Environment, accountability and housing take focus at Coquitlam all-candidates debate

file photo Jeremy Shepherd

This story has been corrected. A previous version attributed a quote from incumbent Craig Hodge to candidate Ben Craig.

Twenty Coquitlam council hopefuls packed the stage at Evergreen Cultural Centre on Thursday night for an all-candidates meeting that touched on topics ranging from green technology to the city budget.

Between their opening and closing statements, candidates spoke in tightly-timed 60-second bursts and 30-second rebuttals.

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“Our local government has become disconnected with us, the residents who finance this operation,” said Ben Craig.

A financial advisor, Craig took aim at the city’s approach to budgeting during the pandemic.

“While Coquitlam families were struggling to make ends meet, our local government was hiring across every department and even creating some new departments,” Craig said.

Incumbent Craig Hodge defended the city’s decision, noting the wave of anti-Asian discrimination that surfaced during the pandemic.

“One of those positions was a manager of equity, diversity and inclusion because coming out of that pandemic this city and our council recognized that that was an important hire,” Hodge said, adding that the other position was intended to foster reconciliation with the Indigenous community.


Educator Leslie Roosa emphasized the importance of planting more trees while ensuring environmental initiatives have budgetary support at city hall.

“During the recent heat dome we’ve seen how important that these [tree] canopies are,” she said. “Planting more trees absorbs a lot of carbon.”

Benjamin Perry, who cited his previous work with Force of Nature environmental advocacy group, said he would prioritize the protection of old trees.

“We can’t replace mature trees with small trees that we’re re-planting,” Perry said. “Protection is first.”

It’s critical to have trees and buildings side by side, Perry said.

“Climate change and affordable housing are the two most important issues to me. What we build today will still be standing for the next 50 years,” he told the crowd.

Gleneagles Secondary teacher Ali Tootian emphasized his priority of: “preserving a healthy climate at all costs.”

Given the frequency of extreme weather events, tree protection and tree planting must be taken seriously, said Coquitlam candidate and outgoing Port Moody councillor Zoe Royer.

Royer pointed to the campaign to plant 1,000,000 trees in Mississauga, Ont., suggesting Coquitlam could adopt a similar initiative.

Along with more greenhouses and community gardens, Cameron McBryer said the city should plant trees in “heavy concrete jungle areas” where heat domes tend to hit the hardest. He added that bylaw officers could also write a few extra tickets for tree choppers.

“We should also go after people who cut down trees in their households,” McBryer said.

McBryer referred to his work in renewable energy, telling the crowd he wanted to help turn Coquitlam into a: “a smart, solar city,” in part to make the city more resilient in extreme weather.

Transforming the city

Candidate Sean Lee discussed his ambition to attract the IT and medical industries to Coquitlam, creating a: “cutting edge medical city.”

If successful, that approach will keep more money in the city while supporting local businesses, Lee said.

Matt Djonlic, who noted his work as a library board trustee, said he would concentrate on expanding a variety of public spaces.

“As a city councillor, I’m going to advocate for more amenity spaces, recreation centres, pool space, as well as ice rink space so our kids and seniors and everyone can have a place to play,” he said. “We also need to look at more park space.”

The city needs to balance new growth with “protecting and respecting” existing neighbourhoods, said incumbent Teri Towner.

Towner told the crowd about her own personally transformative decision to run every street in Coquitlam.

“Seeing every sliver of Coquitlam just made me even more passionate for this great place we all call home,” she said.

If elected, Harvey Su said he would push for better transit service to “connect Coquitlam with more communities and opportunities.”

Better public transit is a driving force to assist with housing affordability while helping to: “transform our bedroom community into an integrated city where residents can live, work and recreate,” Su said.

Incumbent Steve Kim spoke about the value of creating cultural hubs.

“We have incredible cultural hub potential from the Korean community, the Chinese community, the Persian community and also based on the heritage of the French community,” Kim said.

That approach could also aid Coquitlam’s economy, Kim said.

“During this time of recovery . . . I will continue to tackle our affordability challenges [and] diversify our economy by focusing on cultural hubs, small businesses, and entrepreneurship,” Kim said.

Governance, independence, and campaign contributions

Incumbent Trish Mandewo said she would advocate for affordability and mental health supports if re-elected.

“Truth be told, none of us here are going to be doing the work but we are going to be there to govern,” Mandewo said.

The crux of governing is asking questions, Mandewo said.

“You can be guaranteed that from the day that I was elected . . . I have asked the right questions,” she said.

Too often, the public is not meaningfully involved in council decisions, said candidate Ben Craig.

If elected, Craig said he would work to foster greater community outreach and more financial discipline at city hall.

Incumbent Dennis Marsden also noted his background in finance.

Marsden told the crowd he’d been: “championing financial management that has seen us create over $21 million in non-tax revenue to help build the infrastructure that you want and need.”

Candidate Phil Buchan used his opening remarks to criticize city council for not holding a byelection for Bonita Zarrillo’s vacant council seat.

“As a councillor, I will obey all legislation, not pick and choose,” Buchan said.

