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Belcarra heads to the polls after mayor steps down over wildfires

A councillor has already been replaced after he stepped down over ‘council disfunction’

Belcarra residents can head to the polls tomorrow to cast their vote early in a by-election.

The advance in-person voting takes place from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. — under social distancing protocols — at the village hall (4084 Bedwell Bay Rd.); general voting happens on Jan. 23.

The municipality called the by-election last month after mayor Neil Belenkie stepped down in October, citing with frustration with council on how to raise money for a water system to fight wildfires.

Coun. Robb Begg also quit over what he claimed was “council disfunction.” Last month, longtime Belcarra resident John Snell was acclaimed as councillor (see below).

Indeed, voter trust with the village council is the main campaign topic for the two mayoral candidates: Dr. Colm Cole and Jamie Ross, a former village councillor.

While both hope to mend ties with the community after the recent resignations, the two candidates also say they have different styles for governing and reaching out for public feedback.

DR. COLM COLE

Dr. Cole, who faced Ross and Belenkie in the last general election, told the Tri-City News he’s running on a platform of transparency, accessibility and fiscal responsibility. He’s pushing for open and clear communication with constituents — including on expenses — and “a return to honesty and trust in government,” he writes on his website, coleformayor.ca.

A part-time anesthesiologist at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver, Dr. Cole said he’s concerned about the divisiveness in Belcarra, specifically around the water supply to fight wildfires. “We need to work together,” he said. “We need to listen to the committees and tackle issues that have been around for a long time.”

A Belcarra resident since 1995, Dr. Cole said he wants to stop the council in-fighting and take a fresh approach. And he believes having no political experience is an asset for a leader though he has worked on various administrative boards and committees.

If elected, Dr. Cole wants votes to be recorded and village hall meetings taped, and he’s suggesting online polls so residents can give feedback quickly “so that we’re working for something that the majority wants,” he said.

As for the need for an increased water supply, Dr. Cole wants a system assessment to see what data is available. He also vowed to work with Metro Vancouver on a water solution as well as look at the Belcarra regional park parking demands.

With more than one million visitors a year, the park could use an outside parking lot and a shuttle people to the picnic grounds, he suggested. 

Dr. Cole is also in favour of replacing the fire hall if the village can afford it. “It would be easy to say we need a new building but it’s not reality. We need to make is safe for the volunteers but we also need to make it affordable for the village… because the village is not in good financial shape.”

JAMIE ROSS

Meanwhile, Jamie Ross (email: jamieross5@shaw.ca) told the Tri-City News that the mayoralty race presents “a real opportunity in the new year to move forward with some optimism.”

Unlike Dr. Cole, Ross believes having a background in politics is gives him a campaign edge as he already knows the legislative processes and procedures. “Skilled mayors reduce conflict,” he said. “I think we’ve had some challenging issues in Belcarra, and I have a leadership style that will allow council to function in an effective way.”

Ross said restoring confidence in the village council is key to moving forward. If elected, he wants councillors to have portfolios to handle specific municipal matters.

And though he respects the “very independent and different perspectives” in the community, he also wants council decisions to be fair and supportive to the people it serves; that means not discussing council’s in-camera decisions in public as per the provincial Community Charter, he said.

As well, Ross won’t permit debate in between the conclusion of a public hearing and before a council vote. 

“That didn’t happen in the previous council,” Ross said, adding, “When you come into any elected job, it’s a hard transition but there are some things that you have to be careful about. There has to be a fair process, and after we go through a difficult issue, we have to come together. We need to depend on each other because we’re so limited and isolated.”

On the water system, Ross — a retired SD43 educator and administrator who has lived in the village since 1989 — said he’s going to rely on “calm, reasoned discussion,” and he’ll work with the Sasamat Volunteer Fire Department and its trustees to assess the condition of the fire halls.

As for the Belcarra regional park parking crunch, Ross acknowledged the village has work to do with Metro Vancouver. He’s suggesting closing the park gates when the lot gets full, stepping up education and bylaw enforcement, and looking for external funding to help control the summer crowds.

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NEW COUNCILLOR

John Snell is Belcarra’s newest village politician.

Last month, the municipality acclaimed the 21-year resident following the departure of Coun. Robb Begg in October.

Snell, a father of three, is retired from his 45-year career in the recreational marine industry.

In a press release, he wrote that he’s committed to working with taxpayers and hearing all sides of issues. 

“Our council has the task of recognizing the village’s concerns and finding resolutions that, while not necessarily perfect, are fair, reasonable and acceptable to all parties,” he wrote. “I feel strongly that the work of residents on sub-committees should be respected and acknowledged, and their feelings and recommendations must be incorporated into any forward planning.”