The by-election, too, is about the bridge

by Andrew MacLeod, November 2010

The large number of candidates opposed to a new bridge may split the protest vote and give the Mayor’s choice the edge.

Of the 11 people competing for the single open seat on Victoria city council in the November 20 by-election, at least six would make fine councillors and will likely find significant support from voters.

Oddly though, the race is stacking up to favour the candidate who may be the most out of step with the public sentiment on what’s emerging as the key issue—what to do about the Johnson Street Bridge.

“I hope we don’t just talk about the bridge,” said candidate Marianne Alto, who cites social issues like housing, mental illness and addictions among her interests. “I hope we have an opportunity during the campaign to talk about a variety of issues.”

Her political instinct on the question appears to be good. Several candidates report that the bridge—borrowing for which will be the subject of a referendum on voting day—is top of mind among voters and few of them support the city’s direction.

Alto, however, a provincial New Democratic Party executive member who is closely aligned with Mayor Dean Fortin and other NDP-affiliated councillors, does say she thinks the City got it right, even if the process was lousy.

“I support the referendum on the bridge,” she said, clarifying that she believes voters should give the City permission to borrow the $49.2 million needed towards the estimated $80 to $100 million replacement cost. “It seems to me there really wasn’t a lot of choice here.”

That puts her in a minority, possibly even alone, among council candidates. Several of the likely frontrunners argue the city had lots of options, including spending just $8.6 million to refurbish the bridge, as Focus uncovered in August.

“This is not the time to do it,” said Barry Hobbis, an owner of Victoria Harbour Ferry, characterizing the replacement plan as $100 million to be spent on a bridge that isn’t broken at a time when the economy is shaky. “We should be applying some fiscal responsibility,” he said.  

Susan Woods, a former broadcaster whose website includes endorsements from half a dozen highly involved citizens, has the bridge as the first of three bullet points stating her beliefs: “Susan is opposed to borrowing $49.2 million to replace the Johnson Street Bridge. She believes that a less costly alternative needs to be found for the repair or ultimate replacement of the Bridge, and other important infrastructure projects must be addressed.”

George Sirk, who has elected experience as an area director for Cortes Island states simply: “Keep costs down on Blue Bridge refurbishment.” Notice that’s “refurbishment” not “replacement.”

“It’s a no-brainer,” said Steve Filipovic, a Green Party candidate who ran to be mayor in 2008. Refurbishing the bridge makes way more sense than replacing it, he said. “Deal with the problems we have. Don’t go creating new ones.”

Anger about the bridge, already expressed once in the petition drive that forced the referendum, may translate to higher-than-expected voter turnout in the by-election as well, he said. “I hope the bridge is enough fodder for that. Saving $90 million might be enough reason to get off the couch.”

But once on their feet and on their way to the polling station, those voters wanting to protest the direction of City Hall have several options, each of whom is capable of winning.

In his mayoral campaign in 2008, Filipovic received 1,411 votes, putting him in third behind Fortin and business owner Rob Reid in a field of eight candidates. 

Hobbis and Woods each received just under 3,000 votes in the 2008 election, with Hobbis out-polling Woods by just 164. Their totals were fewer than half of what they each needed to win a seat on council.

It also put them some 300 votes behind outspoken social justice activist Rose Henry, who is as well running in the by-election. Her platform is built around being a voice for the poor, the homeless, visible minorities and the disenfranchised. “City Hall has long been the domain of the privileged and the comfortable, the educated and the middle class,” she said in a statement. 

Also running but not yet mentioned in this article are Saul Andersen, Paul Brown, Hugh Kruzel, Pedro Mora and Rimas Tumasonis.

In a crowded field, the challenge for candidates is to distinguish themselves from each other. 

Asked what he thinks makes him different from the others, Hobbis said, “I should have an answer prepared for that.” 

He talks about having 25 years experience working in the community, some of it as a police officer and some as a business owner. He cites a broad base of experience, leadership skills and a sense of balance. “I’m not afraid of doing the right thing,” he said. “I don’t have to do the popular thing, but I understand I have to do what is eventually the democratic thing.”

He supports using a City lot for a tent city where people without homes can live, and he believes sewage treatment is a waste of money.

Woods calls for capping the amount of time councillors can serve at nine years and supports using the E & N rail line to move local food around the Island.

Sirk’s website outlines a broad platform that includes fiscal prudence, plus support for families, housing, transportation, small business and  tourism. A naturalist, he has endorsements from Briony Penn, Bristol Foster and choir leader Shivon Robinsong.

Filipovic said the people he sees as the ones to beat, Alto and Hobbis, each have part of the establishment behind them. In Alto’s case it’s the NDP with its election machine and presence at City Hall. For Hobbis it’s the business community. 

His own approach would be different, he said. It includes a strong focus on making housing more affordable and reducing the amount spent on policing, which now soaks up a third of the City’s budget. “Our crime rate is going down. There’s no reason to be spending that much money on police.” 

Much of the police budget is spent dealing with people on the streets, he said. “It’s just pushing them around. We’ve got to stop using our police dollars on the poor. It’s not illegal to be poor.”

He’s against the current sewage treatment plans, saying more needs to be done to get toxins out of the environment in the first place. He wants recorded votes at council and more budget for community centres. 

Asked if there’s anything the current City council has got right, he thinks for a few moments but comes up empty. “I don’t even like the new parking meters,” he said.

On voting day, therefore, those wishing to lodge a protest vote will have their choice of flavours, starting with Filipovic, Hobbis, Woods, Sirk and Henry. 

Those liking the direction of City Hall, on the bridge and other questions, have fewer options. Just one, really: Marianne Alto. 

A professional facilitator, while critical of the early process on the bridge, she argues the mayor and council’s performance has improved. She cites polling, surveys and a looser flow of information in the past year. “Could it have been done earlier? Yes. Could more of it have been done? Absolutely,” she said. “I would have liked to see more sooner that had good access and more detail.”

Aside from the bridge bungling, Alto credits council on affordable housing and addressing the infrastructure deficit. “On balance I have to say I think this council has been better than many.”

They can do better, she admitted, and the experience she would bring to council would also improve future public processes. “I think I have a certain skill set that will help that happen in a more efficient and transparent way.”

Protest votes are likely to far outweigh endorsements for the current council, assuming those who come out to vote against the bridge borrowing also vote against the current regime. But if many of the voters who favour a new bridge, and who approve of council’s overall performance and direction support Alto, she may yet squeak into a council seat.

But as one veteran campaigner points out, the race is anyone’s to win and it will come down to how hard they each campaign, how many people they can inspire to come to the polls and how many hands they can each shake before voting day.

 

Andrew MacLeod is the Legislative Bureau Chief for www.TheTyee.ca website.