Richard Atwell: serious challenger in Saanich

By David Broadland, November 2014

Mayoral candidate would provide stronger leadership and open up Saanich and the CRD to greater public involvement.

When Environment Minister Mary Polak decided last spring that she would not support the CRD’s plan to force Esquimalt to host a central sewage treatment plant at McLoughlin Point, she created the conditions that pushed Richard Atwell into running for mayor of Saanich.

Polak’s decision means the CRD will need to develop a new plan; Atwell has been a leading critic of the CRD’s plan and Saanich Mayor Frank Leonard has been a leading supporter of that plan. Atwell seems the perfect opponent to fight it out with Leonard on this issue: bright, articulate, and—someone close to his campaign told me—“very, very funny.” Not that there’s anything funny about the sewage issue: The Plan to Nowhere had cost regional taxpayers $85 million before it was suspended in September.

Married, Atwell lives in Saanich in the Falaise area. He graduated from the University of Victoria’s Faculty of Engineering and later worked as a computer software engineer for Apple and Motorola.

In spite of his prominence in the sewage issue, it would be a mistake to see him as a single-issue candidate. In an interview his responses were peppered with references to other issues he’s been involved in, including the HST recall campaign. He described his recent community involvement this way: “I’ve dedicated the last several years of my life to local and regional initiatives as a member of different boards, and I’ve built my reputation on critical thinking, particularly during the past two years with my involvement as a director of the Sewage Treatment Action Group.”

Why is he running for mayor? “Partly out of frustration with dealing with the government myself. I’ve being going down to the CRD for two years and have seen how dysfunctional the whole thing is. There is not a real good mechanism for the public to engage in the process. When you go to Saanich, it’s the exact same thing.”

“You need to start with the public from the beginning,” he says. “The Shelbourne Valley Action Plan took five years and resulted in one yellow sign. The folks I’ve been talking with are now having to do FOIs to figure out how that happened. What they’re discovering is the decision on what direction to go was made before the public process began. The public process just came afterward to ratify it.”

How would he change that? For starters he’d make Saanich council “more welcoming” to its citizens. He would re-establish, for example, the tradition of having an open mike so people could speak directly to councillors. As it is, he says, they have to go through a lengthy process where there’s no guarantee they will ever get in front of the council.

Would he carry on Leonard’s legendary practice of handling all communications between Saanich and the public himself? Atwell says the legend isn’t quite true: “If he likes you, you get a response. If he doesn’t, you don’t.” Atwell described going to see the mayor. He asked Leonard, “Why aren’t you coming to the CRD sewage committee meetings?” Leonard responded, “I’m too busy.” Atwell says that, if he was elected mayor, he would continue personal access but “would probably put a communications office in place.”

The problem with Leonard’s personal approach, Atwell says, is that “you only get that one view.” Moreover, “It’s a tax on his time,” leaving little time, for example, for a mayor to attend CRD sewage committee meetings and help to prevent that $85 million the CRD spent getting nowhere.

That is the central issue on everyone’s mind this election: the immense sum the CRD has spent on trying to develop a treatment plan while miscalculating Esquimalt’s support for the plan. I asked Atwell whether he thought a central treatment plant at McLoughlin Point was a dead issue.

“No, there are vested interests that are still pursuing it. We’ve seen letters and articles in the paper from the local construction industry. I think it’s fair to say they’d like to see that project done right away.”

One argument against considering options has been the threat of losing contributory funding from senior governments, but Atwell says, “I’ve seen enough evidence from the Province and the federal government to say they are committed to providing the funding. Certainly, they’d rather provide funding for a worthy project than one that’s less worthy.”

Atwell has criticized Leonard’s prolonged absence from the CRD sewage committee. In the last five years the mayor has attended only one meeting. Leonard recently claimed he didn’t attend those meetings because of “a conflict of interest.” His son works for the engineering firm Worley Parsons, which has done a small amount of work on the project. Atwell notes, though, that Leonard had, in fact, attended some meetings of the CRD Board at which money decisions on the sewage project were made. Atwell contends there’s no public record that Leonard ever disclosed the conflict before this election’s campaign.

He believes Leonard’s absence, and that of Oak Bay Mayor Nils Jensen, is part of the reason the process has failed.

“We haven’t had good leadership on this issue,” Atwell says. “We needed to have Frank and Nils coming to those meetings. If you can’t bring even a modicum of technical expertise to the issue, you’re just rubber-stamping things. You have to be willing to challenge [CRD] staff.”

Atwell seems to have that “modicum” of technical expertise. His skill in using hard information to convince others to look at alternatives to secondary treatment was evident in a debate on the sewage treatment issue held last March. Atwell and Saanich Councillor Vic Derman faced off against Victoria Councillor Geoff Young and engineer Albert Sweetnam, the $290,000-a-year treatment program project director. At one point in the debate, Sweetnam, with an air of great authority, told the audience a critical dollar figure Atwell had provided was incorrect, and provided the correct number. In his rebutal, Atwell presented a CRD document which contained the same figure Sweetnam had dismissed.

Atwell’s highly-organized approach to the treatment issue has been a boon to politicians and reporters. A few months ago I needed the minutes of a meeting from 2009 and couldn’t find it on the CRD’s website. After emailing the CRD for the document, I sent a request to Atwell. Within minutes he sent me a precisely-organized library of all the minutes of all the sewage committee meetings between 2004 and 2014. An hour later, the CRD sent me an email suggesting I file an FOI.

Atwell thinks solving the treatment issue will require fresh blood at the CRD. “People are tired of the project. Susan Brice has been on the sewage file since 1988. They have been indoctrinated in a particular way of doing things, and it’s very difficult for them to unlearn what they’ve learned. We need new faces.”

What would Atwell do to resolve the sewage treatment impasse?

“Very first thing is to partner with the West Side mayors and get up to speed on their study and find out what they’ve been doing. They now have the OK from the CRD to pursue a subcommittee structure, which is good. It’s given them some freedom over their terms of reference and outcome.”

Although Atwell has come to prominence in the community through promotion of a highly-distributed advanced tertiary treatment system—the so-called “RITE Plan”—as a better alternative for Victoria than centralized secondary treatment, he seems open to that evolving: “I’ve spent two years on the treatment project. It led me to the decentralized approach. But practically, I have to, not so much put it to the side, but to incorporate that approach into all the decision-making and all the options that are being explored by the West Side mayors right now.” 

The CRD’s and Saanich’s failure to properly consult the public drives much of Atwell’s thinking on community issues. He recalls the CRD promised a “triple bottom line analysis” of options, which requires giving equal weight to financial, social and environmental concerns. “When they did the analysis for the McLoughlin plan, they gave financial concerns a 50 percent weighting. That didn’t reflect the public’s input. They were looking for an environmental result. We’re never going to get good, confident decisions without involving the community and making that part of the input for the design,” he says.

Atwell has his detractors. They point out that before he was for sewage treatment, he was against it. This lack of political rigidity is seen by some as a problem, but Atwell simply says, “I think we’ve moved beyond ‘no treatment.’” 

After observing Atwell and his team of citizen volunteers launch a lifeboat (whose own buoyancy is still unknown) as the CRD’s Titanic drifted inevitably onto the rocks of McLoughlin Point, it’s hard not to hope that Atwell will be successful in bringing a new approach to old problems. When he says the intersection of McKenzie Avenue and the Trans Canada Highway is “the region’s number one safety issue” and that he’ll make that one of his top priorities, you want to believe that he’s the one that can break the gridlock that the incumbents haven’t.

David Broadland is the publisher of Focus.