Norm Letnick wore a Kelowna Rockets jersey when he opened his campaign office Saturday, April 6.
The choice to wear the hockey shirt didn’t seem out of the ordinary at the time, but in hindsight, was highly symbolic.
Three days earlier the Kelowna Rockets made history by coming back from a three-game deficit to defeat the Seattle Thunderbirds in seven games.
With Rockets’ captain Colton Sissons sidelined, and six other key players injured, it took a team effort to accomplish what only one other WHL squad has ever been able to do.
On April 6, while wearing the Ogopogo on his chest, and with fellow local Liberal incumbents Ben Stewart and Steve Thomson standing next to him, Letnick told supporters how much “Team Okanagan” has been able to accomplish for the region over the past four years.
“Team Okanagan” was repeated often throughout the campaign, usually just before “cardiac surgical centre,” “replant program,” or “new highway.”
The team effort resulted in a comfortable victory.
The trio will represent the Okanagan for four more years after Letnick, Stewart and Thomson all earned at least 55 per cent of their ridings’ votes.
And while that result wasn’t a shock to many, the BC Liberals’ come-from-behind triumph provincially was perhaps equally as surprising as what the Rockets accomplished 41days earlier.
Kelowna-Mission MLA Steve Thomson says his partnership with Westside-Kelowna MLA Ben Stewart and Kelowna-Lake Country MLA Norm Letnick began in 2009.
“I think, since we were first elected, we’ve operated very effectively as a team,” says Thomson.
Stewart suggests working with Thomson and Letnick makes his job easier.
“At any time more than one of us can be busy with other duties in government,” says Stewart.
“It makes certain there’s always somebody to deal with issues—it doesn’t matter if it’s in Norm’s or Steve’s ridings, I’ll cover for them and vice-versa.”
Letnick says conversations with constituents have led him to believe the pack mentality is best for residents as well.
“We work as Team Okanagan because it’s in the best interest of our constituents,” says Letnick.
“The boundaries are there legally, but in practice, we look at what’s in the best interest of the people and the region as a whole.”
In 2010, Letnick, Stewart and Thomson sent out a newsletter asking constituents to rank 18 priorities that were suggested by mayors and community leaders throughout the region.
The top five priorities were: Direct funding for water quality improvements, a new connector road between Glenmore Road and Highway 97, a strategic transportation plan that spans from Osoyoos to Salmon Arm, additional sidewalks and cycle paths and improvements to the intersection of Highway 97 and Sexsmith Road.
According to Letnick, the only item in the top five that has yet to be addressed is the connector road. He adds 12 of the 18 priorities have either secured funding, are ongoing initiatives or have already been completed.
He clarifies there is still a lot of work left to do on most of the 18 projects to bring them to official completion; however, the MLAs are comfortable checking items off the list once provincial funding is secured.
“Once we’ve done the work of securing the funds and approvals then we go to the next project,” says Letnick.
He adds the trio hasn’t always been able to take on the highest ranking projects first.
“I’ve discovered over the last four years, something might be a top priority, but there might not be a funding envelope available for it at a current time.”
“It might not happen in the order that people might think it should happen, but that will be dependent on the funding available.”
Items yet to be addressed on the original list include: Replacement of Rutland Middle School, creation of a new Kelowna tourism centre, addition of a Glenmore recreation facility, replacement of Rutland Centennial Hall, creation of a business case for a Kelowna convention centre and development of a Glenmore/Highway 97 connector road.
Letnick notes the list is constantly adapting and new items mentioned during this year’s election campaign are being considered.
After several weeks spent on the campaign trail, the Okanagan MLAs have gained insight into what local residents are looking for the province to provide in each of their ridings.
Stewart says a Westside health centre, protection of the Rose Valley watershed and more public consultation on issues that matter to residents are top concerns among citizens in Westside-Kelowna.
He agrees the lines of communication—especially regarding situations like the controversial proposed land swap with Westbank First Nation in 2011—should be strengthened in the future.
“I regret that we weren’t able to do a better job on public consultation on a couple items,” says Stewart.
“I want to make certain that we do a much better job of bringing constituents (into the process).”
Thomson says high priorities in Kelowna-Mission revolve around water infrastructure, balanced economic development and construction of a school in the Upper Mission.
“Those were on our list before and we’ll look forward to continuing to work on those.”
Letnick says the relationship between government and teachers, emergency services at KGH and pipeline development were topics of discussion on the doorsteps he visited in Kelowna-Lake Country.
“I heard there’s general support for the priorities that we’ve set out. Cardiac surgery is coming to Kelowna and we’ll have 600 operations per year once it’s open—there’s a lot of support for that,” says Letnick.
When the three Okanagan MLAs go back to Victoria, their party will still be in power.
But prior to Tuesday night, most polls predicted that wouldn’t be the case.
At one point, Agnus Reid Public Opinion Polling had the New Democratic Party as 20-point favourites. Even hours before the election, most polls showed the NDP with at least a six-point lead.
When asked whether or not Team Okanagan would be nearly as effective working in opposition, all three MLAs agree they’re happy that’s a situation they don’t have to face.
“I think the roles to advocate strongly for our constituents would’ve been the same, but the challenge would be that we wouldn’t be on the government’s side to make those decisions,” says Letnick.
Thomson concurs: “Being part of government is going to help us hopefully be successful on the priorities that we’ve developed.”
It’s impossible to say whether or not the Okanagan Liberal MLAs’ pack mentality increased the number of votes in their favour Tuesday.
But Thomson thinks the strategy is one that appeals to the majority of Okanagan residents.
“We ran our campaign based on the team approach and collectively what we feel we’ve contributed and benefitted for the Okanagan.
“I think having that continued teamwork and friendship that we have developed is going to stand us in good stead going forward into the next term.”