The Skaha Park waterslide controversy was a lightning-rod issue in the South Okanagan town of Penticton, B.C. three years ago, and voters did not forget. Now it cost the mayor his job.
Incumbent Andrew Jakubeit lost his bid for a second term to former longtime city councillor John Vassilaki.
Vassilaki earned 5,144 votes, which is more than double the number of people who voted for Jakubeit. The incumbent came in third with 2,564 votes.
All parties agree, it was the waterslides that did him in.
In 2015, savvy businessmen approached Penticton city council with an opportunity to revitalize the Skaha Lake waterfront at the city’s south end.
The city entered a partnership agreement with Trio Marine Group to upgrade the marina and surrounding lands with an expanded facility, restaurant and waterslide attraction.
The prospect of commercializing a scenic chunk of municipally-owned Skaha Park invigorated a movement Penticton had not experienced in years.
Hundreds of people descended on city hall in protest. Grassroots groups were formed to protect the park. Litigation swirled.
The city, Trio and legal counsel went back to the drawing board and amended the initial plan, opting to remove the waterslide park altogether, along with other changes.
WATCH BELOW: Controversy in Penticton continues over Skaha Park development
That didn’t appease most of those opposed. Eventually the deal with Trio was terminated. Taxpayers were left on the hook for a $200,000 termination fee.
It was early in Jakubeit’s first term as mayor. He initially supported the project, but looking back Jakubeit said the way city council handled the issue is his greatest regret.
“Even though that was the first half of our term, that legacy, because it took so long, there was probably a lot of animosity that had built up and that was hard for some people to let go of,” he said.
Jakubeit said park protection legislation has been passed since then and transparency and accountability has been strengthened at city hall.
“Unfortunately the mayor becomes the lightening rod and everyone looks at them as if it was their idea or their plan, that’s the reality of politics which I accept.”
Mayor-elect Vassilaki, 72, agreed the Skaha Park waterslide controversy contributed to Jakubeit’s demise.
“He just went the opposite direction of what not only the seniors but the middle-aged people also wanted in a community. Parks to them are sacred and they are sacred to me too.”
Vassilaki said he opposes the commercialization of parks and will not let history repeat itself.
“We should keep it for our future generations. That is very very important to me.”
Lisa Martin, spokesperson for the Save Skaha Park Society, is celebrating the election results.
“We’re delighted that John Vassilaki is our new mayor,” she said.
Martin said council couldn’t shake the controversy that erupted early in their term.
“Unfortunately it tainted that council and it’s been demonstrated that they were not able to rise above it,” she said.
Martin said the society did not outright ask its 5,100 members to vote for Vassilaki. Instead, the group sent questions to mayoral and council hopefuls specifically on park protection. The answers were distributed.
“We sent all of those out to our members and knowing that they’re all intelligent people, they can all make up their own mind,” she said.
Voter turnout was up significantly in Penticton at 41 per cent of the electorate.
A total of 10,883 votes were cast out of 26,502 eligible voters.
That is up from the 33 per cent voter turnout in the 2014 race, when Vassilaki lost to Jakubeit.
A lot can change in four years.
Jake Kimberley, Campbell Watt, Frank Regehr, Julius Bloomfield, Katie Robinson and Judy Sentes have been elected as city councillors.