There were few surprises offered at an Oct. 4 White Rock all-candidates forum presented by the South Surrey and White Rock Chamber of Commerce and the White Rock BIA, as council hopefuls – by and large – offered condensed versions of talking points from their campaign literature.
The biggest surprise, possibly, came not in the words spoken but in the measure of interest shown by residents, some 350 of whom crammed into the main public hall at White Rock Community Centre, with overflow spectators accommodated on chairs placed in the lobby.
The two-hour forum offered the floor to mayoral candidates in the first half and councillor candidates in the second half with only two no-shows among the field – councillor candidates Carolyn Latzen and Grant Meyer, who both sent regrets to organizers.
Two main schools of thought – or narratives – emerged at the forum.
One, advanced by Mayor Darryl Walker and incumbent councillors Dave Chesney, Anthony Manning and Christopher Trevelyan, is that the City of White Rock has weathered some unusual times during the last term that included having to repair its storm-damaged pier and promenade and having providing an effective response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But, they argued, the best course for now is to stay with an experienced and co-operative council team, while working on making improvements to planning and permit processes, and hewing to the development blueprint of an Official Community Plan that now reflects the wishes of the majority of residents.
The other narrative, advanced by mayoral candidates Megan Knight, Erika Johanson, and some of the more critical councillor candidates, is that the city – from council to staff – is ‘broken’ and needs major reviews of its financial and fiscal policies, resident services and permit-granting processes.
“I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished in the last four years on council,” Scott Kristjanson said. “I ran on (limiting) heights and clean water and we did both and more. We fixed the pier and dealt with COVID, but there’s so much more we need to do.”
Kristjanson pointed to the Lady Alexandra project on Lower Johnston Road, approved by the previous council, which current council reduced from 12 storeys to six storeys after winning a legal challenge.
“No one knew if we were going to win, but we succeeded,” he said. “But it’s incredibly disappointing we haven’t done that for other developments. Why not?
“Under Mayor Walker, the Democracy Direct council group is fractured, and no sitting councillor is currently running with Darryl at this time and that’s significant, I think. Darryl stopped listening to council or residents and his inaction hurt business.”
“I’m deeply concerned with the dysfunction and lack of leadership at City Hall,” Knight said.
“Skilled staff have left in droves and there has never been lower morale…this council gave you huge tax increases, over 20 per cent for most of you, and what is there to show for it?”
Knight said that inefficiencies at City Hall have been alienating residents and businesses alike.
“Our permit process is broken. Two years for a building permit, over six months for businesses that want to open – they can’t get their permits. Some will never do business here again. That has to change.”
Johanson said that, as mayor, she would ensure that the city remained aligned with residents’ three main concerns, which she identified as density, the city’s finances and the lack of an efficient automated budgeting system.
“Any further development must be measured very carefully,” she said, going on to describe the state of the city’s finances as “appalling.”
Johanson said she was quoting from “a city staff member” who characterized department budgets as being “on a number of Excel spread sheets, Word documents, notes on paper and phone calls.”
“This must be addressed,” she said. “Residents and businesses deserve better. “
Walker said that while he has enjoyed serving as mayor for the last four years, “it’s been arduous – it’s been difficult.”
“We’ve had COVID, we’ve had our pier destroyed and our promenade destroyed as well, but through it all we’ve brought this community back from a position where there was virtually no relationship between council, City Hall and the people of this community. That is something I’m proud of.
“We’ve now opened city hall up, we’ve redone question-and-answer period, and we’re in a position now to move forward over the next four years. COVID put a dint in what we could do, and we still have a lot of work to do.”
In response to a later question about streamlining processes and reducing wait times for services from city hall, particularly building permits,Walker said he heard the same issue when campaigning in 2018.
“It’s not something that’s new, but it obviously is something that needs to be worked on,” he said.
“We are talking about going into a budget period once this election is over, and we’re talking about increasing staff levels within the city, especially in that department. One of the problems is, through COVID, we’ve lost a lot of workers – some communities pay more than we pay, and that is an issue we have to have a look at.”
In answer to a later question about balancing taxes and fiscal responsibilities, Walker noted that it’s a complex issue, noting that upgrading the pier, for example, continues to be an ongoing need in the community.
“While everybody says the pier is fixed, it is not,” he said. “We repaired the part in the middle but each end is seismically unsound and we need financial support to be able to do that, whether we find it through grants federally or provincially or whether we spend some of our own funds here.”
In his comments Walker also warned about what he called ‘misinformation’ being spread for political ends.
“What I will ask you for is to give us a progressive council – people who can actually work on issues and don’t want to get into the weeds and the background. People who will actually talk to people and not send messages out on Facebook and Twitter and so on – that does nobody any good.”
In the councillor candidate portion of the evening incumbent candidate David Chesney, a three- term veteran, called for voters to look carefully at electing a council that can work together effectively, particularly four members who can cast a majority vote on key issues.
“It’s very important, when you go into that ballot box, that you can pick four people that you feel can work cohesively as a unit,” he said.
