Waters: Will new council do more than rubber stamp development?

Kelowna voters wanted a change on city council. And they delivered one, big time.

Kelowna voters wanted a change on city council. And they delivered one, big time.

While the race for mayor was a close one, the councillor contest showed just how much many of the 33 per cent of eligible voters who cast a ballots really wanted new faces, and a more right-wing view, at the council table.

They gave former mayor Walter Gray, who narrowly defeated two-term incumbent Sharon Shepherd for the mayor’s job, what he called the “perfect” council. It’s one he feels will show the business and investor world Kelowna is open for business once again.

Despite Gray’s repeated use of the phrase during the campaign, it was never made clear when, or how the city stopped being open for business. And when asked how he planned to open city hall up, he didn’t have a answer. That, he said, will be up to the businesses that step forward to invest in the city.

But that didn’t seem to bother many voters.

The phrase, after all, is a catchy one. And, for a challenger, if you say it enough, you force your incumbent opponent to defend what has been done instead of focusing on what will be done.

It was a strategy that worked for Gray and one he delivered perfectly, staying on message, focusing on the current council instead of Shepherd, and even deflecting controversies from his past when they were brought up.

Presenting himself as a big-picture guy, Gray repeatedly said Kelowna needs to show it is open for business, inferring that’s not the case now.

As the incumbent, Shepherd didn’t have the luxury of simply saying “that’s not the case” and moving on. She had to defend the past as well as promote the future.

But while the mayor, a 15-year council veteran—nine as a councillor and six as mayor—came close to puling that off, a majority of those who served on her council did not.

In the biggest turnover in memory, Kelowna voters sent five new faces to the council chamber, leaving five incumbents on the outside looking in.

In a crowded 40-person field, name recognition helped in this election.

There was never any doubt popular former fire chief Gerry Zimmermann would win a seat, but for others, like political newcomers Mohini Singh and Maxine DeHart, personal popularity played a big part in parlaying their charitable and media reputations into votes.

As for former CHBC News reporter Colin Basran and former school board trustee Gail Given, widow of the late city councillor Brian Given, the flurry of free advertising that their endorsement from the pro-business group FourChange.org afforded them, helped too.

The challenge for the new councillors will be to show they are not simply rubber-stampers of any development proposal that comes their way.

Alistair Waters is the Capital News’ assistant editor.