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How Langford Turned into a Political Battleground

Development pace, consultation and charges of bullying make this election one to watch.

Andrew MacLeod 5 Oct 2022TheTyee.ca

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria and the author of All Together Healthy (Douglas & McIntyre, 2018). Find him on Twitter or reach him at .

The election this year in Langford on Vancouver Island has all the signs of being closely fought just four years after the city west of Victoria had one of the lowest voter turnouts in the province.

Less than one in five people eligible to cast a ballot voted in 2018.

The only places with lower turnout were Terrace in northern British Columbia and five small communities where there was no voting because the mayors and councillors ran unopposed.

Why the lack of engagement in Langford?

According to Stewart Young, who is seeking an 11th term as mayor after 30 years in the position, the low turnout reflected people’s contentment with the community as it has become larger and more vibrant, all while keeping property taxes low.

“I think people are just happy with what’s going on in Langford,” he said. “I haven’t deviated from the plan and we’re prospering because of it.”

But Lillian Szpak, who was first elected as a councillor in 2002 and topped the polls last election, said many people saw no reason to vote because they felt there was no real choice being offered and little likelihood anything would change.

Just seven people competed for the six positions on council and Young won a landslide victory in the race for mayor with the support of more than 83 per cent of voters.

Ultimately the lack of competition is unhealthy, said Szpak, who is running again.

“I feel that at this point in time our community is being run by the development community,” she said. “I’ve said to the mayor, ‘I appreciate that you have a plan, but if it’s in your head, it’s not helping.' We can’t just do this ad hoc approach.”

The tensions are similar to those in other fast-growing communities across the province.

Young oversaw some positive changes during his first 15 years as mayor, Szpak allowed, but added he has since lost touch with what people in Langford want. “I’m not speaking for myself. This is what I’m hearing loud and clear from the community.”

The city’s population reached 47,300 in 2021, up 35 per cent from five years earlier.

Ahead of the Oct. 15 election Langford voters have more choice than they’ve had in a generation and public spaces like the median on Langford’s main street are crammed with campaign signs.

There are 14 people seeking council seats, including six running with Young on a Community First Langford slate. Another slate of five are running as Langford Now and offering a competing vision.

A brown-haired middle aged white man in a blazer and wearing a white bow tie with the words Amazon and Langford on it.
Stewart Young, running for his 11th term as mayor of Langford, waves away complaints by challengers. ‘I think people are just happy with what’s going on in Langford. I haven’t deviated from the plan and we’re prospering because of it.’ Photo via City of Langford.

“When I’m going door to door there’s a lot of enthusiasm” said Mary Wagner, one of the Langford Now candidates. “At least there’s democracy happening. There is an appetite for change here.”

Langford Now’s candidates support sustainable development, more attention to climate change and improved public engagement, she said. Her party has questioned the influence of money from real estate developers on Young and his slate.

A biochemist and teacher, Wagner is critical of the lack of height restrictions on buildings in Langford’s core, the long time since the city’s official community plan has been reviewed, and the lack of a five-year strategic plan.

While development is needed, it has to be done responsibly and in consultation with the people who live in the community, she said.

“A lot of people are saying it’s too much too fast,” she said. “They’re seeing the trees come down at an alarming rate.... There’s a lot of housing needs that aren’t necessarily being met even though we’re building a lot of housing in Langford.”

Twin high-rises of blue tinted glass.
The height of buildings like these proposed residential towers have become hot topics in the election. Illustration from Evantra Developments.

There are also three independents running including Szpak and Denise Blackwell, another longtime councillor who has served for 30 years.

Scott Goodmanson, who grew up in Langford but now lives in Saanich, is running against Young to be mayor. (In B.C., mayor and council candidates don’t have to live in the community where they are running.)

Blackwell ran as an ally to Young in the past and has been a supporter, but diverged with him and his team over the past term.

“This last year, when he started saying it’s the best thing since sliced bread to put up 30-storey towers all over downtown Langford, I disagreed and voted against them, and since then I’m persona non grata,” Blackwell said. “If you don’t go along with him, you’re toast.”

Relationships on council have been strained and Blackwell uses words like “appalling” and “terrible” to describe the tone of council meetings.

Both she and Szpak say they feel bullied by the mayor and that he treats members of the public he disagrees with the same way, particularly women.

Szpak said many in Langford are disappointed in Young’s autocratic approach and it’s clear he doesn’t want to listen to the voices in the community that she represents.

“It’s about as ugly as it can get at the municipal level and I think many women are suffering the way I am with bullying behaviour.”

It’s difficult to speak out, but it’s necessary, Blackwell said. “That’s what the community is asking for and that’s what I’m there for, to serve the community.”

The emergence of Langford Now is positive, she said. “I think these folks from Langford Now have a very good chance,” she said. “They want to see debate and changes to how business is done in Langford, and I agree with them.”

A profile shot of a woman, Mary Wagner, with a blurred background that suggests fall trees.
Langford Now candidate Mary Wagner, a biochemist and teacher, is critical of the lack of height restrictions on buildings in Langford’s core and wants the city to create a five-year strategic plan.

Young agrees that this year’s election is more competitive than ones in the past, but rejects both the accusation that he bullies people and the idea that a change in direction is needed.

“This time around there’s a lot of misinformation and stuff with the social media platforms that are out there for people who are running, not just in Langford but everywhere,” he said. “You’ve got to weed through that stuff to see what’s right, what’s wrong, and what’s the best approach to running a city.”

Most people recognize the success Langford has had by using the fees from development to pay for parks, trails, sports fields, sidewalks and other infrastructure, he said. “We’re going to stay on the track we’ve been doing for 30 years.”

The pace of development in the city is still making up for the downturn that occurred after the 2008 financial crisis, he argued, adding the council needs to take advantage of opportunities as they arise. It provides good jobs and helps with the affordable housing crisis, which is best addressed by increasing supply, he said.

There are density limits that affect how tall towers will be, but it’s good more 25-storey buildings are coming to Langford, said Young. “That’s where we’re going. That’s where we’re headed.”

And he argued that while Langford doesn’t have a stand-alone tree protection bylaw, there are already robust tree regulations under the development permits that cover 70 per cent of the city. It makes more sense to use a policy that has been successful at protecting the tree canopy, he said, than it does to add heavy fines and red tape restricting what people can do on private property.

While it may look at first like all the trees are gone when a new development is built, he added, “we’re planting a lot of trees when these subdivisions go in.”

Young said the fracture on council has been frustrating and that he hopes a group that works together better will be elected Oct. 15.

“The majority on council are great, but two of them have decided it’s their voice and only their voice that needs to be heard and the rest of council are very disappointed in them, so there’s a lot of fighting going on with Lillian Szpak and Denise Blackwell,” he said.

The accusations of bullying are directly related to the pair consistently being on the losing end of votes at council, Young said. “If you want to vote against something, vote against it and move on,” he said. “The majority has spoken and voted every time, minus Denise and Lillian, and that’s democracy. They can get mad and they can say ‘oh well we’re not listening’ and they say all this sort of stuff.”

Szpak said that she is bringing issues to council that otherwise wouldn’t be represented.

“The voice of the community is suppressed, the voice that comes through me, and I think our number one job is to bring the voice of the community to the table and then make decisions based on the information that we have,” she said.

The election is an opportunity for voters to have their say about how the council and the city run and it’s time for a change, said Szpak. “I’m hopeful we get some new faces at the council table.”

Wagner from Langford Now hopes so too. It’s an exciting campaign and it feels like people are paying more attention than in past elections, she said. “This time everyone needs to earn their spot... I feel like it could go either way.”  [Tyee]

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