Nelson Municipal Election 2011: Donna Macdonald ensuring all of council's work is put to work
By Donna Macdonald
I was born and partly raised in Moose Jaw, Sask. We moved to Kelowna when I was 13 and I went through high school there.
After living, studying and working in Vancouver, plus some travelling to Europe, I visited Nelson in 1972. Like many others before and after me, I fell in love with the town and quickly relocated here.
I love the physical place, both the natural environment and the built one. I love walking down Baker Street, the lively heart of our community, and greeting people (whether I know them or not).
I love that I can go skiing 10 minutes south of town, then return to Nelson for an inspiring night at the Capitol Theatre. I love the sense of community – the commitment Nelsonites feel to our place.
Nelson has been a wonderful home to my family – my partner, Greg, and our daughter, Brett (who is now teaching in Germany, but loves to come back to Nelson whenever she can). We have another daughter Laura who lives in Campbell River but loves Nelson as well.
What do you do for a living (or what did you do if now retired)?
Since moving to Nelson, I’ve worked at many different jobs – labourer, forest technician, volunteer coordinator, office assistant, newspaper editor, freelance writer, technical editor, and of course politician. I am now semi-retired.
I’ve also been involved in many community organizations, including the Nelson Women’s Centre (I was a founding mother) to Nelson Rotary Club, Nelson CARES Society and Kootenay Co-op Radio.
Do you have any political or other organizational experience?
I was first elected to Nelson City Council in 1988. I was re-elected five times and have served more than 15 years in total. I ran for mayor twice but was unsuccessful. Even though we have had many women on Council in recent years, the city has never had a woman mayor! Yet.
What made you personally decide to run (or run again)?
I decided to run again for a couple of reasons.
One is that during the past term, we went through a lot of planning processes (from Active Transportation and a Housing Strategy, to the Path to Sustainability and the Community Energy and Emissions Plan, not to forget the Downtown/Waterfront Master Plan).
I want to make sure all that work is put to work! We need to develop an implementation plan that incorporates all of those strategies and their recommendations, sets priorities, allocates resources, and establishes a time-line. I want to ensure that happens.
Secondly, this is a critical juncture in our history, with the world and its climate changing rather rapidly. We need to really focus our efforts and prepare for a resilient future.
What do you think you bring to the municipal table as a politician?
I bring my years of experience to the table. I’ve learned a lot about the City and its operations, about the community and its issues. I’ve learned how to accomplish things, how to work with others, and how to be effective.
List a few characteristics that you feel embody a Nelson municipal politician.
A municipal politician needs to be hardworking, must spend the time to read and think, and be prepared for discussions. S/he needs to respect and work on behalf of all aspects of our community, not just the familiar ones (Nelson is a heterogeneous community!). S/he needs to be committed to respectful debate and dialogue, and know how to sluff off the nasty bits that will come flying at her/him.
What one issue has really been ignored in the last years (or years) in Nelson?
One issue that’s been ignored in the past many years is transit. That service just kept trundling along, but we forgot to a watch a few things. One in particular – that our buses were aging, and the lease rates were very low, which was great in the short term. But we neglected to save some funds to ease the transition to new buses and much higher lease fees (we lease our buses from BC Transit).
The sudden increase in costs this past year was a wake-up call. Council made some changes to achieve short-term cost savings. One of those decisions (to discontinue Sunday service) I brought back to the table, so that service is now being reviewed to see if a community organization might provide it in partnership with the City.
What do you see as one of the biggest problems Nelson has to deal with next?
A broader regional transit plan and a proposed redesign of the Nelson transit system will all be up for public discussion in 2012. Transit is important for our sustainability and climate change initiatives – we want more people to use it. It’s also very important to a lot of people as their only way to get around. I anticipate a lot of good discussion as we go forward.
Transit, and getting people out of their cars, is a key strand in our planning for sustainability or resilience. And that really is the central issue as we look to our future, and to the global changes we see and foresee. Using less energy. Reducing GHG emissions. Increasing our economic self-reliance and food security. Finding a way to be a desirable and affordable community – one that is inclusive and not just for the wealthy.
Do you see Nelson as a special case in terms of community, or are we dealing with the same issues as everyone else in B.C.?
Nelson shares a lot of issues with other communities, but we’re also unique. We have a rich cultural scene and outdoor lifestyle opportunities. We provide many social services not found in other similar-sized cities. Our economy has become quite diversified since the loss of major industry in the 1980s; many communities are just facing that transition.
However, we really need to take deliberate actions to make our economy strong, green and progressive. Tourism is a part of the picture, but many communities are looking to it as the main solution. We can’t do that – in diversity is strength and resilience.
