Many Lower Mainland residents have probably never heard of Sav Dhaliwal.
The soft-spoken Burnaby councillor was first elected in 2002, and even though he’s been an influential local politician, he was often overshadowed by outspoken mayor Derek Corrigan. Dhaliwal has been president of the Union of B.C. Municipalities and the Lower Mainland Local Government Association. He has also chaired the Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ standing committees on municipal finance and municipal infrastructure and transportation.
But now Dhaliwal is about to assume a much higher profile after Corrigan’s defeat in the October 20 election. That’s because on November 16, the retired Telus employee was elected as chair of Metro Vancouver by his fellow directors.
This means that he will oversee the appointments of mayors and councillors across the region to committees overseeing everything from drinking water to sewage treatment to regional parks to air quality to social-housing projects.
“Two-thirds of the board are first-timers sitting around the table,” Dhaliwal told the Georgia Straight by phone. “I felt that as someone who has been there for 10 years, it was important to put your name forward. Some stability and some continuity would be helpful.”
Dhaliwal made the comment shortly after a photo shoot in Westminster Pier Park with New Westminster mayor Jonathan Cote, who has been elected chair of the TransLink Mayors’ Council.
Both are progressive politicians—Dhaliwal is a former B.C. NDP president—and their elevation to these two key positions indicates a regional power shift to the Burnaby–New West corridor.
“All cities have something to offer. It’s not necessary that the largest cities should be in charge all the time, whether it’s Surrey, Burnaby, or Vancouver,” Dhaliwal said. “The mayors’ council basically said, ‘There’s enough on the larger cities’ plate; we need someone who has some hands-on experience and also offers a bit of, let’s say, a common-sense approach to doing things and is able to bring parties together.’ ”
For his part, Cote said that he's "definitely looking foward" to working with Dhaliwal as chair of Metro Vancouver. That because according to Cote, it makes no sense for land use and transportation planning to be done in isolation from one another—and they can take steps to ensure there's greater integration.
"Any opportunity for these two organizations to work closer together, I think, is going to benefit the region," the New Westminster mayor told the Straight by phone.
Cote noted that the vice chair of Metro Vancouver is City of North Vancouver mayor Linda Buchanan, and the vice chair of the TransLink Mayors' Council is Langley Township mayor Jack Froese.
"No doubt, the City of Vancouver and the City of Surrey are very strong players, being the two largest cities in the region," Cote emphasized. "But I think having some of the smaller cities play that leadership role and be able to bring in that regional diversity is really important to making the Metro Vancouver region function and govern well."
Dhaliwal has a knack for getting along with people from across the ideological spectrum. He attributed this to his diplomatic skills, though he acknowledged that it can be difficult gaining consensus when there are many people at the table.
“My job is to listen very effectively—and carefully—and seek out why somebody is saying ‘no’ to something,” he said. “What’s behind that ‘no’? And if you understand that, then generally you can find some solutions to it.”
Dhaliwal said he feels that the regional district is functioning well in its mandated areas of responsibility. Part of the reason is that under his predecessor, former Port Coquitlam mayor Greg Moore, Metro Vancouver approved a regional growth strategy to guide development until 2040 and accommodate up to a million new jobs over that period.
The strategy imposed rigorous requirements on local governments to preserve industrial land that wasn’t close to rapid-transit stations and to protect green belts and agricultural land by concentrating multi-unit housing projects in compact urban areas. In addition, Moore oversaw the approval of a solid-waste management plan.
When asked about his objectives, Dhaliwal responded by saying that Metro Vancouver must focus on helping the province achieve its goal of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions to 40 percent below the 2007 level by 2030.
“It’s part of our regional-growth-strategy goal, but the local governments have, obviously, been very busy on other things,” he said. “We haven’t really picked up on a full set of strategies and an action plan to respond to climate change.”
It’s an issue close to his heart. Back in 2013, he seconded a motion by his Burnaby council colleague Dan Johnston calling for a moratorium on fracking for natural gas. Dhaliwal recalled that some asked him why he was worried about this topic, because there’s no fracking in Burnaby.
“It isn’t about what happens in my back yard,” the veteran politician said. “Is it good for the climate?”
As chair of Metro Vancouver, Dhaliwal aims to persuade directors to work cooperatively on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by adopting best practices from other regions. “I think there’s a fair amount of leadership and coordination that could happen at Metro so each one of the local governments are meeting those 2030 targets.”
The first order of regional business facing Dhaliwal as the new chair is a staff presentation on Friday (November 30) about the 2019 budget. It will include reviews of annual work plans and five-year financial plans for the regional district’s four legal entities.
Metro Vancouver includes 21 municipalities, one electoral area, and the Tsawwassen First Nation and has a $75.2-million annual budget next year. This pays for such things as regional parks, air quality, regional emergency management, regional planning, and general government.
In addition, there are 18 municipalities and one treaty First Nation in the Greater Vancouver Water District, which draws drinking water from the Capilano, Seymour, and Coquitlam reservoirs. Its operating budget for 2019 is $289.1 million and it treats and distributes a billion litres of water per day.
Next year’s water-district capital budget is $231.4 million, covering a long list of projects, including commencing construction of Jericho and Fleetwood reservoirs.
Another large entity is the Greater Vancouver Sewerage and Drainage District, which serves 17 municipalities and one electoral area. It has more than 530 kilometres of trunk sewers and 33 pump stations, and it treats about 1.2 billion litres of wastewater every day.
Its planned expenditures are expected to reach $308.6 million this year. And Metro Vancouver Housing Corporation owns and operates 3,400 units of affordable housing at 49 sites. Its operating budget for 2019 is $51.3 million, with $21.3 million allocated on the capital side.
Dhaliwal said it’s crucial that regional-district directors back the TransLink Mayors’ Council on its plan for completion of Phase 2 of the regional transportation strategy, even if there may be “some issues of difference”.
It’s a diplomatic nod to the debate over whether Surrey mayor Doug McCallum should be able to substitute SkyTrain down the Fraser Highway in place of the $1.65-billion Surrey-Newton-Guildford light-rail line, which is fully funded.
“I’m hoping that we can create a fair amount of support quickly for whatever the TransLink mayors decide,” he said.
Dhaliwal traces his roots back to Punjab and has been living in Burnaby since 1968. He’s the first nonwhite person to become chair of Metro Vancouver, but he doesn’t feel that this is particularly newsworthy, given the diversity of the region.
“Your skills and talents and experience and work habits matter more so than the ancestry,” he said.