By Bill Metcalfe
For almost two hours on Saturday evening, Nelson’s three mayoral candidates answered provocative questions from broadcaster Glenn Hicks in front of an audience of about 230 people at the Prestige Lakeside Resort.
It was a civil and sometimes humourous evening, with the audience appearing very engaged although they did not have the opportunity to ask questions of incumbent Deb Kozak, former mayor John Dooley, and Bernie Brown. The Nelson Star live-streamed the evening and the video is included below.
Hicks asked Kozak if Baker Street is as desirable a place as it used to be.
“It is as vibrant and packed as ever,” she said. “Some businesses have had record sales and there is increased tourism. It is true that there is some unwanted behaviour, yes, but we are addressing this [with the Street Outreach program].”
Hicks asked if the police could not be trained to do that work instead.
“Police are in the business of crime. You can’t criminalize poverty and addictions,” she said, pointing out that $15,000 of Street Outreach’s $100,000 annual budget is funded by the city.
“The music is gone,” Dooley said. “It’s hard to find a busker any more. An element has infiltrated the street that is not respectful of people or businesses.”
He said this has been happening for four years and businesses are unhappy.
“Most of the business community on Baker Street are small [businesses] and $1,000 away from being out of business any day. And it is not fair to leave them exposed.”
He said the city needs “a bylaw that has teeth, one that takes into account compassion for those who need help but for those that want to disrespect our streets they should not be on it.”
Brown said she thinks the street is less safe recently, and that it is “a poverty and addiction problem. It is people who have no respect for themselves because they feel so helpless.”
She said more mental health help is needed.
Hicks suggested Kozak’s leadership style has formed a “culture of consensus” and that long discussions often sacrifice efficiency. She disagreed, saying council has achieved a lot while engaging many people in the the conversations. She described her leadership style as collaborative and inclusive.
Dooley said too many issues at the council table are referred back to management staff for more information or research and that senior staff are left wondering what council wants them to do.
Hicks suggested to Kozak that there is a perception that the council has been “a bit airy-fairy” about cannabis rules.
“The cops don’t know which way to turn, people don’t know what the rules are,” he said. “People are confused by what is happening with marijuana. It has been a mess, has it not?”
“I don’t think the city should take full responsibility for the cannabis legislation being a mess,” Kozak said. “The federal government should have had all the legislation ready to roll out. What happened was the spongy ground of what was going to happen, and when, and how were they going to deal with it.”
Dooley agreed that “it was a total quagmire” with the federal government and the province.
“We have a business model in Nelson that could be transferred to anywhere in the province, similar to craft beer,” he said. “I am an advocate for standing behind these businesses and giving them certainty on how they can move forward.
He would support the right of people who need medical cannabis to obtain it, and he would be “on the doorstep of [B.C. solicitor general] Mike Farnworth to get this sorted out,” he said.
Kozak responded that she has already met with Farnworth about this, and that Nelson city manager Kevin Cormack is on a federal-provincial-municipal committee helping to write the federal government’s medical cannabis legislation.
She said legislation on medical cannabis is out of the city’s hands and local businesses are caught in the middle.
Hick said not everyone is in favour of legalization and asked the candidates what they would do for parents who don’t want young children influenced by it.
Kozak said her council developed a bylaw that prohibits smoking in public places, including cannabis. She said the city has a bylaw stating that there may only be five cannabis stores in total and only one on Baker.
Brown said she would like to see smoking lounges “but not on Baker because it is important that people feel their children are safe.”
Dooley said, “I would let the police do their job as we do with alcohol. It is a very similar situation.”
Kozak said she is aware that the CORE group was originally set up to depose her. She said slates have not done well in the past.
“John is part of that group, although he is not on the slate,” she said.
Hicks said Dooley has distanced himself from CORE but wondered “if this was deliberate distancing or a phony one.”
“I felt it was important to be independent,” Dooley said. “I am not affiliated with any politicians. Yes, I met with CORE. They asked if I could become part of the group and I said no, but I was interested in what they had to say.”
Hicks asked Kozak how many affordable housing units have been created in her term. She said about 80 units at the Nelson CARES project at the old Lakeside Motel, at the Kootenay Christian Fellowship and at the new project at the bottom of Hall Street.
