Candidates in Vernon’s municipal election squared off at an all-candidates forum Saturday, Sept. 24.
About 100 spectators filled the Vernon and District Performing Arts Centre for the environment-focused forum, hosted by the Sustainable Environment Network Society (SENS) and Climate Action Now!
Two out of three mayoral candidates appeared at the forum: Scott Anderson and incumbent Victor Cumming, with Erik Olesen absent.
On the councillor side, only Andy Wylie was absent. The 12 present candidates were Jenelle Brewer, Teresa Durning, Kelly Fehr, Kari Gares, Brian Guy, Ross Hawse, Stephanie Hendy, Akbal Mund, Brian Quiring, Ed Stranks, Dawn Tucker and Patrick Vance.
Moderator Jon Corbett kicked things off with a double-barreled question, asking candidates whether they would approve the budget for the City of Vernon’s climate action plan, as well as their take on the most important component of the city’s official community plan (OCP), which is due for an update.
Hendy was in line with all of the candidates in supporting the budget for the climate action plan, at least in principle.
She said the aspect of the OCP that will have the biggest impact is “making it very clear what consists of greenfield responsible development and doing a brownfield land survey so we can better utilize the existing land in Vernon so that we don’t have excessive urban sprawl and we can build more walkable communities.”
Tucker said when it comes to the OCP, one of the most important parts is “getting education when it comes to resident feedback, making sure residents understand the importance of it and then working our way into implementing what’s already there.”
The candidates were asked what they believe is the most effective way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the local transportation sector.
Durning, who is an incumbent after winning a byelection in December 2021, said the Neuron e-scooters have been a great addition to the community. She also advocated for on-demand transit and said the city should “continue on with our active transportation corridor and the bike lanes and encouraging people to cycle.”
Seeking a third term on council, Mund said the city has done a great job on the transportation file over the past eight years.
“We’ve increased our infill housing tenfold, created probably double the biking lanes within the community, obviously we have the scooters, we allow skateboarding on the sidewalks (and) we’ve called for smaller buses,” he said.
Guy, co-chair of the city’s climate action plan, said the city needs to strongly lobby the higher levels of government to meet the plan’s emissions targets.
“In fact we need more than funding from the federal and provincial governments. We need stronger policy support from both levels of government,” Guy said.
Stranks said more affordable housing in the downtown would help cut emissions from commuters.
“The affordability of housing in the city is such that people now are living out in Spallumcheen and Armstrong, Lumby and they’re commuting all the way in,” he said. “We need to do some work especially with the OCP and zoning bylaws to create affordable housing close to downtown such that we actually can compete with these other communities.”
Stranks’ answer was a nice segue into a question on affordable housing. Candidates were asked if they would support a bylaw requiring developers to provide 30 to 50 per cent of their units as affordable housing.
Quiring, who is seeking a fourth term, said he would not support a mandated affordable housing requirement as it would “stop development.”
“What you need to do is instead of mandating it is you need to provide incentives, bonus densities, through that vehicle of affordable housing,” he said.
Cumming disagreed with the bonus density strategy, saying it works better in large cities with tall buildings.
“That doesn’t match our OCP and it doesn’t match our community,” he said. “We need a different style of housing that is more focused on three floor walk-up kind of situations, and therefore we need to target affordable housing, we need to target attainable housing with other mechanisms that are more specific.”
Anderson “absolutely supports” affordable housing but said it will not solve the housing crisis. “It serves a very small portion of what we need,” he said, adding attainable housing is what will satisfy the city’s housing requirements.
“One of the main drivers of the price increase is the fact that we don’t have enough — it’s a scarcity issue,” said Anderson.
Incumbent Fehr, chair of Vernon’s Affordable Housing Advisory Committee, said there are a number of steps to follow in the recently completed Housing Action Plan, including having the city offer up land and partnering with the province to put housing in.
“The time to pick the right property was 10 years ago,” he said.
“Families are struggling and we need affordable and attainable housing, and we need it now.”
Asked what steps must be taken in the next four years to adapt to the adverse effects of climate change, Brewer said the work she’s done on a wildfire recovery management project for the Okanagan Indian Band has prepared her for responding to climate emergencies.
“It’s important that we make plans, that we protect our people and look at making sure that we have secure infrastructure so that we are supported as a community in the future,” she said.
Corbett asked candidates how low-income residents can take part in climate solutions, since they can’t afford electric cars or expensive renovations.
Hawse said for families living paycheque to paycheque, the last thing on their minds is the environment.
“I think we have to make it so the majority of income is not being paid on rent,” Hawse said. “It all starts with housing.”
Incumbent Gares said it was a difficult question to answer, adding she’s always had concerns when governments make things mandatory. She said making projects more expensive to build will only drive up the price, and ultimately people on the lower end of the economic spectrum will foot the bill.
“When it comes to things what can we do to help, one of those things is make things easier to build, build things faster, streamline the process,” Gares said.
There was a lot of good will expressed between candidates as Corbett asked them to name something they admire about one another. Vance, in an emotional moment near the end of the forum, named the late Dalvir Nahal – a former city councillor who died of cancer in September 2021 – as a person who helped make her community better in myriad ways.
“I really think that we can’t go without mentioning her incredible spirit,” Vance said tearfully. “She was a cheerleader to every single person around her…I really miss her and I think she deserves a moment of recognition.”