It hasn’t been an easy three years for Dan Ashton, but the incumbent mayor says it’s been necessary.
In seeking a second term at the head of the council table, Ashton reflects a great deal on the past. Between cutting 31 positions at City Hall, the referendum on Penticton’s bid for the correctional facility and the South Okanagan Events Centre operating deficit, he’s overseen his fair share of hot-button topics.
Although the layoffs were “the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” the businessman says he doesn’t back down from his fiscal conservative agenda.
“I think the light at the end of the tunnel is not a train coming anymore. We are turning a corner,” he said, adding that the net effect is a focus on customer service at City Hall. “If someone doesn’t like the way I part my hair in business, they have the choice to go elsewhere. But in the city, they don’t have a choice. We’re a sole-source provider. We had to change. Unfortunately that change involved a consolidation.”
There’s one statistic that looms over his bid to remain at City Hall: Penticton has not re-elected a mayor in 18 years. Jake Kimberley was successful in seeking a second term in 1993, but all re-election campaigns since have failed.
“I have to stand on what we’ve done,” Ashton said, adding he isn’t one to brag about accomplishments. “It will be up to the electorate. Is it a hurdle? It’s a stigma attached to it, but I’m more than prepared to put myself forward again. Myself and council, with everything that we had to work with and the time we had to work with, I think we’ve done a good job.
“Some may disagree with how we did it, but I don’t think they would disagree that something had to be done.”
He holds up the pool project as a highlight of the past term and example of his leadership style that gets all players on board to get a project finished on time and within a water-tight budget.
“You’ve got to bring consensus into it. That’s the only way,” he said. “It’s through the working relationships that many of us have with senior levels of government that we were able to obtain those grants.”
Ashton also sees too much red tape at City Hall for his liking. He recounts a visit to Kelowna with staff earlier this year, when he went to the front counter of the business licence division to ask a hypothetical question: If he were a retailer looking to relocate to downtown Kelowna in a space for C3 zoning that allows retail and requires no changes, how long would it take to obtain a business licence?
“We were there at 10 o’clock in the morning. She said you can pick it up in late this afternoon, tomorrow morning at the latest,” he recalled, adding that the same process in Penticton takes three weeks. “We’ve reduced it substantially, and we’re going to continue to reduce it, but it was an eye-opener.”
City Hall has to respond quickly, he said, to opportunities that come up to expand the city’s economic base and create jobs, through tax breaks under programs like the expanded economic investment zone bylaw.
“Tourism isn’t going to be the panacea for the future of Penticton. It’s going to be a portion of it, but you have to take a look at the improvements that will allow people to be here,” he said.
But he sees long-term leases of city land around Marina Park Way as a way to potentially generate economic growth and jobs. He cites Coeur d’Alene, Idaho as an example of how a community can create the parameters of development by giving their expectations on amenities and attractions, and then allowing the private sector to come in and make those dreams come to life.
“It’s time to revamp the whole area,” he said. “Is there an opportunity to work together on the marina lands? Absolutely.”
Some have made hay about Ashton’s role on the B.C. Liberals riding association board, suggesting he has intentions to seek the party nomination to represent Penticton after longtime MLA Bill Barisoff retires in 2013.
“I think the citizens should expect the mayor to be committed to the job full time,” Ashton said, adding he works 60 hours a week between the City of Penticton and the Regional District of Okanagan Similkameen. “An opportunity may present itself in the future. The City of Penticton has and will continue to have my full dedication.”
In the meantime, he said he will focus on establishing the city’s solid financial footing by fostering job-creation projects and reducing the deficit.
“Nobody’s got a magic wand,” he said. “Experience is going to count in the future. You can’t rest on your laurels right now.”