John Paolozzi, city council election candidate, shares his views on local issues
John Paolozzi moved to Nelson with his wife and two sons two years ago from Vancouver where he lived for 15 years as a producer at CBC Radio. Paolozzi says he and his wife researched small towns and decided Nelson was the best in the country.
Since moving here, he has served on the city’s Advisory Planning Committee and Cultural Development Committees, volunteered as a marketer for the Civic Theatre and at Kootenay Co-op Radio, and started two Facebook Pages: Keep Nelson Weird and Nelson BC.
Why are you running for council?
I think I can help. Even though it is one of the best places in Canada to live, it is not without its challenges. As soon as we got here I threw myself into various local projects, but at first I never really thought of running for office.
What are the main municipal issues facing Nelson, in your opinion?
Housing affordability, local economy, sustainable development, and community engagement.
Let’s take those one a time, starting with housing affordability. Everybody agrees affordable housing is an issue, but it appears to go nowhere. What could you bring to it that is new?
We have an affordable housing crisis in Nelson, but we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. A couple of years ago I would have thought, “How can Nelson possibly tackle this without the province or the feds?” But it took not much effort to find that communities like Canmore, Ucluelet and Whistler have made massive gains, and there are a lot of different ways it could be approached.
We could require developers to build 5% to 20% of residences in their development outside market value, to buy or rent.
The city asks developers now to do that now, to some extent.
This is a bigger scale. There has not been a lot of development in Nelson that might justify doing this right off the start, but as a few more projects start to happen, this is something to look at.
With the “per door” model—let’s say it is $1000 per door, four times what it is now—you sell 300 units in Nelson and you have barely made enough money to purchase two small units, not even talking about the land values.
Those are the top down approach. One of the others is to leverage the power of the market and citizenry. Houses should have mortgage helpers, meaning grassroots housing for more people. But the process to build secondary units is very convoluted and I think we need to streamline it and educate people how to do it.
One issue, for example, is if you want to put in a secondary suite you have to have a ¾ inch water pipe coming into your house. Most older houses have half inch, so right off the bat you are looking at thousands of dollars just to address a low water pressure problem. I have lived in many houses with terrible water pressure and it is not the end of the world. Those could be mitigated with pressure tanks. The planning department could put out a document that says: here is everything you need to know about building a secondary suite or putting in an apartment unit. And maybe we would have conversation cafes or presentations on how to do this sort of thing.
Another issue you mentioned was community engagement.
We had a 33% voter turnout in the last election. There is so much cynicism about politics right now. People say that politics is the problem. We need to change that, we need to convert it to politics are the solution. That is not just coming to the table with a lot of ideas, but knowing how to speak to people and find out what they think should happen, and working with other civic leaders to find consensus.
Do you think this lack of engagement is a Nelson problem, or a problem with municipal government in general?
It is municipal, provincial, and federal, but it goes beyond politics too. Much of what happens in Nelson is built on the backs of volunteers, people who step up and work in the community, and I think we need more of them. I think most organizations would agree that volunteer fatigue is a real problem. Not just people who are going to lift a shovel to build trails, but graphic designers, writers, marketing people, engineers— I would like to engage everybody to step up, for service organizations, charities, non profits, you name it. I think that level of engagement also leads into civic engagement at the political level. An interesting stat—I read it in a book called Bowling Alone— is that people who are cynical about government volunteer less.
How would you encourage engagement?
I think it is great that the city is on Facebook but the one-way broadcast is not really engagement. They have made the first step, but over the next year they have to take the next step, which means getting the mayor and councillors involved with that page, and the department heads. It is a fine balance—this can be a major time sink for them—but at the same time there is a base level they are not doing.
But a lot of people are not on social media so I would like to have, at least once a month, meetings with a small group, say five or six citizens, that are picked based on whoever emails me, to sit down and talk about the issues that they want to talk about. And at a bigger level I would like to see us adopt a model that was used by the Ecosociety, which was their conversation cafes. That was really neat, the whole idea of bringing in some speakers and having everyone talk about it, kind of like mini conferences. Those sorts of things are about political will to do them, rather than expense.
On the volunteer note, I would love to see the city put on a volunteer conference in the spring, and bring together everyone involved. There could be a number of meetings beforehand to look at what do you need, how are we going to do this, how are you going to advertise it. It could be like a job fair, we’d have everybody at tables pitching and trying to bring in volunteers.
When you say the local economy is an issue, what do you mean?
Nelson over the past century has been a boom and bust town, whether it be mining or forestry, or that mysterious economy that everyone talks about but that there is no way to quantify. Somehow Nelson has always managed to pivot really well and adjust, but I think the amount of disruption that will appear in the global economy over the next 50 years is going to be significant.
We could create a start-up incubator or small business incubator. There is a lot of handwringing about the extra space in the white building. We have all that space, we have outrageously fast broadband internet connections in there, and we also have a local funding body in the Columbia Basin Trust. We could set up a small non-profit city-inspired corporation that invites business people to act as mentors, and perhaps offer a year free rent to help launch, whether they are high tech or just small business start ups. Can we do things to inspire this?
