Canadians have been demonstrating their indifference to politics for years now. And the greatest manifestation of that ennui is at the polls, where people have been turning out in smaller and smaller numbers. Nowhere is that trend reflected more starkly than at the municipal level, where, ironically, decisions by councils can often have a profound impact on people's day-to-day lives.
This brings us to the rather absurd goings-on in the district of Saanich, a bedroom community of Victoria. Last fall, the town decided to end the 18-year reign of its mayor, Frank Leonard, and hand the keys to the municipality over to a relative unknown, Richard Atwell.
Mr. Atwell, 42, was a single-issue candidate and his issue was sewage. For years, raw waste from the Greater Victoria region has been dumped into the ocean untreated. Our American friends to the south, not surprisingly, have raised a stink about this. A plan was hatched to build a sewage treatment plant that many people opposed because they didn't want it in their neighbourhood. Mr. Atwell latched on to this Nimbyism, pointed out other flaws with the concept, and rode his sewage-plant opposition to victory.
Barely 34 per cent of the nearly 81,000 eligible voters in Saanich (pop. 110,000) turned out to vote. Mr. Atwell edged out the incumbent by just over 1,000 votes. Suddenly, the municipality had a new mayor, someone the townsfolk really didn't know much about other than the fact he was a quiet, married, former computer engineer who had recently been unemployed. Now, for better or worse, they were stuck with him for four years.
To say Mr. Atwell's political debut has been frighteningly inauspicious would be an understatement. During his first week on the job, he unilaterally tried to fire the municipality's chief administrative officer but botched it so badly it cost taxpayers a half million dollars in severance, earning the mayor a censure from council.
And then things really got weird.
Mr. Atwell called the cops about an altercation he got into with a man at the home of woman who had worked on his campaign. The man was the woman's fiancé. Somehow news of the confrontation, and the police's involvement in it, was leaked to the media. The mayor was asked by reporters if he had been having an extramarital affair with the woman. He said no.
A week later, however, he admitted to reporters that he had lied about the affair. He accused the police of quietly disseminating details of the incident to embarrass him, seemingly oblivious to the possibility there might be others who had a motive for wanting to see him publicly humiliated.
Mr. Atwell wasn't finished. At the same news conference, he alleged that an unauthorized software program had been secretly installed on his municipal hall computer that allowed others to spy on his work. Since then he has refused to work out of his municipal office, opting to set up shop temporarily in the basement of a downtown Victoria hotel, communicating through a private e-mail address. He asked police to investigate his contention that the spyware program was installed on his computer illegally. But when the authorities found no basis for that claim, the mayor said they had a conflict of interest and ordered a second review.
The mayor also revealed that he had been pulled over by the police four times in recent weeks and was twice asked to take a breathalyzer, which he passed. He insists it was part of a concerted campaign to bring him down, while conceding that once he was pulled over for failing to have a proper decal on his licence plate. (Another time it was for speeding in a parking lot.)
Late Thursday there was more. The Saanich police board issued a statement saying it had asked the mayor to step down as its chair until the B.C. Ministry of Justice could conduct an investigation into his recent actions – actions the board says has put officers "in an untenable position."
Needless to say, the Rob Ford comparisons have been flying fast and furious. Mr. Atwell has become a source of national ridicule, while the business of the municipality has ground to a halt. No one is sure what to do or think. Is he a paranoid nutbar, as one columnist put it. Or do any of his complaints have merit?
For years, Saanich had one of the most fractious councils on Vancouver Island. These days the eight councillors have never been closer, brought together in their contempt for the mayor. That cohesion may be the biggest thing Mr. Atwell has accomplished so far.
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