John van Dongen, MLA for Abbotsford South, has been serving the community since 1995. With 2011 coming to a close, the veteran politician sat down with the Abbotsford News to analyze the events of the past year, and look at the challenges in 2012.
What are the major challenges facing Abbotsford in the coming year?
I think the major challenges are ongoing economic sustainability. We’ve had a strong economy in Abbotsford, with agriculture as our base, the aerospace industry and a lot of varied business including construction. I think maintaining a stable economy, growing jobs, and growing some of the services for people, that includes the infrastructure needs such as the water issue that council is grappling with.
I think we’ve done a pretty good job working with council in terms of recreational facilities, the trails that we’ve added – those sorts of things are important. But, I don’t think there is any substitute for a strong economy and we’ll work with everybody to maintain that.
What are your views on Abbotsford’s water supply? Were you in favour of the P3 proposal?
We always rely on council to provide the lead. The infrastructure needs in the community are the responsibility of the mayor and council. They assess that issue, they did the background work on it … I understand there were a number of options on the table and council made a decision, made a recommendation to the public and, by law, council has to take that to the public for a referendum. The people of Abbotsford decided not to support that option. There can be a variety of reasons for that.
I think it was unfortunate timing in the sense that we are in a time of economic uncertainty. People are concerned about their jobs, concerned about their futures … Council went to the public with a backdrop of some pretty significant investment in the community in terms of the Plan A projects, and there are concerns about operating deficits on those projects. So it was a whole combination of issues. There’s never one reason why a referendum fails or passes. I believe the new mayor and council will go forward and reassess all their options.
Will provincial funding be available for a water supply?
I can’t say at this point whether provincial money will be available or not. Certainly as a local MLA I have always worked hard on behalf of the community to insure we get our fair share of infrastructure dollars … We will work with council to pursue those dollars..
What are your thoughts on the city’s intention to leave the Fraser Valley Regional District?
I know that the city has been reviewing the funding of services through the Fraser Valley Regional District. It is a process that has been ongoing … We will sit down and review, in detail, with both sides – the city, the FVRD and the minister – what the issues are and how to deal with this notice that has been given. The minister (Ida Chong) has made it clear that the City of Abbotsford will not be able to be its own regional district, that it will either be part of the Fraser Valley Regional District, or Metro Vancouver Regional District, or possibly some other configuration. But it is a concern for me … I will work very closely with both parties to try and make sure we do the best for the taxpayer. But, I also believe in collaboration between neighbouring governments.
What did you think of the 2011 municipal election results? Were you surprised?
I was surprised about a couple of things. Certainly surprised about the mayoralty race. George Peary has provided strong leadership for this community for many years, particularly his three years as mayor. I think it was unexpected that he would be defeated by someone who is quite new to council.
I believed at the outset that the referendum on water would be a difficult sell, because of the current economic and, dare I say, political climate … To say that the referendum was defeated because it was based on a private public partnership model is, I think, an over simplification. I think people saw a significant increase in debt, they saw that their property taxes would go up because of it, they saw it against the backdrop of quite an increase in debt and operating losses on the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre, and they just decided not at this time.
A recent poll suggests the provincial NDP party has pulled ahead of the Liberals. Your comments?
I think that since 2009, the decision by our government to embark on the move to join with the federal government to harmonize our sales tax system has been a long and difficult period for the government and the people of B.C.
It went to referendum and the people of British Columbia decided to vote in favour of going back to the Provincial Sales Tax system. Now we as a government are in the process of implementing that system.
The soft economy … that uncertainty is translating into people’s concerns at the polls. We’ve been through quite a difficult year as a party and as a government … we’re transitioning into a government under a new leader, through some pretty difficult times.
The next election is set for May 2013. Will you run for office again?
I’ve always believed you have to earn your keep as an MLA every day. I’ve always believed that I’ve had to do meaningful work for the public that I represented. And I’ve always believed that I had to have the energy and the satisfaction out of the job to continue to do it because it is a demanding job. I’ve enjoyed the privilege of representing the people for over 16 years and I still have the energy and passion for the job.
I’ve been consistent in my position that I’m going to run again in the next provincial election. There are a number of my colleagues that are going to be stepping down, but I’m not one of them.