Mayor Bruce Banman answers a question while Coun. Henry Braun looks on during Thursday's mayoral debate

Mayor Bruce Banman answers a question while Coun. Henry Braun looks on during Thursday's mayoral debate

Election 2014: Abbotsford mayoral candidates exchange views in first debate

Environment, arts and culture, and social services main topics in debate.

Abbotsford’s two mayoral candidates offered different visions on the city’s past, present and future before a crowd of more than 300 during last Thursday evening’s mayoral debate at the Matsqui Centennial Auditorium.

Challenger Coun. Henry Braun and incumbent Mayor Bruce Banman answered questions primarily focusing on the environment, arts and culture and homelessness.

While the two men were often in agreement about their visions for Abbotsford’s future, some of the biggest differences came when the two were asked to explain their positions on hot-button topics from the city’s recent history.

While neither man directly confronted the other, one of the biggest differences in policy came when the two men were asked about the tie vote that rejected a proposal from Abbotsford Community Services to build a 21-bed supportive housing project downtown after the Downtown Business Association expressed opposition to the project.

Banman said council would have been breaking its promise to downtown businesses if it had approved rezoning of the land for the project.

“I stand by my decision to protect the C-7 zone that was negotiated in good faith with the Downtown Business Association,” he said.

Braun disagreed, saying that the city had committed to preserving its Business Improvement Area, but that the C-7 zone was “a whole different animal” under the sole purview of council. He said council should not have rejected the proposal, thereby turning down $15 million in funding promised by the province.

“The first thing I will do as your mayor is I will go to Victoria and say ‘I want your money back.’ ”

Opposing views also arose when both men were asked to explain their position on the failed 2011 water referendum.

Braun said he lost friends when he came out against the plan prior to the referendum. He said he began looking into the data after reading letters to the editor and found that the P3 project was not necessary, especially for its price tag, which was estimated to total $345 million over 25 years.

Banman said: “There was not enough data for me to make a well-informed decision on it.” He said it later turned out the plan was based on a faulty premise.

That led to the closest the night got to a direct exchange, with Braun rebutting Banman’s statement by declaring: “The data was there.”

Both candidates also spoke about the need for the city to attract more jobs, especially for young workers, but differed on how much progress Abbotsford has made.

Braun said the city’s scattered development and driver-first layout made it unattractive to workers in high-tech industries and their employers.

Millenials, he said, “don’t like what they see and they don’t like what the babyboomers have done.”

Abbotsford needed a more coherent planning process, he said, adding that out-of-town developers also feel “insiders play with different rules.”

Banman, though, said the city was already making it easier for new development, including high-rises. He said the city’s development application review team has cut red tape and allowed developers to get a quick answer on what must be done to gain approval for projects.

But he also spoke of a need for more optimism.

“We have to stop talking about everything that’s wrong and start talking about what’s right,” he said. “We need to stop complaining about everything that’s happened in the past.”

Many queries surrounded the expansion of the Kinder Morgan pipeline. Banman said he was in favour of the twinning of the pipeline. Braun said that while he would wait to hear Kinder Morgan’s responses to the more than 200 questions posed to it by the city, he expects to support it unless “something real bad comes back from the questions we asked.”

* * *

Banman was absent for the first 45 minutes of the event, citing commitments to attend Diwali celebrations elsewhere. In his absence, Braun answered questions on a range of issues facing Abbotsford.

He said Abbotsford “should be much farther ahead than where we are … and it really comes down to leadership.” He also said the city needs to work better with the provincial and federal governments.

While the debate was scheduled to last until 9:30 p.m., Banman left at 9 p.m. He told the News that he was headed to the Blueridge Temple for another Diwali celebration. Earlier, Braun said he had also attended a celebration at the temple.

Braun took questions for another half hour, speaking on the need to listen to the public better, and whether he was in a conflict of interest because of his son’s job with the city (see related story, page 14).

The mayoral debate was organized by eight local non-profits: Abbotsford Community Services, the United Way of the Fraser Valley, the Abbotsford Community Foundation, the Abbotsford Arts Council, The Reach, MSA Museum, the Women’s Resource Society of the Fraser Valley and the Fraser Valley Conservancy.

The evening began with moderator Justin Goodrich delivering a strong warning to the audience.

“I have heard a great many rumours about things that may or may not transpire tonight. Let me be clear: I will not allow tonight to become a spectacle. We will conduct ourselves with integrity, we will honour ourselves with respect,” he said.

“If at any point, this becomes a political spectacle, I will bring the evening to an abrupt halt.”

The warning was heeded, and Goodrich was not forced to act on his words, only breaking in rarely to keep audience questions brief.

* * *

The News has surveyed mayoral, council and school board candidates on key issues.

For responses, visit abbynews.com/municipalelection