“The four that I’m going to pick, (along with) myself, are going to be Mayor Walker, Councillor Trevelyan and Councillor Manning, which will guarantee some stability at city hall. (Otherwise) the pendulum swings too far, one way or the other.”
Other councillor candidates also provided answers to what they felt were the biggest challenges facing White Rock.
Garry Wolgemuth took council to task for not correcting the permit process, and for not getting the city ‘working’ – while accusing councillors of triggering high staff turnover by requesting too many reports, most of which, he said, council members don’t read.
“COVID is over, you cannot use COVID as a an excuse for not getting things done,” he added.
Incumbent Anthony Manning said that while he has consistently voted against developments over six storeys and supports the height limits in the new OCP, he believes that White Rock’s greatest challenge is “our aging commercial and multi-family buildings.”
“As a city we cannot continue to say no to development. We’re at risk of driving away businesses and elderly residents. We must get to ‘yes’. The OCP, as amended by this council is how we get there.”
Fellow incumbent Christopher Trevelyan said he see the greatest challenge for White Rock is aligning development with a long-term vision for the community.
“The key to moving forward is getting away from the see-saw between no development and ‘spot-zoning’ towers any which-where,” he said.
“Being consistent (with the OCP) and staying with this plan ensures everyone is on the same page – residents, the city, developers and community partners.”
Former councillor Bill Lawrence said there is an immediate need to increase “cost-appropriate” housing stock, to get city finances under control, and reduce or eliminate the “brain drain from city hall,” and continue a program of infrastructure upgrades.
“Each and every one of these challenges have dire consequences if ignored or not dealt with properly,” he added.
“The city is overspending on a lot of initiatives. If you look at 2014 to 2018 there is an increase of property tax of only 7.8 per cent. From 2018 to the present, the increase has ballooned to over 22.6 per cent.”
Stephen Crozier said the biggest problem is creating ‘appropriate’ development.
“Buildings are what are around us, they are what we live in, but real development is community with each other – it’s people. That’s what comes first, it’s not bricks and mortar.’
Crozier noted that almost 50 per cent of household incomes in White Rock are under $60,000 a year, and more than 20 per cent of household incomes are under $30,000 a year.
“These are our neighbours and this is what we have to look after,” he said.
Ernie Klassen said polarization of residents appears to be at the root of many issues facing council.
“Communication is the key and, in many instances defuses conflict situations,” he said. “We have a gold mine of a city here – let’s use common sense, deal with the infrastructure, enhance the waterfront and tourism, revitalize the business community, deal with environmental issues and rebuild community spirit.”
Elaine Cheung told the crowd that she had personal experience of White Rock’s slow permitting – her business had been affected directly by waiting for two years in vain for a building permit for planned premises she noted.
But above all, she said, she was “committed to ensure the city’s governance and planning reflects the values of residents.”
“If you ever want anything done you get a very, very busy person to do it – I am that busy person…because I never stop working.”
Michele Partridge said the city needs to manage its need for growth, while preserving and protecting its history and the unique character of its neighbourhoods.
She said the platform she and Cheung share calls for “comprehensive implementation of the current OCP, including neighborhood-specific housing.”
The most important building that can be done, however, she proposed, was “building trust in our elected officials, and building confidence that they will effectively manage growth.”
Lindsay Manning – who noted she was the only candidate born this century – said she would like to see business boosted by increased promotion of White Rock as a tourist destination, particularly outside of the traditional summer season, with more colourful and multi-lingual promotional literature, websites and documentary film-making.
“White Rock has a rich history – I’d like to see more of things maintained, like some of the signs down by the pier that have graffiti on (them),” she said.
Ron Caillou said the delay in delivering city services has clearly emerged as one of the biggest challenges for the city.
“I have a huge technology background, so working on digital strategy is something I would be able to bring to the table, to actually help streamline that process,” he said.
“…We can actually enter the 21st century and be that city by the sea that’s also progressive, forward thinking and ready for tomorrow.”
Fiona MacDermid said she got involved in municipal politics when she became a victim of ‘spot-zoning’ – which created a 12-storey building in front of her property.
“When I talk to a lot of people in White Rock, they’re scared. They don’t know what they’re getting. They don’t know whether they’re going to get a four-storey, or wall-to-wall houses.
“There’s no such thing as end-of-life buildings,” she added.
“They’re held by developers…these are the homes that are housing the people who need affordable housing,” she said.
Teya MeiLan said she felt the biggest challenge facing White Rock is “our $230 million, approximately, total accumulated surplus, that has been sitting in our treasury box, and what has it been allocated for or prioritized (for).”
“We actually should be doing something with it; something helpful, something useful, such as helping our seniors be more mobile around town. I also have a vision for showcasing the best, and the beauty of White Rock, but we need to build that together, and I need input from each and every one of you.”
Herb Amaral said development is not necessarily just about highrises and buildings, but about addressing smaller issues, such as ensuring that business owners don’t have extreme waits for permits.
“Everyone wants to talk about big, big, big – but sometimes the easiest things to solve are the little things,” he said.
“That could make life easier for us in White Rock, the simple things.”