Kelowna Mayor Walter Gray calls it his “Dream Team.”
The five men and three women, who along with Gray make up Kelowna city council have been in power for a year .
And, in Gray eyes, voters could not have provided him with a better team to work with.
While its a political truism that any mayor only gets what the voters give in terms of councillors, Gray is effussive when it comes to praising the five new councillors and three returnees from the last administration he works with overseeing the running of Kelowna.
“The city really designed the dream team,” says Gray of his council. “They are all heading for the same destination but getting there in a different way.”
While Gray is the first to admit much of what he and his council have had to deal with during his first year back in the mayor’s chair after a six-year political hiatus are projects and plans initiated by the previous administration, he says there has been no shortage of new files crossing his desk in the last 12 months.
And several are very big projects indeed. A proposed new office tower to house an amalgamation of local Interior Health Authority workers downtown—a project that could bring as many as 1,000 more employees to the area—is being touted as a potential catalyst for the rejuvenation of the city’s centre.
Couple that with a new parkade for the project and an expansion of the existing downtown library parkade at a cost of $14 million.
Then there is the $55-million deal to sell off the city’s electric utility infrastructure to FortisBC.
And there’s a $5-million publicly-funded and built pier and marina project for the downtown lakeshore, to be built by a private developer, slated to start construction in the spring.
But there is also the litany of projects left over from previous council—the $14.5-million revitalization of Bernard Avenue, transit improvements including a new transit hub in Rutland, the recently opened new Parkinson Activity Centre, the rebuild of Kelowna’s downtown lakefront with the closure of the Water Street Seniors’ Centre, the relocation of the Kelowna Yacht Club and an expanded marina and the expansion of Stuart Park.
As well, there is a proposed district energy program and several development proposals for large residential buildings throughout the city that, in some cases, were shelved by developers scared off by a downturn in the economy over the last few years.
Normally, the first year of a three-year term of city council would pass will little fanfare.
But when municipal voters went to the polls last November, they did something rare in this city—they remade council in one fell swoop. Five incumbent councillors and the mayor failed to win re-election.
What had seemed to be a clear case of incumbent advantage in the past proved not to be the case in the last election.
In addition to the experienced Gray—he served as mayor from 1996 to 2005—also elected were newcomers Gerry Zimmermann, Mohini Singh, Colin Basran, Gail Given and Maxine DeHart along with council re-elected stalwarts Robert Hobson, Andre Blanleil and Luke Stack.
One of the driving forces in bringing about that change was a group of local business people who banded together to form FourChange.
Targeting four councillors it wanted to see replaced, FourChange made a very public show of endorsing four others, three of whom—Zimmermann, Basran and Given—were elected.
“It’s too early to judge this council but I am impressed so far,” says Nick Frost, owner of Castenet.net, a local Internet news website and leader of the FourChange group.
Adamant that the previous council was “dysfunctional” and more concerned with individual pet projects that did not reflect the greater needs of the city, Frost felt a change was needed.
He wanted a more business-oriented council and feels he got one.
But while he is critical of what the last council did, members of the current council admit the groundwork for many of the city projects underway now came from that previous council.
And that is something former mayor Sharon Shepherd is proud off. Projects like the Parkinson Activity Centre, Bernard Avenue revitalization and even the 2011 budget, which came in with a minuscule one per cent tax increase after a long, hard look at every department in the city, were initiated by the former council.
A review of the often contentious secondary suite issue was started by Shepherd’s council and expanded by its successor earlier this year.
So while change was called for by voters, and delivered in the form of new faces at the council table, it appears as much as anything, the change that happened was more in process than action.
“I think this council is much more of a pro-business council,” says Rene Wasyluk, chief executive officer of Troika Developments and the current present of the Okanagan chapter of the Urban Development Institute, a group that represents developers here.
Pleased with what she has seen from the current council, Wasyluk calls council “balanced” and providing her industry with “certainty.”
“I’m not seeing a lot of tabled decisions. It seems to be more functional,” she says.
But not everyone is pleased.
