At last an Open In-Camera Meeting!

Ron Bolin: May 20, 2015

I was privileged yesterday afternoon and evening, along with a number of other citizens, to witness the assertion of the right of our representatives on Council to refuse to go in-camera on matters relating to section 90(1) of the Community Charter, relating to matters on which Council MAY go in-camera. Over the last few years Staff have recommended, and Council has followed –in my opinion careless of their duties to citizens- going in-camera in matters which have been thrown into a catch all category known as Land, Legislation and Labour. Even a cursory perusal of any City agenda will demonstrate that almost any issue which comes before Council can be construed in those terms. The issue thus becomes, who and how is the decision made to take some actions behind the curtain and others in front. Under the Charter, while Staff may recommend in-camera, it is Council, elected to serve as our representatives who must accept or reject this recommendation and last night it was rejected.

While the discussion was long (nearly six hours) and at times rambling, it was refreshing to hear the expression of the dismay of all on every side of the issue at the predicament in which we find ourselves with the issue of the Colliery Dams. It was refreshing to hear the City’s legal representative note that in his some 22 years of practice he had not earlier been requested to speak publically on such a matter. I believe that he handled himself well under the circumstances. Neither politics nor sciences are games to be played in the dark in a democracy and both are involved in discussions of what needs to be done with the dams.

Of particular interest to me was learning at the meeting yesterday that following the recent Council meeting which led to Tamara Cunningham’s Nanaimo News Bulletin headline on p.3 of the May 14 edition that: “GSI earns dam contract”, that GSI had withdrawn from consideration. There have been, as usual, a number of rumours floating around about what had happened in the few short days between the May 14 story and last night. Seeing the evidence is the sovereign cure for settling rumours and I thus sought, and subsequently obtained a copy of the letter which can be read here.

GSI to City May 18 2015001

Reading the GSI letter leads to the conclusion that the GSI proposal, apparently permitted by the provincial authorities as a third option to those previously offered and which would require outside authority as their method had not yet been approved for overtopping in BC (in effect, an overtopping solution turns the entire top of a dam into a potential spillway in an emergency), thus leading to the need for approval from a recognized outside expert. Somehow that expert and presumed partner seems to have been selected by the City to be Golder Associates who had provided the two competing options. I believe that anyone in any business, faced with this proposition would do what GSI did, and withdraw, knowing that there is no winning hand to be played in such a game. While I do not claim to be able to evaluate the technical specifications, I would rather that the matter were left to the provincial authorities and international experts in the field to determine whether this new process is viable in this situation. The advantages of the GSI proposal are substantial in both cost and in minimizing the environmental degradation of the park. It remains to be seen whether GSI would re-enter the competition if they were permitted to take their chances with the province in their own name and with their own proposal.  I would like to think that all would be best served if this were the case.  I do not believe that provincial authorities would wish to impose a solution on the City, even though they clearly have the authority to do so, if it could be avoided.  Nanaimo has wasted a great deal of time in this effort and it is easy to understand the irritation of the Controller of Water, but the province must still weigh the possible long term disaffection of the public against the real risk of the monumental event which has been posited.

Several other observations came to me as I sat in the VICC Council Chambers listening to the robust discussion among Councillors and Staff:

The process of dealing with the GSI proposal, first proposed about a year ago, has for some reason languished and continues to be plagued with what appear to me to be undue hesitation, now on the brink of dismissal for lack of time. Time which was not, for some unknown reason, used when it was available. Either GSI’s proposal can make the grade with the province or it cannot and to predetermine that decision in house appears to me to be very poor policy at best.

The objective of yesterday’s meeting, originally scheduled to be held in-camera with the City’s attorney, was to determine the response which must be made to the Controller of Water by May 29. This was the central issue of the discussion though debate was often framed in the complexities of the way in which we arrived at this state of affairs. This is a discussion which needs to be held so that we can avoid it next time, but the issue at hand was how to respond to the May 29 deadline. Despite some discouraging words about success from the lawyer, the majority of Council voted to ask him to prepare an Appeal/Stay which could provide additional time to permit consideration of a third option.

[Interestingly this is also the deadline by which I must respond to the OIPCBC with my comments about the City’s response to my request regarding the redaction of public documents. I find a great parallel to the confusion and hard feelings which were associated with the Leadercast fiasco in this affair and find it depressing to think that we have not found how to be more open.]

During the discussion the attorney for the City in this matter noted that he had provided rough notes on what he saw as a possible response to the province to Staff. Councillors had not seen these notes. When I asked about the timing of receipt of these notes by Staff during Question Period, I received a rather vague response. I find it troubling that in a matter of such significance that Staff should withhold anything relating to a matter as significant as the Colliery Dams and the decision which they were assembled yesterday to discuss. I find it troubling that Council appears to have relegated, whether actively or passively, a great number of what I consider to be policy and procedure questions to Staff which is charged to carry out the policies and procedures set by Council. I did not vote for a Council to take the policy and procedure obligations which were the object of my vote so that they could delegate them to Staff, who already have their hands full in municipal operations.

I was also appalled to learn that the City is involved in thousands of legal disputes each year and that Council hears about very few, even those that may deal with political as opposed to operations issues.

But all in all, it was worth the six hours. It is most fervently to be hoped that when we can get over government by gotcha and leadership takes precedence over power plays on both sides of the court, that we can have shorter, better informed and positively enacted meetings on behalf of the public that all at the City are pledged to serve.

On yet another hopeful note, agendas are now produced and available on line on Tuesday rather than Thursday afternoon.  This gives additional time to check out what’s up in the City and perform some research or questioning if needed before Monday’s COW or Council meetings.  This is a step forward.

Those interested in watching our municipal government at work on TV may be disappointed in the next two meetings neither of which will be held in the usual VICC Auditorium as we have been bumped by conferences to be held on those days.  Next Monday’s meeting, for example, will be held in the board room of the SARC building, our new City Hall annex located across from City Hall.  This is a small board room with very limited seating and no in-house video facilities, so if you want to get an update on the Port Theatre Project, the extension by a year of the agreement with SSS Manhao to build a Conference Centre Hotel, new computers and monitors for the VICC Council Chamber from which we have been booted (under the circumstances I find it hard to complain about this, but it does raise the question of where COW and Council meetings will be held in the future should conference centre business at the VICC pick up).  And the following Council meeting will be held in the Board room of the RDN, which again has limited seating.  I have not received an answer regarding the video service for either of these meetings, but I note that yesterdays meeting was NOT recorded even though it was held in the VICC Auditorium/ aka Council Chambers.  It should have been taped using the usual system but I was informed that as this was a Special Council meeting rather than a COW or a Council meeting that current procedures do not require taping for presentation to citizens unable to attend them in person.  This is a gap which I hope that our Council will quickly close.

Comments and Observations are requested.