United they vote: Abbotsford council votes are consistently unanimous

Abbotsford News analysis finds 96% of 2,400 motions cast at public hearings get no dissenting vote

Abbotsford city council. File photo

Four years ago, Henry Braun, then a councillor, was known for his opposing votes at the council table.

His dissension was common enough that then-Mayor Bruce Banman suggested Braun’s tendency to push staff for more information and to frequently cast lone opposing votes was evidence that he wasn’t a “team player.”

What a difference four years can make.

Since becoming mayor in late 2014, Braun has been in the minority on a council vote just three times, an analysis of public voting habits by The News has found. And not once has he cast the lone vote in opposition to a motion. It’s a voting shift mirrored in Braun’s positive statements about the city’s direction, and one he credits to a gathering at the start of the term at which council members laid out their positions, and agreed on a path forward.

That led to the development of a strategic vision that staff use as a guide, and which Braun says ensures that most matters brought to a vote already match council’s priorities and come with sufficient information. Skepticism and doubt still have value, he said.

“We should be asking probing questions,” he told The News. But he says most things that reach council preclude an opposing vote.

* * * *

Although dissension often prompts media coverage and general public awareness about an issue, most councils vote unanimously on most items.

But even with that the case, Abbotsford’s council has been particularly united since the 2014 election.

Ninety-six per cent of the 2,400 motions cast at public meetings since this council was sworn in have been unanimous votes. (The News’ analysis does not include in-camera votes that are closed to the public.) Only 55 different issues triggered at least one dissenting vote on council (some issues involved multiple votes). And of those issues, few had community-wide significance, with the bulk related to concerns about small subdivisions, minor funding requests or other procedural matters.

On major issues, in particular, council has rarely seen dissension in its ranks.

Council adopted a new Official Community Plan and nine new master plans during the last four years. Those foundational documents for the city were all passed unanimously, as was each year’s financial plan.

Coun. Patricia Ross gave staff the credit for the lack of dissension.

“We’ve had an amazing team of staff that are giving us real good advice,” she said. “There’s a level of trust and faith we have in the staff and the team.”

* * * *

The News’ analysis also suggests that while the AbbotsfordFirst slate may only control four votes, its members – Couns. Brenda Falk, Sandy Blue, Ross Siemens and Kelly Chahal – have almost never ended up on the losing side of those decisions that are not unanimous.

On only nine occasions this term has one or more AbbotsfordFirst councillor been in the minority. Interestingly, in none of those occasions did the four AbbotsfordFirst members line up on one side and the rest of council on the other.

Siemens has been the only one to semi-occasionally break from his colleagues. On six occasions, Siemens has paired with one or two independent councillors to cast a vote in the minority. On one other occasion, he was on the losing side of a split.

Only three issues have seen Falk, Blue or Chahal on the losing side, and each of those was on a decision divided by just one vote. (Only six such issues have resulted in such votes this council term.)

Loewen’s record is similar to Siemens’. He was in the opposition on nine issues, six of which didn’t involve a split.

The other independent councillors – Couns. Moe Gill, Les Barkman and Patricia Ross – were dramatically more likely to vote in opposition to a motion than their colleagues, the record shows.

Ross, Gill and Barkman were each in the minority at least 18 times.

Barkman was the most frequent dissenter. He differed from the majority on 30 different issues, nearly always either alone or with just one fellow councillor. Nine times Barkman was one of a pair of dissenting councillors – most frequently, but not always, Gill. On 19 occasions, Barkman was the lone voice of opposition to a proposal.

Gill, who wants to unseat Braun from the mayor’s seat this fall, was in the minority on 22 different issues, including nine times in which he was the lone dissenter.

Ross was in the minority on 18 issues, six times alone.

* * * *

The nature of the issues, though, may have something to do with those numbers.

Barkman has frequently expressed concern about parking, traffic and the pace of change in densifying neighbourhoods, and around two-thirds of Barkman’s opposing votes were related to small subdivisions or other non-major developments.. Those developments comprise the largest chunk of council votes, even as each proposal only affects a small area. Barkman also approved many small subdivision applications as he tried to find the boundary between infill and what he called “overfill.”

Braun, on the other hand, has had a different philosophy when it comes to such votes. He has spoken about the need to provide predictability to those looking to invest or build in the city. That approach has led him to suggest that council should hesitate before voting against individual applications that otherwise meet city guidelines. If there is a problem, Braun suggests the city should instead look at reforming the guidelines themselves.

In that vein, Braun – and the rest of council – voted in the spring to halt new “infill” applications while new guidelines are developed, while allowing those that were already before the city to proceed. Council, he said, should be setting policy and governing, but not otherwise involved in day-to-day matters.

* * * *

Only a few issues of citywide importance have been the subject of dissension.

Between 2014 and 2016, Gill and Barkman cast several votes against advancing the city’s new bird-scare bylaw. Gill had previously expressed worries that it would increase work for farmers and Barkman suggesting enforcement is the province’s job.

In 2017, Gill also voted against an increase to Abbotsford’s water sewer rate, saying residents should be rewarded for significantly reducing consumption over the previous five years.

And at the very start of the term, Ross’ and Siemens’ motion to include a representative from an environmental group or non-profit on the city’s development advisory committee was rejected.

The two most prominent dissensions were both made by Ross. In 2016, she cast the lone vote in opposition to the city’s community benefits agreement with Kinder Morgan, which would see the pipeline company contribute money to a new clubhouse at Ledgeview Golf Course.

And the following year, she was the lone opponent of the city’s request to have land removed from the Agricultural Land Reserve in order to broaden the city’s industrial land base.

“It’s difficult,” Ross said of casting a major dissenting vote. “It’s hard to go against the grain like that.”

She said standing in opposition can also cause one to worry about the political ramifications.

But the past says that saying no is often politically advantageous.

Ross, no stranger to opposition votes even before this term, has won the most votes among council candidates at each election going back more than a decade. And Abbotsford has a long history of voting out mayors who went along with plans that turned out to be political landmines.

Indeed, Braun suggested some recent votes of opposition were linked to the upcoming election. The News’ analysis, though, shows no sudden uptick in dissenting votes on council.

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