By Mike Archer. Councillor Henry Braun, who announced his decision to run for mayor June 10, has enjoyed somewhat of a honeymoon with Abbotsford citizens since being elected to council in 2011. He has seldom faced criticism (at least from the public); always seems to pick the right side of controversial issues, and has shown an uncanny ability to to know when to stand up and be counted.
He has questioned statements made by councilors, the mayor, senior staff both privately and publicly. He has managed to make Abbotsford Council meetings interesting for the first time in over a decade by refusing to abide by the unwritten rule of discussing everything beforehand and then silently voting when the public walks in.
He was accused of asking too many questions by former city bureaucrats and can reportedly be relentless when you try to keep information from him or give him excuses which don’t make any sense. While senior staff were uncomfortable when Braun arrived at City Hall, the rank and file have learned to appreciate his principled and professional way of getting to the bottom of things and empowering them in the process.
His political foes describe him as a member of the power structure, an insider with deep connections into some of Abbotsford’s old money. He has been accused of making political decisions for political reasons. Some have accused him of starting his campaign for mayor the day he ran for council.
An Establishment Man
While most of these accusations are worth the anonymity in which they are usually couched, Braun is most certainly a member of the establishment. Along with his brothers he inherited a railway [Pacific Northern Rail Contractors Corp. ], and was its CEO for a decade. He is the president and co-owner of two investment firms and the owner of Murphy Ridge Farms and Upper Hat Creek Ranch.
He is married into the Siemens family and estimates his extended family in Abbotsford to number in the hundreds.
All of these things make those with whom he has battled politically suspect him of something nefarious but, other than being successful I’m not sure what those who oppose him are saying. I suspect it has to do with which establishment he belongs to.
He is certainly not part of the establishment which built its wealth through proximity to politicians and city hall. He is certainly not part of the establishment which survives through its connections, with power brokers who help one another through their backroom connections. Nor has he made his money through years of feeding at the public trough.
Braun is a self-made man with just the right amount of distance from those who use their power, influence and connections to play in the shadowy world just beyond the reach of voters but close enough to those who get elected that their success seems assured by a continuation of the status quo.
The Braun family didn’t make its money getting preferential treatment from local nabobs or influencing the expenditure of public money. To turn a legitimate success story into an accusation that he is some form of ‘establishment man’ sounds more like envy than meaningful criticism.
Men and women with something to lose from a change in governance are sometimes the least believable when they accuse people of having a hidden agenda.
Political Weak Points
He has been accused of not supporting the gay pride agenda because he has yet to walk in an Abbotsford gay pride parade.
Braun is quick to acknowledge how some might feel about his decision but says that his motive has nothing to do with beliefs or motivations which are anti-gay.
He argues that his decision has to do with the possible perception that he might be lending political support to a movement rather than simply believing in gay rights.
He proudly and openly loves and supports gay members of his own family and believes in their right to be who they are and bridles at any accusation he does not support the rights of gays.
Still … walking in the parade would be a meaningful public statement of support for a group which, though not as visible as the homeless, are as persecuted and demonized in Abbotsford as any group.
When he supported the BC Housing/ACS proposal for a low-barrier shelter for alcohol-dependent men, he was accused by the Abbotsford Downtown Business Association (ADBA) of getting his facts wrong when he questioned the organizations’ executive of being willing to accept a different property, which was even closer to the downtown core, as a location for the shelter.
A religious man and a fiscal conservative, some who support him are concerned that his focus on financial sustainability can lead him to make decisions which are not in the long term interest of the community. He was pilloried for opposing the deal which saw Abbotsford take on the lion’s share of the cost of interurban buses between Langley, Abbotsford, Mission and Chilliwack. He maintains that his decision was based on the best interests of Abbotsford taxpayers. “We were asking Abbotsford taxpayers to take on the majority of the costs and, unlike other municipalities, we simply don’t have the money to throw around,” he says.
Braun hardly fits if you are trying to wedge him into the mold of a revolutionary outsider. In case he ever tries to blame the Abbotsford Police Board for the homeless crisis, for example, he sat on the Board and had his chance to convince it to change its ways.
While he has railed against some of the directions taken by the City in its feeble attempts to increase economic growth, and the City’s seeming inability to play by its own rules, he did have a chance to do something about it when he sat on the Economic Development Commission.
For someone who is accused of being both a populist and an establishment man, Braun has focused on some pretty dry and boring subjects as a councillor.
Though he has fought for the electronic version of the agenda and all of the paperwork provided early enough for councillors to actually have a chance to read it, he still goes through the paperwork by hand in order to be able to more conveniently check the references.
