By Christopher Sun
Do you want a change or are you happy with the status quo?
Over 250 people packed the Chemainus seniors centre to hear the five mayoral candidates answer five randomly drawn questions on Tuesday.
The two-hour meeting was split with the first hour devoted to the mayoral candidates.
The second hour allowed attendees the chance to meet individually with the mayoral candidates and those running for council.
When asked about their view on building a library in the parking lot of Waterwheel Park, four of the mayoral candidates said they were opposed.
Candidate Clayton Balabanov asked the public who supported building a new library on the parking lot. Only two people raised their hands.
Incumbent mayor Tom Walker however would not dismiss the possibility outright.
“Council have not made a decision yet,” he said, asking people to keep an open mind. “We have to look at the whole revitalization plan.”
Candidates Jon Lefebure and Joyce Behnsen agreed that a new library is needed, but should be built where the old fire hall is. Scott Baker said the library currently costs almost $1 million to operate and is already costing too much money to run.
“Do we need it?” Baker rhetorically asked. “Not when we can’t afford it.”
Another issue that pit the incumbent mayor against the four candidates was Echo Heights.
“I am not in favour of Echo Heights being developed,” Behnson said. “I am strongly not in favour of North Cowichan being in the development business.”
“I believe it’s a piece of property, a park, a forest that will only mature and become more wonderful over the years,” Lefebure said, adding that he would vote to preserve it all. “There are three separate ecosytems there that is very much under threat.”
Baker went a step further with his response.
“North Cowichan should be completely removed from the development stage of everything,” he said adding that a greenbelt is needed between the industrial belt.
Walker pointed out that Echo Heights has been zoned for R-2 development for the last 30 years and the public did not ask for it to be removed from the previous or current Official Community Plan.
“Council can develop Echo Heights without going to a public hearing,” Walker reminded the public.
“I don’t know what percentage should be protected, but I can tell you the majority should be protected. I don’t know if it should be 60, 90 or 100 per cent.”
Candidates were then asked how they would get the municipality to deal with the strong stench coming from the industrial park.
Walker said he is waiting for an upcoming report before he acts. However, both Lefebure and Balabanov said they would act now.
“We don’t need to wait for a report,” Balabanov said. “It needs to be shutdown right now.”
North Cowichan’s $26 million debt and annual interest of $1.5 million was also raised.
Baker, making extensive use of his flip chart, listed a number of services that has gone up in the last eight years, such as municipal wages: up 74 per cent, recreation expenses: up 50 per cent and protective services: up 23 per cent. He said revenue has gone up by 13 per cent in that time frame.
“Do the numbers; it’s impossible to run at that,” Baker said. “We’ll just keep going downhill and we’ll be out of money.”
Behnsen said North Cowichan needs to welcome businesses.
“It is time to reverse the reputation of North Cowichan from repelling business opportunities and an increased tax base to responding to the needs and the issues of our community and the business sector, as well as the people,” Behnsen said.
Walker downplayed the size of the debt, explaining $18 million went towards the pool, built when the economy was booming. He said the municipality also has a reserve of $7 million.
Both Lefebure and Balabanov agreed that having some debt is not a bad thing, but the current five-year financial plan should be revisited.
The last question asked was if candidates would support the creation of a community association, which would receive early notice of rezoning, public land sales and the issuing of certain licenses. Both Lefebure and Balabanov were in favour of it. Walker was open to it, but questioned what model would best suit Chemainus.
Behnsen said she would make council meetings more accessible by moving council meetings from the afternoon to the evenings and Baker said people need to vote the right people in who would look after them.