The Town of Port McNeill’s All Candidates Meeting last Wednesday night (Sept. 28) was indeed a lively one.
Hosted by the Port McNeill & District Chamber of Commerce, the Gate House Theatre was packed with residents who were all interested in hearing from the six councillor candidates and two mayoral candidates running for office.
The Town of Port McNeill has five seats at the council table to fill, and the meeting kicked off at 7 p.m. sharp with three minute opening speeches from the candidates. Incumbent mayoral candidate Gaby Wickstrom was the first to speak, using her time to talk about what she and her council had accomplished over the last four years.
“What has Gaby done? That’s a valid question,” Wickstrom said. “My challenge, ask me. Visit my website. And I can promise you, it’s a lot more than I can cover in this three minuter opener.”
James Furney was the next in line, explaining why he made the important decision to run for mayor of Port McNeill.
“It’s [because of] the wide variety of people, old and new, that share the love for this region,” he said. “Those people, from all walks of life, who have found some disillusionment with our town and our town council in its repeated asks from them, is why I’m up here tonight. It was not my plan to run for mayor, but enough pressure was applied by people I care about and who care about this town.”
Incumbent councillor candidates Ann-Marie Baron and Shelley Downey were next after that, with both of them explaining how their last four years in the office were and what their plans for another term will be.
“[The] 2018-2022 council term was an interesting learning curve,” said Baron. “I believe I was a rational and respectful voice and a good representative for Port McNeill.”
Baron added council needs to “foster our town and what makes it great.”
Downey said council has had a busy four years in spite of COVID-19 and a nearly eight-month logging strike causing havoc. “The greatest satisfaction I’ve had this term is seeing the establishment of a tourism commission… We now have an active committee made up of members of the community and are looking forward to what can be done to promote our town and fill out that sector for our economy.”
Dawn Harilstad spoke next, reminding everyone of her 19 years of previous experience as a town councillor. “After serving as the longest [running] councillor for the Town of Port McNeill, I retired… When elected I said I would never promise something that I couldn’t do or get done, and tonight I’m saying the same thing to you. I can only give you my best.”
Michelle Carson was up after that, telling everyone about her background and why she wants to run for councillor. “I like construction, I like hard work, and I like working with my hands,” she said. “Council will be all hands on deck, and mine are ready. I’ll be an asset to the community if elected because I grew up here, I care about the community, I’ve sat in on many council meetings and have a real understanding of not only how to conduct myself, but also how to stand up for issues that are important for our community.”
Leighann Ruel was next, noting she was honoured to be running for a seat at the council table. “I’ve always been active in the community and I’ve always been known to wear many different hats within the community.”
Ruel added she believes in “the strength and unity of community and I believe it starts with healthy families, a vibrant community, and a strong local ecomony.”
Stephanie J. Coe was the final councillor candidate to speak, explaining her background and why she’s running for office. “We’re undergoing a lot of social change now,” Coe said. “It’s really hard to navigate social change and I think it’s important that we take some of the direction from organizational change management and look at that with our community, because our community is changing, the demographics are changing.”
With the three minute opening speeches out of the way, Eric Dutcyvich, president of Port McNeill & District Chamber of Commerce, moved into questions that were submitted by local residents.
The first question was about how to fund the most significant changes in each candidates’ platform.
Wickstrom said it would really depend on the project. “In some cases we can budget or use reserve funds, depending on the scope of the project we can apply for a grant and if supported by the majority of the community we can borrow money as well. In the case of redesigning the old school, I would suggest a combination of community forest funds, grant money, and borrowing.”
Furney said a penny saved is two pennies earned. “The outlandish spending currently on consultants and an engineer for the town for our new OCP [Official Community Plan], which I understand was budgeted at about $75,000 and is likely double that, is an assault on us taxpayers, so I have pretty firm opinions on where we can find some money, and that would largely be in stop spending and wasting the money.”
Baron said the town’s community forest funds are available for big projects, Downey said the town has a full time Chief Financial Officer to manage the town’s numbers and look out for its interests, Harilstad said the question was irrelevant until she becomes a councillor and is privy again to the town’s finances, Carson said if there’s grant money to be had why not grab it and also use funds from the town if they have to, Ruel said she agrees with Wickstrom as it depends on the project and what funds are allocated during budget planning, and Coe said there’s huge amounts of funding out there from the federal and provincial governments that can be applied for.
