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Pemberton all candidates meeting draws standing room only crowd

"I’m sorry I blew up a little, but I had a right to." — Mark Blundell

Incumbents’ defensive statements met with chastising remarks and jeers

One candidate’s opening remarks drew thunderous applause while another’s closing comments brought boos and hisses.

More than 350 people attended Pemberton’s all candidates meeting Monday – a number not far off the 408 village ballots cast in the 2002 municipal election. The event, sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce and moderated by Dr. Hugh Fisher, attracted a standing room only crowd to the Pemberton Community Centre.

However, approximately two-thirds of the audience was comprised of Electoral Area C residents who are only eligible to vote for a school trustee and a director position on the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District. With School District 48 trustee Michael Milner winning by acclamation, voter focus was on incumbent Area C SLRD director Susie Gimse and challenger Alan LeBlanc. Approximately half the audience questions were directed at these two candidates.

The format was familiar. Each candidate was given two minutes for opening remarks and a minute for closing remarks. All candidates, except mayoralty candidate Martin Dahinden, took advantage of the opportunity to reinforce their platform. Dahinden did not appear at the all candidate’s meeting due to a family emergency. In a statement, read by Fisher, Dahinden also let the audience know that he would not be actively seeking election and encouraged electors to place their votes for mayor with the other three candidates.

This statement came on the heels of confirmation earlier this week that Dahinden would not be actively running. Sources confirmed that Dahinden was left visibly shaken earlier last month, when his right to run was publicly questioned in a crowded venue. The comments directed at him were described as "humiliating, cruel and unfair." Dahinden, who was out of town at press time, could not be reached for comment.

The speeches from the other mayoralty candidates erred on the cautious.

"I strongly feel it is not the time for an all rookie council," Bruce van Mook said in his opening address after stating he is running for the mayor’s job primarily because he felt that the voters needed a choice. (Jordan Sturdy was the only declared candidate for mayor until just a few days prior to close of the nomination period, with Mark Hunter making his intentions known at that time.)

Valley Vision: Leadership in Action council candidate Jennie Helmer’s speech, a synopsis of her plan for economic growth through establishing secondary industries based on existing agricultural industry, drew thunderous applause.

School trustee candidate John Burleson generated the night’s biggest laugh with his personal introduction: "I’m 42, I have grey hair and I retain water."

While Burleson’s impassioned speech about helping all children meet higher academic standards came from a parental point of view, fellow trustee candidate David Walden’s speech focused on his past experience in education, as a teacher and administrator.

For the most part, opening remarks were predictable reiterations of community issues accompanied with promises to address them without clearly offering solutions. However, it was clear from audience reaction that VVLA mayoralty candidate Sturdy and slate-mates Helmer and LeBlanc were the crowd favourites.

The three issues that dominated the question period were development, boundary expansion and recreation. Ultimately, recreation came out on top, with many of the questions pertaining to past community recreation studies as to the upcoming referendum to borrow $6.7 million to create a dry facility, a facility similar to the one struck down earlier this year.

Support for the referendum was almost unanimous among the candidates, with Hunter the lone voice of dissension. Hunter said he would be opposing the referendum because he felt the proposed facility represented a loss of services, namely a gymnasium and playing fields that are part of the existing community centre.

Faced with a question pertaining to how the proposed new facility addressed the issues that led to an 800-signature counter-petition this past spring, Gimse and Mark Blundell discredited the counter-petition. Both politicians questioned its validity rather than acknowledging it as indicative of the public’s wish for either an ice arena or swimming pool.

With their past records a source of much of the questioning, the two incumbents appeared defensive.

Rising to add to a question addressed by opponent Alan LeBlanc on the issue of the community’s waste disposal plans, Gimse turned to LeBlanc and said "It’s nice to see you attended the last meeting." That was closely followed by a remark aimed at LeBlanc’s knowledge of independent power projects, dismissing him as just another contractor who had worked on IPPs.

Local businessman Rick May expressed his dismay with Gimse’s shots at LeBlanc. "Shame, shame on you Susie," he said upon taking the mic, a comment that was met with audience support.

Blundell saved his negative remarks for the end of the evening, after approximately half the audience had dispersed during the preceding 10-minute intermission. Blundell began his closing remarks by accusing his opponents of espousing niceties and platitudes instead of offering substance. Then he focused his attention on the VVLA.

"A slate is a slate is slate! And no dictionary definition charges that," said Blundell, alluding to VVLA candidate David Mackenzie’s earlier reading of the Oxford dictionary definition of the term.

"I’m for democracy. I’m your independent candidate. I’ll be fighting for you," he continued.

At this point the audience broke into hisses and boos.

Blundell went onto list the current council’s accomplishments, prefacing it with the comment, "This council hasn’t been that bad."

The jeering continued as Blundell highlighted the current administration’s achievements, including securing $7.1 million in grant money, establishing a new sewer treatment facility and the building of sidewalks along Portage Street.

Blundell’s comments followed VVLA candidate Brian Young’s closing statement concerning transparency in local government.

"We don’t have all the access to all the information at muni hall. We have to get in there and change it," said Young.

Questioned the following day for clarification on what information was specifically unattainable, Young cited the current airport study as an example. Young alleged that his request to secure the document was denied by VOP staff on the basis that it had not been adopted and was currently in process. It is policy that information deemed to be "in process" or pertaining to an in camera issue is not available to the public.

Young also alleged that candidate Kirsten McLeod had that particular airport study in her possession at the all candidates meeting.

"Last night if you looked at Kirsten McLeod she had a binder full of information like Mark Blundell’s," said Young. "It was a full councillor’s binder, with the documents in the same order."

Young speculated that either VOP staff or Blundell had compiled the binder. He also noted that McLeod was the sister of Blundell’s son’s fiancé. Blundell confirmed that he assisted two of the candidates, McLeod and van Mook, upon their request.

"Kirsten McLeod is young and new and is very mature. She came and asked me how to go through the political process. I told her, ‘Get a binder and get the documents.’ I told her I’d help her. Brian Young’s never asked me for the report," Blundell said.

Blundell said that Young’s comments amounted to an attack on the VOP staff.

"Our staff is very dedicated to this community. They are not about to make judgments that are going to interrupt the campaign process. They will give information that is factual and accurate," said Blundell. "The village staff work here and live here and they feel threatened. I am very passionate about the staff. I’m sorry I blew up a little, but I had a right to."

The councillor also suggested that the VVLA was formed as a political party to represent the interest of developers.

"Drew Meredith is their agent. He is also the realtor on Raven’s Crest – Cam McIvor’s project. Who’s backing these guys? I will be very interested to see where their money is coming from," said Blundell.

VVLA mayoralty candidate Jordan Sturdy stated that the slate is not being underwritten by anyone and that all VVLCA candidates have actively been fundraising, with the money being put into a common fund.

"I expect we’ll all be paying $400 or $500 out of our own pockets at the end of this," said Sturdy.