Quesnel Municipal Elections 2014: All Candidates Forum at Royal Canadian Legion October 28 by Arthur Topham


Arthur Topham

Editor & Publisher, QuesnelCaribooSentinel.com


QUESNEL, B.C.:- The 2014 Quesnel Municipal Elections got off to a great start this year with the first All Candidates Public Forum held at the Royal Canadian Legion on Tuesday evening, October 28th.

By 7 p.m. the hall was full to capacity and commencing with a few brief introductory remarks from Quesnel District Chamber of Commerce President Graham Armstrong the business of moderating the evening's performance was turned over to Simon Turner of the Quesnel Rotary Club.

Simon, as per usual at Legion events, called upon the audience to rise up on their feet and then initiated a few moments of silent meditation and prayer followed by a rousing chorus of "Oh Canada". Then he proceeded to enlighten the audience on the organizational format that was to be followed throughout the evening.

Keeping with recent precedents set over the past few years the public attending the forum were told that if they had questions for the candidates that they would have to submit them via writing. The questions would then be picked out of whatever candidate's box they were placed in and hopefully they would get an answer to their query.

Just how truly fair such a process is remains controversial as it basically nullifies a longstanding tradition in Western democracies wherein citizens who've taken the time to attend a forum find themselves no longer able to exercise their freedom to walk up to an open microphone and direct their concerns to whomever of the candidates that they wish to get a reply from. It also, unfortunately, opens the door for potentially partisan decisions on the part of those choosing the questions thus creating the possibility of adversely affecting the resulting dialogue.

Simon then explained to the audience how the little Christmas lights – green, yellow and red – (inserted into a small black wooden box and set up on a table in front of the long row of hopeful candidates) would light up and be used to signal the speakers so they didn't go over their allotted 3 minute time period for either presenting their views and platform or their reply to whatever question that might be asked of them. If, for whatever reason, they were to get too immersed in their  own oratory and failed to follow the sequence of coloured prompters then the person holding the stop watch would ring a warning bell and cut short any further excess of verbiage on the part of the would-be politician.

The audience, having understood how the game was to be played, were thus prepared and Simon called upon the two mayoral candidates to come up and present their opening remarks. The order of speaking was to be alphabetical and so Bob Simpson, the new challenger for the position of Mayor of Quesnel, was the first person up to the podium.

Simpson  gave a dynamic, positive and forward-looking speech to the audience outlining his reasons for why he felt he would be the best person to lead a council and the city over the next four year civic mandate. Bringing a love of the area and a wealth of ideas gained over his previous years of experience as Cariboo North's MLA, first as a Cabinet Minister for the NDP government and then as a sitting Independent, Simpson was able to confidently announce to the listening audience clearly reasoned perspectives and proactively viable solutions to the current issues relating to Quesnel's infrastructure and governance as well as outlining some of the more serious pending challenges facing the city due to the provinces changing economic landscape.

Foremost on Bob's list of economic concerns was the issue of forestry and the potentially adverse side effects imposed upon the region as a whole by the long-term and devastating effects of the Mountain Pine Beetle. According to Simpson the Cariboo is now facing the reality of having the annual allowable timber cut reduced to a quarter of its present allotment over the next few years, a grim but very real portend that will obviously have serious repercussions for not only the city of Quesnel but also the region as a whole and drastically cut down on the city's current ability to maintain its former tax base and accompanying economic status.

With the reduction in forestry jobs coupled with recent mill closures and the possibility of further closures in the immediate future the city of Quesnel is facing some tough decisions in terms of addressing these inevitable changes and will require the leadership of both a strong and optimistic mayor as well as a team of dedicated and imaginative, yet solidly pragmatic councillors, to overcome these challenges. Simpson's address to the listening audience was greeted with hearty round of applause.

Current Mayor of Quesnel Mary Sjostrom then took the podium and proceeded to outline for listeners the many accomplishments of the present local government over the past four years, focussing on her efforts to reach out to all levels of government in order to gain an optimum of working relationships with those who might best help to insure that the city remains a strong and vibrant center of economic growth and a robust community that looks after its citizenry, be they youth, workers or the retired and elderly segments of society.

Mary's civic efforts over the last number of years have placed her in a strong position to work in close liaison with various levels of government from the regional to the provincial and federal thus ensuring viable links with the movers and shakers of BC's economy and providing robust leadership during the present trying economic times.

No stranger to criticism of her policies and the direction in which Mary has steered the city over the period of her tenure as mayor she's consistently maintained a resilient stance in defending the decisions of council, all the while working hard to draw as much economic benefit to the community as possible. Having outlined her policies and achievements Mary reassured the audience that given another mandate to carry on for another term she would continue to make positive changes for the betterment of all of Quesnel's citizens and do her utmost to keep the economy moving forward in as diversified a manner as possible.

Mary's address to the crowded room of potential voters was also greeted with a spirited and enthusiastic round of applause.

