Cairine Green: consensus builder

By Leslie Campbell, November 2014

Oak Bay mayoral challenger would bring a different approach to solving the sewage impasse.

In conversation with Cairine Green, her significant skills in communication and diplomacy are apparent. While she’s confident that she can provide better leadership than incumbent Oak Bay Mayor Nils Jensen, she says it in the nicest way possible. Since Jensen won by only 428 votes in 2011, it’s likely he’s taking her challenge seriously.

A council member for Oak Bay for the past three years, Green earlier served on North Saanich council for six years. “Politics was always part of my life,” explains Green. Her parents met through politics, and her father served as both a Liberal MLA and, later, reeve of Saanich (1952-58). 

For the first few decades of her adulthood, however, Green devoted herself to other careers. For a dozen years she was a probation officer in Victoria. After returning to school to earn a masters in education (counselling), she worked at Malaspina College and subsequently in the Ministry of Advanced Education in policy development until retiring at age 55. Married to retired Judge Fred Green, she’s served on boards connected to the arts, heritage, labour relations, and housing. At age 52, about the same time she got interested in civic politics, she took up motorcycling.

Though Jensen has been quoted in news reports expressing surprise that Green would run against him given their agreement on most fronts, she points to some key ways they diverge, both in style and substance. She’s committed to being a full-time mayor; Jensen holds a full-time position as a prosecutor with the Province. She promises to attend all CRD meetings on the sewage issue, whereas Mayor Jensen almost always sends a delegate. “On something this important, the community leader should be at the table,” she says. 

“I voted against Oak Bay mayor and council sending Esquimalt a letter to re-consider its decision, believing then, as I do now, that Esquimalt residents have spoken through due process and that we should respect their voices and their autonomy,” she wrote in a July blog post. And she expresses dismay over the “aggressive” treatment of Esquimalt Mayor Barb Desjardins in the local press.

She feels that Oak Bay needs to clean up its own act: “The single pipe in Uplands is approaching 100 years old. Oak Bay has been mandated for some years by the Province to separate sewer and storm water…[Currently] sewage mixes with storm water, which is what happened at Cadboro Bay twice over the last few weeks, when there were two heavy rain events that overwhelmed the CRD’s pumping system. Fecal matter was released into Cadboro Bay and the beach was closed each time because of the public health hazard. There is aging infrastructure throughout the municipality and this issue was identified by outgoing Mayor Chris Causton as our single greatest challenge for the future.”

Green says she’s been boning up on the science around sewage treatment, but also points to her background in best practices in organizational management, strategic planning, and counselling as giving her an advantage over Jensen at advancing the process.

In keeping with her general emphasis on efficacy and value, Green is advocating innovative resource recovery, a waste-to-energy solution, and an examination of sub-regional treatment systems.

She finds it “mind-boggling” that close to $80 million has been spent on developing a sewage treatment program without producing a viable plan. “I’ll ask the hard questions of staff and contractors,” she promises. 

On her website she says, “The bottom line for me is that CRD directors need to change the channel, demonstrating leadership that creates an atmosphere of goodwill. Sewage treatment is a given, deadlines seem fixed, and now it’s up to local community leaders to find a constructive and positive way forward, together.” She says “consensus building is so important—and that’s something I’ve done a lot of over my lifetime. I’m hoping I can bring those skills to the table.” 

As one Oak Bay political observer notes (on condition of anonymity), “All incumbent mayors have been tarred with the same brush”—their dysfunction at the CRD on sewage treatment. Green needs to convince enough people that her leadership style will be more effective than Jensen was or could be, the observer says.

Despite her concerns over the CRD’s handling of the sewage file, she says “The CRD does a lot of things very well,” and isn’t ready to give up on it in favour of amalgamation, though she welcomes citizens’ input on the November ballot. “I don’t think amalgamation is a panacea,” she admits. She believes a larger metropolis would result in smaller municipalities losing their voice, though some sharing of services make sense.

She definitely advocates greater cooperation with other municipalities on wrestling with Oak Bay’s deer population. She doesn’t dispute that deer are a problem, and that a cull is likely warranted. She questions, however, the efficacy (a regular theme with her on many fronts) of culling 25 deer—the plan accepted by the majority of the present council. “We were the only community that stepped up, but we can’t do this alone because it won’t solve the problem,” she says, explaining how deer move in from Saanich, which has a far higher deer population. Her platform includes a commitment to “re-evaluate our participation in the CRD deer management strategy to make sure that it is effective, humane,” and coordinated with that of other municipalities. 

On this and other issues, Green believes there can never be too much communication. A clear and calm speaker now, she was a severe stutterer in her youth, which led her to develop her writing skills—which she ably employs on her blog. “I report how I vote and why.” She wrote an annual report on her council involvement on committees, the only councillor to do so. If elected, she will encourage such reporting from all council members. She is also keen to get Oak Bay council meetings webcast and to schedule quarterly community meetings—with no agenda other than what residents want to discuss.

“It’s not rocket science,” she says, “It’s just about honest, straightforward communication.” And, she notes, timing is critical: “First of all you consult first, before you make the decision. That’s the key first step…You can’t come to the public having already made a decision and then talk about consulting with them. It’s not ethical, in my view.” It also breeds cynicism. She credits Oak Bay with providing a good example of proper engagement around its Official Community Plan.

Green has only positive things to say about progress made at the council table on that and some other fronts in the past three years. Long the only municipality without a full-time planner on staff, one is due to be hired soon. That planning expertise will help the municipality deal with the many development issues it faces. Having a renewed OCP is also a huge step forward she says and she’s proud of her role on its advisory committee. 

“Oak Bay has struggled with land use issues,” says Green. And while the new OCP and planner will serve the municipality well, she feels new policies have to be developed around protection of heritage, the environment, and recouping costs from developers. “Oak Bay is currently missing out on tens of thousands of dollars, on community enhancements and on effective partnerships that could provide a range of improvements for our community,” she says, mentioning “green space/parks, public art, cycle lanes, playgrounds, etc. or putting funds into municipal coffers to compensate for the additional expenses of sidewalks, infrastructure for sewer and water and so on.”  

She’s concerned about demolitions of both heritage and smaller houses. “Small bungalows are replaced by larger, much more expensive houses, with accessibility lost.” As well, she notes, Oak Bay is the only municipality that doesn’t recognize secondary suites, despite having hundreds of them. She wants a diverse, healthy community of people of all ages and backgrounds, with the housing stock to support them. While she knows some Oak Bay residents are frightened by words like density and infill, Green was very supportive of the controversial redevelopment of the Clive apartments. “It’s the first LEED standard building in Oak Bay and it’s new rental housing,” something she doesn’t think has been built in the municipality since the 1960s. (The new Clive has 17 suites; the old had 8; the developer has signed a covenant, making it rental in perpetuity.) Still, both she and Jensen voted against rezoning for Oak Bay Lodge, which meant losing one important type of housing for seniors.

Both Jensen—who once ran for leader of the BC NDP—and Green seem genuinely disinterested in party politics at the local level. Neither seem likely to spend much money on campaigning—or to sling any mud around. Citing her counselling background, Green says, “Treating people with dignity and respect is a huge part of who I am.”

Leslie Campbell is the founding editor of Focus.