By Elsie K. Neufeld. (this is a work of fiction; any resemblance to abbotsford city council meetings is pure coincidence.) It wasn’t a surprise to see all but two seats on stage filled by men (the city has only one female councillor, and only the back of her head was occasionally visible from the gallery seats. And the other female on stage? city staff?), and a mirroring of that in the Matsqui Centennial Auditorium, although a far lower percentage of seats were taken on the floor and balcony than on stage. Typical, no doubt, of “ordinary” council meetings. Meaning, with no HUGE agenda items. The not-casual attire was somewhat of a surprise. Councillor Bark, especially, looked like he’d come directly from the Crystal Gala event, or a wrestlers’ award night, which he might have won. Of note was how he spent much of the evening looking down at…couldn’t see what he was looking at…
The mayor, of course had the central seat in the back of the semi-circle of seats. His hair seemed effusively spiked; not a follicle was out of place. Councillor Lo assumed a stage-edge seat, making him highly, wholly, visible. He nibbled the ends of his glasses for much of the evening, at times pushing the arm of the glasses so far into the recesses of his mouth, one wondered whether he was flossing his back molars, or having a flashback to childhood of hallowe’en time, when trick or treating resulted in a cache of dime-store suckers. Not only that, the councillor exhibited his capacity to multi-task.
Quad-task, to be more detailed. He nibbled the arm of his glasses, chewed gum, scrolled and swished the screen of his Ipad before him, though the agenda was on a large screen meters before him, and, when not busy with his techno-toy, gazed out at the audience with his piercing eyes. Was he counting the number of citizens in attendance? Was he dreaming of sleep? Reviewing the tasks awaiting him at home prior to calling it a night, and packing his lunch for the following day? Who can say, but impressive indeed was his gaze, the nimble nature of his fingers, and indefatigueable jaw.
You might even say he was jawing, though not, for the most part, verbally. Councillor Gi** sat to the right of the mayor, and was quiet, quiet, quiet, all evening long, except when the call was made for someone to volunteer to sit on the board of The Reach a a replacement member on those nights the mayor himself couldn’t attend. He was thanked rather profusely by the Mayor (whom Councillor G referred to as “Your Worship”), although he was clearly the mayor’s second choice, as when the mayor BB brought that agenda item to the fore, he looked directly at the councillor Gib, noted, first, that he’d not been in attendance for a long while, and didn’t he wish to take on this task? Councillor Gib, looking rather haggard, worn, and pale as the fog that’s been hanging over the city these past few days, said “an honor to be asked” however, he would decline. Whereupon Mayor asked for volunteers, and Councillor Gi** stepped up to the plate… “We’re on a roll tonight,” the mayor had quipped earlier as one agenda after the other was motioned deferred/accepted/passed with little discussion.
A few comments by Councillors Gib, Bark and Ro. “And what of the bike trail in that area?” “And what of a wildlife corridor? Has that been factored in? I understand a bobcat was sighted in that area recently.” “And what of the retaining wall neighbours had expressed concern for, which is why this proposal was rejected the first time?” asked Councillor Bark. “Isn’t this the same application?” he asked no less than three times. Indeed, it was the same, assured a city staff member. Councillor Bra did ask a question of a letter, which was part of a 47 page document he had read prior to the meeting. Question was answered. As was his question with regard to a water pipe. Which brings up the observation that the word “regards” is not proper.
Regards as a salutation, yes, but not “with regards.” It’s always “with regard”. A picky point, but noted. And then the meeting drew to a close, and the mayor invited councillors to comment “on any good stuff happen out there this week?” Councillor Ro had two comments. And this is where elsiewhere kicked in, unbidden, as always. A third eye and ear opened up. “I attended the Crystal Gala on Saturday night” she reported. It was her favorite one so far, she said, though noted “they’re all beautiful.” What made this a stand out evening was: 1) the organizers of the annual event reported reaching their goal of raising $1 Million dollars towards breast cancer research; and 2) the acquisition by Abbotsford Hospital of a new machine that will drastically reduce the risk of infection during breast surgery. She couldn’t elaborate on the details of the machine itself, however, noted that Abbotsford Hospital is only the second hospital in BC which would have this technology.
But before she could add that VGH was the other one, the mayor interrupted, and made that comment. And added another detail he seemed proud to be able to add. After the mayor had completed his interruptive commentary, Councillor Ro asked a question re the “ACS proposed rezoning application to build a 20-suite apartment for men who are homeless or at risk for being homeless. I understand that ACS has filed their application, and wonder when this will be put on council agenda.” “Mr. Mur (city manager). Could you answer that question?” said the mayor, who, suddenly, visibly, had begun to merge with his seat. Mr. Mur, seated near the left front stage, diagonally across from the councillor who’d asked the question, turned on his mic. Leaned forward. Then spoke. Said he didn’t know. Councillor Ro responded by urging the item be put on the agenda “sooner rather than later” so the matter could be dealt with. Was it then, or was it when Councillor Bra turned on his mic to comment, that mayor bb all but vanished in his seat.
