Dozens of emails sent to Penticton’s mayor this spring while council wrestled with a controversial bylaw amendment ran the gamut from supportive to nasty, with one person even accusing him of betraying his Greek heritage.
The emails were sent to John Vassilaki between May 17 and June 6, and were obtained by The Herald through a freedom of information request. Personal details that would identify the writers were redacted.
There were 53 emails that were clearly for or against the amendment to the Good Neighbour Bylaw that was passed June 4 and made it an offence to sit or lie on some downtown sidewalks under threat of a $100 fine.
Authors of the 32 emails in opposition didn’t pull any punches.
“It’s a short-sighted, callous and utterly transparent route to take. No one is saying issues don’t arise from this population, but the actual solutions do not include sweeping people out of sight,” one person wrote.
“You are absolutely the worst. I cannot believe you are punishing people for being homeless. That is the most draconian, backwards, unbelievably stupid thing I’ve ever seen,” wrote another.
The most personal of the bunch described the amendment as “immoral,” and suggested Vassilaki, who immigrated to Canada as a boy, ought to know better.
“As a Greek first, this bylaw goes against a series of principles your grandmother taught you when you were young. In general, Greeks are compassionate, smart and morally sound people. You show none of those qualities through the passing of this bylaw. Take a moment and remember your roots,” the person wrote.
On the flip side, the 21 emails in support expressed a sense of relief that council was moving to clean up the downtown.
“Finally! A mayor and council with the backbone to put law abiding citizens and businesses first, and take a stand to make going downtown to dine, shop and browse safe,” one person wrote.
“Anecdotally, I have not talked to one person in my circle that does not support this bylaw. Thank you for helping to keep Penticton a welcoming place to walk/shop and enjoy without suffering many behaviours that are very disturbing,” wrote another.
Also contained in the package of emails were interview requests from CKNW news radio in Vancouver, CBC Vancouver, Star Metro Vancouver and the Evan Solomon national radio show based in Ottawa.
Two other people from out of town even threatened to boycott Penticton as a tourist destination.
A Calgary resident wrote, “My family and I were planning on going to Penticton this summer, but as long as this attack on homeless people is in place I will not spend a penny there.
“Not only that but I will make sure to share this on social media and encourage others to boycott Penticton and take their tourist dollars to places that have better attitudes towards the vulnerable people in our society.”
Vassilaki said in an interview Thursday the emails were just the tip of the iceberg, as he also received at least 100 phone calls on the matter. He wasn’t surprised by the tone of some of the messages.
“Some express their opinion nicely, some are more aggressive,” said Vassilaki. “But you can’t stop it from happening. People have a right to express their opinion and how they feel, and I don’t take it personally when they do that.”
One month since the amendment was passed, the mayor still believes it was “absolutely the right thing to do.”
“I know (vagrants) shifted and they went to other parts of the community,” said Vassilaki, “but at least now we’ve got more people coming downtown shopping and they’re not afraid anymore.”
City bylaw services supervisor Tina Siebert said in an email her staff is managing that shift of transients with targeted patrols.
While she didn’t have statistics available, Siebert noted there had been a “sharp decrease in public complaints about issues in the downtown core,” since the amendment passed, which she also attributes to great co-operation from other agencies.
Bylaw officers haven’t fined anyone yet either, as “simple education has been the progressive and most effective approach thus far.”