As a result he has always been the councillor who makes a council meeting last much longer than many of the other councillors would like because he asks detailed questions, insists on answers and argues over details to which some councillors and staff seem completely oblivious.
In a moment which was highly embarrassing to senior staff, as well as to councillors who had never noticed what he had uncovered, Braun revealed that the entire P3 water shortage-surplus fiasco had been based on outdated, poorly enunciated, unrealistic graphs based on faulty information.
We almost sank $300,000,000 into a new water supply we didn’t need because either City staff didn’t know how to make or read a graph or council hadn’t been interested. Their graph had our water needs rising at a 45 degree angle while actual usage was plummeting.
Braun single-handedly demolished Mayor Banman’s pet project – the YMCA $17 Million Giveaway – a staff project which had been put together years before and carefully navigated through the bureaucratic backrooms with nobody asking any significant questions. By his persistence and willingness to take the heat for asking questions somebody should have asked long ago he gradually brought enough councillors around to see what a disaster it would have been to give away more taxpayer dollars to businesses and organizations as incentives to do business in Abbotsford.
Early on in his term, Braun was quite vocal about what a bad deal had been made with the Calgary Flames to financially support the owners of the Abbotsford Heat. Rather than engage in the endless repetitive boosterism of staff, Mayor Banman and the newspapers, Braun stated quite clearly that he was convinced the City was going to have to write a cheque for $5 Million just to cut its losses and stop the bleeding.
It took three more years of losses and cheerleading about the potential of the Heat – if people would only come out and support the team; threats by the mayor that he would have to cut back municipal services if people didn’t buy Heat tickets, and mindless, costly optimism before the City’s hand was forced and, despite the mayor’s continued boosterism, staff was finally sent to negotiate the deal to end the misery.
Now Banman is claiming in his campaign material to have saved the taxpayers money by getting rid of the Heat.
The Abbotsford Homeless Crisis
Braun was the only councillor who accepted the invitation by protesters in Jubilee Park last fall to come to the park, meet them and find out why they were there.
The entire council, other than Braun and Mayor Banman bear some direct and some indirect responsibility, whether through deliberate, sustained and specific acts or simply through being asleep at the switch, for the biggest human rights embarrassment in the City’s history – the Abbotsford Homeless Crisis.
Councillors like John Smith, who instructed the Abbotsford Police to do something about the homeless in downtown and chose to protect the misguided interests of the small shop owners of the downtown. Others merely stood by and let it happen and Mayor Banman decided to make it a fight on which he would stake his name, his reputation and his memory in the history books.
Braun knew it was a time to stand for something and be on the right side history. Instead of kowtowing to those who support the City’s Anti-Homeless Bylaws and the three councillors and the mayor who have wanted to use the police and the courts to rid the city of its homeless protest camp and the other city of tents which grew up along Gladys Avenue, Braun has been the voice of reason and the voice of justice around which enough councillors have rallied in order to save the men and women along Gladys from the punishment some would have them endure.
It was Braun who tried to begin the journey towards dealing with this community embarrassment. It was Braun who advised against using cops and lawyers to deal with homelessness.
It was Braun who called for an end to mistreatment of Abbotsford citizens who suffer from mental illness, drug addiction, alcohol dependence and poverty.
So we have a situation which has been in the works for years, made worse by a mayor who seems to want to win a fight with homeless which was started by John Smith and will end badly for the homeless, the taxpayers, and the citizens of Abbotsford … no matter who wins in court.
Braun, on the other hand, would like to do something about homelessness rather than devoting the City’s resources to fighting with its homeless citizens. He has said that, despite the mistakes which have led to the crisis the community now faces, continuing the same old failed policies and fighting the city’s most marginalized citizens in court instead of helping resolve the issue makes absolutely no sense.
Perhaps one of the biggest dangers Braun represents for that part of the power structure which is deeply entrenched in the committee structure and the anterooms of local political and business power around City Hall is the statement he made when announcing his candidacy about the need for the City to start playing by its own rules.
For too long in this city, people have been afraid to speak up about the influence of business organizations like the ADBA and the Chamber of Commerce for fear of reprisal. Things like un-tendered contracts for some local businesses while others can’t seem to catch a break; zoning changes provided after a building has been purchased, renovated and leased; tax breaks for developers who ought to be paying their fair share … all of these things have to stop if Abbotsford is ever going to rise out of the miasma of failure, cronyism, unenlightened prejudice and outright illegality which has seemed to define us for so long.
If anyone is going to want to move here, live here, invest here or build a business here we are going to have to demonstrate that our inglorious past is behind us.
For some reason Bruce Banman decided to defend the status quo and he will go down fighting for them.
For all of the reasons his opponents will bring up, Henry Braun is a risk. But judging by those who find him risky, he is a risk we ought to take.