Mayoral candidates Al Siebring and Jon Lefebure joined the crowd during the presentations by those seeking election as North Cowichan councillors. (Photo by Don Bodger)

Chemainus Secondary room packed for debate

All-candidates meeting for North Cowichan bring a wide range of opinions

Interest in the North Cowichan municipal election is high in Chemainus, based on the crowd that packed into the Chemainus Secondary School multi-purpose room for an all-candidates meeting Monday night.

With 14 challengers for six councillor seats and three hoping to occupy the mayor’s chair, there is a great deal of choice, plenty of differences of opinion and loads of information for people to digest before the Oct. 20 vote.

The meeting attempted to sort some of that out for the Chemainus residents in attendance to make up their minds.

“People started showing up early,” said Brad Grigor, who moderated the proceedings on behalf of the Chemainus Residents Association, co-host of the event along with the Chemainus and District Chamber of Commerce. “It was packed 20 minutes before it was scheduled to start.”

Each of the councillor contenders was given a chance to answer a pre-selected question, along with a mandatory question, and to address the crowd for two minutes plus a one-minute summary.

Incumbent Jon Lefebure, Al Siebring and Joyce Behnsen were given similar guidelines in the mayor’s debate, except there were also tickets given out to audience members for the chance to ask each of them a question directly. “We randomly drew the tickets,” Grigor pointed out.

The three were also pitted against each other in a series of four mini debates as time allowed.

“I thought it went really well actually,” Grigor summed up.

“I felt the format was challenging and we had too many people to fit comfortably in the space,” noted Lefebure.

“That being said, the questions and concerns were very good to hear and to have a chance to answer. I thought the key difference between myself and my opponents was my willingness to tackle the tough issues and work on solutions in partnership with senior levels of government, rather than sit back and say issues that come up such as affordable housing or watershed protection is not our business, and they will have to be dealt with by others.”

The issues were wide-ranging and varied, including contentious matters for Chemainus such as the continuing odour problem emanating from Coast Environmental, the River Road traffic circle situation, and more.

“We got questions on a variety of issues, including high water bills, a suggestion for a Tree Protection Bylaw and questions about policing costs,” summed up Siebring.

The highlight for him was in the final one-minute summations and that’s where Siebring’s viewpoint on affordable housing was night and day to Lefebure’s.

“I believe the municipality should stick to providing its core services, the things it’s mandated to do,” Siebring indicated. “Roads, sidewalk, police and fire protection, water and sewer, and land use planning. We simply can’t afford to move into areas that are not our responsibility. There’s a reason housing is a federal responsibility. Only they have the capacity and the financial means to actually work on this.

“Victoria city council which designates $250,000 tax dollars every year into an affordable housing fund got a staff report earlier this month that said the $250,000 wasn’t enough. That in order to do the job right, they’d need a million dollars a year. That’s a 400 per cent increase and the question becomes: ‘When is ‘enough’ truly enough? Again, this is why it’s a federal issue, and why we need to stick to our knitting; delivering the core services we are mandated to provide.”

Behnsen said the crowd was amazing and it was a thrilling night.

“We heard from one mayoral candidate giving excuses why the municipality will say and do nothing or not much, kept sidestepping accountability,” she pointed out. “The other was saying the same old, but with a track record of delays and taking too long, same old news.”

Behnsen noted she had the last word of the night and made the most of it.

“I closed the evening with ‘you have an easy decision to make for mayor – you can choose a Dallier, a Denier or you can choose a DOer like myself.’”

She pointed to herself and laughed. “The crowd broke into laughter and applause,” Behnsen noted. “It was a zinger, they loved it.”

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