Looking Ahead, Focused and Positive
After nine years as the city councillor, the former Manager of Economic Development, Linda Hepner took the helm as Mayor. Just over two years into the job, Hepner, who likened the first year as drinking from a fire hose, met to talk about her role half way through her first mandate. Now comfortable in the position, she portrays a confidence and excitement about what’s been accomplished to this point and what is yet to do before and beyond November 2018. In the first segment of this two-part interview, the Mayor reviews the achievements of her Council so far:
Mayor Hepner: I feel much more grounded and it’s easier to respond to those emerging issues that happen at the drop of a dime. I feel we’ve made some significant progress in a lot of areas that I wanted to focus on. I would say that first year was like drinking out of a fire hose. It was a steep curve and I relate to someone running an entire country with no experience of governance and I think to myself, I had lots of government experience and even then found when it’s entirely on your shoulders that it looks quite different from this seat. So I cannot imagine what it would be like to do this at the level of chaos that we’re now seeing coming out of our neighbour.
Ray Hudson: You are half way through your first term and I want to know how you are feeling about it. What have you achieved that you’re most proud of and what is there still left to do?
Mayor Hepner: One is the public safety strategy that brought in our new Public Safety Director, Terry Waterhouse, which integrated all the areas of the city that had anything to do with safety, from Bylaws to Policing to Fire, Senior’s Welfare as well as Parks and Rec, into a single strategy. We’re already seeing early successes. We got those one hundred officers promised on the ground in a single year. More than had ever happened in the history of the city. It was a big deal and I’m very proud of having achieved that. I’m also very proud to have brought in the Sustainability Charter 2.0, because I think it confronts the climate change issues that we’re dealing with in a much more comprehensive way throughout our policy pieces or issues that come forward to council. I’m really proud that we’ve put that on the table.
Mayor Hepner: I’m also very pleased that I was chosen early-on as Vice-Chair of the TransLink Mayors Council, and representative on the TransLink board. That has allowed me to be at the table as we brought in our new CEO, and quite frankly I think he has made some significant inroads in that agency as a whole. He brought an understanding of the needs of transportation in the region, and he’s very good in engaging with the public. I’m pleased to be at that table with all the other mayors to make sure that the Mayors’ vision is continually in the forefront of being delivered. You asked what I wish I could have done more of? Because the connectivity in this city is the most important thing, it would be that we’re not moving fast enough.
Ray Hudson: How do you feel you’re doing keeping the profile of the south Fraser alive and elevated in a region that has been historically biased to the communities of the north.
Mayor Hepner: I’m pleased with the relationship we’ve created with those in other levels of government to understand the needs of our city because we have been under-served for a very long time. Take schools for example; the advocacy work that everyone did on that whether it was from the grass-roots level, the city’s involvement in my visits to the Premier’s office, and I can tell you there were several, or whether it was the advocacy work of the school board, it was all of us pulling in the same direction and saying “enough is enough” that worked! To see the needle move on that was something I was pretty pleased about.
Ray Hudson: Speaking of education and growth, where are we now with the request that the city put a hold on development until the school facilities catch up with residential development?
Mayor Hepner: The School Board passed a motion to stop development until schools caught up. That really put me in an awkward position because as a true believer in economic progress, I knew that ten-thousand people were employed just in the building in Surrey in 2015, and probably even more in 2016. I know the number was $1.4 billion in 2015 and will reach about the same in residential construction in 2016. That kind of economic investment in building houses has an exponential impact on the number of commercial services (stores) and professional services (doctors and dentists) that are needed. Such growth is the economic engine of Surrey. So to stop that and say we’re not going to build any more was really scary to me, and wouldn’t have achieved any purpose in reducing the number of portables by simply saying we weren’t going to provide any more housing in the very area where the lack of housing is what is driving up all the prices.
I thought the better road was to show that as a growing city, now well into the five hundred thousand population and one of the lower taxed in the region. If you look at Vancouver, relative to their taxes, and where we are, we’d have to achieve a whole lot with a whole lot less money. I’m also very proud of that.
We needed to have some different mechanism to advance schools, and now with the Project Office and the injection of funds, we can choose where money needs to be placed. We’re finally making headway.
Ray Hudson: You brought in a new police chief and the gang activity seems to have settled down a bit.
Mayor Hepner: That’s interesting because my next meeting is with someone who has seen the most recent crime stats and they’re lower. But I am not so naïve as to believe that in a city of a half a million people, there are no ebbs and flows. I think some of the work that has been done on the ground is paying off but I will look at it with a skeptical eye.
Ray Hudson: One of your big platform pieces was the Surrey LRT, which you said would be underway by 2018. Will it?
Mayor Hepner: Yes! We now have the Phase One funding and we’ve seen some early roll out of what is possible. There is also about $38 million to do the next design work and all of the due diligence that is required. It’s so frustrating but there was a ton of due diligence work before it even goes to Treasury Board at the provincial level. We’re just finalizing that. I hope to receive the Phase Two funding for the Mayors’ vision. I believe it may be more allocation-based as opposed to project-based, which is better than being directed piece by piece on what you can do with it. I was pleased the Federal government took that under advisement, and we’ll see if it plays out in the 2017 budget. Just last week I saw a letter from TransLink Minister Fassbender acknowledging his full commitment for not only the Mayors’ plan, but for the “L” line as well, so that’s going to be the first construction. The second piece of construction will be the Fraser Highway line. We’re ready. We’re out talking to the public so they can understand the project and what changes will occur. If we’re narrowing 104th Avenue for example, we need to have road alternatives so we’re in the throes of doing that design right now.
Next week, in part two, Mayor Hepner talks about achievements of Innovation Boulevard, technological development, the growth of the city in Newton, South Surrey, and the successes and challenges to be met in the social and cultural needs of Surrey.