Most new candidates for six town of Comox council seats would do more to require that developments include an affordable housing component, while sitting council members say affordability is being addressed with a 90-unit building on Anderton
During an all-candidates meeting last Friday, Comox council and mayor candidates separated themselves on two key issues: affordable housing and how the town should manage growth.
About 400 people jammed a Comox Recreation Centre meeting room Oct. 12 to hear the candidates answer questions that included amalgamation (mostly opposed), air quality (mostly for it) and preserving heritage (incumbents steered clear of Mack Laing, newcomers did not).
After all the candidates reaffirmed that they love the Town of Comox, they quickly disagreed on how the town is addressing its affordable housing crisis.
FURTHER READING: Go to the Decafnation Elections 2018 page, and got here to read our recommendations
Asked how Comox should address affording housing, sitting council members Russ Arnott (running for mayor this time), Maureen Swift and Ken Grant said the 90-unit apartment building going up on Anderton Avenue was addressing the town’s housing issues.
But all the challengers said the council could and should do more to ensure developments include a mix of housing types and price ranges.
Alex Bissinger argued for more multi-family units. Don Davis lamented the mall owners didn’t convert its top floor into apartments. Stephanie McGowan reminded voters that 40 percent of Comox residents spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing and 20 percent spend more than 50 percent.
Patrick McKenna said council should encourage developers to build lower-priced units with “affordability” covenants. Nicole Minions would press for more townhouses and collaborations with developers for affordable units and partnerships with organizations like Habitat for Humanity.
Mayor candidate Tom Diamond said it takes five months in Comox to get a permit for secondary suite. He said that’s too long. And he said the town should take a longer-term housing view in its Official Community Plan review next year.
Asked how the town should deal with growth, several candidates turned the discussion back to housing issues.
McKenna said he liked how the town was handling growth, but added, “What I don’t like,” he said, is that 90 units are being built with no covenant for affordable housing. “Nobody asked. Affordability has to be top of mind of staff and council.”
Nicole Minions said housing prices have grown by 40 percent recently, and council hasn’t done enough to collaborate or fast track multi-family units. Don Davis should the town should consider building up and remove its height restrictions.
Mayor candidate Diamond said some developers have abandoned Comox for other communities that have less red tape delays. Arnott said the town requires 10 percent of a development’s value in land or cash, but didn’t say how the town should use this housing reserve.
Asked about preserving heritage, McGowan said the town has lost many heritage sites and would like the new council to find an alternative to the court application to demolish Shakesides, naturalist Mack Laing’s heritage home.
Minions agreed, saying the council could do a second look on Mack Laing and find a win-win. “These (Mack Laing Heritage Society) are good people trying to do what they think is right,” she said.
Bissinger said there was an “amazing opportunity” with the Mack Laing property, while Davis pointed to other Valley communities, like Cumberland (Jumbo’s Cabin) that have preserved historical buildings. Chris Haslett said a fresh set of eyes with new council members might find a reasonable solution.
Incumbent Swift said she was proud the current council has addressed the issues after 36 years. Incumbent Grant didn’t address the Laing issue, and talked about a heritage designation into the town’s zoning bylaws.
Mayor candidate Arnott said the town has protected the Filberg property and tried to save the historical house near the Comox Golf Course that was torn down for a condo development. Arnott said the builder will use some of the old building’s material and called that a “win-win.”
Mayor hopeful Diamond said Hamilton Mack Laing should be celebrated, and that his trusts with the town were an opportunity for pride in the community. “It’s a fantastic opportunity to put Comox on the map,” he said.
There’s a youth movement in Comox Valley politics and Decafnation supports it. Former council members have had their chance. It’s those who must live with the impact of decisions tomorrow who should have the opportunity to make them today
Unlike the federal and provincial political scene where parties and candidates start positioning themselves months, even years, before Election Day, candidates for local government often don’t announce until the filing deadline.
That gives most candidates only six weeks to make their appeals. And because all-candidate forums tend to occur in the final days of the campaign, voters have to make up their minds quickly.
Decafnation has tried to complement the Comox Valley’s private news media this year. We’ve published profiles of most candidates based on in-person interviews. We have not merely published their press releases.
And most of the candidates have collaborated with us, sitting for interviews, responding to our questionnaires, taking our follow-up phone calls. Those interactions have played a crucial role in determining which candidates Decafnation recommends today, the first day of advance voting.
FURTHER READING: Read our candidate profiles and other elections stories here
Some observations about our recommendations.
We have generally supported qualified younger candidates because the future belongs to them. They are the ones who will have to live with the decisions our local governments make today.
We were surprised by the number of former Courtenay City Council members from the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s who have tried to make a come-back. Decafnation appreciates their former service, but respectfully suggests they had their turn. It’s time to let go.
