In the lead-up to civic elections next fall, Langford citizens are demanding change, including respectful debate and input into decision-making.
THE FINAL STRAW for Langford Councillor Lillian Szpak, during an increasingly prickly council meeting, was when a fellow councillor alluded to her family during a verbal attack and another, supported by the mayor, accused her of supplying information to outsiders during the meeting.
The January 10, 2022 meeting degenerated into a schoolyard-style spat as Mayor Stew Young, Councillor Lanny Seaton and Councillor Matt Sahlstrom piled on to criticize Szpak, who had suggested getting expert and community advice on a tree protection bylaw.
“I am talking about respect,” said Szpak after Seaton claimed she was in conflict-of-interest because her daughter-in-law is a member of Langford Voters for Change, a Facebook group that is, increasingly, a thorn-in-the-side of council.
Later in the meeting Szpak sent an emailed reply to a resident who complained about being cut off in mid-sentence by the mayor.
Young claimed Szpak behaved inappropriately by responding to the email from a member of Langford Voters for Change, although Szpak said she does not know the emailer and was apologizing for the abrupt cut-off.
Under COVID-19 protocols, residents must phone or use Zoom to speak at public hearings and, ironically, the caller was asking Young not to interrupt those phoning in.
The “shameful behaviour and egregious accusations” are a clear demonstration that Langford needs a code of conduct, said Szpak, who notified Council at its next meeting of her plan to introduce such a motion soon. That resulted in a reprimand from the mayor for not putting it in writing or going through staff first.
In a January interview with Saanich News after that January 24 meeting, Young, described some councillors as “combative,” and stated “I’ve got broad shoulders; nobody has to agree with me, but this is the path that I’ve taken for 30 years and it’s brought Langford to a great space.”
“It was ugly”
At issue is more than a spat on a local council. Langford is BC’s fastest-growing large municipality and Young has steered that growth since becoming mayor shortly after incorporation almost 30 years ago.
He has had three decades without serious opposition, but, some sectors of the community say they are struggling to make their voices heard and feel disheartened by a council that appears to follow its own agenda regardless of input.
Szpak, who has lived in Langford since 1993 and served six terms on council, has watched Langford’s demographics change, with younger, more engaged people moving into the community. Many share their views on social media and it worries her that some councillors view groups such as Langford Voters for Change as a threat.
“To characterize them as the evil Facebook group and that anyone on it has questionable intent—and then to refer to my daughter-in-law as one of those people—was a personal attack and completely unacceptable,” Szpak said.
Langford Mayor Stew Young, Councillors Denise Blackwell and Lillian Szpak
Several days after the January 10 council meeting, Szpak remained troubled about the atmosphere on council, personal attacks and a reluctance to listen to opposing views.
“I tried to defend myself and my family and it was ugly,” she said in an interview.
“I watched that [video recording] this morning and it is painful. It’s very, very hard for me to see that again,” she said. (The exchange referred to starts at roughly 1 hour, 50 minutes into the January 10 meeting.)
The meeting was an illustration of what regularly happens around the council table where questions are taken as challenges, rather than requests for information, Szpak said.
“Where is our integrity? Where is our accountability and where is our collaborative leadership?” she asked.
“When someone has the floor, the chair should protect that as long as they are speaking appropriately. Inappropriate is not ‘I don’t agree with you,’” she said.
“Physical gestures, eye rolling, hand gestures, those kinds of threatening behaviour should not be tolerated,” she added.
Councillor Denise Blackwell said she and Szpak recently decided to be more vocal about the need for debate, especially when it comes to major changes such as 24-storey towers in Langford’s centre.
“I think the other [councillors] are terrified to do it, so we have decided to speak up,” said Blackwell, who has been on council since incorporation in 1992.
“It’s a frustrating kind of thing when no one debates anything—it just kind of goes through—and, in the past, most of it was fine and had been approved at different committee meetings, but, if you dare to ask questions or disagree with the mayor’s vision, you get a lecture,” Blackwell said.
