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JONESIE: What the battle for Kelowna mayor is really all about

October 18, 2018 - 3:59 PM

 


OPINION


Kelowna residents have a choice for mayor but I think there's something else going on from the two main campaigns. Revenge, perhaps. 

When Colin Basran was first elected as councillor, he was supported by Kelowna’s right and in his 2014 mayoral election campaign, he was the free-enterprise candidate against Sharon Shepherd.

But Basran and the team that got him elected as Mayor in 2014 — many of the same players on his team again this year — are solid federal Liberals.

They moved largely en masse from his campaign to help Liberal Steve Fuhr pull off a stunning upset in Kelowna-Lake Country in 2015 and unseated two-term Conservative Party of Canada MP, former Kelowna city councillor and all-round swell guy, Ron Cannan.

Cannan is now on Dyas’s team and as we already know, the knives are out for Basran personally. But rarely has that campaign fully articulated why they're out to get him. Some vague notions of back-stabbing, not listening, and generally not getting their way on some chamber issues while Dyas was president.

But I think it goes deeper because the links between these two mayoral camps and federal politics doesn't end there.

Fuhr and Basran have been working in tandem for some time. When Basran fired the first shot in the War of the Water Boards, Fuhr loaded the pistol. In February 2016, he went public on the issue saying “amalgamation is the only thing that makes sense” and reminding people — quite appropriately — that even if he can find federal money for water, the irrigation districts legally can not take it — only the city can.

That’s also just true and for the greater good, and isn’t necessarily politicking. But if that doesn’t pass a smell test for you, how about this?

This week, Fuhr lobbed a softball to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during question period in the House of Commons about the country’s homelessness plans. Then Trudeau stood up and read a prepared statement thanking Fuhr “and Kelowna mayor Colin Basran for working to combat a problem that affects every community.”

How fortunate he said that a few days before Basran is up for re-election. (I first saw this on the City of Kelowna Facebook feed. Does no one else see a problem here? How did this get by the city clerk?).

Side note: Yesterday was Weed Day in Canada but you might recall Justin Trudeau made his first noise about legalization — not just decriminalization — as an opposition party leader here in Kelowna. And Colin Basran, then a councillor, was there to give him a warm, personal welcome.

Colin Basran and Justin Trudeau in Kelowna July 23, 2013.
Colin Basran and Justin Trudeau in Kelowna July 23, 2013.

I always wondered why Basran seemed a little shy about that. But I think that's the real fight behind this election.

I don’t claim to know everyone around Dyas, but among his nominators, social media and public supporters, there’s another former Conservative MP, Al Horning. I count three people who have donated to the Conservative Party in the past including Garry Benson.

Benson was one of Basran’s biggest supporters when he first ran for council in 2011 — his campaign manager, in fact. I have no idea where Benson’s allegiance was in the last civic election but this year, Benson is Dyas’s campaign manager. He published a release this week explaining in vague terms why he no longer supports Basran: “Leadership” not “effectively engag(ing) the community” and “not fulfilling the commitments he has made.”

No specifics. (I have asked for an interview, heard nothing yet.)

Benson donated to MP Cannan in 2005 and the Conservatives in 2015. Was that what happened between them? He figured out his young grasshopper was pulling for another team?

Another of Dyas’s nominators — and past Conservative party donor — is David Langton. He was part of the old FourChange Kelowna — a group created in the 2011 election to target four lefty councillors for replacement by four righty councillors of their choosing.

They claimed to have 200 members in their group, most of them anonymous.

Basran was one of their selections and he got in. All four councillors they targeted lost that election.

FourChange and its various iterations over the years has been eerily silent in this campaign.

Does this help explain the deep acrimony between camps?

Dyas started by attacking Basran’s leadership and business-tending bona fides in the Costco letter, implied Basran wasn’t honest, and clearly supports the independent water boards who said they were stabbed in the back by the Mayor.

They appear prepared to salt the earth in their attacks. When long-time former councillor Andre Blanleil — very much a right of centre business-representative on city matters — endorsed Basran, he was attacked and pilloried personally in a letter to the editor by Cindy Cannan, wife of the former MP.

At that, social media feeds lit up with indignant Basran supporters for a low blow.