Dooley responded that the Hall Street housing project is not going to be affordable, nor will the seniors housing project planned for Vernon Street.
“Projects such as Ward Street Place were very successful. They help people in need. In my term as mayor we developed 100 new units at Selkirk College.”
“We are working with Selkirk College,” Kozak responded, “to develop housing at Rosemont campus and we are in discussions with the provincial government around that.”
Dooley attacked the city’s bylaw changes on laneway housing, saying many of the units built under council’s new bylaw will not be affordable, adding that the original vision for laneway housing was “a space possibly above a garage, that would rent for five or six hundred a month so people could afford to do that.”
“It will depend on the homeowner,” Kozak responded. “When you have private ownership it is up to the homeowner to decide what will happen on their property.”
Dooley disagreed, saying council can create affordability through bylaws, and said council “has to get a grip on that and get back to basics.”
Kozak said the only thing that can control what landlords decide to charge would be provincial rent controls. She said the units at the Kootenay Christian Fellowship project will be subsidized by the province, making them affordable.
“When I live in a neighbourhood where a house a block away is selling for $600,000 and it is a modest home, this is something I, as mayor, do not have control over,” she said.
Dooley said the progress on the Hall Street project, which was conceived and begun by his council, has been too slow under Kozak.
“I stand behind it, but not how it has happened,” he said, adding that in the early part of the project on the south end of Hall, crews worked seven days per week for 10 hours per day.
On the north end of the project, though, he said, “Why do we have millions of dollars of equipment sitting idle on weekends?”
Kozak countered that “the top end was easier because it had no highway, no railway, and no requirements from the fisheries ministry [regarding construction work on the lake shore].”
Dooley said it was slow because the city was not prepared in advance.
“That’s false,” Kozak said. “We could not have gotten millions of dollars in grants from the federal and provincial governments if we were not prepared.”
Hicks asked the candidates if they are prepared to do more about wildfire mitigation.
“Absolutely,” Kozak said. “Those plans are rolling forward as we speak. Whoever is in this chair will move it forward. We have laid track already to fast track things and we are working with the province.”
Hicks asked why a fuel break could not be built around the city.
“The City of Nelson alone does not have the jurisdiction to do that,” Kozak said. “So we are all looking to the provincial government to assist in bringing them all together and that is happening.”
She also said Nelson is working on an emergency response plan.
“I don’t think it is fair to say we need an escape plan and are building a plan,” Dooley said. “We need a plan to stop a fire from coming over top of one of these mountains. I, as mayor, would be on top of that in moments. The reality is that we have the West Arm Park which is completely in the hands of the provincial government. We need to be on their doorstep.”
“That is happening now,” Kozak said.
“The back side of the park has already burned,” Dooley said. “The next phase will be on the front side. Anderson Creek Timber owns a large chunk of land just above the city here. We need to be working closely with them.”
Kozak said that is already happening.
Council salary increase
In September, the current council gave the incoming council a salary increase that was higher than that recommended by an independent committee appointed by council.
Hicks suggested to Kozak that the optics of this were bad.
Kozak said the committee was not in complete agreement, and that council wanted to attract a greater variety of people, adding the mayor’s job has become a full-time job.
Dooley said being the mayor of Nelson is not a full time job.
He said if he is elected he will bring the salary decision back to review it.
The debate also touched on Nelson’s water supply. Dooley said the city is not working quickly enough to bring on the additional sources of Selous Creek and Clearwater Creek. Kozak said council is working on that, and that the city’s replacement of old water lines has reduced water leakage significantly.
There are two more election forums planned before the Oct. 20 voting day:
Wildfires and Climate Change Forum
Hosts: West Kootenay EcoSociety, Citizens’ Climate Lobby and Nelson Interfaith Climate Action Collaborative
Location: Nelson United Church
Date: Monday, Oct. 15, 7:30 p.m.
All Candidates Forum
Hosts: Canadian Federation of University Women and the Nelson and District Teachers’ Association
Location: Central School gym
Date: Tuesday, Oct. 16, 7 p.m.