The next phase of the evenings entertainment then began with the opening speeches of those vying for positions on Quesnel city council. The list of hopefuls was impressive with a total of nine dedicated women and men either first time runners, incumbents or, as in the case of long-time Ron Paull, repeat offenders who are adamant that they can and will continue to serve the community for yet another four years if re-elected.

Speaking alphabetically, the presentations began with incumbent John Brisco.

Brisco, having served the previous term as a first time councillor, was keen to announce his enthusiastic support for the many accomplishments that he'd witnessed over the past four years, focussing on his efforts to support the arena project and other initiatives that he was a contributing member of. John, being one of the more elderly members of the present group of civil leaders, felt that he would like to carry on representing the people of Quesnel over the next term and make further contributions.

Next up to the plate was Ed Coleman another first term councillor with the city who obviously was still interested in pursuing a second term. Ed has been active for many years not only with civil politics in Quesnel but also in term of his contributions to the Cariboo region itself through his work with outlying areas, most notably Barkerville Historic Park (where he is now CEO) and before that, Cottonwood House.

Ed's main emphasis is building bridges to these adjacent communities and tying in their infrastructure with that of city of Quesnel in order to build bigger and stronger economic ties that will ultimately be of benefit to all the players in the Cariboo. Coleman told the crowd that he's a team player and proud of the achievements of both mayor and council over the past term and is hopeful that he'll be able to carry on with his efforts come this November 15th.

Again, following in alphabetical order, the next speaker was Scott Elliot another member of the current city council and also a first term representative for the community.

Elliot has been actively pursuing a number of initiatives over the past four years and his main focus appears to be working on issues related to community safety and infrastructure items such as the Quesnel airport facility which he feels is of vital importance to achieving the a stronger economic base for the city.

Scott's also been a stalwart enthusiast involved in the local Skyfest celebrations as well and strongly believes in working together with the mayor and other councillors to achieve the very best for Quesnel.

As a person concerned with environmental quality in the city he's also been proactive in trying to work out solutions to the oft-time controversial use of herbicides and pesticides within city limits, a topic important to many local residents.

Concerning the perennial challenge of dealing with the city's street people and the inevitable problems related to pan-handlers and buskers, Elliot voiced some rather disquieting views on the type of solutions to these ongoing topics which some members of the audience felt were rather short-sighted and disturbing given the overall background of many of those who cruise the back alleys and thoroughfares of Quesnel in search of bottles and cans to supplement their paltry means of survival.

The issue of Quesnel's street people has been an ongoing, colourful and at times troubling characteristic of the city's life, most likely since its inception, and whatever solutions that the city fathers do come up with they hopefully will  reflect a marked degree of wisdom, understanding and compassion for those less fortunate who face daunting, and in many cases, permanent, unresolvable disabilities that often make a life on the streets the only option available to them.

Having heard the oft-times repetitive voices of the incumbents and their sincere, yet partisan endorsement of the status quo, it was rather refreshing to finally hear from new members of the public who were biting the political bullet for the first time and venturing into the risky and turbulent waters of municipal politics.

Such was the case with Ernest Gamache a long-time resident of the area, a successful businessman and also, of late, a critic of the city's planned arena project initiative wherein Gamache strived to present alternative design plans that he felt would generate the saving of taxpayer's dollars and provide other benefits to the overall planning process.

Being Ernest, not in name alone, Gamache told the crowd of city voters that he wanted to join the team of councillors and put his years of business experience to good use for the benefit of all the people, including seniors who he felt required more attention. Gamache's somewhat subdued speech to listeners was often punctuated with touches of levity that only added an increased perception of a man plainly dedicated to wanting to be of service to the community where he'd spent his whole life.

Following on the alphabetical heels of Ernest Gamache the next contestant for the sometimes dubious honour of Quesnel city councillor was Kyle Jones, undoubtedly the youngest of the crew of aspiring citizens.

Kyle's speech proved to be very efficacious in terms of generating a marked, positive response to what he had to say. It was apparent from the start that Jones was thinking outside the box in terms of what and how he had planned to say to those whose vote he was seeking.

There was no need for him to wax eloquent about all of his major accomplishments over the course of his relatively young life for obviously he hadn't been around long enough to have chalked up a long list of meritorious political deeds. Instead Kyle spoke from the heart mainly conveying to listeners the importance of looking at local politics from a broader, more global perspective rather than limiting our vision of what we could do here at home to merely specific local projects. He advocated the freedom to think and look at the challenges the city faces from as many broad perspectives as possible and to try and choose solutions based upon their overall merits.

Jones told the audience that he decided to run because he felt that he wanted to make a difference in his community and by becoming a part of city council that would be the best way to contribute. When he finished his speech Kyle received what was undoubtedly the most vigorous applause of the evening, a good indication that the crowd who had gathered there was looking for just such shows of enthusiasm coming from the younger generation who will, in the years ahead, be the ones taking over the reins of power and leadership in the city.

