There was the time, in a public meeting, that a city councillor told the mayor of Nanaimo, B.C., to “bite me.” Another day, a member of council flung a chair against the wall in frustration.
More serious allegations resulted in two investigations by special prosecutors. The RCMP investigated the mayor, who was threatened with a lawsuit by council. A member of council was arrested in a separate incident. Both of those cases resulted in no charges being laid.
The conflict extended to senior staff. The city’s chief administrative officer, who had complained about bullying, was arrested for allegedly uttering threats at work, and remains under a peace bond. Her successor was then investigated by municipal officials for spending improprieties. All the discord led to the city’s legal bills soaring to $850,000 in 2017.
The chaos also had spillover effects beyond council chambers. City workers and managers were caught in the crossfire, and funding for new supportive housing that would have helped reduce a growing homelessness challenge was lost.
But Saturday’s civic elections offer Nanaimo voters the opportunity to choose a new mayor and council, and there is a feeling of hope that the days of acrimony and dysfunction at city hall will soon be over.
Nattalle Tessier, a faculty member at the Vancouver Island University, is thoroughly researching the three mayoral contenders and 40 candidates for council in this election, determined to make no mistakes when she goes into the polling booth. “My gut feeling is, I don’t want any incumbents,” she said. “I’m so frustrated with this council.”
The next council will certainly be reshaped. Mayor Bill McKay isn’t on the ballot and only half of the eight-member council are seeking re-election.
Tom Moore has been a Nanaimo resident for almost 60 years and he cannot remember a more chaotic time in civic politics. “It’s complete dysfunction,” he told The Globe and Mail outside of City Hall. “We need a wholesale change. The council became fractured and nothing got done. We have squandered opportunities to help the homeless.”
Down on the waterfront, a sprawling tent city has formed in protest of the lack of housing opportunities in the city of 90,000. Mr. Moore noted the province offered to building new supportive housing units last winter, but council didn’t approve the plan and the much-needed units were never built.
The growing homelessness issue, underscored by the encampment, has galvanized some voters. More broadly, there is a notion that infighting within council chambers has become an embarrassment for the city.
Both of the front-runners in the race for mayor say they are driven by the same agenda: Fix the dysfunction at city hall.
Leonard Krog is the long-time provincial representative for Nanaimo. Although his government is holding power by the thinnest of margins – if he wins, he will resign as an NDP MLA and force a by-election – he said he was under relentless pressure to seek the job.
“We had become a national laughing stock,” Mr. Krog said in an interview. “We have probably missed opportunities, projects that should have been underway or finished, and it hasn’t been a welcoming climate for investment. Somehow, we turned away 44 supportive housing units in the late winter, which upset a lot of people."
Don Hubbard, former chair of the Vancouver Island Health Authority, said the “total lack of governance” in Nanaimo drove him to take his first stab at politics.
“I never did have any political ambitions, but I was being pushed and pushed to get involved," he said. “It’s totally dysfunctional, in terms of staff morale. A horrible place to work."
Zach Authier is a political-science student who will be voting in his first civic election this week. He is hoping voter anger over the past four years will turn into something positive: A strong turnout at the polls. (Voter turnout in 2013 was just 32 per cent.)
“What’s been happening on council, you just don’t expect to see – the yelling, the swearing,” he said. “I just want a council that works together.”
For his part, Mr. McKay will hand over the keys on Nov. 6 to the new mayor of Nanaimo with relief. “The last four years took a lot out of myself and my family," he said.
Even if he wanted a second term, he expects electors would not have given him a second chance. “The community is looking for change. I anticipate you may see a clean sweep.”