We’re encouraged by the number of youthful candidates seeking office this year. Even the Town of Comox has four under-40 candidates. This level of civic engagement bodes well for the whole Comox Valley.
Decafnation realizes that some readers won’t agree with all of our choices. So we’ll say it again: persuasion is not our objective. We only hope to stimulate thought and civil debate.
We admire and congratulate everyone who’s stood for election. It takes courage and a love of community.
Now, here are our recommendations.
Decafnation will offer its recommendations for mayors, council members and regional district rural directors tomorrow, on the first day of advance voting in the 2018 municipal elections. But persuasion is not the objective
A gradual decline in daytime temperatures, the return of drizzling skies and a knock on your door by strangers handing you brightly colored brochures can only mean one thing: the fall election season is baaaaack.
Decafnation has met with most candidates running in this year’s elections for council and mayor positions, and tomorrow — the first day of voting at advance polls — we will offer our recommendations.
There is some debate within the journalism profession about the value of political endorsements. Research on the topic is almost non-existent, but some years ago the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that a measly 11 percent said media endorsements played “somewhat” of a role in their voting decision.
But of that 11 percent, about a quarter were mistaken about which candidate their newspaper had actually endorsed.
So, why endorse candidates?
Decafnation has no delusion that people will change their opinion of the candidates after they read our recommendations. Persuasion is not the objective.
Decafnation thinks of itself as a good citizen. We engage in civic affairs. We care. Nearly every week of the year, we offer commentary on topics ranging from how to fix our sewerage and traffic problems to why Justin Trudeau should keep his shirt on.
Wouldn’t it seem odd to suddenly have no opinion whatsoever about the most important event of all: electing our local governments?
But first, let’s be clear about something. Most of the time, Decafnation is me, one person, although Decafnation does have an informal advisory board and a few infrequent contributors.
These endorsements are based on my private meetings with the candidates, one-on-one interviews with them and my own unique vantage point of having covered the issues and the candidates.
I have also reached out for input from leaders of community organizations and other people I respect, including many whose views often run contrary to my own. In that sense, the endorsements are a collective effort.
Decafnation’s recommendations are meant to stimulate interest and debate, and perhaps to help you crystallize your own thoughts, whether you agree or disagree with our choices.
Most importantly, we’re cheerleading for the democratic process and what local elections are really all about: good governance.
With a background in both corporate retail and the nonprofit sector, Patrick McKenna believes he would bring a unique perspective to a first term on the Comox Town Council. He’s focused on affordable housing, the arts and community safety
Patrick McKenna is an outgoing community theatre actor who has forsaken the corporate retail world for the demands of a nonprofit, and he loves to joke around in conversations.
If you ask why he’s running for a position on the Comox Town Council, he might say something like, “Because Hugh McKinnon is stepping down,” or “Because 13,991 Comox residents didn’t want to.” (There are nine council candidates this year out of a roughly 14,000 population.)
But don’t let the fun-loving facade fool you. For McKenna, a Town Council seat would not be a pastime or a hobby.
“It’s a serious job, to have the people’s confidence entrusted to me,” he told Decafnation. “And that’s how I would approach it.”
The candidate has four areas of focus for his first term, which he’s gleaned from conversations with town residents: affordable housing, arts, culture and heritage, safety and sustainability.
It’s not surprising that affordable housing tops his list.
McKenna came to the Comox Valley in 2003 as the first store manager of the Courtenay Home Depot, where he had a 28-year career before taking a similar position with Target when it opened in the Driftwood Mall. He’s now the executive director of Habitat for Humanity for Vancouver Island North.
“I want to ensure that young families can live here,” he said. “And let’s make sure people who are already here can live here, too, and that their children can return to Comox, if they want to.”
McKenna sees many people getting priced out of the market as demand increases and property values escalate, a situation he doesn’t see changing any time soon.
“Growth is a function of where we live,” he said. “People want to live here. I don’t see a correction coming yet.”
But he does think the town could hold developers “a little more accountable,” and be steer them toward including affordable housing units in their plans.
McKenna doesn’t know if the town had a housing agreement with the 90-unit Broadstreet development on Anderton Aveune to dedicate a certain number of unit to rent below market rate. He hopes one exists.
“It’s staff’s and council’s job to have the mentality to get more affordable housing in Comox,” he said.
McKenna said when Habitat approached the City of Campbell River to build 10 houses on a piece of property, the city asked if they’d like to build 11 units, which they would allow with a covenant that they would remain affordable housing forever.
“A lot of municipalities don’t want to slow down developers, and so they’re afraid to ask for social benefits,” he said. “But Comox keeps building single family houses and that doesn’t help people trying to get it or move up.”