In the meantime, a code of conduct would help, she said.
“I know you can’t always do everything that people want, but people do need to have an opportunity to speak. If it’s a big change, like all these towers, it’s something you should put out to the community and let them speak,” Blackwell said.
Developers leading the process
Langford has changed beyond recognition in the last three decades and the City regularly gains accolades for its relentless push to provide housing, bring jobs to the community and densify the city core.
It was recently named Most Resilient City and Best Place for Work in BC by BC Business Magazine and has grown from 14,000 residents at incorporation in 1992 to 47,313 in July 2021.
The growth has brought restaurants, recreation facilities, cheaper housing and a city vibe, but the rapid building rate has also brought traffic jams, clear-cut, once-forested development sites, blasted mountain tops, the disappearance of some single-family neighbourhoods and concerns about the environment.
John Treleaven, chair of Grumpy Taxpayer$ of Greater Victoria, said the transformation of Langford has benefitted the whole region and contributed to the regional housing supply.
Young and the council have been key to Langford’s growth, but, eventually, that transformed community will move in the direction it chooses, Treleaven said.
“People have every right to express their point of view. It’s all about transparency, accountability and acting in the best interest of the community as the council judges. That is the sacred trust we place on our elected officials,” he said.
The backdrop to the apparent growing dissatisfaction is the run-up to next October’s municipal elections and Young, who did not respond to phone calls or emailed questions from Focus, recently told the Times Colonist that he is undecided on running again.
Langford Voters for Change will not be fielding candidates, although individual members may decide to run.
In the 2018 municipal election, Langford had the second-lowest turnout in the province—beaten only by Terrace—but, some are hoping issues ranging from continuous construction noise to the prospect of 24-storey condominium towers, may overcome apathy.
Young is proud of Langford’s ability to cut red tape and grease the wheels for developers, with approvals racing through the process in a fraction of the time it takes in other municipalities. The speedy approach means developers can assemble land and, often, start building within six months.
However, there are ongoing concerns about who has the ear of councillors and the close relationship between developers and council.
“If the only people they are hearing from in these committee meetings and in the hallways are those who are making a living off …increased development, those are the only voices they pay attention to,” said Laurie Plomp, a member of Langford Voters for Change.
“It’s very frustrating to feel like the developers are leading the process in Langford.”
Those with links to the development community dominate advisory committees and much of the work is done behind the scenes, before an application reaches council, leading to accusations of lack of transparency.
Public hearings are usually short and a check of hearings during the last two council meetings shows almost all those speaking in favour of developments were connected to either the real estate or development industries.
“There is such a lack of opposite viewpoints or balanced viewpoints on any of the committees,” Plomp said.
Then, once an application comes to council for a public hearing, input is limited and councillors will not consider the cumulative impact of development on neighbourhoods, despite the breakneck speed of development, Plomp said.
“There has been a lot more pushback over the last couple of years, particularly in terms of development and environmental destruction, and [Young] just doesn’t appreciate those kinds of remarks,” she said.
Opposition to status quo getting organized
The Facebook site for Langford Voters for Change, which has 1,900 members, emphasizes the group is not anti-development, but wants thoughtful, balanced and well-paced development that “protects the natural environment rather than obliterates it” and blends in with existing neighbourhoods.
The group wants “a community centric and transparent governing body” that encourages broad-based community input to be analyzed and incorporated into the decision-making processes.
That is not what Langford has right now, say some residents who believe that, especially when it comes to development, Young will not tolerate opposition.
Jacqueline Gintaut, a member of Langford Voters for Change, whose phone call was cut off by Young at the meeting, said, after living in Langford for decades, she joined the group last year.
“I was naïve in that I believed that, if community residents reached out to engage with mayor and council in a professional and constructive manner, that their input would be welcomed and an opportunity to work collaboratively would present itself. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long to recognize that my imagined reality was not to be,” she said.
Langford residents Jacqueline Gintaut (left) and Ayzia De Medeiros
The perception that issues are decided before reaching council and input is ignored means some residents no longer feel comfortable calling in, especially if they are identified as belonging to Langford Voters for Change, Gintaut said.
