In this 4th in our series of Mayoral Exit Interviews, Richard Walton of the District of West Vancouver, who has spent fully one-third of his life in public service — as school trustee (1986-’93), then as councillor (2002-’05), and finally as mayor (’05-’18).
Walton has also done what many of today’s mayoral candidates may not fully appreciate as an essential part of the job — serving on the Boards of a number of organizations representing the enormous operational complexity and cultural diversity of this region: B.C. Games for Athletes with Disability, Fraser Basin Council, Metro Vancouver, Municipal Finance Authority of BC, Mayors’ Council, North Vancouver Police Committee, and Metro Vancouver (GVRD) committees on Culture, Environment and Energy, Federal Gas Tax, Finance, Performance and Audit, Port Cities, to name a few.
In 2004, Walton also reinforced one of the more unfortunate stereotypes of chartered accountants everywhere, by co-founding the World Mountain Bike Conference and Festival.
The brain drain continues with his retirement this fall; here’s part I of our exit interview.
What has been your greatest achievement as you believe you’ll be judged?
One of the reasons I ran for office is because we did not have an official community plan that was current, or even generally referred to.
Because of the geography of North Vancouver district, we’re ten or twelve communities surrounding North Vancouver city. We tended to have a fractured vision with a series of small, regional plans. There was no integration, and as a result, when we were dealing with larger regional issues linked to transportation and housing, we didn’t have an effective document for policy-setting with a clear, articulated vision.
So I spent my first four years as mayor trying to weave those together with council and the community into an OCP which we did pass in 2011. Given the fact that the changes within Metro Vancouver are now almost accelerating, now the OCP is under attack largely because of issues to do with transportation and housing costs.
But at least we have a strong document that I think will be the focus of the next mayor and council to look at and decide what needs to be changed, what needs to be adjusted, what needs to be adapted. We had no starting point years ago, and this time we do. I’m hoping as a starting point and as a compass bearing the existing OCP has helped the community a lot, and will help the next council.
Were you taken by surprise by some of the impacts of regional growth on the District in the last five years, such as housing and transportation?
I’d like to think I look into the future as well as anyone who’s left public office, but for example, the impact of the new Port Mann Bridge five years ago, even going from five lanes to ten, created an immediate traffic spike on Ironworkers. Having afternoon traffic back-ups to Lonsdale happened almost overnight. And you realize that the challenges in one community are often related to changes that may happen somewhere else.
It was with that interconnectedness that we experienced in 2012, that we realized the solutions within Metro Vancouver are really very, very, very much regional, more than what we can achieve on a community-by-community basis.
I think the strong collective leadership at Mayors Council and in Metro Vancouver where we’ve been working together to solve these solutions have been a tremendous success story in Metro Vancouver. I know a lot of people would like us to have fewer communities. Certainly North Vancouver as one community would make a lot more sense. To get from 23 communities down to 7 or 8 — I’m not sure the political fall-out and challenges would be worth the effort. It may be just better to try and develop mechanisms of the existing communities working much more closely together, because there’s virtually no individual community solutions — housing or anything else — to what we have.
When I grew up in West Vancouver, the affordable housing was in North Vancouver. Now people grow up on the North Shore and the affordable housing to a large extent is in Langley and Maple Ridge. And that has massive repercussions on our workforce, and where our young people work and live, and that of course ties into more transportation issues that everyone in the region is well aware of.
Personally, what do you believe is your greatest accomplishment?
What I’ve tried to do is to step up and take leadership within Metro, to represent North Van District well at the regional level, and also develop close relationships with all of the other mayors and First Nations and MLAs.
I was vice-chair of the Metro Board, I’ve chaired numerous committees at Metro including the finance committee for a number of years, planning, and I’ve always been involved in Mayors Council — I chaired it for six or seven years, and I’m back vice-chairing now and I’m on my third stint on the TransLink Board. It’s that strong political capital and relationships that lets you get things done. You need to have people to pick up phones, you need to be able to talk about difficult issues without threatening people. And I think what I’ve tried to do over the years is take that broader perspective.