But don’t kid yourself, here. Supporters from both sides were engaged in dirty tricks. I have been slipped ‘story suggestions’ about very personal issues — none related to politics — about other high-profile Basran endorsers.

Basran supporters have been passing around a list of lawsuits Dyas has been involved in from the past 20 or so years and making way too much of it. There’s eight. Most of them are small claims, a divorce and some business complications — nothing unusual for any active business person.

I got two phone calls from a blocked number before this anonymous message: “Tom Dyas… has eight civil lawsuits… and so basically he is the kind of slimy politician that everyone makes jokes about but it’s actually true…. This is definitely the story Kelowna will want to hear about. You know, water amalgamation and other minor details pale in comparison to what I just saw there. I think the public needs to know who they’re voting for.”

Anonymous caller says water is less important than the number eight. Got it.

***

All this may be interesting back story but doesn’t help us figure out who is going to be mayor.

Dyas is clearly on the right in local issues. He wants an audit of city financing and challenges the 16 per cent increase in taxes over the past four years, ‘safe streets’ and greater public engagement.

He appears to have plenty of support from Kelowna Chamber of Commerce members, business, some agriculture, presumably everyone who supports the independent water boards and a bunch of motivated, pissed off Conservatives.

Basran’s messaging is about ‘balance’ ‘progressive vision for all of Kelowna.’ He still touts plenty of economic and business support but probably veers farther from his old friends on the right with his vocal support for gender inclusion and probably his support for a homeless strategy too.

He has plenty of high-profile public endorsements, the firefighters, arts and culture and plenty of business support himself and not small ones.

If I were to go simply by social media, Basran is going to win this fight handily. Dyas’s social media campaign has been fairly stagnant, not a lot going on.

But if Basran is nervous, maybe it’s because he’s wondering how much support he sacrificed courting and securing the right seven and four years ago, then turning to reveal his allegiance to a federal party on their left. How many of those people are talking behind closed doors, not publicly on social media?

It’s not that Basran was ever fully ‘to the right.’ That balance suited him well when he walked into the mayor’s office and in tackling city issues. I don’t think he has too many blemishes there. But being an avowed supporter of a political party that divides your base and perhaps even took them by surprise? 

I suspect that’s why I’m also getting ‘story ideas’ about Basran’s aspirations for higher office. I'm sure that’s true.

Of course, not everyone in Dyas’s coalition is a Conservative, but among the anti-Basran coalition, another common theme emerges.

The water boards say Basran turned on them and clearly he did. He represented the city in an agreement, then essentially turned 180 degrees once he became mayor. I think plenty of farmers hear his rhetoric but are skeptical about their place in Basran's Kelowna. Dyas, his former friend, says Basran said one thing and did another. Garry Benson doesn’t do things lightly, I don’t think, and he turned on Basran. There’s more but that’s enough.

Did you know Colin before he was mayor? Tell me you haven’t seen a drastic change in him, personally, since then. I’ve known him, though not very well, for a long time. I’ve seen it. I know exactly what they’re talking about.

The question is how much it matters.

Basran’s record over the past four years is impressive by any objective standard, as is the city’s. He’s changed, yes, but part of that may be growing into the role. Councillors I know and trust say he is a great leader and precisely because he doesn’t see issues from one side. He’s not always trying to please one base.

That’s what you want in municipal politics.

Basran didn’t act much like a first term mayor. Many mayors show up for the grip-and-grins, worry about running meetings and making sure everyone’s happy and hide from the issues. To his credit, Basran didn’t. He was active and out-front, bold in his water strategy, I suppose because he had to be, and has led — the proper way — on the speculation tax.

He’s made unpopular decisions because he thought they were right. He voted against big developments, sacrificed votes to walk the walk on supportive housing, champions Journey Home but still supported the sidewalk-loitering bylaw and we’ll see what Bill McKinnon says after the election about strategies for making things safer and cleaner for downtown businesses and residents.

He’s done plenty to earn another four years, certainly if the alternative has never served on council and would only slow down momentum on important issues. If character is truly an issue for Basran as mayor, if not personally, the size of that issue will be fully exposed by then.

If he’s listening to the criticisms of his enemies and is learning from them, Basran should do better. If he wins another election, as I expect he will, he should be emboldened.

And he’ll need that leverage against the water boards and to move Journey Home forward.

— Marshall Jones is the editor of iNFOnews.ca

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