“Mayor Young has publicly said to me at a council meeting that I am a bully, I am a complainer. This how he speaks to the residents. If I was anybody other than myself, I probably would have been deterred from continuing to phone in. Who wants to be called names by the mayor at a public council meeting?” Gintaut said.
“What is happening is wrong and it needs to change,” she said.
When developments are questioned Young frequently speculates that callers do not understand the urgent need for more affordable housing or that they are newcomers to the area.
“This isn’t Vancouver. If you like Vancouver, stay there. If you want to be in Langford this is what we do,” said Young during the tree protection bylaw discussion.
Gintaut said Young publicly misrepresents those who hold contrary views.
“He has also categorized those of us who have lived here for decades as ‘wealthy naysayers who want to close off opportunities for others,’” she said.
Community feels left out of decision-making
One of the biggest frustrations is the limited opportunity for community input to be incorporated into council decisions, Gintaut said.
An example is the Official Community Plan which has changed significantly since it was put together in 2008, but lacks any broad-based community input, she said.
Kimberley Guiry regularly listens to council meetings with her six and eight-year-old children, to help teach them how to talk about important topics.
“We’re trying to show them that we have feelings about our community and this is the place to take those feelings [so we can] tell people who make decisions what is important to us,” Guiry said.
The mid-January meeting was a disappointment, she said.
“Being told by a mayor that, if we don’t align with the views that are already in place, we don’t have space to voice those opinions is hard,” she said.
However, the family has turned it into a learning opportunity, said Guiry, who has used it to emphasize the need for respectful discussions.
Ayzia De Medeiros has lived in Langford for about 15 years and, initially, paid little attention to local politics, but with increased development around her home, started listening to the council meetings.
“But I take a step back every now and then because it is, honestly, so aggravating. It’s like beating your head against the wall at times,” said De Medeiros, adding she was so shocked by the mid-January meeting that she was shaking after listening to it.
“It was embarrassing to watch,” said De Medeiros, who called City Hall with the aim of having a discussion or filing a complaint, but she is not optimistic it will make a difference.
What will make a difference is people turning out to vote at the next election, said De Medeiros who worries that rapid development is continuing without consideration of infrastructure.
Code of Conduct—now or as election issue?
One of the next steps will pull the seven-member council into a debate on the need for a code of conduct, something that may not be a choice for council after the October 15 municipal election.
Last year a working group from the Union of BC Municipalities, Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Local Government Management Association came up with an updated draft code of conduct and guide.
That was followed by amendments to the Local Government Act calling on all municipal councils to publicly consider developing or updating codes of conduct within six months of a new term of office.
“This provides a tool to strengthen local government responsible conduct, respect and inclusion by creating a regular process for elected officials to talk about shared expectations as they carry out their responsibilities and govern together,” according to a background statement from the Ministry of Municipal Affairs.
The real test will then be the October election to see whether the dissatisfaction is limited to a few malcontents and special interest groups, as Young recently claimed during an interview with CFAX radio, or whether Langford residents really want to be involved in the rapidly-changing community.
Despite the simmering dissatisfaction, both Blackwell and Szpak doubt that Young is beatable if he decides to run.
Blackwell will consider running for mayor if Young steps down, while Szpak hopes there will be new faces ready to serve on council.
“It’s not rocket science. You don’t need any special qualifications other than you listen and you are respectful,” Szpak said.
Plomp believes Langford residents are ready to ditch their apathy because, although most support construction of affordable housing, they are also concerned about their own environment.
“Housing is important, but it’s housing that comes with neighbourhood parks or trees that you can see in your neighbourhood…I think there is going to be big change because it has escalated to the point that there is hardly any area that is not affected by this,” she said.
“I don’t know that this council is able to reframe their thinking from what they have been doing for the last 30 years and start to look at some of the issues that matter to Langford voters now.”
Judith Lavoie is a freelance journalist who enjoys exploring stories about the natural world.