we have a bit of an edge there, the incumbents. But the bottom line is everyone elected has to look at all issues with a clear mind and good decisions. I advertise as the voice of reason, and that’s how I‘m supposed to be seen.”

Like Lalli, she waxed surprised on election night. Standing outside the auditorium in Brennan Park, she had about her an aura of relief, almost as if she thought her days as a representative were finished.

Lalli wore much the same look. He was all hugs and smiles, at the Park and throughout the night at the Easter Seals Camp on Government Road, where he gathered with his supporters.

The two have like minds. There are a few theories on voter turnout. One posits that the 18-person field was too intense for engagement. Lalli and Lonsdale shun that idea, with each pointing instead to the amount of supporters behind each of the 18 candidates.

“The turnout was higher than I expected,” says Lalli, noting that it was still abysmally low. “I give credit that there was a lot of candidates bringing people out. Everybody who ran has support in the community, and that’s why the turnout was as high.”

Both are all about money, though their positions can be defined by subtlety. While Lonsdale underscores jobs, Lalli is more focused on alternative revenue generation. Despite some discouraging news from the province, he remains determined to lobby for a municipal lottery. And he’d also like to see the Adventure Centre stamped with a corporate sponsor.

“I never said it was going to be easy,” he says. “We’re a child of the province, so to speak, and the Community Charter dictates what we can and can’t do. But approaching them with new ideas – it’s not like it’s a huge hurdle.”

A Change of Face

Former Mayor Ian Sutherland faded into the community after his loss in the federal election. He was at council meetings, sure, but he didn’t make an appearance at debates or anywhere else along the trail.

“It’s not my show,” he says. “I was in eight debates this fall when I was running federally. I don’t have any role to play.”

With him out of the picture and Gardner most definitely in, many people seem to be groping around for delicate words to highlight the difference in leadership styles. Where Sutherland was controlling, Gardner will be facilitating. Where the former was combative, the latter will be a team builder. And yet, those differences, with all their implications, do nothing to shake Sutherland. There will be no apologies from the man as he returns to his book business.

“You know what? I went into this knowing I was going to have to be proactive – to put it nicely – to get things done. We wanted to change, and we did that. Some people like that style, and some people don’t, but no one can disagree that things happened over the last six years.”

And so now, it’s the Gardner show, and even people who didn’t vote are tuning in. No doubt Gardner’s used to the attention. This, after all, is a man whose name is mega-sized on the side of his auto business. It reads small on the backs of license plates up and down the corridor. He’s frequently in the media, and, as a lawyer, he often commanded critical attention.

So the pressure doesn’t seem to be too taxing, and the plot is unfolding at a leisurely pace. With this week’s swearing in behind them, the new council will wait until the hustle and bustle of the Christmas season is behind them before hammering out an agenda for the next year.

“We have basically a three part orientation process set up starting this week,” says the new mayor, who, fresh from a Mexican sojourn, is already tasting some controversy with this week’s news about the Cattermole Slough. “Council is going to be having a speaker talk to us about parliamentary procedure. Next week, I believe, we are having a municipal government consultant come in to talk to us about the effective functioning of municipal government. And then on a date that’s not established yet, we are going to have an orientation process to make sure the new council is familiar with the functions and operations of council, so we’ll have a tour of all our facilities. With respect to a strategy session, that likely will not happen until early January, and that will be a two-day process.”

Still, just because he’s undaunted doesn’t mean expectations aren’t high. A lot of things will be picked apart in the coming year, whether Garibaldi at Squamish, the Squamish Sustainability Corporation, the coming budget or the introduction of new committees, something Lalli, for one, brings up in nearly every interview. So does Gardner have positions in the waiting, especially regarding that last topic?

“I do,” he says, “but I’m reluctant to share them right now because that’s not a decision of the mayor. It’s a decision of council as a whole. I guess I will tell you that my philosophy is that our committees will be more focused on the core functions of the District of Squamish, and one of the priorities will be to ensure better information flow between senior staff and council.”

Communication figured huge in Gardner’s campaign, whether between staff and council or council and the community. And there seems to be a need for it, as the Cattermole incident highlighted this week.

Maybe that issue represents the biggest difference between Sutherland and Gardner. The former mayor was big on gag orders, preferring that all media calls be routed through his office. While Gardner hasn’t said he’ll relinquish that policy, he has said he’ll revisit it. Same goes for in camera sessions. Always at the beginning of meetings, they often alienated members of the public, driving them from council chambers and breaking a key link between politicians and the electorate. Those meetings will be moved to more suitable times, and Gardner will explore the possibility of releasing an agenda of their contents.

If you need a metaphor, look no further than their business cards. Sutherland’s was spare, had only his district digits and email. Gardner’s, meanwhile, was stacked with contact information, everything from his cell phone to his office line.

The Swearing of the Few

No soundtrack to a good thinning like that offered by a few bagpipes. The scene, once again, is Rockwell’s, and the campaign fog has finally faded. It’s almost time for governance, but, first, make way for a bit of pageantry.

These seven men and women do solemnly affirm. They pledge competency. They bought no votes and swear to veer from conflicts of interest. Acting mayors are chosen, and the schedule for regular meetings is approved. Squamish Nation is acknowledged, families are thanked, and cameras are hoisted.

Gardner, with his hands clasped, looks the natural. Mostly. And, when he doesn’t, district clerk Robin Arthurs is there to take the wheel. Lalli has been here before, and so, certainly, has Lonsdale. Ditto Heintzman. By his own admission, Krikham is nearly speechless. Raiser, meanwhile, is ear-to-ear for the first 10 minutes of the inaugural show.

It’s hard to say what the future holds, but, in tone at least, Race is the first man to set the table. When Raiser is appointed to the library board, all members vote in favour. Except one.

“I didn’t want anyone thinking we were a slate,” chuckles Race, that quiet, wine-sipping demeanour of election night gone completely.

“Let the record show that Councillor Race opposes and Mayor Gardner will vote in favour,” says Gardner, all chuckles.

And now the catering.