There was tension in the air as the mayoral candidates paced the Integris Community Theatre stage in Nechako Valley Secondary School before their debate.
It was the first debate-style forum that incumbent mayor Gerry Thiessen and his opponent Justus Benckhuysen had taken part in and the stakes were large; the big office in the municipal building, mere steps away on Connaught Street.
While Thiessen concentrated on his successes within the role and the existing relationships he has built, Benckhuysen focused in on the importance of accountability for mayor and council as well as the need for more transparency.
Although there was some disagreement on the finer points, for the most part the two candidates seemed to be on the same page as to what’s important for Vanderhoof.
The candidates were each allowed an opening statement and then two debate periods followed. Each candidate chose a topic to debate, which they shared with their opponent beforehand, to ensure adequate research and preparation was done.
A short break followed the debate during which audience members had the option of writing questions, which were chosen by scrutineers and then answered in the second half.
Thiessen’s opening statements drew attention to his family’s long history in Vanderhoof.
“My grandparents came her 76 years ago and they came here because they liked what they saw. There was fresh air, there was the ability to farm and when they couldn’t make enough money to farm they could do forestry,” he said.
He also took the time to list some of his accomplishments in his last term, noting recreation, education and infrastructure wins, as well as the community forest.
Benckhuysen took the opportunity to inform those gathered of his 20 years of volunteer experience, listing Chamber of Commerce and Community for Kids as highlights.
He wanted them to know he thinks the time is right for him to offer his services as mayor.
“Being mayor requires a significant time commitment and perhaps more importantly it requires significant flexibility in scheduling. I know I have those things, which is why I’ve chosen to run for mayor.”
Benckhuysen’s first topic of debate was keeping ourselves accountable.
This is an area he has implied is lacking in the current council.
“We are spending your money, on your behalf, for your benefit,” he said, “so there should be nothing that we do that is secret from you… By and large, government business is your business.”
He said that council meetings should be more accessible, perhaps with the addition of a live stream and would like to ensure that expense reports are easier for residents to access, so they know where their money is going.
“We need to give you the tools to keep us accountable,” he said.
Thiessen countered by explaining how much more open council is than when he began as mayor 10 years ago, and pointed out the changes to agendas which include questions to the public and documentation that lists expense claims.
The challenger continued to bring the topic back to the expense reports.
“I have had a few complaints about them not being available and freedom of information requests not being responded to,” he said.
“I don’t think that’s the kind of accountability we can be proud of,” he continued. “I think we have to go that extra mile and say, ‘Here’s your request and here’s the information you’re looking for.’ I think that’s were we can improve as I think that is where the trust is built.”
A back-and-forth ensued over whether this was staff’s fault or the mayor and councillors’, with little resolve at the end.
Topic two saw the candidates weigh in on the change the community will go through in the coming years when tackling the effects of wood beetle and forest fires and what they have done to prepare themselves for that change.
The current mayor went into detail on the relationships he has built since being in office, which included First Nations partners, government allies and the contacts he has with industry in the area. He stressed the importance of collaboration in the coming years.
Benckhuysen agreed with him on the need for collaboration.
The opponents debated the question but seemed to agree on the need for sustainable change and strong relationships in the future.
After a short break in which audience members helped themselves to refreshments, the candidates began answering 13 submitted questions, many of which they seemed to echo each others points on.
Both agreed to answer the remaining questions that were not addressed at the debate on their respective Facebook pages, they agreed that affordable housing – and taxation around itneeds to be addressed, and they agreed that mental health needs to be addressed, by making Vanderhoof more livable.
One area where there was a bit of contention was staff turnover.
Since Mayor Thiessen has been in office there have been five Chief Administrative Officers.
“Leadership is an important part of (keeping staff),” Benckhuysen said. “Without pointing fingers as to what went on and why, successful businesses have leaders that attract people and retain people by their leadership style and by making sure that the individuals feel valued have the autonomy to do their job and get recognized for doing it well.”
Mayor Thiessen pointed to turnover all over town in many different enterprises and provided and idea on who the problem might be addressed going forward.
“We have had turnover but if you look at the RCMP, they’ve had significant turnover, if you look at Plateau Mills, look at their leadership, their turnover.
“I think you’re going to see people that stay in the job for three to five years and that’s going to be the norm. The way we’re going to get around it is to train people from our community up through the ranks and into leadership positions in our community. But that will take the whole community getting involved.”
A question of conflict of interest was posed to the candidates, seemingly pertaining to Benckhuysen’s potential conflict of interest as an employee of Rio Tinto, the manager of the local reservoir.
The challenger said conflicts are very important to manage but stressed they are very easy to manage.
“It’s as simple as recusing yourself from that conflict and declaring it,” he said, “the rest of council is there to carry the day and deal with the specific issue while that person is out of the room. It’s an easy but important way of managing that.”
“I would like to see a public registry of all the declared conflicts and how they were managed,” he added.
The Mayor said anyone can go to the minutes of council and find where the conflicts are.
“I think it’s important that we encourage people to run for office but conflicts are very important to be careful on,” he said.
The debate ended quite amiably, with both candidates giving closing statements and shaking hands.
Now it is up to the voters to pick one that best suits their needs in the coming years.