By Mike Archer. It’s hard to think of a more spectacular failure in municipal politics in BC than John Smith’s career in Abbotsford politics.
The costs to his friends and neighbours, and the generations of citizens and taxpayers who will be paying for his years in office will easily run into the hundreds of millions and the damage done to our city’s reputation may never be fully repaired.
The words ‘Plan A’ and John Smith are synonymous. With the help of then-councillor Bruce Beck, the Chamber of Commerce and the chain newspapers, Smith bullied, cajoled, threatened and pushed through his vision of economic growth based on borrowing millions and building expensive, wasteful and ultimately pointless vanity projects.
As with his infamous million dollar ‘Friendship Garden,’ Smith never did seem to be able to get the hang of compound interest or the fact that, as the borrowers, we would eventually have to pay back all the money he liked to spend.
Based on the ‘build it and they will come’ model, which had failed in so many other jurisdictions and depended on fictitious and fanciful expectations of profits which would materialize because of a hockey rink, Smith’s plan was dead from the start.
As many pointed out, there was no business plan; there was no documented need for either a gigantic hockey rink nor a museum; the costs were low-balled and didn’t reflect the reality of what he was asking his fellow citizens to take on and the ‘hockey-mad town’ he and the proponents of plan spoke of simply didn’t exist.
The damage done to the arts community by building a museum and art gallery which sucks $650,000 out of City coffers every year and has no real connection to the local arts community is fixable but was both unnecessary and inexplicable unless the whole plan was something concocted in the absence of any rudimentary understanding of either economic growth or the arts,
In 2006, Vince Dimanno of the Abbotsford Ratepayers Association (ARA) predicted Plan A would cost Abbotsford taxpayers half a billion dollars … that’s $500,000,000. So far, his predictions have turned out not only to be correct but he may have under estimated the damage.
As a man who never tires of telling any audience who will listen to him that he used to be a banker, his financial acumen, political judgement and basic financial instincts could not have been more wrong. His unwillingness or inability to listen to those who knew whereof they spoke appears to have made it impossible for him to either understand the size of his miscalculations nor the enormity of his mistakes.
The sooner the taxpayers of Abbotsford can rely on the hope that these ill-informed, ill-advised, foolish and debilitating public expenditures will finally stop, the safer our money will be.
Abbotsford Homeless Crisis
The other spectacular bit of damage John Smith has done to his community has been in his role as chair of the now defunct Abbotsford Social Development Advisdory Committee (ASDAC). During his entire tenure, despite the expenditure of millions of dollars, not a damn thing was accomplished in dealing with what, thanks to Smith’s help, has become the one thing for which Abbotsford is now known wordwide – the Abbotsford Homeless Crisis.
By ensuring that nothing ASDAC members ever brought up received the attention it deserved at the council table and not a thing of substance was done to address the growing crisis of a large and destitute population of homeless citizens, John Smith is perhaps the single most important political figure in the rise of homelessness in Abbotsford.
In 2008 he, Beck and downtown land owner and president of the Abbotsford Downtown Business Association (ADBA) Bob Bos, told Pastor Christoph Reiners to stop feeding the poor and he announced to the national media he had spoken to the Abbotsford Police Department (APD) and instructed them to deal with the problem of homelessness in downtown Abbotsford.
And so began APD Chief Bob Rich’s reign of terror over the homeless men and women of Abbotsford – a reign of terror for which the APD was forced to apologise and pay compensation when it was finally reported in the media.
In 2014 Smith led the minority of council (Bill MacGregor and Les Barkman) against the majority (Henry Braun, Patricia Ross, Dave Loewen and Moe Gill) in voting down the proposal for a low-barrier shelter for homeless men and, with the support of Bruce Banman, killed a 60-year commitment and $15.3 million in provincial money to help with the Abbotsford Homeless Crisis.
He was then put in charge of Banman’s Homeless Task Force which, being made up of the same crowd who gave us the Abbotsford Homeless Crisis, has stunningly been unable to come up with a solution for homelessness in Abbotsford, other than of course, a continuation of Bob Rich’s ‘displace and disperse’ policy otherwise known as ‘The Abbotsford Shuffle.’
As a result of Smith’s war on the homeless, Abbotsford is currently defending a series of court cases and two human rights complaints and fighting with its homeless population in court rather than extending a hand of friendship and trying to help its most vulnerable and destitute citizens.
During his entire time in politics in Abbotsford John Smith has always seemed to be able to position himself as the most powerful man in the room. His impact on the Planning department, the Economic Development department, as well as ASDAC has shaped, more than any other politician, the tremendous mess in which this city finds itself.
With no money to spend on real economic growth or on fighting the Abbotsford Homeless Crisis which has come to define us (with anything but cops and lawyers), Smith, more than any other politician in the last two decades, exemplifies what is wrong with the City of Abbotsford. Preferring to operate behind closed doors, within the confines of the committee structure and the back rooms of City Hall, Smith has made so many deals which have damaged this city it is hard to unravel them or remember which particular deal led to which particular fiasco.
What he did with the power he appears to have accumulated has been disastrous for citizens, residents and taxpayers and, perhaps most tragically, for generations of future residents who will have to pay for his singular inability to get anything right.
The damage done to the body politic, the City’s finances, the homeless men and women who have suffered under the City’s tyranny and the community at large, which will pay for his time in politics for many years to come, will be hard to repair.
But we have to start somewhere.
John Smith has had a long career accepting public pay cheques from his friends and neighbours. More than anyone in the last 15 years he has shaped Abbotsford into what it is.
It is high time he stop.