A lot of what a mayor does goes far beyond council chambers on Monday night, and far beyond what a lot of councillors do, because it’s those relationships that really move things along regionally. For example Darrell Mussatto, Pam Goldsmith-Jones and I worked very, very hard together to try to get the Lions Gate treatment plant accelerated. It was a major concern and environmental issue ten or fifteen years ago. And we did manage to get that accelerated and completely funded. Now of course it’s under construction and forgotten. But that was a critical piece of infrastructure.
And the issue of the extra Seabus that’s come online — being part of a solution to try and expand rapid transit and Skytrain and LRT in Surrey. Darrell was heavily involved in that, as I was in trying to elevate public transportation. The reason why we got all the federal money recently is because we were able to speak as one voice as a region, and once we were able to do that, it was easier for the province and the federal government to co-fund the other portions. And that comes from an awful lot of committee work and collaborative work within the region.
Any do-overs? You told “none” to the North Shore News. Is there nothing you’d like to take another run at?
None. I think we probably could have done some things better. We could have had perhaps some more insight. But I think not. I think we had a vision, we had a plan, we’ve stuck to it.
One of the challenges all of us face once we’re in public office is the rate of change in the municipal sector is glacial. And it’s really a challenge.
People want results and they want it now, and yet for many of these large projects that are going to affect and improve the quality of people’s lives, you’ve got three and sometimes four different levels of government, and all the different funding cycles, all which have to integrate together. It’s very difficult on some of these more important projects to move them along at a rate that the business sector would expect. I come from the business sector — I’m a CPA, I’ve run companies before — and that’s a general understanding that I’ve had to learn.
There are two things that affect the district the most. One is the acceleration, the doubling of housing prices — and I do mean doubling. Between 2012 and 2017, we saw most of our housing double, and what that did is take our under-40s, our Millennials, from in the running to be able to afford to buy a place on two incomes, and it took them out of the running, without a significant amount of family investment and other challenges and sacrifices.
What that’s done is created a sense of extreme frustration. And there’s an anger there — how could this happen, where our housing could escalate in price to that extent? Who was asleep at the switch? Who was not noticing this was happening? A lot of the anger is being obviously focused at the provincial level, blaming offshore ownership and whatever.
The challenge is that this Metro Vancouver region is probably the best place in the world to live. A lot of people who live many places in the world know that. And a lot of people ware wanting to find a safe haven in the world where their capital systems are safe, where the climate is convenient, where energy costs are affordable.
At the same time, within 6,7,8 years, the cost of doing that has changed. For related reasons, the traffic has gotten a lot worse as well. And this perfect storm is probably affecting the North Shore more than anywhere else.
The Ironworkers [Memorial Bridge] is now where the Lions Gate [Bridge] was 40 years ago. The Lions Gate was terribly congested in the 1960s and 70s before we had any adequate bus transit, way worse than it is now. Everyone went to UBC from the North Shore, because at one point UBC was the only university. They all entered that traffic going over the Lions Gate Bridge, along with the moms and dads working downtown and everything else.
And because most people still lived in the inner core areas, the Ironworkers was a lot lighter in traffic. The interchange design on the Ironworkers from Lynn Valley all the way down to Lynn River and Main Street was designed and conceived in the 1950s when nobody lived in Seymour.
What we’ve seen over time is that massive use has shifted towards the Ironworkers. In the eastern part of North Van district, people are very much against development, because they see absolutely no benefits to it. They simply see more cars. They can’t get across that bridgehead because of the interchanges being backed up.
So there’s really two halves to our community — the Seymour half and then the western half. They have similar frustrations, but certainly the pushback and the concern about development in the Seymour is considerably greater than the rest of the North Shore. They would like to see a new bridge.
Now we’re finally involved in a massive retro-build of those four interchanges. The challenge of course is that investing in transportation infrastructure is very expensive. It tends to go where you’ve already got the density and the demand waiting to be served.
And of course people want transportation before the development; our North Shore MLA is talking about a Skytrain to the inner river area. And yet, the economics and the transit planning is generally, “You need the people before the transit economics work.”
These are not complex problems, but providing solutions is difficult.