Would this be an extension of what Community Futures does?
It would be a partnership with those organizations and I don’t believe anyone is doing specifically a start-up incubator. It is combining available space with internet.
My wife and I are both remote workers. We live here and work elsewhere. There are so many people I have met in this town who actually work someplace else (via the internet). Quantifying that is crucial, but the key thing is that there is no other small community in Canada like this. The beautify of that is that unlike mining or a mill that goes down and takes half the town with it, people working elsewhere and doing all sorts of different things, it is impossible to take that kind of economy down.
But there are challenges with that. We might want to attract people like that and you will see a lot of growth in service and other industries, but there is a gentrification problem with that. That this the downside, so to me before I say, yes, lets attract more workers here, I prefer to think of a grassroots local business start-up plan, because that is anti-gentrification. It is a balance: if more people came here it would theoretically drive up housing prices, but there is value in having them here if they get involved. You want to attract people who are going to get involved in the community.
Another issue you mentioned as a priority is sustainable development. What do you mean by that?
I would like to see development in Nelson, but not see it turn into runaway development, the kind you have seen in Kelowna. The development needs to be Nelson flavoured. I think we are managing that. I think a lot of people get upset when development occurs, but we need to accept the fact that the city is going to grow. It is a desirable place to live. If we do not build new units, you get a problem like the one San Francisco is experiencing right now. It desperately resisted any kind of development for 40 years, and now it is one of the most expensive places in the planet, and they have a housing crisis like nowhere else that will take ten years of radical development just to play catch-up.
If we don’t develop you will see housing prices go up. So we need smart development. We don’t want towers, but more town homes, more walk ups, more density, that sort of thing. That can mean more things can work. Transit can work better if you have better density, you can cut down on greenhouse gases if you avoid sprawl. There are a lot of people who might think of themselves as really progressive who feel really threatened by density, but it really answers a lot of other problems.
What has the current council done well?
They are fixing the pipes, they are dealing with 100-year-old infrastructure that desperately needs to be dealt with. It is not sexy but needs to be done, and they are staying on target with that. I think they have done some visionary things, like supporting the broadband internet.
What has the current council not done well?
Affordable housing has been a big stumble. This was an issue in the last election and there as been virtually zero movement. I know there are conversations in the works but it is three years on. I would like to see a plan in a year.
On some things there is an issue of general vision, they could do a better job of really envisioning what the future is going to be—even if not embracing radical or progressive ideas, just investigating them.
What is the best thing about Nelson, in your opinion?
I think it is the people and the culture. It is a beautiful place and has great heritage buildings. But a lot of places are beautiful and have great heritage buildings. It is the people and the weird culture that has been built up here. It is a very unusual town. I look at things like the Civic Theatre or the skate park, the fact that a town of ten thousand has come together to build or renovate these things is extremely unusual. It is almost unheard of. So to me it is the people.
What does Nelson as a community need to learn?
Tough question. It almost contradicts what I just said, which is that we do a lot of things that are kind of unheard of and seems very progressive, but at the same time there is kind of a fear of the new. There is a kind of conservatism of thought that exists both in people who call themselves conservative and who call themselves progressive, where sometimes we reject change. It seems contradictory for me to say that, when we do things like the skate park and the Civic.
Could you give an example of that?
The dog bylaw. It is a little one, or it seems little, but the bylaw represents an attempt to overly regulate something that does not need regulation, which no other community in Canada has done, and it ignores data. They are using a chain saw for something that needs surgery.
The American Travel Association did a survey and found that 18% of travellers take their pets with them and most of those are dogs, and so we are telling a part of our economy to get lost.
Ten years ago when my family visited here, the bylaw officer told us off. We didn’t know that to do with our dog, so we almost got in the truck and took off. If you go to Trip Advisor and you see the kind of reviews people write, they just stink up all the reviews of Nelson. It was on the front page of a national newspaper, which council kind of ignored and that was a public relations disaster and that was not smart.
It does not fit the Path to 2040 plan. I can’t walk my dog from uphill down to the dog walk without going way around or cutting through and breaking the bylaw, so suddenly I am in my car.
Everything about it is too heavy handed.
What do you think about how council communicates with the public?
You tend to notice the cities that do it well, and they are really engaged on social media, whether it is Facebook or Twitter. So then you don’t notice who is not doing it well because they just fade into the background, I would say Nelson is like that.
Councillors do write some pieces in the paper and they have Committee of the Whole meetings, but it seems so old fashioned. It seems such a one-way sort of thing where a band of judges sit up at a semi circle table and you present to them. Nobody meets like that. I am not saying we don’t need the Committee of the Whole, but at the same time we just need to do better.
Council needs to try to fill people in better on why they make decisions. Social media, meetings, more articles in the paper, more explaining actions, more transparency.
One of my titles with CBC was community manager. I am used to communicating directly with other people, I am already using social media to do that, and I would really like to see the city expand that.
Bill Metcalfe is a freelance journalist who covers Nelson city hall for The Nelson Daily. To receive a regular twice-monthly email with links to his most recent city hall stories, send a request notification to email@example.com.