The next question was a two-parter about the future of the waterfront property known as Hoy Bay and Indigenous rights and title.
Coe said Hoy Bay should be left for the community and not subdivided and sold as properties, Ruel said it’s well utilized as it is now but she would love to see the trail system developed more, Carson said if residents want to leave it the same that’s okay but if they want to think big she sees ocean view condos that could be developed, Harilstad said Hoy Bay has always been considered a park and it needs to stay as a designated park, Downey said she would like to see the land developed, Baron said ultimately they need to have a plan in place to move forward on Hoy Bay, Furney said he has a strong attachment to the land and it’s always been a park and he’s not interested in seeing it developed as anything but what it was originally intended, and Wickstrom agreed with Baron that they need a plan in place to help decide whether to develop the area or not.
All candidates were in support of Indigenous rights and title and working together to create a better future for all.
The town’s housing crisis was next on the agenda.
Wickstrom said they could create a development plan for Pioneer Hill and put it out to tender, Furney said with the town’s new zoning bylaw they can move forward with developing Pioneer Hill, Baron said they need to have a process in place to allow if someone wants to build a carriage house that they can actually get the permits through, Downey said they need to get input from developers on potential sites in town, Harilstad said this issue has been going on for years now and she thinks they should bring in a developer with a stipulation to build in two years, Carson echoed Harilstad and said the solution is to build and there’s several different places with land available, Ruel said she would like to see a plan to ensure there is mixed housing options available, and Coe said there’s lots of private land they could look into purchasing for development and she’d like to see zoning for small houses.
The next question was on the current values of tax that businesses are paying in the community.
Coe said she’s heard businesses are struggling and it’s definitely an issue, Ruel said she can’t answer the question as she doesn’t know what taxes businesses pay, Carson also passed on answering the question, Harilstad said maybe businesses with empty lots should be paying more to entice them to develop it, Downey confirmed business tax rates have been moving up alongside residential taxes, Baron said business taxes haven’t been a huge focus the last four years and maybe it could be a strategic priority for the next council, Furney said taxes should be kept low because online shopping is causing major issues for small businesses in town, and Wickstrom agreed with Downey that taxes have gone up and she thinks the rates are fair.
Tearing down or rebuilding the old school was the next issue to be debated.
Wickstrom said its out of reach for the town to build a brand new building and it’s better to rebuild and rebrand the old school to make it economically viable, Furney said the old school isn’t salvageable and its time to put it to bed and sell it, Baron said there needs to be functional discussions and they need to go with what the experts suggest, Downey said they need a cost benefit analysis done on the old school to see if it’s worth trying to salvage, Harilstad said she believes they should sell it with stipulations in place because its time to stop spending money on it, Carson said an analysis needs to be done on whether to fix the old school versus tear it down, Ruel said its going to cost money either way and she’d like to see the building removed and replaced with a multi-use building, and Coe said they should tear it down and replace it with a two-storey multi-agency-multi-purpose building.
The candidate to candidate portion of the event was next. Coe was the only candidate to ask another candidate a legitimate question.
“Gaby, you said the population of Port McNeill was 3,400? According to the census 2021 it’s 2,356… where did you get that number from?” she wondered.
Wickstrom clarified it was just a typo and should have read 2,400.
The floor was then opened for questions from the public, but no one asked one, so Dutcyvich went back to asking pre-selected questions, with the last one being what Port McNeill can do to attract business.
Wickstrom said they need to tell the story of the community better than they currently are, Furney said the town should get out of the way of business and let it come to them, Baron said the town’s procedures need to be looked at to make sure they’re friendly and easy to deal with, Downey said they need available housing and better health care and daycare to attract business, Harilstad said they should give a tax break for a few years to encourage businesses to come to the town, Carson said they need development all around, Ruel said she agrees with all the other candidates, and Coe said it’s hard to navigate information about Port McNeill and they need to do better with helping people start businesses.
After that, the All Candidates Meeting came to an end with brief closing speeches from the candidates thanking everyone for attending in person.
Voting day is Saturday, Oct. 15.
Watch the full video from the meeting below