Chuck Puchmayr has served as New Westminster’s MLA and is currently the city’s longest-serving city councillor – and now he’s set his sights on becoming mayor.
Puchmayr has announced he will be running for mayor in the Oct. 15 civic election. He's officially announcing his plans on Aug. 8 at a gathering at a café on 12th Street.
“I'm concerned about the direction our city is going,” he said in an interview with the Record. “I want to see a more transparent city; I want to see a more open city.”
Puchmayr said “elected officials are a very important conduit in our democracy” and they need to be visible in the community.
“In this last four years, a lot of the jurisdiction of our elected officials have been sort of channelled through the mayor's office and through the staff, and I think that's taken away that opportunity for councillors to be more, you know, front and centre in the community. And that's why we elect them,” he said. “We have that system so that there is a sort of conduit between the citizens that elect you and the staff that run your city. We have great staff, but nobody wants a city that's run by bureaucracy.”
Puchmayr was first elected to city council in 1996, and served as a councillor until 2005. He was re-elected to council in the 2011, 2014 and 2018 civic elections, after serving one term as New Westminster’s MLA from 2005 to 2009.
Puchmayr said that when he ran for council in 2018, his goal was to create a positive and open environment for citizens.
“I wanted the citizens’ city council when I left, one that the citizen has access to. And, I haven't really seen that,” he said. “I've seen access from the public diminish.”
As of Aug. 8, Puchmayr is one of three candidates who have formally announced plans to run for mayor. He joins two-term incumbent councillor Patrick Johnstone, who is running with the NDP-affiliated Community First slate, and Ken Armstrong of the New West Progressives.
Puchmayr believes changes that city council made to some of the civic committees need to be reconsidered.
“They brought extreme value to the community,” he said. “I think there's lessons to be learned from this exercise. And, and I think we need to analyze that and we need to reverse that and be more proactive and be more accountable in the community.”
As an example, Puchmayr said the former emergency advisory committee should include community members – something he thinks is more important than ever as the city works to address climate crisis-related issues.
Puchmayr also believes the city would greatly benefit from reinstating the railway advisory committee, which included representatives from all of the railways operating in the city, staff, council and the community. Before that committee was formed by former mayor Wayne Wright, he said the city had a “horrible relationship” with the railways and the city had “no traction” from the railways about whistle cessation at rail crossings.
According to Puchmayr, a majority of council cancelled that committee. He firmly believes that removing politicians from whistle cessation discussions and relegating that work to staff has slowed progress on that front.
“There is no doubt in my mind that having a political influence on that committee was the only reason that we were able to achieve whistle cessation,” he said. “Taking that political influence off the committee, in my opinion, is the reason that it stagnated.”
In addition to committees, Puchmayr said he’d also like to see some changes to the way council works at city hall.
“I feel that there's too much that goes on in camera,” he said. “And I'd like to I'd like to see a council that's in the community, active again. I think that a city council and a mayor are probably your best form of engagement. I'm seeing I'm seeing a real dismantling of access, the public’s access to their elected officials, and, that concerns me.”
Policing has arisen as a contentious issue at the council table during the last two budget cycles, with some councillors opposing a budget that provides any increase to the New Westminster Police Department’s budget.
“I strongly opposed cancelling the funding that the police were seeking,” Puchmayr said of the 2021 budget.
While the funding was ultimately approved, Puchmayr said bringing forward those types of proposals late in the budget process “creates anxiety” in a police service that’s already facing staffing challenges, such as the creation of a new municipal police force in Surrey.
“I want to make sure that our police feel welcome,” he said. “And that the work that they're doing is not only encouraged, but it's embraced, and that the community works together with our police service to ensure that we have a very functional, very modern and a very progressive police force.”
Puchmayr would also like to see a different approach taken to the way the city and police deal with the “aggressive and the dangerous people” who are coming into the city and are preying on its most vulnerable citizens, including those who are homeless and/or struggling with addictions.
“I believe really strongly that we have an excellent police force. It's a leader in diversity. It's a leader in many things,” he said. “It's very efficient, and I want to make sure that they're there to protect the businesses and the residents, especially what's happening right now in the downtown area.”
What about that labour endorsement?
The New Westminster and District Labour Council has endorsed a slate of candidates for school board and city council, including incumbent councillor Johnstone who is the Community First mayoral candidate.
Puchmayr told the Record that he wrote to the NWDLC when it’s endorsement process was getting underway but didn’t hear back.
“I've never followed up with it. And I don't want to put them in an awkward spot. You know, they've got volunteers that sit on those committees and they have already endorsed this slate,” he said. “I respect the working people in our community, and I respect the leaders of the working people in our community.”
Puchmayr said he was out of the country for a couple of weeks earlier this year, and when he returned it “looked like the process was going forward without me” so he assumed he wasn't in the running for an interview and didn’t follow up. He’ll be running as an independent.
“There are many people in organized labour that have already reached out to me and that will be supporting me,” he said. “Not formally, but as last time, I had numerous labour people that supported me and worked for me, even though the council didn't endorse me due to a timeline issue.”
Puchmayr noted he ran without the labour council’s endorsement in the 2011 election.
In 2018, Puchmayr was part of the Team Cote slate that won all seven positions on city council. Two of those candidates (Mayor Jonathan Cote and Coun. Mary Trentadue) aren’t seeking re-election and four are running under the Community First banner – Johnstone for mayor and Chinu Das, Jaimie McEvoy and Nadine Nakagawa for council.
Puchmayr said the group has done an “excellent job” of regrouping after the “fiasco” with the Together New West name. He said he’s not part of the Community First process.
“I'm not going to criticize or question their process,” he said. “They had to do what they felt they had to do. And therefore, this is the direction that I will be taking.”
If elected mayor, Puchmayr said he will be happy to work with anyone who is elected to council.
“I've always found that I've been able to work with people from all different political stripes and different walks of life, and it'll be no different here,” he said. “I'm not running against Community First. I'm running against Patrick Johnstone and the New West Progressives, and that will be my focus.”
Puchmayr isn’t convinced that Community First will be able to sweep council in 2022 like Team Cote did in 2018.
“I think we just need to make sure that we always have the interests of the public at heart, try to keep the political gotcha strategies out of it,” he said. “I don't think it matters what political stripe you're on. … It's what's best for the public.”