More than 300 people stood to sing “O Canada” at the Smithers all-candidates forum on Nov. 4—a civil note that carried even as candidates clashed on issues like seniors’ water fees and Enbridge pipelines.
Taylor Bachrach was the first called to the microphone at the Della Herman Theatre.
A communications consultant and one-term Telkwa councillor, Bachrach said if elected mayor he will bring more open and transparent government to council.
“I don’t think we can rely on council meetings as the primary way we engage citizens in decision-making,” he said.
Current mayor Cress Farrow said that he and council took on a very aggressive agenda for the last three years.
A retired business owner who was elected mayor for the latest of his four terms on council, Farrow said that if he is re-elected he will continue to work as a full-time mayor.
“I don’t have any political agenda—I’m here to serve the people of Smithers,” he said.
Though Bachrach and Farrow were mostly asked separate questions, they both spoke to a few big issues.
On the economy, Bacharach stressed the value of local entrepreneurs and said that if Smithers wants large-format retailers they should be set up close to downtown.
Also on the economy, Farrow stressed council support for local college training and said that safe, sustainable resource projects provide income for hospital initiatives.
On arts, Bachrach said Smithers should build art into all its public infrastructure. In contrast, Farrow said a recent art auction at the gallery is a model for how arts groups can work for themselves.
Both candidates agreed that Wet’suwet’en relations are a top priority.
Farrow noted a protocol signed this spring between Smithers and the Wet’suwet’en, adding that they now present jointly at annual meetings with the province.
Bachrach praised those steps, but added that he could think of no better way to strengthen Wet’suwet’en relations “than standing with them and opposing the Enbridge pipeline.”
Farrow said council has wrestled with the Enbridge issue.
“We have not come out and said absolutely no to Enbridge, but we’re saying you’re not going to be supported in any way that damages our environment.”
While Enbridge did re-emerge in the councillor half of the all-candidates forum, it did not come anywhere near the most talked-about issue of the night—water expenses for seniors.
Eight of the dozen people running for council spoke about the town’s decision to phase out a seniors’ water fees exemption that had been in place since 1973.
Cheryl Ann Stahel said the phase-out means seniors will eventually pay an extra $400 or so a year, and added that the town should grandfather the exemption for seniors who held it before.
Incumbent Frank Wray said that council considered that, but was advised by town staff that such a clause was impossible. A phase-out was the next-best option, he said.
Norm Adomeit, also an incumbent, said he fought the phase-out because fixed-income seniors have already paid their fair share of taxes.
Mike Sawyer said the town has to do a full accounting of the phase-out’s social costs.
Incumbent Charlie Northrup said the town’s surplus fund for water and sewers is “tired” and needs the revenue.
Mark Bandstra, also an incumbent, said the exemption made sense when there were just seven seniors’ households in town, but they now make up 315 of just 1600 taxable homes in Smithers.
Bill Goodacre said the community should have been more involved in making the decision.
Finally, Ken White suggested new councilors may be able to bring fresh ideas, such as a sliding scale for water expenses based on income.
Over 90 minutes, the councillor candidates spoke on many other issues, from regional transit to parking bylaws and affordable housing.
Pauline Goertzen raised an issue with the council slate itself, noting the lack of women and visible minorities.
The question of council’s stand on the Enbridge pipelines came from a dramatic floor question: “Could those who oppose the Enbridge pipeline please stand up?”
Nine of the 12 candidates stood.
Phil Brienesse said it is a duty of all governments, even municipal councils, to influence public policy.
Dan Mesec said the Bulkley Valley has a uniquely unpolluted wilderness at stake.
Incumbent Norm Adomeit said council was split 4-3 on the issue, so it would not have represented the town well if council took a stand for or against the proposal.