As someone who is unaffiliated with political parties, Paul Lambert emphasized that he was an independent candidate and his platform was free from outside influences.

“I do not take donations from developers,” he told the crowd.

Discussing the tightening of B.C.’s rules around fundraising, incumbent Brent Asmundson indicated the problem around political donations may have been exaggerated.

“It never has been the influence that people made it out to be,” Asmundson said. “I don’t involve in that, but you need money to run a campaign.”

Discussing his own struggles raising money, Rob Bottos told the crowd that being able to pay for advertising such as mailouts can be critical to a campaign.

“You have to be able to work with the development community, you have to be able to work with your community, to solve the issues,” Bottos said. “If good candidates can’t raise the money to run, you’re not going to have a rich and vibrant, diverse pool of candidates to choose from.”

While he allowed that it can be challenging to raise money, Buchan suggested candidates refuse certain donations.

“I pledged to not take any money from developers and I think the other candidates should do the same thing,” he said. “It’s kind of a grey area . . . we don’t know if this is having undue influence on the councillors.”

Whether or not there is undue influence, there is also the perception of influence, explained Robert Mazzarolo.

“[Elected officials] need to be perceived and believed to be impartial. If you take donations from developers, that perception and belief may not be there,” Mazzarolo said.

Housing and growth

Carl Trepanier, a former member of the Canadian Armed Forced and the owner of a consulting business, told the crowd the key issue facing the city is growth.

“I want to be at the forefront of managing change and growth so that it benefits the current residents of Coquitlam, our businesses, and the new friends and neighbours that we will welcome,” Trepanier said, adding he wanted to lower barriers for homeownership while supporting rent-to-own housing.

Cameron McBryer emphasized the importance of supporting better paying jobs and boosting investment.

“I will look into finding any reasonable means of lowering city property taxes . . . making that more affordable with the regular homeowner so they can invest more into the city,” McBryer said.

Paul Lambert also identified growth as his top concern.

“Coquitlam is developing and growing too much and too quickly, and we need to slow down to a more moderate level,” Lambert said.

If elected, Rob Bottos said he would try to provide a range of housing and affordable housing in particular, in order to support Coquitlam’s “diverse, growing, and aging population.”

Sean Lee said he would push for mass-timber construction, which he said would provide affordable housing while reducing construction waste.

Coquitlam is working to create more affordable housing in the city, said iTeri Towner.

“The city now has more rental and more affordable housing in-stream than we had for decades prior,” she said.

The city has a few levers at its disposal, according to Zoe Royer, who suggested the city could reduce development cost charges and fast-track application while seeking partnerships with senior levels of government.

It is a constant challenge to persuade the federal government to put cash into housing projects, Marsden told the crowd.

Marsden noted the recent approval of shelter-rate units and lower-end market rentals in Burquitlam.

“If we truly want to address the affordability crunch, we need to ensure that we’re creating the environment across the spectrum; housing for our kids to move out into that’s affordable, housing for those folks that are marginalized,” Marsden said.

Matt Djonlic told the crowd that more work needed to be done to assuage homelessness.

“We have a shelter currently servicing the entirety of the Tri-Cities that is bursting at the seams,” Djonlic said, adding that he would advocate for more shelter space.

Incumbent Craig Hodge underscored the need to provide housing across the spectrum.

“We must ensure that new housing includes affordable rental and ownership options for families, for young people, for our workers and for our seniors who want to downsize,” Hodge said.

If re-elected, Asmundson said he would support sustainable growth, affordable housing, and sound environmental practices while spending tax dollars wisely and ensuring the city is “business friendly.”

Green tech

In terms of green technology, Ali Tootian suggested Coquitlam could model their approach on other countries.

“We need to stay open to the possibilities,” he said. “We have to study a lot about it before we make a final decision. And of course we need some money for it.”

While Leslie Roosa said she would support more green tech at city hall, she emphasized the importance of budgeting.

“We can always talk about lots of different projects and green innovations but I think it’s important that we’re actually looking at how we’re going to fund that.”

Bits and bites

Zoe Royer said she was determined to restore hope in young people.

“In a word, my campaign is about love, love for one another, for our community, and the Earth that we live on, love for the peoples that came before us and for the generations still to come,” Royer said.

Discussing the need to combat racism, Djonlic pointed to city hall.

“Look at the council table, it still doesn’t quite reflect how diverse the community actually is,” he said.

Phil Buchan said it was critical women feel comfortable in council spaces.

“Sometimes it’s like an old boys club,” Buchan said. “I guess I’m an old boy myself.”

On the issue of transit, Trish Mandewo said she would advocate for last-mile transportation in order to help residents reduce their reliance on cars.

On the subject of seniors housing, incumbent Steve Kim suggested that culturally appropriate seniors housing in which cuisine and languages are taken into account could be a boon to the city.

In order to improve outreach with Coquitlam seniors, Paul Lambert suggested city news be provided on paper rather than strictly online.

The debate was organized by the Tri-Cities Chamber of Commerce.

Related: Mayoral candidates take centre stage at Evergreen Cultural Centre

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