John Vassilaki, pictured at a December budget meeting, has been voted by Penticton Herald online and print readers as the 2013 South Okanagan Newsmaker of the Year.
By JAMES MILLER
A group of wealthy, right-leaning curmudgeons meet each morning, around 6:30 a.m., at a local restaurant where they read The Herald, sip coffee and grumble about the status of their city.
When asked who they felt was the strongest member of Penticton City Council, a chorus of "Vassilaki" ensued.
"He's the only one with any business sense," several quipped.
Jetting over to another part of town, a younger man, well-known and keenly interested in the community — but intentionally apolitical — shares the same view.
"I like John but I've never voted for him," he explains. "This next election, not only will I vote for him, I'll campaign for him."
So why has the 2013 Penticton Herald Newsmaker of the Year, a fourth-term city councillor, enjoyed such a spike in popularity?
Two-thirds of his way through a three-year term, he's definitely receiving more microphone time without Mike Pearce and Dan Albas hogging all the sound bites. With Garry Litke moving from the floor to the chair, the dynamic has definitely changed.
"I guess people like my boldness for standing up for what's right and for what's in the best interest of the City of Penticton and the citizens of Penticton," he said, Tuesday, when asked what his supporters like. "I'm never afraid to speak the truth at any time. I've been like that since I was 12-years-old."
The 67-year-old businessman ruffled the feathers of fellow councillors when he deliberately stayed home from the Union of British Columbia Municipalities convention stating publicly there was no need for five councillors, the mayor and city manager to attend.
"With it costing between $2,000 and $2,500 for each person who goes down to Vancouver, I don't think it's worth the cost," he said. "The mayor, CEO and one councillor — maybe two at the most — is all you need."
By comparison, Osoyoos only sent its mayor, CEO and one councillor and Kelowna its mayor, deputy city manager and three of its eight councillors.
Vassilaki, whose voting often mirrors fellow councillor Helena Konanz, was vocal about a $30,000 communications item on downtown revitalization which included a $20,000 contract for a company or individual to co-ordinate the project. He noted the City already has a communications officer in place and that bylaw enforcement could keep the few property owners in the loop.
"We have to watch our pennies. We're not Kelowna. We're not Kamloops. We're little Penticton with a small tax base with a lot of senior citizens who will have to pay for this," he said.
During December's budget deliberations he called the $300,000 in salaries to operate Tourism Penticton "outrageous."
Speaking as a citizen — and not a councillor — he also expressed public displeasure with the proposed sale of beer and wine in grocery stores. As co-owner of Last Call Liquor Mart, he believes this move would put many of the independents out of business.
In his three successful election campaigns, Vassilaki once finished as high as second (with the top six getting elected) but fell to sixth spot in 2011, securing his spot by only 100 votes.
Vassilaki said he wouldn't entirely rule out running for mayor but believes he's far more effective as a city councillor.
In a tradition created by former managing editor Paul Varga, the Newsmaker of the Year, as selected solely by Penticton Herald readers (based on five suggested nominees), is based on the person who made the news most often, whether in a positive or negative light, on significant issues. It's not a lifetime achievement award.
Vassilaki is the first city councillor to be named since the accolade's inception in 2003.
He received 37 per cent of the votes of five suggested nominees. Penticton Lakeside Resort owner David Prystay was second with 24 per cent and Summerland Mayor Janice Perrino third at 15 per cent.
Previous Newsmakers of the Year were: Mother Nature (2003), SPADE (2004), Frank the Baggage Handler (2005), Kristi Richards (2007), Captain Jonathan Snyder (2008), Tom Siddon (2009), Duncan Keith (2010), Rita Chretien (2011) and Adam Fitzpatrick (2012).