Behind the election in the Fraser Valley’s smallest communities
Big responsibilities, a comeback attempt, and a crowded campaign. The eastern Fraser Valley communities may be small, but that doesn’t mean their municipal elections are boring.
Kent, Harrison Hot Springs, Hope, and the Fraser Valley Regional District will all be facing myriad challenges in the next four years, from climate change—thrown into sharp relief during the November disasters last year—to growing pains to funding constraints. It will be up to the new elected officials to tackle those issues.
But while two of these communities will be emerging from the municipal election nearly the same—thanks to acclaimed incumbents and few other challengers—two could be welcoming almost an entirely new council. And in one community, debate around the municipality’s future has been all but entirely obscured by mayoral-hopeful mudslinging on local Facebook groups.
District of Kent
The more things change, the more they stay the same—at least in the District of Kent. For the second time in a row, Sylvia Pranger will be heading to the mayor’s seat uncontested. She will be accompanied by at least three incumbents. With only four council spots, and only five candidates in the running, the next four years are set to look very similar to the previous four.
But that doesn’t mean the council won’t have its challenges. Landslides that took out Highway 7 during last November’s storms showed how important the district is as a transportation corridor—and local politicians will need to work to figure out how they can convince the province to work with them on upgrades to those provincial roads.
The Agassiz-Rosedale Bridge, although not impacted by the November disaster, is also an important topic for the next council. The bridge is set to become obsolete in 35 years if something isn’t done—and the province has no plans for upgrades yet. Kent has been advocating for changes for more than a decade. With little change at the municipal helm—and a provincial election likely two years away—it’s not clear whether the next council will be any more successful than before.
The District of Kent has also been dealing with development issues for decades. With most of its land locked in the ALR or on unstable hillsides, the community will need to find new ways to accommodate an influx of residents. The controversial Teacup Properties application, which would have taken a cedar tree farm out of the ALR and turned it into housing, was shut down by the ALC this year. Many residents were pleased with the ALC’s decision. (Kent appealed the decision shortly after, and it was turned down again.)
But it wasn’t the first time the ALC had denied the request. It’s unlikely council will try to get the Teacup Properties open for development again so soon, but it’s clear the incumbent candidates have housing on the brain. Every incumbent said Agassiz needed to speed up construction of mid-rise apartments—something the district has very little of—although only Kerstin Schwitchenberg said townhouse construction needed to speed up as well.
(You can learn more about the District of Kent and its candidates in our Kent election hub.)
Harrison Hot Springs
As one of the Lower Mainland’s favourite local vacation spots, Harrison Hot Springs residents can sometimes feel left by the wayside—it’s why pay parking by the waterfront is such a controversial issue. It’s also why this election has elicited some pretty aggressive social media campaigns, both by candidates and by frustrated electors.
Harrison politics is toxic. Personal feuds going back decades rear their heads in the council chambers, and passive aggressive Facebook comments are the norm.
One of the most outspoken in Harrison’s political world is long-time candidate John Allen. As he has done in the last three elections, Allen is campaigning for the mayor’s seat. (He last ran for a council seat in 2008, and was last elected mayor in 2002.)
Many expected him to be facing long-time opponent Leo Facio, who has been mayor for a decade. But Facio is taking a step back, running for a council position. Instead, incumbent councillor Samantha Piper is making a run for mayor. Outspoken community member Edward Wood—who sent out a petition opposing a proposed “cultural hub” in 2019—also put in his name for the position.
The three-way race has been relatively quiet from both Piper and Wood on social media. (Wood doesn’t have any social media accounts, and has instead been going door-to-door in the community. Piper has been sharing her platform—which so far centres around relationship building, community, and respectful conduct—on her website.) Allen’s campaign, however, has been anything but.
Allen has long been vocal on Harrison’s private community Facebook group about what exactly he thinks the current council has done wrong, posting after nearly every council meeting and many times in between. His campaign is no exception. He has aired his grievances on the village’s proposed OCP changes, on what he believed were unfair election rules, and on what he perceived as favouritism. However, Allen has been challenged by residents throwing mud of their own.
