This year, despite the oxygen taken up by Vancouver’s municipal election, Surrey’s race is just as interesting — highly partisan, complex and crowded.

Six candidates for every available seat on Council, and eight mostly credible candidates for mayor.

And zero chance of Surrey First repeating its clean sweep of 2014, when Mayor Linda Hepner stepped in. It’s a tough act to follow. None of the candidates bring anything resembling Hepner’s experience and steady rise to power over the past 33 years — two decades as city staff, three terms as councillor, and now the mayoralty.

All this, right at the end mid-point beginning (?!?) of Surrey’s growth explosion; currently close to 550,000 people, the city tends to add the equivalent population of a Mission or Port Coquitlam every five years.

Thankfully, work on Phase 2 of the Mayors Plan for transit and transportation will bring a commuter rail system to Surrey’s bursting town centres; Hepner’s been fighting for light rail since her election in 2014, as the BC Liberal referendum plot brewed away in Victoria.

Despite the senseless delay, the plan is going ahead and the rail lines will be built — as will the new Pattullo Bridge. Just not on her watch.

Infrastructure is a funny thing that way. So are legacies — and Hepner has something to say about that.

What do you think your greatest accomplishment will be, as judged by others?
Like it or not, I think my legacy will be the enormous effort that I’ve had to put into transportation infrastructure and rapid rail in Surrey, as well as the Pattullo Bridge. I gave only a little blood in my fall with the crumbling Pattullo, as well as advancing the federal and provincial interest in providing the rapid rail to Surrey.

I had no idea that would occupy so much time and effort, and that I would then be on the Board of TransLink. I’m now chairing the next iteration of what the regional planning will look like after this 10-year plan — never in my wildest dreams did I think that was going to be the most significant thing that took my time.

Because we have the youngest population in the province, I thought I would be spending a lot of my time ensuring that we were in a state of readiness for skilled jobs, and for making sure that young people had opportunities. I always knew that connectedness between the many communities in Surrey was critically important. That I knew. I just assumed that I would be spending more time doing some of the grunt work that would take us more forward in terms of job creation. And that has happened almost without the kind of effort that I thought it was going to need.

It’s very difficult as a politician to say, “This is really what’s right for you.” You need to have people engaged and have a groundswell of support, which we certainly saw during the referendum period. And which has continued thankfully by the business community that recognizes and fully embraces place-making and creating that social, urban life through a transportation model. They understand it, they get it, and I’ve been very grateful to the work that they have done delivering that message to their business and their customers.

Personally, what are you proudest of from the last four years?
I took on with, with a lot of skeptics, the issue of 135A and Tent City. It has problem in the city for decades — 25 years at least. When we sat down and said, “Look, let’s try to view this through a different lens altogether. Flip it on its head. What does everyone need to be the catalyst for moving, and how can we achieve that?”

We could only achieve it by being there for a very long period of time, getting to know every single person on that strip, what their personal needs were, what were their challenges, what are their issues, and how can we make it work? And that’s what I’m most proud of, because it took us a year. There were many who didn’t believe it could happen, and we were concerned. Will we need an injunction? Will it take more than this?

We moved over 200 people into an area of housing where they would be stabilized and have 24/7 health support services right within the housing units, in 72 hours. For me, that was a pretty proud moment.

We first put the outreach team out with the RCMP. I said, “We need the kind of officer that will stay there, that is happy to be there on that strip, and that has a social conscience that will allow him to be there in a helpful way, not in an enforcement way, so that we can get to know how we’re going to make this work.” And honestly, we had police officers that were volunteering to do exactly that. I was very proud of that, and I was very proud that our guys stepped up and everybody worked really hard to make it work. To this day there isn’t a tent on 135A.

What’s the greatest challenge facing the region?
Three things. Housing affordability and transportation connectivity automatically come to mind. Really, those are fundamentally huge, regional issues.

As well, brain drain — in this election, we’re going to lose probably hundreds of years of experience. I think it’s good to get new ideas, but I think it’s also going to be critically important for those who are left to share that experience with the newly elected folk.

I spent twenty some years as staff, and we used to have a bit of a mentoring group when newly elected people came in. I did it for many years as the director of corporate services at city hall. There are certain things that they don’t know. Something as simple as, “No, you cannot ask a staff person to spend that kind of time doing that for you. It has to be by resolution,” — there are just so many things that newly electeds will not quite get. So for the first six months it’s going to be shaky ground until everyone gets their feet wet.

Is there anything you’d do over?
Yes — a couple of things politically that I won’t tell you. Especially heading into an election period.

I wish I could have made more progress on a performing arts centre for Surrey. I always wanted the orchestra. We’re making a little bit of headway there, but do I think a city of our size needs a cultural space, and we don’t have it. So I wish I could have made more progress on that.

And I wish I could have made more progress — and perhaps they’re one in the same, who knows — with respect to a stadium. Those conversations come and go, and there’s light at the end of the tunnel, then there isn’t, then it comes back. So the to-ings and fro-ings of that — I wish I could have made more progress. We can’t do a giant concert, and we should be able to. We have to use Holland Park for outside concerts of 25-30,000 people. They’re very successful, and you would wonder why we can’t get the kind of stadium that would allow our people to have that experience all year round. The numbers are just not working yet, and I don’t know how to advance that. That disappoints me.

Tomorrow, Part II — how has she seen the city change, what advice does she give to candidates stepping into council chambers for the first time, and what does she want Surrey citizens to know about governing?

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