McKenna would like to see a continuum of housing developed in the town; some supportive, some transistional, and more affordable.
“Single family houses aren’t going to solve our problem,” he said.
And it’s also no surprise that McKenna wants the town to increase its support of arts, culture and heritage.
McKenna has been a prominent figure in the Comox Valley amateur theatre scene. He’s even formed his own theatre company, Three Legged Dog Productions.
“The town spends $2.2 million on parks and the arts gets $70,000. We need to change that,” he said. “I’ve got a bleeding heart for the arts.”
McKenna would like to Comox become more like Chemanius where the theatre is the centerpiece of the town. He points to the vacant Lorne Hotel property and muses that it would be a great location for a community theatre.
He likes what the town has done recently to improve Marina Park with a splash park and allowing semi-permanent food trucks. He’d like to see a farmers market, and more use of the sail buildings.
He thinks council was trying to create a community space for people to congregate.
When a town has gathering places, McKenna says people get to know each other, and feel safer.
“Parts of Courtenay feel unsafe, the rise of crime, drug use, homelessness,” he said. “We need to guard against that.”
McKenna grew up in Nova Scotia, the youngest of seven brothers and sisters who all went to university.
During his long experience in corporate retail, McKenna became good at analyzing numbers, a skill that has helped him in the nonprofit world where every dollar must be spent with specific intent. And on the town council, he would make sure money was invested in projects that further its core mission.
And he thinks his private and nonprofit sector background gives him a unique way of looking at things that would benefit the town.
Chris Haslett doesn’t see any big issues facing the Town of Comox, but he would like to phase out wood stoves, ban plastic bags and encourage developers to build more houses to drive down housing costs.
Chris Haslett has eschewed social media in his campaign for a seat on the Comox Town Council. He prefers the old-fashioned method of knocking on doors and talking with people.
“I”m a meet-you-in-person kind of guy,” he told Decafnation.
And when he’s on the doorstep, Haslett has a straight forward message: He’s not running for council on the basis of any major initiative, he’s just promising to spend tax dollars wisely and to make decisions with common sense.
“I don’t have anything I want to drive through,” he told Decafnation. “I wouldn’t say there are any issues in Comox. It’s going in the right direction.”
Haslett, who was born and raised in Comox, said he has thought about a run a politics for the last couple of years. But he had his eye on 2022.
“The biggest reason I’m running now is the changing of the guard, the number of open seats,” he said. “The math works out. I think I have a legitimate shot.”
Only two incumbent Comox Town Council members have filed for re-election to the six council positions.
Although he’s happy with the town’s status quo, Haslett does have some key areas of focus.
He would make sure all the necessary infrastructure is in place for new construction projects. He says it happens all the time that not long after a new project is built — like the new hospital, for example — they’re tearing up the streets for some additional infrastructure.
And he thinks the solution to affordable housing is to build more houses.
“We hear about the homeless, seniors and others needing affordable housing,” he said. “But without more housing, costs will never go down.”
He’s encouraged by several new multi-family projects in the works, including 89 units in a four story building on Anderton. With a shortage of lots, density will have to come from taller buildings, he said.
But he doesn’t believe council should get involved in directing developers toward a particular type of housing, such as townhouses or including a mix of varying priced units.
“The type of housing is entirely up to the developer,” he said. “Council is only here to see they follow the bylaws.”
On other issues, he sees council taking more of the initiative. He favors banning the use of single-use plastic bags and straws. And he’s in favor of phasing out wood stoves.
“My kids have respiratory issues, so we suffer from it more in the winter,” he said.
Haslett would also like to see a walkway constructed from Marina Park to Goose Spit.
“But it has to be feasible. “I’m always looking at the bottom line,” he said.
His method for making future decisions on council would be based on “common sense.”
“I’ll look at two outcomes, black and white, without any grey,” he said. “I can sift out all the emotion, all the grey.”
After graduating from Highland High School, Haslett completed oil and gas tickets at North Island College and went to work on facility construction in Fort St. John. He then moved to Victoria to do seismic mapping for new projects in BC, Alberta and Saskatchewan, ultimately supervising the mapping department and overseeing five employees.
When the price of oil dropped four years ago, he moved back to Comox and went to work selling commercial insurance for Waypoint out of their Campbell River office.
“I’m a third generation Comox person, raising a fourth,” he said. “I’m looking out for the future so my kids have a great place to live.”
Haslett, who is the grandson of former council member Vern Benedictson, has twin daughters.
He wants voters to know that he would make sure their tax dollars are spent well.
“And I want to increase transparency on that. If people know where their money is going, they’re okay with it,” he said.