We will not endorse a particular candidate in this by-election, but we are not shy about commenting on campaign conduct that readers may not yet have noticed, but that might bear on their informed candidate preference, or indeed their decision about whether or not to even vote. We share our observations about campaigning during a pandemic, trying to differentiate candidates based on watching All Candidate Meetings on Zoom, and conclude with specific concerns related to one of the candidates running to fill the vacant seat on Qualicum Beach’s Town Council.
One segment of voters (the “Decided”) consists of those whose choice for Councillor was made well before the by-election campaign began, either because a particular candidate would best serve that voter’s personal, short-term self-interest (like ensuring property rezoning and subdivisions get promptly approved) or because a candidate’s stated positions align closely to the voter’s own preferred Town ambience, amenities, and aspirations, often reflecting why the voter resides in Qualicum Beach in the first place. This article is unlikely to cause any of these voters to change their mind.
Another segment of voters (the “Undecided”) are genuinely keen to exercise their right to vote, and have been hoping that during the campaign the candidates would differentiate themselves in terms of knowledge, experience, skills, ideas, ethics, and availability to do the job well. As we explain below, these voters can be excused for still having some reservations, as opportunities to take the real measure of a candidate have been few.
Now, our motivational pitch for those who aren’t yet planning to vote.
Historically, by-election turnout in federal and provincial by-elections has been significantly lower than in General Elections (which themselves seldom draw more than 70% of eligible voters). The election results archived on the Town of Qualicum Beach website, dating back to 1993, indicate we have had no Council by-elections in that period. The best illustration of recent local municipal by-election turnout is the City of Parksville’s 2016 by-election to replace Al Greir — only 16.5% of eligible voters cast a vote (one in six). Only 5% of Parksville’s eligible voters actually voted for Mr. Greir’s replacement (one in 20), hardly a glowing testament to participatory democracy or to the winning candidate. So, only a self-selected few determined the results of the by-election and the future course of the City.
Does it matter who wins?
In May 2021 in the Town of Qualicum Beach IT DOES MATTER who wins the vacant council seat. Those who have been watching the naked power dynamics playing out on Town Council may recognize the thirst of Mayor Wiese and Councillor Harrison to have a ready third Council vote to enable them to push through their agenda with 3-2 split votes on a barrel full of contentious decisions that will reverberate through the Town for years after their current term on Council ends.
The stakes, affecting every resident and taxpayer of Qualicum Beach, are high. Because of the current make-up and demonstrated voting behaviours of our existing Council, this by-election will select THE single most powerful member on Council — the ONE person who will have the responsibility to the citizens of Qualicum Beach for making the right choice in a deciding vote whenever the other four are split 2 – 2, which, given the ‘legislative agenda’ on the books, promises to be ever more frequent, at least until the next general municipal election in eighteen months.
What have we learned so far about the candidates running in the by-election for this critical vacant Council seat?
A candidate in a provincial campaign once remarked that, while she enjoyed door knocking, it was gruelling. “Every four years, I strive to have 20,000 job interviews,” was her stated commitment to listening to her constituents in a private conversation on their doorstep.
In this by-election, how close can any of us get to that level of dialogue? Few of us answer door knocks at the best of times, let alone during the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. Nor would we want campaigners to put themselves at risk. How we miss small group meet-and-greets with candidates, even out-of-doors soaking up some sunshine at a picnic table in the park. Or stop-and-chats on a street corner. Real opportunities to take the measure of the candidate. How well do they think on their feet? How knowledgeable are they about the Town’s affairs — the state of our finances, the pros and cons of each major capital works project, the social, environmental, economic challenges affecting our residents? What creative ideas, experience, wisdom, critical thinking and judgment would they bring to the Council table to address these issues?
Two All Candidate Meetings open to the public (but available only for people equipped with computers and bandwidth) were recently organized, one by the Eaglecrest Residents’ Association (ERA) on April 27 and the other by the Qualicum Beach Residents’ Association (QBRA) on May 1st. Kudos to both the ERA and the QBRA for hosting these sessions for the benefit of QB voters, as well as to provide face time for the five candidates. And especially THANK YOU for recording the sessions in their entirety for delayed viewing (and not restricted to Facebook users):
Eaglecrest All Candidates Meeting recording https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gg8ftjXZXPE
QBRA All Candidates Meeting recording https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a_FwVjLhfFYC
Speaking to an audience that you cannot see, hear or sense their reaction is a challenge for anyone, even those of us who enjoy public speaking. So we can cut some slack for candidate stage nervousness on Zoom, especially given the ever present tick-tock time limit to answer questions, many of which deserved a longer, more nuanced discussion. However, it is difficult to gauge a candidate’s knowledge and speaking skills when the candidate reads much of their response to each question from prepared notes. Even worse, at least one candidate, Sarah Duncan, was obviously being fed answers and coaching from her assistant(s) sitting just out of camera range on her right. How would Ms. Duncan answer an impromptu question while sitting at the Council table, or in negotiation with senior government, without a crib sheet and personal assistant at her elbow? Based on these Zoom sessions, we just can’t tell. Nor could we gauge each candidate’s debating skill, as these tightly controlled Zoom sessions did not enable any informative thrust and parry.
Does the candidate have the necessary time to properly represent QB residents on Town Council?
