Housing, development, engagement: hot topics at PoCo all-candidates meeting

18 candidates fighting for 6 council seats
PoCo City hall
Port Coquitlam City Hall. City of Port Coquitlam Facebook photo

Affordable housing, development, public engagement, and government transparency were all frequently touched upon at the Port Coquitlam all-candidates meeting on Monday.

Mayor Brad West has no challengers for the top job but a crowded field of 18 councillors are vying for a seat at the table in the 2022 municipal election.

Candidates introduced themselves before twice being called up in groups to give 60-second answers to a question submitted by the public. Each candidate given 30 seconds for a rebuttal.

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Despite this, very little back-and-forth debate occurred.

Many of the incumbents (and some newcomers) attached their candidacy to the popular mayor’s name, either through past successes under the current leadership or by endorsement.

Others tried to carve out a niche for themselves by issue, identity, or raging against government policy – sometimes at the provincial and federal level.

Housing Crisis

The housing crisis was the most widely discussed issue during the two-hour meeting.

When incumbent Glenn Pollock, Justin Alexander Smith and Paige Petriw were asked what the number one issue facing the city was, they all agreed on affordable housing.

“Based on most of my conversations that I’ve had in the community, affordability is the one that comes up most often, at all stages of life,” Petriw said.

“Whether you’re starting out, trying to get into the housing market, whether you’re someone like me trying to afford to live in this community, or even a senior living on a pension.”

Pollock said the issue interlocks with homelessness and poverty, crime and community safety.

He said the city’s recently completed housing needs assessment showed they need to increase all forms of housing types but praised the current council efforts.

“During this term, we’ve added just under 500 units of truly affordable housing,” Pollock said. “I’m proud to say that I’m directly responsible for about 140 of those units.”

City-owned land could be used for affordable projects, Pollock suggested.

Smith, who is the youngest candidate running, framed his introduction around how his generation is out of options. He said he can’t afford to live in Port Coquitlam, where he grew up and is now running.

“Despite having a full time job in the field of my study, I could not find a place to live within my budget,” Smith said.

“I’m running because I want to represent the urgency of the affordability crisis on this council.”

He pitched a variety of strategies, including new rental buildings, co-op housing, and rent-to-own units.

Smith agreed with using city-owned land for forms of public housing, stating the city is able to secure lower interest rates than private entities.

Petriw, Smith, and incumbent Dean Washington all said that the city needs to pressure the provincial and federal governments harder for affordable housing funding.

Washington said the city needs to continue its relationship with BC Housing, Metro Vancouver, and developers to provide zoning opportunities for affordable units.

Ivanka Culjak said they need to work with higher level governments to control immigration, because it’s putting pressure on the housing market.

She said that suggested the city could build its own apartment building to offer affordable rentals.

Washington disagreed: “That’s not the business we’re in. I think we need to put more pressure on the feds and the provincial government. That’s the business they’re in.”

Incumbent Nancy McCurrach said she believes the city needs to increase the ratio of affordable units in the city, and engage with the homeless population more often.

“Personally, I think that the ratio of 10 per cent is too low,” she said. “Our homeless community, they desperately need a shelter.”

McCurrach said they need to continue to work with neighbouring cities to reach out to vulnerable populations, adding she’s excited about an $877,000 grant that will be shared with Port Moody.

Likewise, incumbent Steve Darling said continued support of the Tri-Cities Homeless Task Force and its shared programs was crucial.

Public engagement

Port Coquitlam’s voter turnout was only 28 percent in last municipal election – seven points lower than the provincial average – and several candidates said more needs to be done to engage the public.

Mithila Karnik, who highlighted her identity as an immigrant, spoke frequently about diversifying Port Coquitlam’s political representation.

She said the city needs to be “breaking down barriers” to connect with the changing demographics of the city, a change which will only increase in the coming years.

“The second you see a familiar face, or somebody that you can relate to — maybe on a facial level or a language level or an access level — communication then becomes a lot easier,” Karnik said.

The most underrepresented people in the city are its diverse populations, seniors and the homeless population, Karnik said.

