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Victoria Coun. Marianne Alto sets her sights on mayor's chair

Coun. Stephen Andrew has said he will run for mayor, Coun. Sharmarke Dubow has decided to step away from politics after this term, and several other councillors remain undecided about their political futures.
Marianne Alto, a Victoria city councillor since 2010, is set to announce today her plans to run for mayor in the Oct. 15, 2022, municipal election. ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST

Long-time Victoria city councillor Marianne Alto is expected to announce today that she will throw her hat in the ring to be the city’s next mayor.

Alto, first elected in 2010, said she has been considering the prospect for months after being approached by several groups.

“It’s really quite an honour that someone would suggest that you could do that job,” said Alto ahead of her planned announcement. “I know that job, having observed it now through two mayors, two very different mayors, and it’s a big job with huge responsibilities and a lot of duty.”

Alto, who has served as a councillor with Mayor Lisa Helps — who opted not to run in the Oct. 15 election — and previous mayor Dean Fortin, said she spent time making the decision because of the significant responsibility the mayor’s position entails. “I was taking the time to think about what I could bring to that chair that is different than what I could bring as a councillor.”

In the end, Alto said she decided her strengths as a facilitator, with a reputation for weighing all sides of an issue before wading in, would serve both her and the community well, given that the next Victoria council is likely to include several new faces.

Coun. Stephen Andrew has said he will run for mayor, Coun. Sharmarke Dubow has decided to step away from politics after this term, and several other councillors remain undecided about their political futures.

Alto, a consultant and facilitator who serves as principal of Azimuth Research and Consulting, said the next mayor will need to be able to set a tone of moderation, collegiality and civility, which she said has been missing on many occasions in local politics over the years.

“There’s an understanding in local government that there is diversity of opinion and there is debate, but there is no official opposition,” she said. “In the end, you are all sitting at a table which must be government and it must govern. To do that well, I believe you need a mayor who will set that expectation and set that tone and be the facilitator to make it possible.”

Alto admits she has cut a low profile as a municipal politician, and prides herself on taking a thoughtful, well-prepared approach to all issues.

That may not grab headlines, but she is banking on substance outweighing style when it comes to the campaign.

She pointed to key priorities for the city during the next council term, including housing, maintaining a strong local economy, the climate crisis, reconciliation and a renewed focus on city services.

In addition, there is a need to establish a more civil tone to politics and debate, she said. “Civility is something that I think is really critically important to decision-making in a group,” said Alto, who plans to gauge city residents’ interests and priorities over the next few months.

“I’m going to speak with people about all these ideas I have, and I’m going to listen to their feedback, take their advice,” she said.

“It’s a combination of things that I think are important based on my experience at the table and my experience in the community, but it all has to be blended with — and I would argue directed by — what the public sees as their needs.

“Because ultimately, it’s not about me. It’s about me being a facilitator and finding solutions.”

One thing she is already hearing is that people may be ready for a shift in focus from big issues like housing and homelessness to the everyday things that improve the livability of the city.

The brisk pace of development and change in the city over the last two terms is unlikely to let up through the rest of this year, with major initiatives on the council agenda like creating new housing types in existing neighbourhoods, and designing new neighbourhood plans to address the housing crisis.

Alto said she gets the sense that it might be time to step back and take a breath.

“I think that we need to reinvest a bit more into what I like to call city services,” she said. “Care and maintenance — potholes and sidewalks and gardens and baskets and all the things that I think people miss, because we were closed in during the pandemic.”

She said the current council has reason to be proud of what it’s done and how it’s weathered the pandemic, but argues it has to be mindful that while aspects of the city are thriving, there are others that have been heavily challenged.

“It’s important to acknowledge that some are kind of overwhelmed by the pace,” she said.

“I think that there is actually an appetite and people would welcome us taking a breath and assessing our progress, seeing how it works, making a few adjustments to make some of those things work better.”