He leaned back so far, that all that was visible was his spiked coiffure. “I, too, have two comments,” said Councillor Bra. He went on to describe having spent the day — “well, from 7:30 am – 3:30 pm” — at the Abbotsford Connect Day, as a volunteer “host”, which included accompanying two homeless men through the day. He observed what an amazing expression of community it had been, with many volunteers providing services such as haircuts, footcare, medical and eye care, etc. tor “probably up to 400 people…the city’s “least, the last, and the lost.” He mentioned how, in talking to some of the homeless people there, many said “they do not want to be living on the streets.” He also identified Linda Klippenstein for organizing the haircut station, at which there were no less than 12 stylists [130 people had haircuts], as well as Dr. Elizabeth Watt and her medical team; and the foot care people. He concluded his first comment with, “as wierd as it may sound, it was a very enriching day.” What Councillor Bra didn’t add was how hands-on he had been at the event. He did not include in his report this critical detail: that when one of his assigned people had a traumatic personal hygiene incident, in view of everyone around him, it was the Councillor himself who cleaned up the man, his soiled clothing, and more and more. A man can’t have a more humiliating experience in a roomful of strangers; and few have what it takes to care for someone in that kind of need. Others present could not.
But Councillor Bra could, and did, and went the 10th mile — with a stranger, a fellow citizen of Abbotsford. After all, he was there as a citizen of Abbotsford, not as a city councillor. He asked not to be identified as a city councillor to those who don’t know him, and requested that his name tag include only his first name. The mayor continued to sit in the back shadows. No ad lib comments, as during the previous councillor’s comments, though mayor had made a very brief appearance at Abbotsford Connect, which is to say, there was enough time for a few people to catch a glimpse of his name tag, which included his title, and full name, and one as well for his spouse identifying her as his wife. Curious to this virgin of council meetings was the mayor’s silence when the male councillors spoke, but not when the female councillor spoke. Just an observation. And then Councillor Bra, made his second comment. Which was to refer back to Councillor Ro’s question “When will the ACS proposal be put on the agenda. It is my understanding the province may withdraw its funding if a decision isn’t made any time soon.
It’s important that we make a decision for or against this, so we can move forward…” Planning had already been underway for 5-6 years, so it was time… The mayor was now nowhere to be seen. Not even his spiked hair was visible anymore. Finally, Councillor Lo, who had spent the bulk of the evening scrolling, nibbling, chewing, sipping red juice, and staring into space, reported that he had attended an important to this community event on Saturday as well; a bike-ride fundraiser for CARES, a counselling agency that provides free counselling for people in Abbotsford who are living on a shoestring and who need emotional support. And then the mayor reappeared. Sat up straight and tall, and stated that he too, had something to report. “We keep hearing about all things council don’t do right, but this week the city of abbotsford won an MBF award, along with several other municipalities, for being ‘Most Business Friendly.'” The credit, he said, went 100% to city staff. Then he referred back to Crystal Gala event, and how it was announced that $1 Million goal had been reached, and Abbotsford City is a “trailblazer” in the medical field because “women can now go on-line and book their own appointments for a mammogram. Men get breast cancer too,” he added.
Then he described the new machine the hospital had acquired “how very significantly it cuts down on post op infections” and other details of its function, as well as how bacteria might be transmitted pre-op. As he spoke he did a reverse Shrinking Violet. “Abbotsford can be very proud,” he said. “For its fund-raising and the acquisition of this latest medical technology…” Then Councillor Gi**, at the behest of the mayor, motioned the meeting be adjourned by “Your Worship.” And thus it was. In the corridor, Councillor Lo was asked “Who puts the agenda items onto the council meeting agenda?” He stammered, and replied, “Well, uh, I think it’s the city staff.”
Just then, councillor Bra appeared, and councillor Lo noted to him that “Elsie is wondering who puts items on the council agenda. Would you know the answer to that?” “The mayor,” replied councillor Bra. “So, it is up to the mayor then to bring ACS’s request to rezone land in order to build the proposed apartment for homeless men?” “I guess so” said councillor Lo, rather demurely. “It is, said Councillor Bra. “And so he holds the power then to delay it?” Both of them nodded. And that was it. You’d gotten it over with. Your first time. What was most astonishing was a) the speed with which rezonings were granted for development purposes, even from agriculturally-designated lands; b) the mayor’s repeated interruptions only when the sole female councillor spoke; and his shrinkage when the matter of the homeless housing project was raised; c) in a city of 130,000, of which more are women than men, and of which 19 percent are of asian descent, city council has only one female member, one indo-canadian male, and four of the eight male councillors have mennonite names; and d) in the year of 2013, male city councillors still say “girls” when referring to women. Then again, boys will be boys….
You can read more Elsie Neufeld on her Facebook page.