At almost any Squamish public event, scan the crowd and Karen Elliott is there.
When asked a question as a councillor, she takes a deliberate pause before answering.
Elliott, who was first elected to council in 2014, has been a thoughtful and methodical voice on council for the last four years.
A businesswoman who runs her own consulting practice, Elliott first moved to Squamish in 2012 after living for many years in Australia.
The Chief sat down with Elliott for a wide-ranging conversation that touched on her run for mayor, pressing Squamish issues and what she has learned along the way.
What follows is an edited version of that conversation.
Q: What have you learned about being on council from this last term?
A: How important it is to come together around a plan for four years. In some ways, it goes by slowly, but in other ways, it goes by very quickly. Our community is under so much pressure on so many different fronts because we are growing so quickly that if you don’t have a plan, it is easy to scatter your efforts. What I learned is how important it is to come back to that plan. It always gets tweaked, because things don’t stay the same, but having the seven of us agree to that strategic plan gave us direction and our staff direction. It drives the budget and is built on the Official Community Plan, which we have just revised, so having that plan is fundamental to the effectiveness of a council. It helps bring together the disparate points of view on council — working in the same direction. I don’t think that all local governments do that particularly well. I think we did a good job.
This job is hard — when your friends turn up to the first public hearing and when there are hundreds of letters to you suggesting you might be making the wrong decision — it is important to remember that I am not always entirely right and I am not entirely wrong, but neither are the people speaking to me from the community. It is essential to think long-term and make decisions not just for the community of today, but for many generations down the road and make decisions for an entire community. It is good to explore the middle ground and where that right answer is. It is not always clear. Some council decisions are really tough. When you hold too tightly to the black or white of the issue, you can miss the opportunities for finding a better solution.
Q: Council, and Mayor Patricia Heintzman in particular, have done a good job of building a bridge with the Squamish Nation's leadership, what importance does that hold for you?
A: Building the relationship, and continuing to build on the work Patty has done and this council has done, is extremely important. There are pressing issues that both our governments face in terms of housing and economic development. We are one community and when everyone is thriving in that community, we all benefit, and I don’t think we are there yet.
Implementing the Truth and Reconciliation recommendations is vital as is acknowledging the history, recognizing the truth and moving forward together is important.
This is personal for me. My younger sister is First Nations. To watch her grow up and struggle with racism at school, in the health system, at work — it didn’t matter that she was part of a white family. You become acutely aware of your privilege as a white person very quickly when your sister is First Nations.
Q: One criticism — or a character trait — of you is you are very nice and sometimes soft-spoken. How do you think as mayor you can corral people the way you would need to?
A: People don’t necessarily remember what you say, but how you make them feel. I think you can be tough without alienating people. For a living, I facilitate meetings. I make sure those meetings are run well and are run on time and also that they give everyone an opportunity to speak — not just the loudest speakers. I don’t have a problem with being tough when I need to. I think there have been examples of that over the last four years where I took a stand. I am not afraid of anything in the public realm. If I were mayor, I would hold a high standard — run good meetings, build consensus, make sure we have respectful and open dialogue in meetings. We want to create a space where both sides of an argument can be heard in a room.
My background and the work that I do will enable me to do that.
Q: Can you talk a bit about where you stand on Garibaldi at Squamish and the possibility of Squamish annexing it?
A: I think that is the sleeper issue so far in the campaign. Decisions around jurisdiction and who will be the partner on the master planning effort haven't been determined yet.
Our council sent a very critical letter to the province during the Environmental Assessment process. We have some serious concerns about the impact of that real estate development on our community, which haven't been answered through the EA process.
One of the things we asked the province about was a failure scenario. So, what happens if part of it gets built and is abandoned? It has happened before. What if the long road gets built and there are people living up there, and it fails? If we have brought them into the District, what does that mean for us in terms of costs? Those analyses haven’t been done.
I think we have to be very careful. People talk about wanting to create jobs, but most of our employers are struggling to get employees now. It has a massive impact on our community. There will be benefits we will see from this project, but I urge the community to take a cautious approach to this because there are some unintended consequences that could be very real and have a long-term, negative impact on our community. We are a mountain town. I am not sure we need someone on our doorstep promoting themselves as a mountain town when we are trying to manage and build out our infrastructure here responsibly.
Q: What is your reasoning behind not wanting development on the Cheema lands right now?
A: The one issue that we wanted to address in the OCP is that there was a population threshold on that property, but not on others that were outside it, so we made that fair — we put that threshold in for all future neighbourhoods.
People speculate on land that doesn’t mean you get to develop it when you want to develop it. At the same time, developers can propose an OCP change at any time. The Cheekye fan development wanted an OCP change, Carbon Engineering is proposing an OCP change for what they want to develop, Garibaldi Springs — there have been a few over this term. So, the OCP doesn’t preclude that. If a developer puts the time, effort and the studies and builds a viable plan, it makes sense to change the OCP.
The door is open currently at 22,500 for an excellent proposal from the developer of the Cheema land to come forward. It isn’t going to take us very long to get to that threshold.
The problem is, we have infrastructure issues just in the area we manage today. We heard in the OCP consultations; people don’t want us moving up the mountainsides. You just have to listen to the comments about what Skyridge looks like to know. That will green-up as it is landscaped and becomes a neighbourhood, but I think it was eye-opening to see what it looks like; same with the university lands and the cutting that has gone on up there. In our engagement, people asked us to manage growth. We don’t need those lands right now. We have plenty of room to put houses where we have set the growth management boundary.