Erik Minty focused on the lack of public engagement on development projects, and said the public is losing trust in government.

He said his neighbourhood is about to be changed by a large construction project and there was never any public consultation, claiming it’s hard to find any information on the city website, and inquiries can go unanswered.

“It may be a really good project, I don’t know, we don’t have the details,” Minty said. “That’s a punch in the gut, and we feel that.”

Open houses, town halls and public workshops should all be used to make the process more interactive, Minty said.

Anti-mandate candidates

Culjak, Derek Jeffery, and Jenny Zhou expressed their worry regarding individual freedoms and Canadian values in their introductions. All spoke negatively about provincial and federal COVID-health measures and vaccine mandates.

Culjak said Canada had lost freedom of speech, media, work, and bodily integrity.

She said she’d be an advocate for people who lost their jobs from COVID-health mandates, and parents who are taking their children out of schools because of “policies that are being forced upon our children.”

“I’m very concerned that in this country, we lost our democracy,” Culjak said.

Jeffery said he lost his job in the transportation sector because he refused to get vaccinated. He said he’s spoken to many people who are “vaccine injured.”

“I do feel compelled to run, for I feel democracy is under attack, whether through censorship or the dogmatic decisions of our leaders,” Jeffery said.

Zhou referenced an Economist Intelligence Unit study, purporting to show Canada’s falling position on their global democracy index. She said there’s increased support for non-democratic alternatives, such a “rule by experts, or the military.”

“Canada citizens feel that they have little control over their lives, a sentiment that has been compounded by the pandemic-related restrictions,” Zhou said.

Attracting business to PoCo

Jami Watson said she wants the city to attract sustainable businesses using green technology. She said Surrey has a waste-management facility that produces biofuel, fueling 8,500 vehicles annually.

“We need to look to other cities and what they’ve been successful in. PoCo has huge potential to move forward in this future,” Watson said. “We need to be open to the innovations and the technology that are out there.”

Cindy Carkner said Port Coquitlam can better accommodate new businesses by helping them set up shop and utilize the city’s industrial area.

“We have to continue talking, and looking for businesses that we want to come into our community,” Clark said.

Culjak said Port Coquitlam should prioritize small businesses over big corporations, and would advocate for more mixed-use zoning.

Dawn Becker shot back that corporations are attractive to municipalities because they provide more jobs, and increase the city’s tax base, thereby keeping residential taxes low.

“We need all sizes of business, from Walmart, to family to doctors, to Lordco, to Take Five Cafe,” Becker said.

Becker said the city needs to balance community with thoughtful development and growth.

She said the current program of attracting businesses works well, and there needs to be continued collaboration with the Tri-Cities Chamber of Commerce and the Board of Trade.

Sarah Harbord said her experience with the Downtown Business Association would be an asset to improving the downtown core. She wants to focus on getting more residents working in the city.

“I want to attract more quality businesses so more residents have career opportunities closer to home,” Harbord said.

Transportation and accessibility

Several candidates also discussed transportation and accessibility issues around the city.

Darrin Nielsen’s main focus in the campaign is making community streets safer. He said his advocacy was the catalyst behind the city’s installation of flashing beacons along its streets, but they still need more speed-control mechanisms and more accessibility.

“Cyclists go riding their bikes and the sidewalks disappear,” Nielsen said.

Darling said that Port Coquitlam needs to take advantage of its natural trail system, and build more multi-use paths.

“We’ve done a really good job over the last four years,” He said. “We’re a natural fit for active transportation, but more needs to be done.”

Darling added that improving Gates Park was one of his campaign promises four years ago, and now $14 million is being invested into park facilities.

Long-time incumbent Darrell Penner said his transportation record over the last 23 years speaks for itself. He said he helped to get the Coast Meridian Overpass built after the 1999 election, and more recently has helped get the multi-use path along Kingsway Avenue underway.

Penner stressed patience is needed when it comes to large capital projects.

“It’s difficult to get projects done all in one shot. Budgets are always something that we have to wrestle with,” he said. “It’s incremental.

“That is why we are in the position we are in. We are in an excellent financial position.”

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