A former Pitt Meadows councillor who lost his mayoralty bid to Deb Walters in the last election declared Tuesday that he will again challenge her for the job.
“It’s about transparency and fiscal management at city hall,” John Becker said as he launched his campaign to unseat the city’s first female mayor.
Becker received 1,202 votes in the 2011 civic election, 823 less than Walters’ 2,025.
A lawyer, he spent the past three years studying for an executive MBA through Simon Fraser University.
He also kept tabs on city hall.
If elected, Becker promises to call for a spending freeze for 2015.
He is alarmed that Pitt Meadows is currently on track to raise tax revenue by approximately 25 per cent over the next five years, according to its own five-year financial plan.
“We can’t freeze taxes forever, but we need to get back to the basic budgeting constraints that affect every family in the community. The cycle of raising taxes and spending money has to stop,” said Becker, pointing to a two petitions demanding fiscal restraint signed by 2,600 residents.
Reiterating what he said during the 2011 campaign, Becker intends to begin with a budgeting process that freezes expenditures at 2014 levels, starting with the mayor’s salary.
“It is a way to stop and take a breath as a community and then engage the public in the process.”
City hall has already performed some parts of Becker’s plan. After receiving a second petition, council directed staff to prepare two budgets last year – one with a tax increase and a second without.
The exercise led council to pare down spending and deliver a 1.9 per cent property tax increase, the lowest in a decade.
Support for the tax increase was not unanimous. The budget passed on a 4-3 split that involved then-councillor Doug Bing, who had just been elected MLA but stayed on council for the vote.
Since Bing’s departure, council has been divided, and Becker believes the status quo is not healthy.
He thinks the mayor should pull the team together.
“That just hasn’t happened. I’m at a bit of a loss as to why.”
He added that as a trained facilitator and certified mediator, he has skills to get people to collaborate.
“I understand these people. They all want to do what’s best for the community, but they are rudderless right now. They need a collaborative approach. That doesn’t mean a loud voice. The mayor’s voice should be the softest in the room, but there needs to be leadership to bring people together.”
Becker differentiated himself from Walters by declaring he is against building the North Lougheed Connector, a contentious road through farmland that will service a 50-hectare commercial area.
“My concerns about the road are exactly the same, if not heightened,” said Becker, who believes it should be part of a much larger planning exercise that involves nearby residents, stakeholders and the wider community.
Walters wasn’t surprised by Becker’s announcement.
“I think it’s a good thing when there’s competition,” she said. “Healthy debate is good for our community.”
She noted that the city will continue to prepare two budget scenarios, but wonders how Becker will deliver a spending freeze when the city can’t control increases to TransLink or Metro taxes.
“I agree that we have to curb spending wherever possible, but the costs of doing business always go up and that’s what we have to accommodate,” said Walters.
“Certainly, we could go into our reserves, but that’s not good fiscal management, in my opinion.”
Walters acknowledged that city council is currently divided, but believes things will change after the November civic election.
“It doesn’t help that we have a six-member council. When you have a full slate, it makes it a lot easier,” she said.
“It’s very difficult when you have some members of council who don’t want to work together,” she added. “I think I’m a very democratic leader and I’ve always opened the door, but when you have members of council who just choose not to communicate, it’s very difficult.”
Over the past three years, Walters noted council has still achieved a lot. The city is working closely with the province on an interchange or overpass at Lougheed Highway and Harris Road. The Golden Ears Business Centre is thriving, she said, and the city hopes to push ahead with plans to develop the North Lougheed commercial area to diversify its tax base.
In the 2011 civic election, 30 per cent, or 3,684 of 12,200 registered voters in Pitt Meadows cast ballots.