Kelowna is a wardless city full of neighbourhood issues. We throw our votes in one big pile and the top candidates win. If they are all from the Mission, that’s life. If they are all from Rutland, residents from other areas might be resentful. However, on average most of us don’t think city council again until the moment a problem crops up in our own backyard. What’s a local poltiician to do? The answer has changed significantly…
Kelowna city councillor Robert Hobson will soon retire from a 26-year career as a municipal politician, leaving behind any requirement to answer the phone when a turtle crossing is needed in Glenmore.
Truth be told, it’s been some time since he picked up the phone to troubleshoot fixing a pothole for an angry Rutland resident, despite being known as a go-to, responsible sort.
As technology changed, so too did the style of political engagement at city hall.
“With the advent of social media and email, it’s easy for people to just mass mail councillors,” explained Hobson.
The transition wasn’t seamless.
“Sometimes several councillors were pursuing the same issue at once…So we’ve learned over the years to go through a more organized system.”
No matter the neighbourhood, no matter the topic, residents of Kelowna now go directly to the municipality to have a long list of issues fixed. File a complaint by phone or online and it’s logged in a computer system with a promise you will know exactly who is dealing with your issue within 24 hours.
Sparing a turtle’s life? Environmental planning. Dead deer in a ditch? Roads.
Come budget time, the city hall staff sit down and look at the complaints. They quantify them, stacking up the number of calls for a sidewalk in one area against the funds development has provided to have sidewalks built in another and try to leverage their money accordingly. It’s a complicated process, but at the very end, every department produces a list of projects city councillors sit down to approve or reject—what needs doing, what would be nice to do and what to add into future plans.
All year long, councillors then make decisions on development issues and adjustments to their list of approved projects, finding ways to maximize funding from other levels of government to accomplish more.
“I think when councillors go to meetings they go in pretty open-minded,” said city manager Ron Mattiussi. “…I think they’re always weighing, is the concern valid? Is the concern fear?”
It’s a tricky tightrope to walk at times. NIMBYism refers to the tendency most of us possess to be open to change, as long as it does not affect us directly. It crops up around lightening rod issues—a change in a park plan, a busy but necessary road expansion too close to one’s property line.
The ugly side of neighbourhood issues is counterbalanced by a whole host of responsible people legitimately needing change. Every neighbourhood has its issues which just never seem to get resolved, and many where the neighbours are thrilled to leverage political power and achieve a solution.
In Glenmore, cyclists are fuming after two decades of fighting for safe access to the university campus (first Okanagan University College), with no luck. It’s a key issue on the Glenmore residents’ association’s priority list, along with recreation land and a meeting facility.
Planning for the latter was done under former mayor Sharon Shepherd’s last council, but years of work have still failed to produce a building, gym or new sportsfields. A solution to the cycling route is anticipated next week with the announcement John Hindle Drive will be extended through the university campus with a bike route. Many UBCO cyclists are still very concerned with the layout of the plan.
Meanwhile, long-time Glenmore Valley Community Association president Kim Dodds would like to see the city mandate that developers meet with residents’ associations early in the development process—an unlikely prospect.
Ask the city manager about residents’ associations and he points out the municipality itself is now likely to disseminate information to residents in any given area just as fast if not faster than the lobbying body with its multifaceted information system (egov). They communicate with residents directly through emails and social media streams.
“Our egov has a bigger circulation than some newspapers in this town,” Mattiussi said. “It’s very different today than even 10 years ago.”
Perhaps predictably, the Okanagan Mission Residents’ Association isn’t thrilled with the city’s engagement. President and mayoral candidate Mark Thompson noted the area still has yet to see a sidewalk built in front of Anne McClymont Elementary School—they have a council commitment, but no construction—and feels sidewalks in the area, in general are severely lacking. And it seems, to them, the city is reticent to chat.
“It appears that the city doesn’t really want thriving neighbourhood associations,” he said, noting there was an attempt to create a coalition of associations and a memorandum of understanding on how they would interact with the city.
They’ve had less meetings, not more, as requested, and recently found a community garden popped up in DeHart Community Park without their association ever being consulted.
Business associations too have lists they’re targeting. The Uptown Rutland Business Association wants to spiff up the neighbourhood. It wants the city to loosen requirements on businesses keen to renovate their buildings and wants tax breaks for the effort. It also wants crosswalks in the town centre, the town centre revitalized and sidewalks on Rutland Road from Highway 97 to Springfield. And it wants the much-debated, recently-decided-on Rutland Park overhaul completed sooner rather than later.
In the K.L.O. area, the neighbourhood association says it wants its big park dispute over and done with immediately as well. This will all have to be balanced against the lengthy list of goals the Downtown Kelowna Association has published for the coming council term.
Nevertheless, “Cedar Park a reality sooner than later” was the number one response from Bob Whitehead, president of KLONA, when asked to name its concerns.
KLONA would also like to see the Abbott Street recreation corridor completed through to Gyro Beach, immediately, and the South Pandosy “parking crisis” made a top priority, along with pedestrian bottlenecks around Gyro Beach resolved and the park improvements to Munson Pond.
Water is an issue for everyone. The Black Mountain Irrigation District can have a worker at your house in an emergency in 15 minutes, administrator Robert Hrasko says. His area wants the water districts to stay distinct entities. They are happy with the level of service.
Residents in East Kelowna, meanwhile, are dealing with severe turbidity. The 6,500 homes voted not to upgrade the system in a highly contentious political battle that might have had a different outcome had the residents realized they could leverage provincial and federal infrastructure dollars.
Asked what he wants to see in a future city councillor, Hrasko said he’s looking for someone who can help secure money from the federal Build Canada Infrastructure Program so all of the city’s water purveyors can make necessary upgrades without sending water rates too high.
Will these lists all take neighbourhood-focused councillors ready and willing to fight for the block, or ward, like it’s Ford Nation? Not according to Hobson and Mattiussi. In fact, were the city ever to move to a ward system, it would likely divide councillors’ allegiances, further complicating things with councillors trying to secure votes by forming alliances, rather than clearly weighing the issues.
“We don’t do quid pro quos between councillors,” said Hobson. “Which is what I think would happen if you had a ward system.”
If there’s a tangible issue, he believes all councillors tend to take their role to heart and weigh the community’s needs seriously.