How do you invite 24 council candidates to a forum and ensure they all give good answers to tough questions?
Give the questions in advance, allow prep time and set a 90-second time limit on answers.
And skip the introductions and farewells.
The format worked Thursday at the first all-candidates’ forum for Maple Ridge at Fraserview Village Hall where about 180 people heard candidates talk taxes, transparency, old buildings and selling ads to pay for park trails.
“I would love to say I would hold the line on taxes,” said Candace Gordon, a former councillor.
But that makes catching up too difficult later. She was on a previous council that had zero-per-cent tax increase for three years. “It was very difficult for 10 years to actually manage the budget.” Instead, she favoured small, yearly increases in taxes.
Property tax increases should be capped at the cost of living, added Alex Pope. And Maple Ridge should try to get the homeowner’s grant raised, he added.
John Mckenzie pointed out fire and police costs have risen 39 per cent in five years, then asked if council really needed a 13-per-cent wage increase (over three years).
But Elizabeth Taylor wanted tax increases held at zero. She’s worked for non-profit agencies who’ve had zero budget increases for the last 15 years and pointed out the District of Maple Ridge has two fire chiefs. “That’s a huge cost to the taxpayers.”
One way to save money would be to scale back development in the suburbs and focus on downtown development, which has lower servicing costs, said Carly O’Rourke. “Absolutely do not approve those isolated services.”
And money shouldn’t have been spent on redoing 224th Street, added Randy Wagner and later Jacques Blackstone. That street has been renovated three times since he’s lived here, Blackstone added. Taxes keep climbing and nothing happens, he added. “I have to travel half an hour in order to go buy something.”
However taxes should be increased, said Robert Masse – in order to pay for municipal garbage collection, which Maple Ridge currently does not have.
Graham Mowatt though pointed out developing that Albion flats would have added millions in tax revenue to the district.
One question asked if candidates favoured corporate sponsors or using ads in park facilities to reduce costs, a concept that Cheryl Ashlie said was “interesting.”
Such partnerships already exist, said Judy Dueck, citing Haney Horsemen Association’s partnership with the district for trail maintenance.
Maple Ridge has already used partnerships, such as sponsorships in the Arts Centre Theatre and Wild Play Elements Park, which leases a former campground off the district and pays $32,000 a year to do so, noted Craig Speirs.
Mike Morden referred to a Seattle program where the city partners with neighbourhoods and shared capital costs and pointed out Rotary and Lions service clubs already sponsor park facilities.
“For seniors, we can have a Depends Park,” added Sandy Macdougall. But advertising has to be done carefully, he added, otherwise the agency will make the money and municipality won’t.
Perhaps certain portions of sidewalks could be sponsored to reduce costs, said Kierstan Duncan, adding sidewalks could have messages or handprints. “I think that would be kind of cool.”
The long-festering issue of the Northumberland Court on Fraser Street, otherwise known as the Ghetto, which was demolished last week, came up for discussion when candidates were asked if they favoured automatic inspections of decrepit buildings.
The number of vacant lots and old buildings in the downtown though “is probably a blessing,” because it allows an opportunity for infill development of the downtown, said Claus Andrup.
Many candidates warned that property rights had to be respected in dealing with old buildings. The present council followed that course, pointed out Dueck, Ashlie and Speirs.
Demolishing old buildings must be done carefully, or lawyers get rich, from court challenges by property owners, said Speirs. “We are obligated to stay within the law.”
The district already has bylaws to allow inspections of old buildings, pointed out Dueck. The answer is to densify the downtown and get “eyes on the street.”
Al Hogarth acknowledged, it took a long time to tear down the ghetto. “I know we didn’t move that fast.” But there are human rights and property rights.
“But we took action and we’re taking action.”
Christian Cowley though said there’s too much development on Maple Ridge’s outskirts, which makes it less attractive to build downtown, so speculators and land holders hold on to their properties rather than sell.
Councillors all said the municipal government should be accessible and open.
It’s doing that already, said Ashlie.
Maple Ridge, Kelowna and Port Coquitlam were named as three of the most transparent and open governments in a Dec. 10, 2010 article in the National Post, Ashlie pointed out.
Blackstone and Pope said Maple Ridge should provide live video streaming of its council meetings, already available in Pitt Meadows. Electronic voting is also possible, Blackstone added.
Graham Mowatt agreed the district had an open government but questioned the annual citizens report which he said showed different budget surpluses, of $29 million, $42 million or $1.1 million.
Taylor though said she’s lived in Maple Ridge for 11 years. “I never seen a councillor or mayor in my neighbourhood at all.”