Coun. Sam Waddington at the Sept. 4 city council meeting defending his expenses for national conferences and Federation of Canadian Municipalities board meetings. Money spent out of town was the subject of criticism by outgoing councillor Chuck Stam (at left). (Paul Henderson/ The Progress)

OPINION: Political theatre under the guise of transparency mars city council

Incumbent mayor creates a nickel-and-diming distraction in an attempt to derail election opponent

As the metaphorical haze of summer indifference lifts, and the literal haze of forest fire smoke clears, we move into another election season.

Municipal. Had you heard?

I’m sure at least 25 per cent of you did since that’s around the voter turnout in the last one in 2014.

This is arguably the most interesting city election in a long time with five people running for mayor including two incumbent city councillors challenging the incumbent mayor and, as of this writing, 11 names for city council.

And while the official campaign has not yet even begun, the unofficial one began months ago with campaign announcements leading up to a display of political theatre last week.

It was at the Sept. 4 city council meeting where we saw this nickel-and-diming distraction from real issues. This was Mayor Sharon Gaetz (who is running for re-election) along with outgoing councillor Chuck Stam’s parting shot, a “smacking the pup” as one close council watcher put it.

That “pup” is young Sam Waddington (who is also running for mayor) and whose out-of-town expenses from last year came under scrutiny because they were considerably higher than anyone else’s.

• READ MORE: Councillor and mayoral candidate on the hot seat delivers details on expenses

Transparency and accountability are important, and council is now addressing the rules and guidelines for spending.

Asking what if any benefits the City of Chilliwack accrues from casual meetings Waddington had with politicians and officials from other cities and other levels of government is valid.

That benefit is fluid and difficult to quantify. Waddington says there is value. Gaetz/Stam say otherwise.

But the latter two are expressing concern about what hour some meetings happened, where precisely they took place, who they were with, and what exactly was consumed.

Another more nuanced question raised is whether the supposed value of these meetings flowed to Waddington personally/professionally rather than to the city/taxpayer. But if running a city is a team sport, and arguably it should be, isn’t professional development of one player a benefit to the team?

At the end of the day, these are petty details and niggling dollar amounts. The whole debate over an utter non-issue led to the nickel-and-diming of Sam “Eggs Benedict” Waddington specifically, and fine-tooth-combing more generally, at a city council meeting bleeding with politics under a thinly veiled pretense of transparency.

“If you question whether I am bending the rules or breaking the rules, then don’t vote for me.”

That wasn’t Waddington, that was Coun. Jason Lum at the Sept. 4 meeting.

Lum certainly doesn’t always agree with Waddington (he was actually present at Ken Popove’s mayoral announcement) but it was Lum who expressed his opinion that beyond the nuances of whether councillors submit detailed receipts or have a per diem flat rate, this discussion was about trust.

• RELATED: Questions intensify around expenses incurred by Chilliwack city councillor

“This is a very political discussion,” Lum said. “Am I going to die on this hill? Probably not, but I’m going to make the point that…this is a question of trust.”

Gaetz responded that “trust is earned.”

“For the ones that don’t trust us, we have to do everything we can do to earn their trust,” she said. “I have no fear of walking down that path.”

But it isn’t really about trust, it’s about politics – politics that Gaetz waded into while sitting in the mayor’s chair, aided by Stam who has nothing left to lose, all in a move to try to derail the councillor she has butted heads with since 2014.

Politics before a campaign officially begins isn’t new or surprising, but it’s a distraction from real issues that voters will be focused on this election.

I’m pretty sure that most people prefer elected officials and candidates focus on homelessness, crime, and development rather than eggs Benedict and AirBnB.

During Tuesday’s afternoon meeting, Gaetz briefly addressed the cameras amid the longwinded conversation, apologizing to the public for what might have seemed boring to watch.

“There are better things to do,” she said.


Paul Henderson is a reporter with The Chilliwack Progress


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