Big Bang: First Regular Council Meeting of 2013

Ron Bolin: Jan. 15, 2013

The first regular Council meeting of 2013 got the year off with a bang, producing one of the longest Council meetings in my memory, ending at about 10:45 pm.  It started with two very significant presentations and ended with a pseudo farce with some golden moments in between.

Very Important Presentation No. 1:

The opening presentation came from Kim Carter, Ombudsperson for the Province of British Columbia and dealt with the very present issue of “Open Meetings Best Practices Guide for Local Governments”.  This issue has been front and center in Nanaimo with seemingly never ending in-camera meetings of Council, often associated with un-bid or untendered contracts, starting with the Conference Centre and continuing through the recently (almost) completed new City Hall annex and a Colliery dams contract the text of which has not yet been revealed despite the fact that Staff met with concerned citizens on that day at Council’s direction (Dec. 6, 2012) and did not divulge the fact of the signing.  This behaviour is contemptuous both of Citizens and of Council.

The ombudsperson’s message to Council was that meetings on public affairs are to be open to the public with rare exceptions which are spelled out in Sections 90-1 and 90-2 in the Community Charter.  While Section 90-2 deals with cases where in-camera secrecy is mandatory, Section 90-1 deals with deals with matters where in-camera secrecy is at the discretion of Council.  She reminded Council that the interpretation of the legislation goes beyond the printed words:

Subsection 90(1) lists 15 circumstances in which a council may exercise its discretion
to close a meeting. The fact that those provisions are discretionary means it is not
sufficient that a matter to be discussed is covered by one of the paragraphs of
subsection 90(1). That is only the starting point of the decision making process. Once
satisfied that the requirements of one or more of the paragraphs in subsection 90(1)
are met and a closed meeting may be held, councils must then consider whether the meeting should be closed. (emphasis mine)
Generally, it will be appropriate to close a meeting where discussion of a subject in
an open meeting raises a reasonable and identifiable possibility of damage to the interests of the local government, the public, or a third party. (emphasis mine)
This approach is consistent not only with legislation but the underlying principles
of openness and transparency of the legislation which is that wherever possible,
meetings should be open and accessible to the public.
 
http://www.bcombudsperson.ca/images/resources/reports/Special_Reports/Open_Meetings_Web.pdf

Certainly from appearances Council has chosen to ignore their responsibility to be open in the face of any possibility, no matter the probability.  It is to be hoped that Council will take this advice to heart and consider whether a decision to go in-camera may be essentially cowardly and based on a low probability of harm.

She went on to point out that the reasons behind even the most correct of decisions to go in-camera have inherent limits, i.e. they deal with matters which are completed or problems which are solved and therefore should be made public because the reason(s) for secrecy no longer exist.  While Nanaimo administrators have talked about a policy on the release of in-camera material, this policy has yet to appear and we need to demand that our Council and Staff be forthcoming.

Very Important Presentation No. 2:

Tom Hickey, General Manager of Community Services and Ms. Susan Clift, Director of Engineering and Public Works, provided an introduction to the Asset Management Plan which has been under development for some time and is still a work in progress.  Nanaimo, like to many City’s, Provinces, States and even Nations, has long ignored the consequences of our acquisition of Assets, i.e. that at some point they require maintenance and that this costs money.  One web site on asset management proposed a rule of thumb for municipal assets that 2% of the value of a city’s assets (roads, water, sewer, sidewalks, buildings, vehicles, park facilities, etc.) should be set aside for maintenance.

The study to date lists Nanaimo’s current assets at $2.2 billion (with a b) dollars, which does not include some expensive new and planned infrastructure facilities.  The rule of thumb shown above would mean that we should be setting aside some $44 million (with an m) dollars per year, every year for asset management.  This is approximately 50% of the total money taken in from property taxes this year and isn’t likely to be reduced in future years.  It’s as if you found that maintenance on your personal assets, i.e. your house and car, was going to cost you half of your salary this year.  This is an important discussion, indeed the most important of the entire budget cycle as we go forward on the 2013 to 2017 Financial Plan.  I have been told that the first version of the 2013-2017 Financial Plan covers our asset management costs by, as far as I can tell, instituting a 1% increase in taxes per annum and some rate increases.  As 1% of our property tax intake amounts to about $800,000 dollars, I am perplexed as to how this problem is to be solved and look forward to gaining a greater understanding from Council and Staff.

Of course Asset Management is a dynamic problem.  Every year Nanaimo adds new assets and loses others.  This year, for example, we gave away the old City Annex.  This reduces the assets we have to manage and thus reduces our asset management costs.  Perhaps we should give away a number of other large assets which are depleting our resources.  Perhaps we have even acquired some with sufficient value that they could even be sold?  But if we want to sell them, we need to be clear about the reason.

I don’t mean to make light of what is a serious problem and I commend Council and Staff for undertaking this long needed study and preparing for its use in the budgeting process.  But as Bette Davis said, “Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.”  Particularly as we keep adding “assets” as we did last night with a $110,000 downtown toilet along with a $10,000 operating cost and, of course, an addition to our long term asset management problem on top.

