Clashes, losing streak, and city battles: a Fraser Valley local election preview

From school board-city battles to an epic losing streak to personality clashes, we’ve spotlighted some early stories to watch in each Fraser Valley community.

By Tyler Olsen | July 6, 2022 |5:00 am

This fall’s local elections are only a couple of months away and several key issues and political storylines are already starting to emerge.

With mayoral vacancies, school board clashes, and the fall-out from last year’s floods and landslides, this fall’s election (election day is Oct. 15) should be about more than whose name you recognize from those signs beside the road.

From school board-city battles to an epic losing streak to personality clashes, we’ve spotlighted some early stories to watch in each community. Much can change though, and would-be candidates have until Sept. 9 to complete the nomination process. But we also want to know what you think, and which issues we should focus on as the local election nears. Take a brief survey here.


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Abbotsford

Although there will be attention on the contest to replace departing mayor Henry Braun, the wildcard in Abbotsford this fall may be the school trustee election.

Trustees have relatively little control over day-to-day school management, so most school board elections (outside of Chilliwack) involve candidates focusing on their management and community experience.

This election could be different, with Abbotsford’s school district increasingly cash-strapped after years of running deficits. That itself could add a wrinkle to a race that usually does not receive much attention. But the district’s finances will also factor in its increasingly strained relationship with the City of Abbotsford.

At issue is the use of parks and fields managed by each, and who should pay what when school programs use city parks and city users use school fields.

The contrasting balance books of the two organizations are playing a key role. While the city has spent years building up its cash reserves, the district’s bank account has been dwindling and it recently said that spending money to replace a field would reduce the amount it could spend on education.

Harrison Hot Springs

Let’s go over the last decade of mayoral elections in Harrison.

In 2011, Leo Facio beat John Allen (and three other candidates) by a significant margin.

In 2014, Leo Facio beat John Allen (and one other candidate) by a significant margin.

In 2018, Leo Facio beat John Allen (and only John Allen) by a significant margin.

Sometimes history does repeat itself. But it doesn’t usually repeat itself forever.

Before his recent losing streak (he also lost the 2005 mayor’s race along with a bid for council in 2008), Allen served four terms as mayor, his first beginning in 1978. Facio has also been on the scene for nearly three decades, having first been elected as a councillor in 1993.

But there is reason to believe that, whether it happens this election or not, Harrison’s politics are in for a shake-up. That’s because the people who do the voting are changing faster in Harrison than anywhere in the valley. Between 2016 and 2021, the village’s population grew by 30%. That’s a lot of new voters in a community that had seen very little growth in previous decades. And while they may be less likely than long-time residents to vote, as time progresses, one can expect new Harrisonians to leave their political mark and push the town in new directions.

Langley City

This spring, Langley City was rocked by news that its council had punished its mayor for allegedly bullying. In a press release, council said Mayor Val van den Broek “misused her power as Mayor to target, intimidate and threaten an employee of the City, including by making unjustified and false statements about the employee.”

Specifics haven’t been released, though. Van den Broek told CKNW that there “may be differences of opinion as to staffing issues” and that she wanted to ensure “spending is being done appropriately.” Council said those claims were misleading. Van den Broek was removed from several appointments, and she was censured, meaning she was officially reprimanded.

But the full report on the investigation will never be released, so it will be left to voters to sort out what to do with council this fall. Coun. Nathan Pachal is seeking to oust van den Broek from the mayor’s chair. No others have yet declared their intention to run. As it stands, the contest may turn more on personality and leadership styles than politics, with Pachal, a prominent transit advocate, saying he can work together with colleagues better, and van den Broek pointing to her record.

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Langley Township

In the larger and faster-growing of the Langleys, the big question also surrounds the mayor’s chair, though the details are much different.

Long-time mayor Jack Froese won’t be running, and two councillors are competing to replace him.

Two-term councillor Blair Whitmarsh was first to announce his candidacy in April. He was followed barely a week later by Coun. Eric Woodward.

There’s a distinctly different vibe regarding what each candidate hopes to achieve. Whitmarsh is campaigning like an incumbent, endorsing a steady-as-she-goes approach. Woodward, meanwhile, has spoken about needing to speed up action by the Township on a long list of evolving challenges for one of the Lower Mainland’s fastest-growing communities.

Woodward is likely the favourite. During the last election, Woodward brought in 2,400 more votes than Whitmarsh. But he will also face questions about his ownership of much of the commercial real estate in Fort Langley. (The website of his “Fort Langley Project” estimates that he owns about 40% of the commercial core.) Those holdings, and ongoing work to develop the properties, requires Woodward to regularly recuse himself from council decisions. Not everyone has agreed with Woodward’s approach to redevelopment in Fort Langley nor his political style: already he has taken a sharper, more-confrontational approach than Whitmarsh, a dean at Trinity Western University.

Chilliwack

In Chilliwack, few candidates have announced their intention to run for council. The same is true for Chilliwack School Board, with only Barry Neufeld stating publicly that he plans to run again. And it is the school board election will likely once again prove a litmus test for the community.

In 2018, a narrow progressive majority came into power in opposition to Barry Neufeld, Darrell Ferguson, and Heather Maahs—all of whom opposed the SOGI 123 resource for LGBTQ+ students. The political clash was renewed in 2021, when a by-election saw huge turnout to elect science educator Carin Bondar in a proxy battle between the board’s conservative and progressive forces.

Since the by-election, the board has undergone investigations by the Ministry of Education—the final results of which have been kept secret, with the province refusing to make them available despite a Freedom of Information request from The Current. But regardless of the formal outcome, the public squabbles that had been a hallmark of Chilliwack School Board meetings for years have gone comparatively quiet, as have Neufeld’s anti-LGBTQ+ antics.

Now, with less attention on the board’s bickering, this election could see its results revolve around voter turnout—and which side remains engaged and organized in a general election year.

Mission

Of the five largest Fraser Valley communities, Mission’s council appears the most settled at the moment.

Paul Horn was just elected mayor in a by-election last year, and there have been few upheavals that would suggest that he will have difficulty winning a full term.

The rest of council is largely made up of experienced hands, and there have been few significant splits that usually precede a shake-up.

The school board election, meanwhile, could end up being dominated by gripes about the provincial government, which recently paused plans to build a new high school in the city. Whoever is elected this fall won’t have the power to raise the millions of dollars needed to build new schools.

Only the province can do that. But as a symbol of the public’s will, the school board will have a voice. And that voice might be particularly powerful in Mission, a community that is increasingly a political battleground during provincial elections.

Hope, Agassiz, and rural areas

Finally, in Hope, Agassiz, and the valley’s rural electoral areas, disaster recovery and prevention will likely be top-of-mind.

Across the eastern Fraser Valley, people are acutely aware of the danger and challenge posed by the Fraser and Chilliwack rivers and the fragile hillsides that lurk above. Municipal leaders have called for more help from the province. But they will also be asked what their communities should do on their own to better prepare themselves the next time the rivers spill their banks or landslides sweep away homes or roads.

Political challengers are, traditionally, few and far between in Kent and the FVRD—two mayors were acclaimed in Kent in the last decade, and most electoral areas saw only one new candidate opposing the incumbent in each election. (Hope, on the other hand, had a significant number of mayoral hopefuls in both 2014 and 2018.) Whether the recent disasters will inspire more potential leaders to step forward remains to be seen.

Tell us what issues will affect your vote this election. Take our brief survey below.

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Tyler Olsen

Managing Editor at Fraser Valley Current

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