Nobody has asked the question why, for a series called ‘Mayoral Exit Interview’, the headline refers to the city name and not the mayor’s name.
The simple fact is that, if the headline said ‘Wayne Baldwin’, the majority of our readers may not make the connection. (That’s on us, not him.) But White Rock? We all know at least one thing about this beautiful little urban oasis, named after a 486-ton granite boulder that wandered away from a glacier a few thousand years ago, and became a guano-covered beacon to sailors.
In this slightly less poetic, modern age, the City of White Rock is a municipality of just five square kilometres, and smothered in Surrey. It also boasts five kilometres of south-facing ocean coastline, one of the region’s best beach-and-patio locales. And of course, it has become a housing destination for people fleeing other, more expensive urban centres.
Baldwin served as City Manager for over two decades before stepping into the Mayor’s chair in 2011, so if anyone can speak to the White Rock experience the past few decades, it’s him. Now, before he leaves Buena Vista Avenue for good and takes those 30+ years of experience with him, let’s find out some of what he’s learned.
What is your greatest achievement in White Rock, as you believe you’ll be judged?
I think it would be the acquisition of a water utility. It was privately-owned for about 100 years — when I was city manager, we weren’t getting any traction with council. I couldn’t seem to convince them that it was a good thing to do. The once-removed previous owners were an elderly couple in Tsawwassen, and Epcor was looking to make their names as operators of water utilities, and utilities in general. They actively pursued them, and made them an offer that they couldn’t refuse. We didn’t find out about it until they actually sold. And Epcor, while a private entity, is actually owned by the city of Edmonton. We would have thought that they would take really good care of the system, but the results were different. We finally bought it, and now it’s publicly owned.
What do you personally feel was your biggest accomplishment?
My proudest achievement would be the construction of the promenade on our waterfront, which is something I did as City Manager. In those days, we had elections pretty well every year, and council was not in a position to look very far ahead, since half of them left every year or half of them went up for election every year. Consequently, staff did most of the long-term planning. That was a function of my job as a staff person. But I’m proud of that because I think the promenade really defines White Rock.
Do you have any regrets? Any do-overs?
I don’t think we did a great job with the solid waste for multi-family homes. We were handling it as a public function, and everybody paid the same amount, and strangely enough some of the condos and some of the businesses, notwithstanding the fact that they paid for solid waste removal in their taxes, actually had private contractors picking up the solid waste. But they still got charged for it. Pretty much all municipalities contract out solid waste for multi-family. We did that, and certainly, probably in the long run, saved each condo dweller money and each business money, and was more fair. but we didn’t do it in a consultative manner. Looking back on it, we should have done more in that respect before we made that change.
How has the city changed for better or for worse?
I think we’ve done an awful lot of work on creating infrastructure. Because of our growth, in the sense of multi-family dwellings that have come online, we’ve managed to pick up an awful lot of money in community amenity charges, which are being used to provide amenities for the community that are either built, or are in the process of being built. That wasn’t possibly before — we simply didn’t have the money. For example, parking is always a problem down at the waterfront, and we get lots of complaints from businesses that there isn’t enough parking for their customers. So we have 180-stall parkade being built near the waterfront, and that’s being paid for out of developers’ amenity charges — it’s not costing the taxpayers anything. This parkade will do the trick, I think.
We’ve also done a lot of improvements along the waterfront. We’ve worked on train safety. We own our own water and got that at a really good price, and we’re improving it hugely in terms of quality by virtue of a huge grant we got from the federal and provincial governments to help us remove arsenic and manganese from it. And that treatment process is about halfway done now, and will be finished by early 2019.
There’s also been a lot of densification, which in turn allows us to do some reconstruction of roads that were not built well in the first place. We’ve had situations in our uptown area where the buildings were at the wrong elevation, so they were actually lower than the roads and the drainage is all messed up. Trees were growing and causing obstruction issues with the sidewalk. So we’re fixing it all up and that should be done around the time of the election. So a lot of changes; unfortunately most of it is happening all at once. So people are unhappy. “Why didn’t you space it out? Why didn’t you do it bit by bit?” Sometimes it’s not always possible.
What would you like citizens to understand about governing?
I think people really don’t understand much about local government. What they generally seem to think is they see what the federal and provincial governments are doing, and they see what’s happening in the states, they’ll see it on TV or whatever. So what they think is happening is the mayor is the absolute authority, much like a premier or prime minister, and that mayor makes things happen.
In actual fact that’s not the case. That might be sort of the case in Vancouver, Surrey — or at least was in Surrey — and Burnaby. But nowhere else does the mayor have that kind of authority. Everything happens by a vote of council. The simple fact is that democracy says four against three, and you can’t tell people how to vote. So when the vote comes, it is what it is. But the mayor then has to be the face of what Council’s decision is, even if he or she voted against it. So if I’m not too happy about something that council passed, that doesn’t matter. I still have to champion it because it’s a council motion. People don’t understand that —they would tend to make the mayor the face of every decision that council makes, which actually is far from the case. And that’s an interesting position to be put in, because at the federal or provincial level, yes the premier and the prime minister do set the tone. But local government? No – not at all. So it does produce this conundrum, this misunderstanding.
That’s when people say, “Well there’s the mayor, that’s who we’ll shoot at.” And away it goes. And they end up carrying the whole load, pretty much. But we have the same number of votes. Each vote counts the same amount. We don’t have veto power.
The only thing I can do is I can bring something back for reconsideration, and I can suspend a senior staff member. And that’s about it. I think the irony is that the mayor’s power is mostly because people think we have power. Other than that, there’s nothing.
Tomorrow, Part II of my interview with Mayor Baldwin.