How would Mayor John Becker describe 2015, and the first year for his new council in Pitt Meadows?
“Like drinking out of a fire hose, a lot of the time,” he answered, evoking one of his favourite visuals.
The anniversary of John Becker’s return to Pitt Meadows council after the municipal elections of November 2014 has just passed, and on the eve of a new year, he discussed his first year as mayor, and what 2016 will bring.
The lawyer ran with a team that included councillors Bruce Bell, Janis Elkerton, David Murray and Mike Stark, and they all got elected. They ran on a “Four Ts” platform, based on conversations with residents, that promising improved transportation, taxation, teamwork and transparency.
His team reached an early goal – a zero tax increase, and it might have been the most important promise to keep, said Becker.
“People could look at that and calculate it – it’s very much a tangible.”
“This year we’re focussed certainly on getting the best value for our residents, but given the demands on us, we’re certainly not – and never did pretend that you could – maintaining a zero tax increase.”
Still, he said it did the organization good to look at “significant spends” and consider whether they are necessary, rather than “perpetuate the status quo” and add programs, services and personnel.
Economic development was the casualty, and the city’s 2014 expenditure of $235,000 was “reduced to zero,” signaling the end of the Pitt Meadows Economic Development Corporation.
This year, the city is adding an environmental protection officer, and will have to rebuild the parks and recreation department, after Maple Ridge announced it is leaving the longtime partnership with Pitt Meadows known as the joint leisure services agreement. That will make it difficult hit another zero budget.
“This year we have a very different environment,” said Becker.
Becker had done nine years as a councillor, and worked closely with former mayor Don McLean on a number of initiatives, so the nature of his new position held few surprises.
“What I did not anticipate was the events, which followed shortly after the election, which have occupied a great deal of time for both myself, and council as well,” he said.
The regional plebiscite on TransLink funding models took a lot of time, and Becker felt the city had an obligation to get facts to the public, and let them vote. As a member of the mayor’s council, he felt obligated to back the plan.
“I felt it was then incumbent on me to proceed publicly supporting the yes campaign.”
It was controversial, and the public ultimately was unwilling to accept a half-percent increase in their provincial sales tax in order to fund $7.5 billion in transit and transportation improvements.
“And of course that labour of love continues until today, and will likely continue well through 2016,” said Becker.
Another unforeseen issue was a proposed gravel quarry on Sheridan Hill, and council joined hundreds of concerned citizens in opposing the Meadows Quarry application to the Ministry of Mines.
“It was a big news event,” said Becker. “It was an issue that brought a lot of people together, in a way that an event like Pitt Meadows Day wouldn’t.”
Meadows Quarries of Maple Ridge has proposed a new quarry on the southern portion of Sheridan Hill that would take the top off the Pitt Meadows landmark.
The gravel operation would blast and remove 240,000 tonnes of rock per year over five years, reducing the elevation of the hill by 30 metres, from 45 to 75 m.
The plan sparked a petition of more than 3,000 names, and a citizen protest in Victoria.
The opposition to the quarry continues into 2016, and Pitt Meadows residents have been joined by the Katzie First Nation, who say Sheridan Hill is part of their genesis story.
Becker said Pitt Meadows city hall and the band office are closer for being united in their quarry opposition.
“It also accelerated the growth in the working relationship between our council and the Katzie First Nation band council, and that was a very good thing.”
They two recently renegotiated service agreements, and the process was smoother than ever.
“We had a new level of trust and respect,” said Becker.
A loss of key staff, including CAO Kim Grout, hit council in early November.
Grout will be the new CEO of the B.C. Agricultural Land Commission, while manager of legislative services Kelley Kenney is leaving Pitt Meadows to take the same position with the Comox Valley Regional District. Manager of development services Anne Berry is moving to Vancouver Island for a promotion, and engineering services coordinator Ike de Boer and deputy clerk Linda Kelly are both retiring.
It created another unforeseen challenge for council, conceded Becker, noting that the loss of the CAO in particular leaves a big hole in the organization.
“Losing Kim was disruptive, because you lose that institutional memory,” said Becker, adding that losing so many good people all at once is impossible to plan for.
Council is proceeding to hire with a recruitment committee of council, deciding not to proceed with a “headhunter.”
In the meantime, director of financial services Mark Roberts will be the acting CAO, and Becker said the existing staff is “backfilling” as best they can.
Many of the most urgent issues for Pitt residents fall under a broad “transportation” umbrella, from speeding traffic to poor transit service.
Becker recently announced council has been working behind the scenes with senior government and CP Rail on a railway underpass at Harris Road – a $20-plus million project that would resolve many issues with north-south traffic flow through Pitt Meadows.
“We are not ignoring that issue – quite the contrary,” Becker assured. “Those conversations are ongoing.”
He noted that third-party stakeholders insist on confidentiality as a condition of conversation with the city.
The past council was sometimes criticized – even by members of the council – for being dysfunctional. Indeed, after Doug Bing left council to become MLA, a bylaw that would have spurred development of the North Lougheed Corridor was lost due to a 3-3 voting stalemate on council.
Becker and his team ran on a platform that promised teamwork, but Becker agreed that there is generally good cooperation by members of the team, but there is some friction with Couns. Bill Dingwall and Tracy Miyashita from time to time.
“That’s fair,” said Becker.
He has promoted procedures where every councillor has a chance to put an issue before the community and before council.
“One councillor who has a hobby horse can get that on the agenda, without even the need for a seconder,” said Becker. “Folks that have something they’re particularly committed to – we have room in our procedural bylaw for that.”
Their issue would need a seconder to get a motion on the table for discussion.
He expects there to be debates.
“You’re going to have differences of opinion on issues of substance, and you’re going to have differences of opinion on issues of style and presentation,” he said.
“I said to council that one of the things I would like to see in 2016, is for me to do a better job making sure that the environment is open and respectful and transparent, and that no matter where your lawn signs were last time that everyone feels comfortable expressing an opinion and pushing something forward.”
The year ahead
Council enters 2016 with a clear set of priorities for 2016, said Becker.
“We need to get a CAO in position. We need to get this parks and rec thing clearly on track. We need to work with Maple Ridge and figure out what’s going on with the airport.”
Budget discussions are under way, and council needs to fit in a new environmental officer position, and deliver on the cost items recommended by council’s own task force on open government.
And then there are two Onni projects – on a 245-unit townhouse subdivision, and the other a business park.
“They are the two biggest development projects, together, that we’ve ever seen in Pitt Meadows. It’s elicited unprecedented participatory democracy from this council, but we will have to more those along and council will have to make a decision,” said Becker.
“And my commitment to the residents who are vehemently opposed to the OCP plans is I cannot guarantee them a result they will be happy with. But hopefully I can guarantee them a process they will feel was fair and open and respectful of differences of opinion.”