Township election a battle for local ballots

Langley Township went to the polls on Nov. 15, but depending on where you cast your ballot, the political landscape was very different.

Voter turnout was up by about four per cent when compared to the 2011 election, and hit almost 30 per cent, the highest turnout since 1999, when 40 per cent of voters turned up to the polls.

That tracked with increased turnout in several other municipalities, noted Max Cameron, a UBC professor of politica science and director of the Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions.

Increased turnout was common in communities grappling with development issues, including Vancouver and Surrey.

“There’s been such an expansion of the population, particularly in the suburban areas,” Cameron said.

“I thought it might be up,” re-elected Mayor Jack Froese said of turnout. Between the contentious issues in play and the get-out-the-vote efforts of the candidates, the increase wasn’t unexpected.

“I’m happy with 30 [per cent] because it’s still going in the right direction,” Froese said this week. But it still means that about 70 per cent of Township voters didn’t feel a need for a say in their community.

And while there was change, it wasn’t in the direction many had expected. Groups like Live Langley and the Unelection campaign had been trying to oust Froese, along with most of the sitting councillors.

When the dust settled, Froese had won handily, and three new councillors had displaced three veterans – but only one of those newcomers was endorsed by those seeking all-out change.

Old fashioned campaigns

The three newcomers to the Township council are Angie Quaale, Blair Whitmarsh, and Petrina Arnason.

Arnason was endorsed by Unelection and has been critical of planned public land sales in Aldergrove, and was part of the campaign to stop the sale of Glen Valley lands. 

Asked about her election, she noted that since 2011 she has become involved in many groups, activities, and delegations to the council. She was a founding member of Watchers of Langley Forests and has been involved with the local CARP chapter. Her campaign used a combination of advertising, social media, and face-to-face meetings.

Whitmarsh wasn’t as well known on the local political scene, but he has strong community connections through his post as a Trinity Western professor and his church, he said. He also mixed social media with traditional advertising and door knocking, as well as direct mail.

“I really tried to be very positive,” Whitmarsh said of his campaign.

Angie Quaale is a well-known local business owner and past Greater Langley Chamber of Commerce president. 

Like Whitmarsh, she announced her candidacy months in advance and held a number of events to meet voters in person as voting day approached.

Slates have had difficulty finding traction in Langley since the late 1990s, with Live Langley the only attempt this time to create even a small one.

Cameron noted that in civic contests, voters are interested in very specific issues – developments, bike lanes, road projects and so forth. Those issues don’t always lend themselves to the broad shared policies of a civic political party, at least not outside large cities.

Green came close – in two polls

Rick Green entered the race on the attack, wanting to talk about the problems of Froese and the incumbents on council, but not eager to talk about his own tumultuous term as mayor from 2008 to 2011. The term saw strained relations between Green and the rest of council, an admission that he had mislead his council, a vote to censure him, and an RCMP investigation that ultimately did not lead to charges.

Under Froese the council has made a number of contentious decisions, but the mayor’s personal style with his council has been more subdued.

In this election, Green attacked Froese’s record, and sided with residents upset at hot-button issues like the Brookswood OCP and Willoughby development.

Yet Green lost to Froese at every polling place. 

His closest point to a breakthrough was at the George Preston Recreation Centre poll, where a huge turnout gave Green 1,149 votes to Froese’s 1,176, a narrow margin.

Yet Glenwood, in Fernridge, saw Green get 441 to Froese’s 663.

The only other place where Green would come close was Coghlan, in rural northeastern Langley, where Green got 160 votes to Froese’s 169. Coghlan’s voter numbers were too small to have much of an impact.

Demand for change stayed local

There were a host of controversial issues from the last three years driving many of the new candidates in the Township: the failed Brookswood/Fernridge OCP, the Coulter Berry building in Fort Langley, the long-awaited Aldergrove Pool, land sales in Glen Valley, and development in Willoughby.

Over the last couple of years, informal connections were forged between residents angry about issues in their neighbourhood with those angry about issues in other neighbourhoods. 

It was very common for residents from Willoughby to speak up at the Brookswood OCP hearings, or for people from Brookswood to talk about the Coulter Berry building.

Yet ultimately, anger stayed localized, and primarily to Brookswood, Fort Langley, and Willoughby.

Clint Lee and Kerri Ross of the Live Langley slate were both in the top eight vote-getters in Brookswood, as well as in their home area of Willoughby. Candidates endorsed by Unelection such as Kevin Mitchell and Jackie Mandzak, also did well in Brookswood, but didn’t get much traction outside of the areas of greatest turmoil.

Cameron noted that you could make an argument for a ward system out of fractured results like that – but it wouldn’t be a silver bullet.

“Just because there’s a councillor who’s on your side and really understands your neighbourhood, doesn’t mean that councillor would be able to get anything done,” Cameron said.

Froese was not in favour of a return to wards, which were once used to elect representatives from each Langley neighbourhood.

“I think wards pit community against community,” he said. “I don’t think it would be good for us.”

Willoughby doesn’t vote

Candidates from Willoughby might have had a better chance if their fellow residents had bothered to go to the polls.

The estimated population of Willoughby this year hit 25,920, which makes it the largest neighbourhood in the Township, passing Walnut Grove’s 24,920 people.

However, it had one of the lowest voter turnout rates out of any community in the Township. Just 3,094 people cast ballots at either R.C. Garnett or Lynn Fripps Elementary schools, the two polling places for the Willoughby/Willowbrook area.

For comparison, Brookswood, with 13,200 people, saw  3,656 people cast ballots for mayor at its two polling places, more than 500 more votes. 

Aldergrove, with 12,300 residents, saw 2,474 ballots cast for one of the mayors.

Fort Langley, with a population of just 3,710 saw 1,597 ballots cast for mayor.

“Brookswood had an issue,” Froese said, noting the high turnout there. “That brought a lot of people out.”

Meanwhile, the demographics in Willloughby are still skewed toward younger people, and many of them are new to the Township. It takes time to get people invested in their new community through local activities, said Froese. 

Being responsive to people’s needs is one way to encourage that connection to community, and new voting methods might help in the future.

Online voting might become an option in the future, Froese said.

Cameron noted that without a sense of community, people can feel isolated, and it’s hard to create common interests. It is when people feel that common interest that they will start to head to the polls.

At its current rate of growth, there will be more than 10,000 new residents by the next civic election.

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