At first blush, public attendance looked sparse. A mere 15 people sat scattered in the sea of seats when the Mayor’s Open House started. From the get-go, Councillors Brenda Parkinson, Kerrie Reay and Kevin Pearson were in attendance, accompanying their mayor. Councillor Bev Berger joined her peers about a half hour into the Open House. Councillors Rick Kasper and Ebony Logins did not attend. A number of staff were also present.
Within the first half hour, on a slow trickle, there were about 50 people in the room.
One attendee said later to SPN she wasn’t too sure of the format. She expected more of a casual open house format, not a sit-down with the mayor-at-the-podium affair. Given the number of people who drifted in, in that first half-hour, she wasn’t alone in her thinking.
In spite of the uncertainty (the mayor, too, was unsure how this event would unfold), this Open House a success. Why would I say that? Two reason. First, because the people of Sooke finally had an official forum to communicate with the mayor. And second, because the mayor put herself out there, without a buffer of staff and council, to hear, respond to, and where necessary, look into questions from her constituents.
The mayor opened with updates on some of the activities with which the District is engaged. Mayor Maja Tait reported that about 384 people had been engaged with the draft Official Community Plan, which is currently being revised. Given a population of 12,000, this number is really small (3.2 per cent, according to my calculator). If anyone has ideas on how to increase those number of engagement—especially Sooke’s youth— she’s ready to listen. (Shhh… SPN has an idea, but that would involve a redistribution of taxpayer-funded District-administered advertising.)
The mayor was the only official who answered questions, which made sense as it was the Mayor’s Open House. The public asked good questions and offered insightful comments. The following, among other items, were touched upon by the citizens of Sooke:
- The Official Community Plan, and the importance of being guided by it,
- More manufactured homes as a way to address affordable housing in Sooke,
- The two-and-a-half-year waitlist to get a physician in Sooke,
- Creating a sidewalk(-and-other-sundry-stuff) slush fund from small developers (eg, instead of having them patch work a segment of sidewalk),
- Sooke as a water-front community,
- Leading on issues like environmental responsibility, like GMO labeling and eliminating plastic bags,
- Request for updates on Medical Dispensaries in Sooke,
- Developing common spaces, especially for youth but also for agencies, advocate groups and non-profits,
- Illegal parking on West Coast Road and possibly giving up on the un-used parking lot on Williams (Maple S.), which it appears isn’t being used much anyway,
- Food Security, and more.
Where possible, the mayor addressed the issues. Where not, she said she (and/or staff) would look into the matter.
Mayor Tait spoke to the commute being one of the (of many) impediments to attracting doctors, as jobs for their spouses also need to be accessible. She also noted that although Sooke had a rural designation, the province assign Sooke a urban collector designation, which meant that Langford would a primary source for the medical needs of Sooke residents. She acknowledged that Sooke has long sought a resolution on this issue and will continue to do so.
Mayor Tait mentioned that the new library is currently scheduled to open their doors in 2018, when talking to the matter of community spaces. There is also a Sooke Community Centre Advisory Committee meeting at 10 a.m. on Thursday. All meetings are open to the public.
Regarding the Medical Dispensaries, this is something the District is still working on, and it was addressed at the recent UBCM. Among other local options could be putting a moratorium on any applications for new Dispensaries. This is an issue that is on their radar.
The Mayor’s Open House was an opportunity for the people of Sooke to put forward the issues that mattered to them, directly to the mayor. The old format of the Committee of the Whole used to provide such an opportunity, but that was closed earlier this year (when the mayor was absent on mat leave) and public input was restricted to items listed on the agenda.
Council was to address that gap, which they have yet to do.
In the meanwhile, kudos to the mayor for standing before the people of Sooke, hearing their concerns, answering them where possible, and promising to get back to them one way or another when an answer was available. Kudos also to the Councillors who showed up and took an interest in hearing what issues interested and concerned the public.
I personally hope there will be more of these forums in the future, either by way of more Open Houses, or by re-instating the genuinely-public Public Input section on the Agenda of the Committee of the Whole. In the golden olden CoW days of 2015 and before, a citizen of Sooke was permitted two minutes to speak to any issue on their mind at the Public Input portion of the meeting. These days, the public can only speak to an item listed elsewhere on the agenda.
This Open House was a great reminder that politicians need to hear the concerns of the people in the community they serve. Listening to the electorate is not a once-every-four-years thing. A politician’s job is not to drive their own agendas but to represent the interest of their electorate when dealing with issues, following the legislated rules, while moving the community they serve into its future. Whatever that is to be.
It also drove home the point, at least to this observer, that people need a forum to speak.
Should a recording be made available by the District, SPN will append a link to this Opinion when it becomes available. If not, SPN has a recording that we will post in its stead.