Q: Can you address what council can and can’t OK in terms of developments?
A: Private landowners can always come forward to develop their land. We can’t tell them not to, and I am not sure we would want to. You want your community to be known as a place where investment is welcome.
People think we have ultimate discretion. We have discretion within our guidelines, within our policy. We can’t just reject something if we can’t find a basis in the policy to reject it. On a rezoning, we have a little more discretion. But when land is already zoned, and there’s a development permit that comes forward, and it technically meets the criteria, you can’t say no.
One of the things that I will be focused on next term, if I am successful, is development permit guideline for multi-family developments. The ones we were working under before this new OCP, made for profitable development, but not very liveable communities. I live in quite a lovely multi-family development, but the ones that I am seeing built, I don’t think take into account how much green space people need or how children play; or how people store their belongings or park their cars, or the privacy people need. We need to make sure we are building multi-family developments that are livable.
Q: Would you want to address businesses differently if you were mayor? Some say the taxes are too high and forcing businesses to close.
A: Council will always look at business taxes every year, and we are well below what some of the cities in the Lower Mainland charge. We try to keep it at or below the provincial average. I think having a vibrant, entrepreneurial, diversified business base makes a town interesting and keeps people connected to a community. I love shopping local and going into stores that are owned by people here and we have to make sure that happens.
One of the things I want to look at is how BC Assessment is addressing our high streets. I think the way it is done, on places like Cleveland Avenue, are detrimental to preserving the small town main street. They are assessing them at the highest and best use that is allowed, rather than at what they are today and so if your town is sleepy and not developing and there haven’t been properties for sale, then it isn’t an issue. But as soon as soon as some of those properties start to turn and BC Assessment is going, "Oh, everyone here can go up to four, five or six storeys, so we will assess at that level," that changes things. I would like to talk to some other small towns that might be looking at the same issue around the Lower Mainland because it would take some lobbying of the provincial government to change. Coun. Jason Blackman-Wulff and I tried to reduce the heights on Cleveland quite drastically to address the issue, but couldn’t get the four votes we needed to do it. District staff has tried to find a compromise, but I am still concerned.
Q: What would you like to see for young people in Squamish?
A: I am concerned about youth in our community. This is probably personal because of my 11 and eight-year-old children. This term was about youth engagement. We were trying to hear their voice and understand what they need. I think the next term needs to be about action.
I think that we can be more creative with how we engage with youth and make sure they have some influence over what the built environment looks like for them.
The youth in our community have published a report card, and there is a clear indication of what they are struggling with. There needs to be a collaboration between the District, the school board, local business, the health authority — this won’t be an easy task — but youth need places to go that are theirs. When you sit across from a youth and they say that they don’t want to do drugs and alcohol, but in essence, they have very few other choices for entertainment, that doesn’t make me feel good. When I hear that youth are struggling to have their needs met around mental health, which is not OK. That is a provincial government issue not municipal, but boy we can be a catalyst for change in that regard.
Q: With Greyhound going, can you speak to transit going forward under you as mayor?
A: We share the cost of transit with the province, and so the money needs to be there from the province to do an expansion and it needs to be there in our budget for us to do it. But every single candidate running should be talking about transportation in this campaign. We need regional transit, but we also need to improve our internal network, so we can’t sacrifice that to get regional transit going. We need a workable and sustainable funding model on the regional side. Transit is an equalizer.
We made transit free for 12-year-olds and younger during this term because we are trying to develop that next generation of transit user so that it feels normal to them when they move to be adults.
Q: Obviously you have been anti-Woodfibre LNG. How will you approach that relationship as a mayor?
A: I have no concerns approaching the relationship. I have always been respectful. I have been tough. I expect them to set a high bar. I don’t support that industry.
I think our efforts — putting in place a community advisory committee, by pushing back at their need to drill in the estuary for testing — have made this project better. If you are a fossil fuel industry and you want to work here, then you better show you can set a high bar.
Recently, with Darrell Bay, I asked the company why they are asking for exclusive use. You are pitting, again, yourselves against another important aspect of our economy, which is tourism. There’s a way to share, and I don’t understand why two years ago when we told them they have to share, we are still sitting here two years later and they are asking for exclusive use.
Q: But isn’t part of their reason likely security because of how they have been treated in Squamish?
A: I think, with a well thought out plan, there is a way to design that dock to ensure that they are only letting on the people they need to on those boats. I don’t see how that is not surmountable.
This project has always been in provincial jurisdiction. I have never fooled myself about that, but this next council will have to negotiate a tax agreement. I think you should have people on that council who are going to set a high bar — that do believe that we should get a fair deal from this industry and I would conduct myself accordingly. Fair, but tough.
Q: What else would you like people to know?
A: I have had my own consulting practice for the last 13 years. I focus on the areas of organizational effectiveness and strategic planning and facilitation. My background is in behavioral science, which is a bit of art and a bit science — it is about helping people work better together to get results. I think the skills I have learned in business — helping organizations move through change, find common ground in contentious times — helps me in the mayor’s chair, a job that requires a lot of diplomacy and the ability to build consensus.