Two of the three candidates running for mayor in North Saanich may have shared the same stage Monday, but represented very different positions on the official community plan spelling out future land uses and the issue of housing, with the Mary Winspear Centre audience showing a clear partisan preference for one candidate.
Coun. Murray Weisenberger, who was first elected to council in 2014, and Peter Jones, who has been involved with the Dean Park Estates Community Association, were among 14 total candidates appearing at the all-candidates forum organized by the Mary Winspear Centre and Black Press Media. Nancy Borden, the third candidate running to replace outgoing mayor Geoff Orr, was absent from the two-hour event because of a delayed flight. The event itself drew close to 300 people. Candidates answered the same set of questions and did not directly debate each other.
Monday’s debate took place less than three weeks before British Columbians elect new municipal councils and school boards on Oct. 15 and a little more than a month after North Saanich had asked its hired consultant to draft a new official community plan (OCP) following a narrow council vote.
Critics of the OCP review say it paves the path toward what they have called the suburbanization of North Saanich, contrary to its rural character, a charge countered by voices who argue that North Saanich needs additional as well as different types of housing for younger, working families looking to establish themselves, and older individuals looking to downsize in place. This debate about the substance of the OCP review has coincided with a debate about its process, as critics have accused the current council — or least sections thereof — of lack of transparency and failure to engage the public. Supporters have countered this charge by pointing to the high level of engagement and interest the subject has generated despite COVID-19 restrictions.
Weisenberger said in an earlier interview with Black Press Media that he is running for mayor because he wants to defend the work of the current council, especially but not just the OCP review. “I want to carry on the work of the OCP and defend the work of the OCP in the community,” he said.
He returned to this agenda throughout Monday evening by frequently linking issues such as health care to housing. “We need doctors and nurses and we need to be able to house them,” he said. “Central Saanich has already taken actual actions on this with funding housing for doctors and we should take the same action.” North Saanich also needs other types of medical supportive staff, which in turn need affordable housing, he added.
“And it seems to me that the southeast quadrant (of North Saanich), with its proximity to Saanich Peninsula Hospital, is a good place to do that.” Weisenberger also later highlighted his credentials as a longtime Green. “‘For those of you who think I am a shill for developers, I don’t think that is entirely correct,” he said.
Jones for his part criticized the current OCP process as “top-down instead of bottom-up” and later said in an interview that he would like to suspend work on the OCP for two months prior to a revised process that would see local experts build on the previous work of the consultants whose ideas do not fit North Saanich. Ultimately, he promised that a council under his leadership would complete the work within a year.
During the forum, he advertised himself as an advocate for what he called sensitive infilling in arguing that North Saanich should model itself after Metchosin, where officials are trying to increase housing supply through secondary suites and subdividing individuals lots. “We should be doing the same here in North Saanich,” he said. He also reiterated his argument that North Saanich currently lacks the physical infrastructure to accommodate additional housing growth.
Weisenberger for his part challenged that argument in pointing out that the provincial government has told North Saanich that it must do something about housing and North Saanich — unlike Metchosin — is home to several large employers.
Weisenberger also indirectly challenged Jones on the question of experience. “I ran because there is no other credible choice for mayor,” he said later. “The position of mayor is not an entry-level position. You have to have experience running meetings, you have to understand the system. If Coun. Heather Gartshore would have been available, I wouldn’t be running.”
Jones later rejected this challenge by pointing to his 22 years experience dealing with officials including municipal officials through his work as a consultant lobbying for changes in land values and property taxes.
“I can now work on behalf of this community on the other side, with that experience…when we run into trouble, I know exactly where to go in the province and I know exactly where to go to the federal government to have our voices heard.”
Measured by applause, the audience clearly favoured Jones, who later said that it reflects the public’s growing involvement. Weisenberger said it did not bother him, adding that the crowd was partisan toward Save North Saanich, a group critical of the OCP. “It’s a not problem for me,” he said.
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