Mission Mayor Randy Hawes said that taking over Fraser River Heritage Park was the 'hardest' decision made by council so far.

Mission Mayor Randy Hawes said that taking over Fraser River Heritage Park was the 'hardest' decision made by council so far.

The Halfway Point: Mission mayor discusses past decisions and those to come

With two years of his term already complete, Randy Hawes believes that he is working with a great council.

It has been two years since Randy Hawes reclaimed the mayor’s chair in Mission. He was originally elected as mayor in 1993 and served three consecutive terms. He eventually moved on to provincial politics before deciding to return to the municipal level.

Voters in Mission elected him to his fourth term as mayor in 2014.

Now, two years into his four-year term, Hawes believes – with no insult to other councillors that he has served with – that he is working with a great council.

“This is by far the most united, the easiest council to work with. We have differences of opinions on some things, but they are put forward in a very congenial way and we find compromise with each other to move ahead,” said Hawes. “On big issues, for the most part, we have had no disagreements. It has been a pleasure to serve with these people.”

Looking back at the first two years, the mayor said one decision stands out as the “hardest” that council had to make: Fraser River Heritage Park.

“I’m sure others would say pretty much the same thing,” said Hawes.

Early into its new term, council announced it would not be renewing its agreement with the Mission Heritage Association (MHA) for the management and upkeep of the popular park.

The MHA had maintained the facility for more than three decades.

The district also assumed responsibility for all building construction taking place in the park. That included kitchen renovations, the caretaker’s suite, the Clayburn Building and a partially completed observatory project. After much public controversy, the observatory project was eventually abandoned and the structure torn down.

“As we looked at the park and what was going on at the park, the building program that was undertaken was of unprecedented scale and it became pretty clear to us, we believed, that it was beyond the capacity of the Heritage Park board,” explained Hawes.

According to Hawes, when council was first elected, it gave the MHA 12 months’ notice, as was required by the agreement, in the hopes of creating a new agreement.

“The more we looked, the more we knew that we better take over. That hard decision was made, followed by a good look at all the buildings and the observatory.”

Hawes said several building code violations were discovered and needed to be fixed.

“The observatory, aside from all the talk whether it was a wonderful building or not, had a business plan that was not a business plan, contrary to what some of the advocates had to say.”

He described it as theoretical, adding that “so many things were missing.” He believes the business plan was the “biggest detriment to the observatory” and could have cost taxpayers a lot of money.

“What I believed, and still believe, is that if it had progressed to completion, we would have been looking at a very, very substantial revenue shortfall that would have had to be made up from general revenue from the taxpayer – the same thing that happened with the Clarke Theatre. We are now having to put in over $100,000 a year into that just to have it open periodically.”

While he calls the decision the hardest that this council had to make so far, Hawes is also proud of council for making it.

“I’m very proud of our council. Not only that they made the decision, but they stuck to it. I know there was some discussion about the timing for tearing the building down, but every single one of us knew the building had to come down.

Despite a loud public outcry against tearing down the building, Hawes is still adamant that it was the right thing to do.

“There are no regrets whatsoever. The right decision was made. It probably could have been conveyed slightly differently, but at the same time, emotions were very high.”

With emotions running that high, Hawes said it probably didn’t matter how the decision was presented.

He compared the emotional response by some members of the public to the observatory with a TransLink proposal that occurred years ago.

Hawes said TransLink asked the public if they wanted an hourly bus service to Vancouver.

“They had a petition at several grocery stores and collected 3,500 signature in one afternoon.”

But Hawes asked TransLink if they had told the petition signers that gas prices would go up and that there would be a charge on their Hydro bill every month to pay for it. He said TransLink presented it as though it would be free.

“I think it is the same thing here. Would you like an observatory that will do all these wonderful things? Well, who wouldn’t? If all those wonderful things could be delivered at no cost. But frankly, we could see there was going to be cost.”

While the Heritage Park/observatory issue was clearly the most controversial council decision so far, Hawes said there have been plenty of positive changes made in the past two years.

“I think it has been very successful. I think that this council has provided really good leadership. We started with a much-stripped-down city hall; stripped down in the wrong way.”

He said the previous council had achieved a zero tax increase but had eliminated or reduced some key people and services. That included fire inspection, police services and more.

Hawes said that forced the new council to play catch-up, which costs money.

Another key problem that had to be addressed was a sense of dysfunction between council and district staff.

“The morale among our staff was absolutely rock bottom. Many people left. I’ve talked to a lot of people around the province, including a lot at the UBCM (Union of B.C. Municipalities), who would say we were a laughing stock. People used to turn in to council meetings to get a laugh at how badly things were going. All that has changed.”

He said staff now have a high morale and they have an excellent working relationship, allowing them to serve the public more efficiently.

Hawes said one key to that was the hiring of Ron Poole as the district’s new chief administrative officer.

Poole, who was serving as CAO for the District of Kitimat, began his new post on June 11, 2015.

Looking ahead, Hawes sees many issues that have to be addressed, some of which have already begun.

“I think what we are doing downtown has merit.”

Council has committed $3.5 million to help revamp the downtown core and is about to pass a zoning bylaw that will restrict certain businesses – tobacconists, tattoo parlours, cheque-cashing outlets and others – from opening in the area.

Hawes also sees a need to create more job opportunities.

“It’s not a secret that the Genstar lands have been up for sale. There is a huge amount of interest in those lands. We are very interested in working with potential purchasers but to do that we have to create employment lands.

“We can’t have something like the Silverdale lands (Genstar) develop and turn people out onto the highway, driving away from the jobs. We already have too much of that. We have a real dearth of industrial zoned land so we are going to need to create more industrial land in places that will attract the kind of industrial businesses that we want.”

He said the area along Lougheed Highway and Nelson Street needs to come out of the Agricultural Land Reserve and become industrial land.

Hawes would like to see an agri-based tech centre created.

Another issue that will eventually have to be dealt with is the need for a new city hall and RCMP station.

“That is a little way down the road, but hopefully in the next two years there will be a plan on what to do.”

While nothing has been decided yet, Hawes said the public will definitely be involved in the process, adding it has to be a “public decision.”

“Frankly, even though people don’t like to see a new city hall and the like, it’s absolutely essential and we have to do it.”

Another major issue Hawes wants to tackle is the high cost of the West Coast Express.

“We are definitely of the opinion that the West Coast Express is financed in a very unfair way. We are paying $1 million a year right now for the train and the train bus without one penny coming from any other community in the Fraser Valley.”

He said it is a regional system and should be financed as one. He also believes Mission is being overcharged.

“TransLink is charging way too much because regardless of whether we pay or not pay, the trains will be overnighted in Mission. So all we are doing is giving them paying riders. Why do we have to pay $1 million a year to subsidize the cost of them driving the train to Mission, which they are going to do regardless?”