One issue we certainly share with other cities is that of regional equity. I even encountered this phenomenon on a municipal mission to Southeast Asia some years ago. The challenge is that the city provides all kinds of services used by our rural neighbours, but paid for only with taxes from city residents.
Parks and playing fields, Touchstones Nelson, the Capitol Theatre and the Youth Centre are examples. We did succeed in bringing Areas F and south H into the library’s taxation service last year, which is really great. But the discussion will continue with our rural counterparts, to see how we can more fairly cover the cost of services provided to both rural and city residents.
What is one thing you would change in the city or at City Hall?
As a Council, we need to continue to find better ways for discussion and exchange of information with community members. Having a communications consultant getting information out more regularly has been a positive step. But good citizen engagement is a two-way street; there must be an exchange of information and opinion.
The challenge is how to engage not just the keeners, the ones who always show up, but every sector of the community, so we can better understand their perspectives, needs and ideas, and they can understand the City’s challenges, constraints and opportunities.
We did a mail survey a couple years back and while the response rate was very good, we missed the younger demographic (the under 40s). The use of social media is likely in the City’s near future! But other forums, such as regular focus groups, are also effective; there are many tools available.
Any other issues you see happening in the city, or at City Hall, that need to be addressed?
The ultimate goal, my dream, would be to create a community of civility – where ideas and opinions are exchanged in a constructive, respectful way.
What is your view on …
… the City having its own police force?
- I support it. You just have to look at the litany of concerns and complaints expressed by cities with the RCMP to appreciate the quality of policing we have and also our ability to manage it. Having a police board of our peers is a good model for ensuring the work of the police reflects the priorities of our community.
… Sunday bus service?
- I believe we made a mistake in discontinuing this service and that’s why I brought a resolution back to the Council table to have another look. Staff were directed to work with community groups to explore the possibility of a partnership to benefit both the group and the City (and transit users!).
… waterfront development?
- We understand that the future of our waterfront is very different from the past – no longer the site for parking lots and industry, but the place where people want to live and play. We all love to be by the water. The popularity of the once-controversial continuous waterfront pathway is proof. The Downtown/Waterfront Master Plan provides a long-term vision for that kind of waterfront, and how it links to the existing downtown. It provides for higher-density, compact, walkable, energy-efficient housing, with lots of green space and connections to the lake. All that development must happen slowly and carefully, but the Plan provides some guidance and vision.
… development in general?
- Our planning documents show us the way forward – not to a culture of large single family homes on spacious lots, but toward higher density, more affordable and more energy-efficient multi-family housing. Walkability, to daily services (like the corner store) and to transit, is key. All development must be examined with the lens of sustainability – we have a checklist that staff and Council use to review all aspects of sustainability for proposed developments. The main challenge is for future Councils to be confident in knowing where we want to go and the best route to get there, and then being able to work with developers to achieve mutual goals.
… the Civic Centre and its (lack of) theatre?
- This is a sad tale, indeed. We had what we thought were good operators three years ago, and they were not able to pull the project off for various reasons. The City has just completed a review of the mechanical systems at the building, so that potential lessees and we know what the issues are, and who is going to rectify them. It is taking a long time, but it’s the proper due diligence. And I know there are some exciting ideas out there for the theatre, just as soon as the conditions are clear and we can proceed. This has not been forgotten!
… allowing dogs on Baker Street?
- Changing the rules on this would require community initiative – particularly from the downtown business community and from dog advocates. This is not something the City should force. If a change is made, it must have broad support, including on-the-ground assistance with enforcement of good behaviour.
… making Nelson more of a tourist destination?
- Tourism has always been part of our economy, and will continue to be (although as energy prices increase, tourism may decline). The key has always been authentic tourism – we are happy to have visitors who enjoy our lifestyle. We will not be building water slides for them! Cultural tourism is a growth sector, and we can develop that to create opportunities for cultural sector workers (e.g., artists and artisans) and also benefit our restaurants, accommodators, retailers, etc.
… water rates for downtown business?
Water rates for businesses. Clearly our current system of assessing water rates for businesses is antiquated, and Council is expecting a re-structure proposal from staff before this term ends. Many communities meter the commercial sector, and that may be the best option. Whatever route we go, we need to aim for fairness and also ensure we have the money to run the system properly and continue the upgrading of the infrastructure that provides us with clean, safe water.
… eliminating parking on Baker Street?
- I assume this means eliminating cars from Baker St. This is a wonderful vision from a community member’s point-of-view, but I think downtown businesses will have a different opinion. Like the dog bylaw, a lot of work and consultation will be required for this change to happen. Continuing with short-term closures (like for markets and festivals) will hopefully demonstrate the benefits of no-traffic on Baker, but again the response from businesses has been mixed.
… the Canucks chance of getting back to the Stanley Cup final?
- Of course they’ll be back. Some day.