Poison in Paradise

Ron Bolin: March 4, 2013

There is a lot to like about Nanaimo: it’s a beautiful site on the coast of Vancouver Island which is world renowned for its beauty and known all over Canada for its mild climate; it is strategically located at the hub of the island on the Salish Sea facing the mainland and the City of Vancouver;  it is a mid-size City, neither too big nor too small to offer full amenities without presumption;  it is home to a downtown port, a railway line, an airport, and a cruise ship terminal;  a conference centre;  a well-developed parks and rec system;  clean water flows to homes and sewers lead the waste away;  the roads are in passable shape and in general the population is friendly and accepting; and politics are, in general, ignored.

It is this latter circumstance which threatens the tranquility of the community.  For some years now –I would put it since the passage of the Local Government Act in 2004 when BC’s municipalities were turned into corporations, i.e. legal persons with powers far exceeding those of any of their constituents.  Since that time and as Council and Staff have come to more fully recognize the power of their new status, the corporation of the City of Nanaimo has gradually turned itself away from functioning as a government and increasingly into functioning as a corporation with all of the things that go with it.  The city’s residents and taxpayers are increasingly looked upon not only as customers, but customers trapped in a monopoly franchise rather than citizens in a democratic process.  The difference between an elected government and a corporation is that in the former, all residents are members.  In a corporation members are defined by the shares which they purchase in it.  There is a world of difference between these two approaches to membership and to their attitude toward operation.

Under current conditions, the percentage of those voting in our municipal elections has seriously declined and our Council is now elected by less than 15% of Nanaimo’s eligible voters.   At the same time, while general citizen participation has waned, an examination of the financial support provided at elections is indicative of bipolar corporate participation as candidate support tends to come from the two poles of corporate interests, the developer/chamber group on the one side and the union group on the other while there is very, very little grass roots participation.   While they may differ on method, both of these groups have a clear motive for the promotion of the maximization of growth in the community and moreover are active in directing public, as well as their own funds, to that end.   This shows up in the City’s Mission statement: “Preserving and enhancing quality of life in Nanaimo through efficient, effective, affordable delivery and facilitation of municipal services.”  The addition of the term “facilitation” goes far beyond the “efficient, effective, affordable delivery …of municipal services.”  For myself, I am led to question why the Mission Statement goes at all beyond “Preserving and enhancing quality of life in Nanaimo”.

Over the years this has led to the expenditure of large amounts of public money as what amount to bribes to bring business to Nanaimo by using public funds to give tax incentives, eliminate taxes by providing public land to private endeavours, building facilities oriented to growth at public expense and not fully collecting that subsidy back to the originators of that growth, ignoring obligations due from private developers and creating value for developers without collecting a reasonable value for the City which has created that value.  The City has agreed on more than one occasion that growth costs its taxpayers money rather than increasing its income –at least for most of our taxpayers.

After nearly ten years we are still trapped in the classic example of the corporate mind set which has taken hold at City Hall.  In 2004, Council provided the public with a referendum on the development of a Conference Centre.  This referendum, though found to be bogus as it was mishandled and then later approved anyway by the Provincial legislature in protecting its child, promised to citizens that a) no more than $30 million would be borrowed for the project, and b) that the terms would be those then extant between the City and a U.S. development company which promised to simultaneously build a hotel.  This deal also set the total cost to the City for the conference centre at $52.5 million.  This deal was never consummated and so one would think that the matter would have died and any new plans would require new approval: but not so.

Council proceeded, corporate moguls that they are and thus not needing further public involvement, to add an additional $20 million to the taxpayer cost of the conference centre and to dither on the developer’s hotel obligation.  In all this dithering we lost a lot of our history:  part of our industrial heritage as well as perfectly good Arena which could, by the city’s own figures, been renovated at a cost of a few millions and continued to provide a needed ice sheet with lots of seating, as well a downtown gathering place for ordinary events.  Instead we rushed to demolish them, as it turns out, to no particular avail.  Additionally we paid over $3 million to a developer who did not perform the tasks for which they were being paid.  (Incidentally, to my knowledge there has never been a forensic audit of the total cost of the fiasco to date, but one should be demanded.)

And now we apparently stand on the threshold of a new hotel deal without a clear accounting of neither its cost nor any public involvement in the process.  It’s time to put the public back in the public service.

Fool me once shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.