The bickering between residents isn’t limited to the mayoral race—it may also be a reason why so few incumbents are wanting to return to council. Only one incumbent is running in this election—Michie Vidal. (Piper is running for mayor instead, while Gerry Palmer and Ray Hooper chose not to seek reelection.) Two former councillors, John Buckley and Allan Jackson, are hoping to make a comeback after years away; one newcomer, Leslie Ghezesan, is aiming for a seat; and Facio is hoping to return as a councillor. All council candidates have been quiet in their campaigns during this election.
The village is the fastest-growing community in the Fraser Valley, increasing its population by 30% in five years. Where those new residents will live is something that the next council will need to deal with. In The Current’s candidate survey, both Wood and Allen said Harrison was changing too quickly (Piper said the change was just about right). But while Wood and Piper said Harrison needed to slow down apartment construction (Wood also suggested slowing down townhouse construction too), Allen said Harrison needed to maintain its current trajectory.
Tourism, Harrison’s economic mainstay, will also continue to be a key issue—and one with no easy path forward for the new council. Tourism revenue, both through things like pay parking and through the Resort Municipality Initiative, help keep taxes lower for residents by paying for some infrastructure costs. But bolstering tourism numbers also means rubbing shoulders with more visitors—even into the shoulder season.
(You can learn more about Harrison Hot Springs and its candidates in our Harrison election hub.)
In the District of Hope, people care about their municipal elections. Voter turnout in the last four elections was significantly higher than the provincial average—with close to 40% of all eligible voters turning out each election day. Another thing Hope voters like to do more than the rest of BC? Kick out their mayors.
Since the 1990s, no incumbent mayor has been welcomed back to the council table for a second term—so it’s likely a good thing for current mayor Peter Robb that he decided to step back from his role. Instead, Wilfried Vicktor and incumbent councillor Victor Smith will be facing off for the position.
Vicktor has had perhaps the most success of any Hope mayor in the last two decades. Although he hasn’t managed to win two consecutive terms, he has been Hope’s mayor every other election season since 1996. But he’ll be against the popular Smith, who garnered the most votes out of anyone in his 2018 bid for council. That was Smith’s first time in local politics.
Only two incumbent councillors will be looking to head back to the council table. The remaining 10 candidates all are newcomers.
Regardless of who gets in, Hope will have some significant challenges in the next four years—and part of those will involve prying funding from senior levels of government to fix dikes and other disaster-related infrastructure. The landslides and flooding in November of last year showed just how important—and vulnerable—Hope is during a disaster. Local politicians will need to advocate for their community if they want the money they need to prepare for the next climate emergency.
As a whole, candidates agreed that the district needs to do more to prepare its residents for future climate emergencies—and that includes basic efforts like more effective communication with residents during disasters and better emergency planning policies.
(You can learn more about Hope and its candidates in our Hope election hub.)
Fraser Valley Regional District
There is little-to-no election controversy in most of the Fraser Valley Regional District’s electoral areas—and that’s because there is little-to-no election to speak of. Five of the FVRD’s eight electoral area directors have already been acclaimed into their positions (many of whom were incumbents), and the remaining three races are relatively uncontroversial. So there are a few new faces who may be coming onto the board.
Those directors will be faced with the same struggles they have been dealing with for a number of years.
Money is a big one. The Fraser Valley Regional District doesn’t tax its residents the way municipalities do, and finding funds for specific projects that don’t already have service area bylaws can be a challenge. This was thrown into sharp relief during the November floods in Electoral Area B, where Othello Road residents lost their homes.
The board will need to advocate for itself to the provincial and federal government to get hard-won grants to fix aging infrastructure and better prepare residents for the next extreme weather event. Some of that work has already begun under the current board.
Electoral area directors also have the unique challenge of advocating for their rural residents on the Fraser Valley Regional District board as a whole. Made up of directors and representatives from the rest of the Fraser Valley, the board makes decisions on subjects like reconciliation, solid waste management, region-wide transit, and animal control. (The Fraser Valley Regional Hospital District board is made up of the same members, and is responsible for providing a local share of funding for health care infrastructure.)
With electoral area directors making up less than half of the FVRD’s board members, they will need to work to ensure the needs of their residents continue to be met within the Fraser Valley as a whole.