This is an important question where we do see some strong differentiation. While compensation for Council members is traditionally a lightning rod, especially when the Council votes itself a raise without consulting voters first, any experienced and conscientious member of a municipal Council will tell you that their pay-per-hour of work approximates minimum wage. And they can get called on at any time of day or evening, weekends included. Being an effective Councillor is a time-consuming endeavour.
Two of the five candidates, Peter Kent and Anne Skipsey, know the required time commitment well, each having already served on a municipal Council. Both have existing family / work / volunteer commitments, but both also have control of their own schedule. Candidate Jean Young is a self-employed owner of a downtown retail shop, and has indicated she will add staffing at the store as required to enable her to attend to Council business. One candidate, Brian Denbigh, is retired; he is the least likely to encounter time conflicts.
That brings us to the fifth candidate, Sarah Duncan, who currently manages the Coastal Community Credit Union (CCCU) branch in Qualicum Beach. Ms. Duncan’s responses to a couple of questions at the recent All Candidate Meetings (ACMs) mentioned above left voters wondering about her understanding of, and commitment to, the workload expected of a Council member.
At the ERA’s ACM on April 27, a question was directed specifically to Ms. Duncan: “How will you balance your full-time responsibilities at the credit union and your Council responsibilities?” Her answer included “I have the ability to take the time off that I need from my job to be able to fulfil my job as a Council person.” Hmmm; memo to self, fact-check.
At the QBRA’s ACM on May 1, a similar question was asked of all candidates, including the very important: “How many hours per week would you anticipate as a Councillor to free up for Council related work?” Ms. Duncan’s answer included: “I do have a full-time job. I have worked out an arrangement with my employer that is going to allow me to have the time to serve as a Council person.” She did not state how many hours per week that would be, as had been asked.
The vagueness of both of these answers prompted us to fact-check. We contacted CCCU management to find out the specific terms and conditions of this time off “arrangement.” Turns out, according to Ms. Duncan’s immediate boss, CCCU’s commitment only includes “time away from her full time duties to attend routine town meetings.” [emphasis ours] Any time commitment beyond that would have to be requested and evaluated “against the priorities of the credit union at that time.”
The only “routine” QB Town Council meeting is the Wednesday morning Regular Council Meeting scheduled every third week. Voters can easily scroll down the list of recent Council meetings to see the numerous other ad hoc “Special” Council meetings, mostly held behind closed doors over the last few months. Specifically, in the 16 weeks between January 3 and April 24, 2021, there were only five Regular (routine, scheduled in advance) Council Meetings. However, there were 16 additional Special Council Meetings, Public Hearings, and Committee of the Whole Meetings requiring and expecting full Council attendance, not to mention preparation.
Were Ms. Duncan to be elected, and even if she simply hustled over to Town Hall for Council votes at all of these Council meetings, waited for her handlers to signal how she is to vote, then raised her hand, then hustled back to her credit union office, she would still be exceeding the “arrangement” with her employer as communicated to Second Opinion QB. And, in our opinion, she would not be “fulfilling” her job as a member of our Council.
This may appear unfairly harsh, but this conclusion is inescapable — Ms. Duncan is either attempting to deceive the voters of Qualicum Beach (about her availability to do the job properly) or she is attempting to deceive her employer (about the amount of time she would need to commit to fulfil even minimum Council duties). Whichever it is, Ms. Duncan, in our opinion, has disqualified herself as a candidate suitable for election to Council — a position that relies so heavily in earning and keeping the public’s trust. As Sir Walter Scott penned two centuries ago, O what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.
Do the candidates come into the job without bias, prejudice and undisclosed loyalties to special interests?
Many if not most Council decisions are complicated, often requiring trade-offs and compromises. Governance of the Town is, by design, vested in a multi-person Council. The public expects fulsome discussion of the pros and cons of any proposed action, conducted by five unbiased, well-informed leaders who listen to each other’s position, often having to park their own personal opinions in striving for group consensus. Frankly, in the year that we at Second Opinion QB have been watching and analyzing, the current conduct of Qualicum Beach Council, facilitated by Mayor Brian Wiese, is not coming anywhere close to this not unreasonable expectation. By itself, this by-election is not going to solve the problem. But, after this by-election, it could slowly get better, or it could conceivably get worse.
The land lobby driven by personal financial interests, as well as their more visible inside agents, have become noticeably more aggressive in this past year. For example, in a previous article, Mayor’s haste to grease skids for Pheasant Glen, we reported that Advisory Planning Commission chair Bill Scott in his full-throated support for the most recent Pheasant Glen proposal, revealed considerable bias and probably lost credibility with many community members when he enthusiastically declared: “This is a beautiful opportunity to kill this ongoing problem of Council trying to deal with the aspects of the population of Qualicum who are adamant about this staying where it is and the more enlightened individuals who understand that this property will sit stagnant forever without some changes to the approach.”
Scott’s jaw-dropping disdain for the “unenlightened” citizens of QB was recently echoed by Sarah Duncan, the land lobby’s preferred candidate in this Council by-election, who in reading her closing remarks at the May 1st all candidates meetings said, “In this by-election, the residents of Qualicum Beach have two choices — live in the past, or welcome a bright and fresh future.”
After that jarring statement of prejudice against those in Qualicum Beach who prefer prudent, controlled, thoughtful enhancements to our Town, respectful of our heritage and the idyll created by generations of leaders working with QB citizens, Ms. Duncan went on to read, with a straight face, “I have the courage and integrity to execute the best decision without prejudice.”
Please vote — it does make a difference.