In late September 2011, a number of politicians gathered in New Westminster for what appeared to be just another photo op in advance of the civic election. It was a sod turning event for the new $94M civic centre and office tower complex.
"We're very proud of this project and the role it will play in the revitalization of our historic downtown business district, said Mayor Wayne Wright. It's projects and partnerships like this that provide the new amenities our citizens deserve while generating the economic development we need for the future."
Voters were led to believe that this was a unique "partnership" between the City of New Westminster and the Uptown Property Group (UPG). But a mere three weeks before we went to the polls, our civic leaders failed to let us in on one important detail. On October 31, 2011, UPG gave notice to the Cityof its intention to pause its participation in the project.
Its hard to determine if voters would have cast their ballots differently had they known the citys private sector partner was about to bail on this project. But one thing is for sure, we could have made an informed choice.
In fact, had this all become public in advance of the election, it would have actually strengthened the mayors hand in the months that followed. Instead, Wright is on the defensive and thousands of citizens are feeling duped and helpless to fight city hall.
It's no secret that our local politicians have done everything within their power to remove any kind of openness and transparency with this controversial project. Rather than coming clean regarding how things got off the rails, media and local residents were actually forced to file freedom of information requests to obtain even basic amounts of information.
The whole controversy has many people making comparisons to how the BC Liberals handled the HST back in 2009. Prior to the election there was no talk of implementing the controversial tax, but we all know how that story ended.
Similar to the HST, many New Westminster citizens supported a petition calling for a referendum on the Mayors office tower financing proposal. However, unlike the HST petition which was supported behind the scenes by big labour and the BC Conservative Party, the referendum fell short of its goal. Yet despite being forced by city hall to organize in the dead of summer, it garnered a respectable 2098 signatures.
Not all city politicians thought it was wise to move ahead with this project. Councillor Chuck Puchmayar once said "with respect to going forward and taking the risk of building the office tower using city reserves and also using financing, it's a risk I'm personally not prepared to take as a member of council."
One can only imagine what might have happened if politicians like Puchmayr had actually put their money where their mouth was and spent time gathering signatures.
If you dont think there are any risks when a city becomes both a private developer and regulator at the same time, think again. In Vancouver, the bean counters are still unsure as to exactly how much taxpayers will be on the hook for constructing the Olympic Village.
While I support new construction in our city, I am deeply concerned with where this is all heading. Thats because while Wright acts as the projects chief cheerleader, private sector developers are building similar Triple AAA office towers in nearby transit hubs like Metrotown.
Although New Westminster is well placed in the centre of the Lower Mainland, there is no guarantee the city will be able to rent out this building. Once again, we were told that the Olympic Village condos were well placed in the heart of Vancouver, but they too are having a difficult time selling.
One of the fundamental principles of any democracy is that our politicians are as open and transparent with us as possible. Obviously, that should apply both prior to and after an election.
In the rush to get a glitzy photo op last September, the Mayor and council along with key bureaucrats violated that basic principle. They said one thing before an election, and did something totally differently right after.
What is yet to be determined is whether this whole controversy will simply blow over by the next time we go to the polls to choose our next Mayor and council. Something tells me the odds are high that a half empty, city-owned office tower in downtown New Westminster may still be generating some interesting headlines.
Daniel Fontaine is a resident of Queens Park, founder of CityCaucus.com and regular civic affairs commentator on CKNW radio.