Every 10 or 15 years or so, I totally crush it with a political prediction that turns out to be right. So modesty must be abandoned for a moment to note my forecast last month that local municipal leaders this year will leave the B.C. legislature’s standard for political absurdity far behind.
Two weeks into the year and Saanich Mayor Richard Atwell has set a new benchmark for weirdness. And he did it in a municipality that has droned along for 100 years with next to nothing in the way of political craziness. The tradition in Saanich is to elect mayors with a strict no-news mandate, in the expectation they’ll keep a lid on things. If they hold to that line, they get re-elected over and over again. The place only had six mayors in the past 50 years before Atwell.
In Saanich, it’s considered gauche if the mayor’s name appears in the newspaper. Saanich is so boring that the last big scandal was about a herd of cows.
So in one sense, Atwell’s mysterious appearance on the scene was a breath of fresh air. Quiet outsider with no track record takes on a single issue — sewage treatment. He gathers a motley collection of sewage enthusiasts together into a cause, then pivots his little team and takes on Frank Leonard, the most recent in the long line of career mayors. Then to the surprise of everyone, he wins.
Only to embark on the worst launch of a mayoralty in recent memory.
In the space of six weeks he has:
• Racked up a half-million-dollar bill to sever the chief administrative officer after trying to fire him, discovering he doesn’t have that power, but making the situation so untenable the boss had to be paid out. That earned the mayor a censure from his council in his first week on the job.
• Called the cops after an altercation with the fiancé of a female campaign worker while visiting their home, denied there was anything inappropriate going on, then this week admitted he “was not totally truthful” about the issue.
• Disclosed police have pulled him over four times recently and given him two breathalyzer tests (he passed), leaving him asking for a review of all those stops.
• Raised the spectre of some spyware program on municipal computers that records all his keystrokes, leaving him feeling insecure and uncomfortable in the mayor’s office. So he prefers to use private email and avoid the office, while demanding an external police investigation of the surveillance program, because the Saanich police “are in a clear conflict of interest.”
The last batch of puzzlers was delivered this week by way of a statement read out to reporters, after which he walked out, refusing to take questions. That’s a bit hard to take from a mayor who stressed being open, although he did answer questions Tuesday.
When Atwell talked at length about opening up the municipal hall, there was an expectation the mayor would be inside it once in a while. (If you happen to need him, try the address he gave out this week — email@example.com. Or just ask the cops.)
As it stands, in addition to the external investigation into the spyware, he wants the police complaints commissioner to look into the police investigation of the 911 call and how details were made public. He also wants the Integrated Road Safety Unit to review why he keeps getting pulled over.
The common thread in the Atwell Declaration is an intense suspicion of the government that he successfully set out to lead, to the point where you wonder how he’s going to do the job at all.
He owned up to some mistakes but also cited his lack of experience “and the advice I was receiving.” Some of the people around Atwell are as new to power as he is, as is obvious from the typo-ridden, all-lower-case, grammatical mess they made of the most important document he has ever released.
Here’s another prediction, if this keeps up, Atwell’s mayoralty is going to make wild man Rob Ford’s look like mild Murray Coell’s.