Both presentations can be seen on the City’s web site, as can the entire meeting at:

http://www.nanaimo.ca/meetings/VideoPlayer/Index/C130114V

I had hoped to examine the Asset Management Report itself, but have been informed that it will not be available on the City’s web site until tomorrow.

Other Hi or Low Lights of the Evening:

Council approved by an 8-1 vote (Councillor Kipp opposed)  the disposition of the old City annex to Tectonica Management Inc. for one dollar and has agreed to pay Tectonica $40,000 to cover the property taxes on the property for two years.  There has been, and continues to be, considerable discussion of the economic effect of placing stipulations on all bidders that within a two year period the structure must either be demolished or be upgraded to 60% of the current earthquake standard.  One must wonder whether the individuals on our Nanny Council will be as particular in any dealings on their private property.

There was particular discussion of the wisdom of moving some 30 City employees into the old structure (an action forbidden to the purchaser) while City Hall is renovated to their needs.  The wisdom of the move while there is considerable vacant space in the new SARC annex is as lost on me as the need for stipulations on use by the purchaser beyond those of a normal real estate transaction, i.e. that the buyer be notified of any known deficiencies.  In the meantime it may be that taxpayers might be liable should the dreaded event occur and cause damage or death to City employees given those stipulations on sale.  Anybody out there who might comment professionally on this odd, if not absurd, situation?

And let’s not forget that the $10 million dollar difference between the cost of upgrading this building and the cost of the new SARC building would go a long way, i.e.  12.5 tax percentage points, along the path to adequately funded Asset Management.  Is it a coincidence that SARC just beat out the Asset Management Plan or would that be SARCastic?

The case of a ramp structure at 499 Seventh Street has left an itch on my curiosity.  It involves a ramp which apparently was grandfathered into the property but which was apparently removed and then rebuilt without a permit.  I attempted to understand the nature of the requirement for a new permit and whether simple removal in order to rebuild wiped out the grandfathering and required a new permit or if the fact that it may have been done holus bolus instead of incrementally made the difference

The Diana Krall Plaza Bathroom discussion was lively and expensive.   In an 8-1 vote (Councillor McKay opposed) Council approved an expenditure of approximately $110,000 for a permanent toilet in Diana Krall Plaza.  It was briefly mentioned that the facility would be useful to tourists.  (Don’t we already have open facilities in our conference centre downtown and our library downtown, not to mention those of our downtown businesses, and don’t our tourists from the cruise boats leave before sunset?)  But most of the discussion centred on the fact of the drunken habitués of our nightlife who, after closing hours, are indiscriminate in selecting places to urinate or defecate in the downtown.  Rather than imposing fines to hire cleanup services or imposing clean up sentences on the miscreants we ask general tax payers to cover the expense.  Rather than asking those establishments which profit by filling their patrons to the point where they must evacuate indiscriminately to pay to handle the problem which they have, albeit indirectly, brought about, we call upon Nanaimo’s general taxpayers.  Rather than calling upon the Downtown Nanaimo Business Improvement Association who already receive over $200,000 a year from general taxpayers and who will directly benefit from the installation, we are told that they have other uses for their money.  I, for one, am here to inform Council that I too have other uses for my money.  I share Councillor McKay’s rage against a general taxpayer expenditure for which there are so many better suited alternatives.  We already have more assets than we are able to manage.

And then we come to the Boat Basin:

Enabled by a motion from Councillor Brennan regarding the Boat Basin on the agenda, Council listened to two delegations, one from the Snuneymuxw nation on behalf of its economic and social relationship with the Basin:  the other from the commercial fishermen of Nanaimo who provided some impressive statistics on their role in Nanaimo’s economy is raised by complementary roles of the fishermen and the harbour.  During Question Period yet another interested party, a representative from Protection Island weighed in.

Following considerable discussion, the toothless, though slightly upgraded, motion passed by Council called upon the Port Authority to: “ensure that the historic iconic and economic values of the marina and small boat basic be preserved in the re-development and that great care and attention be devoted to ensuring the public interest, including public and commercial access, is fully protected.”  A fine sentiment but, particularly after listening to Mr. Dumas speak about the agreement, equivalent in power to my request to the City to reduce my taxes.

It seems to me that there are three overlaid rights involved here.  One is the right of our present national government to regulate its ports; another being the rights of the Snuneymuxw granted to them by the Douglas Treaty; and the third being the legal rights of the City of Nanaimo and its citizens who find themselves separated by the sea.  All give some jurisdiction and all involve the same waters.  I do not know if there has been a clear legal decision on the nature of these rights under these conditions.  If so, I would like to know of it.  If there is not, the situation requires resolution.  It would appear to me that there are multiple parties who could rightfully ask for an injunction until these questions are resolved.  Anyone out there who could comment authoritatively?

And so back to hearth and home: The end of the beginning of the year at City Council

I look forward to next Monday when the budget will remain on the agenda but another major undertaking by the City, the so-called “Balanced Scorecard” approach to determining the efficiency and effectiveness of an organization such as a municipality by means on internal processes and procedures is to be presented.  For more on this subject before that meeting at 4:30 pm on Monday, Jan 21, google “balanced scorecard.”

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