Ron Paull was next in line to speak and speak he did. Ron's been involved in the Quesnel political scene for what appears to be forever, having spent twenty-four years working for the municipality as City Clerk followed by an additional nine years more as an active member of city council.

In 2011 Paull decided to challenge Mary Sjostrom for the mayor's seat but his efforts proved unsuccessful thanks to a third candidate entering the race who managed to siphon off enough votes that Paull lost by a mere 102 votes.

After a four year hiatus though Ron has recouped and decided to try again to regain a seat around the council table.

An accomplished public speaker with a healthy sense of humour and vibrant and likeable personality, Ron was able to chalk up a long list of accomplishments, comment on a number of relevant issues pertaining to the city's economy and infrastructure, including the ongoing importance of the relationship between the Wells-Barkerville area and the Gold Pan City, as well as outline his primary concerns for the coming term ahead should he be successful in capturing the vote.

A strong supporter of the new arena project as well as a fervent advocate for health care for seniors Paull's mind appears to be constantly generating new ideas and his enthusiasm and dedication to serving the community appears beyond question and contagious.

After Ron Paull's informative and entertaining speech, which drew yet another enthusiastic response from the crowd of listeners, the next speaker up was incumbent Laurey-Anne Roodenburg.

Like the other members of council Laurey-Anne gave the audience a run-down of her accomplishments over her latest term in office listing off the many areas where she's devoted her time and energy to help improve the health and well-being of the community. Laurey-Anne does a lot of support work with the Quesnel Tillicum Society as well as various initiatives related to the Seniors in the city and she is hopeful that she can continue to carry on all of her work over the next three years. She voiced strong sentiments regarding the need to work with all sectors of the local economy including forestry, agriculture and mining and also received her due share of applause from the listeners.

The final speaker to approach the podium was the sometimes provocative and always controversial councillor Sushil Thapar who is once again running for his fifth term as Quesnel City councillor.

Thapar has gained a well-deserved reputation as Quesnel's guardian of the taxpayer's money and has held many different portfolio's over the duration of his long career at city hall. Of the many committees that Sushil has been a member, his ten years spent organizing Quesnel Family Day is one accomplishment that he is very proud of.

Helping to ensure that the infrastructure within the city is well maintained and that the funding is carefully set in place to cover costs is another priority for this veteran councillor who always keeps a watchful eye out for every nickel that city receives from taxpayers. When asked during the course of the evening's discussions why he doesn't smile that much Thapar's response was that the business of looking after the well-being of the city is a serious undertaking but that when there is reason to smile that he is more than happy to do so. At the end of his speech he was also given an enthusiastic round of applause for his many years of dedicated service.

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Following all the speeches by the mayoral candidates and the those seeking a seat on city council the program then shifted to the question period. Things got off to a rather muted start as it soon became apparent that the sound system wasn't up to par which necessitated a number of attempts before the portable microphone finally began working and the audience could comfortably hear the various questions which Simon Turner would carefully read out twice to whomever was being queried on a particular topic.

Most of the questions were typical for such gatherings and related to how the candidates would deal with the major economic and social issues now facing the city. The recurring issue of the need for a bypass to redirect all the industrial traffic and heavy trucking away from the downtown core was once again brought to the attention of all the candidates and they, like their predecessors before them, once again committed themselves to tackling the issue (just as every council has done over the past forty years that this writer has been following this issue). The answers to the many questions were typical with each candidate offering up as reasoned a response as they could.

Once again, when it came to Kyle Jones' turn, the question was asked why he wanted to run for council and his response, openly expressed and sincere in terms of frankness and an unassuming attitude filled with enthusiasm, was well received by the audience.

When the gamut of questions began to become somewhat repetitive the moderator Simon Turner asked the audience whether or not they would like to hear another round of questions and one unabashed and alert attendant quickly responded "No!" which elicited a raucous chorus of laughter from the crowd. The consensus being that the audience had had their fill of questions the moderator then shifted the focus back to the candidates and they each in turn came up once again to offer the listeners their final thoughts on why they felt that the voting public of the city of Quesnel ought to endorse them for the upcoming new term.

The two people vying for the mayor's job both gave their all in an attempt to convince the crowd of their abilities and the leadership qualities that they felt would be most beneficial to the city in the coming future. Mary Sjostrom reiterated her ongoing dedication to continuing with all of the initiatives that she had been a part of over the past four years and longer and Bob Simpson spoke vibrantly about all of the new ideas and solutions that he was prepared to bring to council should he be successful in winning the race for mayor of Quesnel. Simpson also made special mention of his efforts in enlisting the social media as a positive means of generating greater interest in political events and building up a strong support base of younger voters who he hoped would break the seeming trend of not participating in political events.

After each of the contenders for city council had their final say and the forum was concluding Simon Turner the moderator made a point of encouraging others in the community to host more public forums prior to the elections on Saturday, November 15th, 2014.

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