Race to watch: New Westminster mayor hoping to stay on while council could change

Pattullo Bridge is seen here in this photo. Candidates for mayor and council say traffic congestion is a key election issue for residents in this upcoming vote.
Pattullo Bridge is seen here in this photo. Candidates for mayor and council say traffic congestion is a key election issue for residents in this upcoming vote. TransLink

In an election season with so much uncertainty, New Westminster is in a unique situation.

Mayor Jonathan Cote is running for re-election with three people putting their names forward to challenge him. But it’s on council where — if Cote wins again — he may be surrounded by some new faces.

Some of the veteran councillors are not running again and a slate of candidates who have challenged the mayor’s priorities are making a strong run for those – and the other – seats.

There are four candidates running for mayor and 14 candidates running for council on Oct. 20. The big question that faces the city is massive growth and development that needs a local government to lead and meet those needs.

“Our city is going through a metamorphosis. A lot of people from Burnaby and Vancouver are looking to move to New West. It’s more affordable, it’s on this side of the bridge,” said Daniel Fontaine, a candidate for city council with the New West Progressives.

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“It’s been kind of the city that people just kind of skipped over and went to Surrey but New West is now going through a metamorphosis.”

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But with change and development comes the need for infrastructure, affordable housing and amenities in the community.

Fontaine tells Global News the rapid pace of growth is something he has been hearing as a concern from voters.

“This is not unlike other cities, but we’re such an old city, we’re the original capital city, a lot of our infrastructure is actually quite old in New Westminster and there’s, what we’re calling a public amenities deficit in New West,” Fontaine said.

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“If you look at what they’ve done in Burnaby, Coquitlam, other cities, they’ve really reinvested all that development growth as translated into new rinks and pools and community centres and schools and that kind of stuff. You look around our community and to a person I’ve spoken to, they all feel that we’re not actually keeping up with neighbouring municipalities when it comes to our infrastructure. So that’s really resonated with the public, I know that’s something I’ve been really hearing a lot about the concern and what are we doing, we’ve just approved a new official community plan, we’re looking at adding I think another 25,000 new people and is that going to add more pressure to aging facilities?”

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Cote, a one-term mayor, agrees that housing affordability and community infrastructure are key issues going into this election and he’s proud of the work council has done over the past four years.

“I think the housing affordability has become one of the most critical issues in Metro Vancouver, and no doubt it’s a challenge in New Westminster, but we put forward a really successful rental housing program, which protected our existing older rental buildings,” Cote said.

“We haven’t had a single older building demolished over the past four years. We also provided a lot of incentives on the development on new rental housing, and we have either under construction or finished 1,000 rental units in the city of New Westminster. Those are policies we are very proud of.”

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Cote said the city has also made available some of its land for non-market housing projects in conjunction with non-profits.

“There’s a whole host of programs that the city of New Westminster has been working on to deal with housing issues,” he said. “Having said that, I think we have a lot more to do because the housing crisis in Metro Vancouver continues to be a huge challenge. I think we have more policies to work on to better protect renters in our communities.”

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In 2014, all six councillors elected and Cote were endorsed by the New Westminster and District Labour Council.

Fontaine says he has been hearing this is a source of frustration for some residents.

“In the last four years, there’s been a bit of frustration from the community that they go to council and they feel like this particular caucus already has their minds made up,” he said.

“So going into this election, I think there’s a sense that perhaps the pendulum has swung too far by electing everyone from the same party, there hasn’t been that balance on the council.”

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Fontaine is one of four New West Progressives candidates running for council seats.

“It’s actually forced the current council to, not quite become an elector organization, they became something they call Team Cote, which is what they’ve branded themselves. They’re all quote, unquote, independent candidates, but they’re campaigning together, they’re sharing campaign resources, they’re advertising together.”

“I think [voters] are looking for people with a bit more business acumen, people who understand that if you’re going to be a 35-storey tower in the city, what can we negotiate from the developer to help benefit the whole community?” Fontaine added.

