Nanaimo voters got a chance to see candidates vying for a spot on city council in action Thursday.
Unlike usual all-candidates meetings, a forum at Beban Park Social Centre split candidates into four groups, where they debated a single issue – similar to an actual council meeting.
The Coalition for Democratic Nanaimo asked the public send its top concerns to the website democraticnanaimo.blogspot.com, and then identified the top four issues including: community consultation, planning, economic development and short-and long-term fiscal management.
Mayoral candidate Roger McKinnon, council incumbent Diana Johnstone and candidates Arlene Blundell, Brunie Brunie, Brian Filmore and Rob Zver discussed planning and how to balance the principles of the Official Community Plan and the pressures for change. Former mayor and council candidate Gary Korpan was to be part of the group, but did not attend the meeting.
McKinnon told the crowd of close to 600 people that while the city must continue to look ahead 20-50 years, it has to be prepared to change with the economic times.
“I’m sure you all know [business expert] Michael Campbell. He’s saying long-term planning now is two years. That’s how fast the world is changing,” said McKinnon. “The economy and growth of each city changes plans and needs.”
Johnstone said Nanaimo is doing well with its community planning, but could be more collaborative.
“We have a lot of talent and expertise in our community and I think we need to involve our youth more, involve the chamber of commerce, the port authority and the airport.”
Brunie said council has let the citizens down when it comes to planning.
“Most of the work that went into community planning, including input by the people, was never been implemented. It never got any further than words,” she said.
The consultation group included Mayor John Ruttan, incumbents Ted Greves and Fred Pattje, and candidates George Anderson, Rod Lomas and Darcy Olsen. Candidate Peter Quinn Ramsay did not attend.
Pattje responded to a comment that the city often hides behind in-camera meetings by saying communication is a two-way street.
“I’ve attended many charrettes, open houses and public meetings and have found attendance is often minimal,” he said. “You haven’t got anything to bitch about if you don’t show up.”
Lomas said council is about making informed decisions and effective communication, due diligence and fair process are hallmarks of good government.
“This fails when poor engagement with the community occurs,” he said. “Especially with controversial decisions that impact the community. This breaks down the confidence in the government body.”
Ruttan said council has been as inclusive as it can be.
“We’ve been welcoming and listened to people who have come forward,” he said. “Whether we are in agreement is a different matter.”
On the issue of low-barrier housing, Olsen received a round of applause when she said it’s time for everyone to stop being naysayers and move forward.
“Let’s move people up, not out of our communities,” she said.
The city’s operating budget dominated discussion with the fiscal management group of mayoral candidate Jim Routledge, incumbent councillor Bill Bestwick and candidates Diane Brennan, Gord Fuller, Bill McKay and Trent Snikkers.
Bestwick called for an independent core services review to see where the money is being spent and where there might be savings.
“Everything does not have to go up three to five per cent every year just because,” he said. “I think we can find ways for reduction where it won’t cut services.”
Brennan agreed in the importance of the annual operating budget, but said council does not need to bring in an outsider to tell it what it wants and needs.
“We need to canvass the citizens and find out what is their vision. Only when that is done can we adopt a budget,” she said.
Snikkers also wants to bring neighbourhoods into the budget process with participatory budgeting.
Routledge said financial management is all about common sense.
“You spend the money you have, when you have it and then you wait,” he said.
Mayoral candidate Dan Didio, incumbent councillor Jim Kipp and candidates Chris Cathers, Zeni Maartman and Jeet Manhas debated economic development and what business Nanaimo should strive for. Council candidate Chris Oulette Croucher did not attend.
Cathers would like to see high tech, manufacturing, marine science and health-care jobs in Nanaimo, but there must be workers to fill them.
“Let’s invest in our children and teach them to think for themselves,” he said.
Kipp is looking at the agriculture, aquaculture and forestry industries, with a focus on resources.
“I don’t want to see anyone ship anything raw out of this country,” he said. “We also need to recognize things that are not sustainable, that don’t work.”
Didio wants to reduce red tape at city hall and save taxpayers money by eliminating permits for routine home improvements.
The municipal election takes place Saturday (Nov. 19). For voting stations, please go to www.nanaimo.ca.