Lloyd Manchester, a director of the local environmental group EarthCare, says he also feels this council is pro-business, but not in a good way.
He is concerned about development approvals, especially downtown. “While there has not been an onslaught of building, this next year will be the tell-tail sign,” said Manchester.
He is concerned that council, in a rush to kick-start the local economy, will not pay the proper attention he feels is needed to issues like density, sightlines and building heights near the lakeshore.
He credits the previous council with asking a lot of questions and not being afraid to send proposed projects back for more fine tuning.
The city’s new Downtown Plan, years in the making under the former council, has specific guidelines, and Manchester wants to make sure they are adhered to.
The current council has already raised that issue with one project brought before it, the proposed twin-tower Monaco development slated for the corner of St. Paul Street and Doyle Avenue. The development would consist of a 30-storey tower and a 22-storey tower perched on a large-four-storey base.
But council, after rejecting the first plan, has sent back the second vision for changes after saying it is still too bulky in parts, especially in light of the Downtown Plan guidelines.
In his election campaign, Gray touted the need to show Kelowna was “open for business.”
While it was never closed, the political catchphrase appeared to strike a chord with voters.
It appears to have helped propel him and the rest of his council to victory at the ballot box.
So how do the men and women being judged for their efforts in the last year judge themselves?
As would be expected, pretty well.
They all feel they work well together, they all feel that while they were handed projects in various states of completion and preparation, they have helped move new initiatives and projects ahead and none have regret about missed opportunities in the last year.
For some, like Singh and Basran, it’s smaller projects that stand out like the repairs made to McKinley Road to make it safer in light of a tragic death on the road late last year that claimed a young woman’s life.
Or, in Basran’s case, dealing with his first municipal budget, which keeps the annual tax increase low, but added services and resources such as 12 more police officers.
For Given, it’s some of the larger projects but also the sense that council is creating a more positive feeling in the community by being, in her words “pro-investment rather than pro-development.”
“There should be development but not at any cost,” she says.
For others, like Zimmermann, a former fire chief in the city, seeing more police officers added was a highlight, along with the creation of the Kelowna joint water plan.
And for all of the new councillors, the learning curve has been steep.
“There is so much reading to do,” said DeHart. “But it’s worth it.”
Echoing the feeling of Gray and her fellow councillors, DeHart said she feels they all work well together and while they may have their differences of opinion, “we all pull together as a team.”
Of the three holdovers from the previous council, two—Hobson and Blanleil—have seen this picture many times before. Having sat on council since the 1980s in Hobson’s case and the 1990s for Blanleil, they have seen plenty of others come and go from the council table. And they like the group they work with now.
For Blanleil, who made no secret of his frustration with the previous council, the current group is one he says he enjoys working with.
“There doesn’t seem to be any personal agenda’s,” he says, referring to what he viewed as “pet projects” championed by some members of the former council.
Hobson, while reluctant to compare previous councils, said he has been impressed with the current group’s focus on being fiscally prudent, giving staff “crisp” direction and generally being a cohesive band of decision-makers.
And despite a fear by some that council would abandon its focus on social issues—a strong focus of the last council—Hobson said he does not feel that has been the case.
Pointing to issues like the expansion of the review of secondary suites—a housing issue—and council’s pursuit of establishing a sobering station to help with drug and alcohol addition here, Hobson said current economics have dictated a business and development focus without social issues being forgotten.
The social issues agenda also has a champion in Stack, whose day job is in the field as a head of a local organization that provides housing for those in need.
Stack says while there was a clear shift in what the public want council to do, residents are telling him they see a more focused council now.
The next year will be more telling for the current council. Coming out of the shadow of its predecessor, some of the initiatives and projects it has dealt with will come to fruition, or at least come off the drawing boards, in 2013.
As to how council has done in its first year, there is, as expected with the winners of any election, criticism and praise.
The art of governing is often compromise because on a nine-member council where everyone has an equal vote, support has to be sought.
And that is done under the watchful eye of an electorate that wanted change, got change and is waiting to see how that plays out.