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One person who is critical of the current mayor and council is mayoral candidate Harm Woldring.

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“The people of New Westminster deserve far better treatment than they’re getting from the current mayor and council,” he told Global News.

“The City of New Westminster collects 75-odd million dollars a year in tax revenue and spends $81 million a year here on salaries. They raise their own salaries two per cent a year every year, which means taxes go up two per cent a year every year and the people in New Westminster can’t afford it. It’s ridiculous.”

“That’s the primary reason I’m running. They do a bad job.”

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Woldring also says rapid development and lack of infrastructure is something that needs to be part of a better plan for the city.

“So I’m angry, and a lot of people in New West are angry about the massive over-development in downtown and the lack of infrastructure to support it,” he said. “Also, the reduced traffic flow in New West. New Westminster has gone from six-lane roads to two-lane roads and squeezed all the traffic out because they want to be pedestrian-friendly. Well, I understand the need to be pedestrian-friendly but is the only way to achieve it by cutting off lanes of traffic?”

“The problem in New West is that everything comes from the top down.”

For the past 14 years, Woldring has owned The Wine Factory, a craft wine business in New Westminster.

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“I run a small business and we pay 3.6 times more than a residential person for taxes. We pay the highest water and sewer rates in the Lower Mainland. Why? So they can make profits and put it in the bank?”

He says the current council is overpaying themselves and raising taxes for residents, which people just can’t afford.

“We have a lot of retired people living in New West on fixed incomes. A two per cent raise in their taxes, they’re deferring their taxes now. Why? Because they don’t have cash enough to pay the taxes because it’s four, five thousand dollars a year,” Woldring said.

“The whole thing stinks.”

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For Cote, he is focusing on his platform of 50 ideas in 50 days leading up to election day. Every day he is launching a new idea to deal with a variety of issues he considers important to the community.

“From housing affordability to community amenity to access to our recreational services, to sustainable transportation,” Cote said. “I really enjoy being able to engage with the residents when a new idea comes out.”

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Jimmie Bell and Nikki Binns are also running for the mayor’s seat in New Westminster.

But Cote and Fontaine agree: the race for council seats might be more interesting on Oct. 20.

“We’ve got a couple of long-term veteran councillors have retired, and there are a lot of really interesting new candidates that put their name forward,” Cote said.

With more and more people looking to move to New West, Fontaine says they are in a good position to shape the future of the city.

“I’m so passionate about this, I just feel that if we’re going to densify, and we’re seeing this around multiple municipalities in the Lower Mainland, if we’re going to densify, quid pro quo and all that, then the community has to benefit,” Fontaine said.

“It shouldn’t be a negative, it should be a positive.”

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“And right now, I can’t tell you how many people have told me, they’re worried about more traffic congestion, they’re worried about more portables, so it’s almost pushing people into not supporting densification, not supporting growth, because they’re worried that their government doesn’t have a plan to actually address all the new people that are coming in.”

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For Fontaine personally, he is hoping to be elected to make a difference in sports and recreation for the people of New Westminster.

Fontaine was not going to run for public office but when the roof of the Arenex building in Queen’s Park collapsed under the weight of snow almost two years ago, Fontaine said he knew he wanted to throw his hat into the ring.

“For me, my own personal passion, I’d like to see a really strong, and that’s something I’ll advocate for, a really strong plan to develop new arenas and work with the provincial and federal government to get money and infrastructure dollars to get money to rebuild the Arenex,” Fontaine said.

“For us in New West, I think the race is going to be one that is less focused on the mayor and it will be one focused on the council because [the New West Progressives] are running four candidates so if we were to win all four of those seats we would have a majority on the city council.”

“So that is where everyone’s been focused on right now is the city council and how many New West Progressives will win and whether or not the current mayor will be able to retain control of that council given that he had seven nothing last time, will he be able to maintain it there? Will he be able to sweep it again?” added Fontaine.

“That’s kind of the big story right now.”