The agenda is always packed when 1,500 of the province’s municipal politicians get together to discuss their cities’ woes.
This year, it’s even fuller as the Union of B.C. Municipalities squeezes in a day of meetings for a “mayors’ caucus” that sprang up in the past year under the leadership of Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts.
The Monday caucus meeting drew about 140 mayors, some saying the group is an important new voice for B.C. cities, others curious, and still others dubious about its value or what Ms. Watts’s ultimate goal is.
“I’m here because I want to see if this can be a benefit for my community,” said City of North Vancouver Mayor Darrell Mussatto, in the middle of lengthy sessions on economic development, streamlining costs and infrastructure.
That meant mayors had to skip the UBCM’s planned sessions on finance and marijuana legislation.
“I see that when the big-city mayors get together at [national municipal conferences], it adds a dimension. They get profile,” said City of Langley Mayor Peter Fassbender.
But other politicians – most unwilling to speak publicly – say they don’t understand the point of the new group, since the UBCM has been pushing city interests with the province for decades. And they speculate that this is an attempt by Ms. Watts to build a power base outside Surrey for a run at provincial politics some day.
“I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t heard that rumour,” said Surrey Councillor Barbara Steele, one of Ms. Watts’s colleagues.
Ms. Watts was frequently mentioned as a possible leader of the B.C. Liberals before Christy Clark was chosen. And her name has surfaced as a potential leader for the B.C. Conservative Party.
Ms. Steele acknowledged that the caucus’s first steps have been awkward.
“Right now, it seems to have an air of secrecy and unintentionally it got off to a shaky start. But I think there’s room for it.”
However, Saanich Mayor Frank Leonard said the caucus has his council puzzled.
“My councillors don’t like it. It’s kind of an American thing. Here in Canada, the mayor is only one vote on council.”
But Ms. Watts dismissed the speculation and criticism, saying the caucus is something that many B.C. mayors have wanted for a while. And she’s not building up a power base.
“I’m not running for anything other than mayor of my own city.”
Ms. Watts said mayors have a leadership role that is distinct from their fellow councillors, so it is important for them to be able to get together in a smaller group to connect directly.
“The role of the mayor is to develop public policy and bring it forward to the city.”
Ms. Watts, who gets sky-high ratings in polls, is famous for having broken away from her city’s entrenched political party and then creating her own. The party has no public meetings and restricted membership.
She’s also known inside her own City Hall for making a lot of decisions herself.
She forged her Surrey First party by drawing in councillors of different political shades over the years, incorporating both left-leaning independents like Judy Villeneuve and councillors from the old right-wing guard.
Similarly, the mayors’ caucus, which politicians say Ms. Watts has helped drive forward through personal phone calls around the province, has managed to attract support from a wide political group.
It now has a steering committee that includes both Mayor Dean Fortin, from very liberal and urban Victoria, to Mayor Shari Green of politically conservative Prince George.
Derek Corrigan, the NDP-supporting mayor of Burnaby, has written a public defence of the new mayors’ caucus that was printed in the Prince George Citizen.
He said that although he was dubious about it at first, he came to see that the new caucus has value.
At the first meeting in Penticton last May, he said he got a chance for the first time to sit down with dozens of other mayors where “we concentrated on our common interests.”
What the caucus will accomplish that the UBCM hasn’t remains to be seen.