For the first time during the 2011 Abbotsford civic election, water was not the most controversial topic during a candidates debate. Instead the city’s decision to attempt to leave the Fraser Valley Regional District created the biggest debate as the five mayoral candidates faced each other on Monday night.
The University of the Fraser Valley’s Political Science Student Association hosted the mayoral debate. Four of the five candidates were in attendance; with Meghann Coughlan, who is ill, listening and commenting by phone on a public address system.
“I think it’s disgusting,” she told the crowd of close to 100 spectators.
Coughlan fears if the city leaves the FVRD, it could join Metro Vancouver, which she feels will cost taxpayers even more.
Bruce Banman agreed, adding he didn’t like the way the decision was “slipped in at the last minute” without opportunity for public consultation.
The city voted last Monday to seek permission to leave the FVRD, citing cost-saving opportunities. However, the topic was not listed on the council agenda.
“We need our neighbours … it may end up costing us a lot more money in the long run,” added Banman who noted people tend to shop from “east to west.” He fears potential customers will bypass Abbotsford because of the decision to exit the FVRD.
Travis Daleman commented, “The public didn’t know about this decision, they didn’t know about anything until it had already been voted on … this is something in politics we need to change.”
Gerda Peachey called the move “offensive.”
“Where are we going with this? Are we really thinking that we are going to stand alone here?”
She said that down the road the city will “desire” to join with Metro Vancouver so it can “play with the big boys.”
Incumbent Mayor George Peary defended the city’s decision.
“This has been talked about for some 15 months … we have no plans, let me repeat, we have no plans to join Metro.”
The main reason for wanting to leave, according to Peary, is to save taxpayers’ dollars – up to $600,000.
“If we’re truly concerned about our taxation rates, we have to find other ways of saving money and reducing costs.”
Other questions from the audience covered subjects including affordable housing, diversification, agriculture strategies, taxation and water.
The city is planning to construct a $291-million water supply and treatment centre at Stave Lake. The plan calls for a public-private partnership (P3) and all of the mayoral candidates, except for Peary, are against the plan. A referendum will be held as part of the civic election to allow voters to have their say.
“The decision is where it should be, it’s with the public,” Peary told the crowd.
If the vote is no, Peary said the new council will take the decision and move forward. But he stressed, a new water supply would still be needed.
“We will re-examine all options and come back with another proposal within a year to 18 months.”
Banman said he is against the P3 water project for several reasons, including a lack of “informed” debate.
“I would rather vote no and not make a mistake, than vote yes and find out I’m into this thing head first and too deep and I can’t get out of it.”
Coughlan said if the water referendum is defeated she would examine other options to solve the water problem “if we even have a problem.”
The civic election takes place on Nov. 19.