PHOTO: The Edmonton organics processing program is the largest in North America.
Who do you think makes the important decisions that affect our communities?
It’s natural to answer, “Our elected officials.” That’s who we hold accountable for our government’s performance. But all too often elected officials haven’t read or can’t understand technical information presented to them by staff or independent consultants, and so they simply acquiesce to recommendations put before them.
And that puts staff in charge.
This natural tension erupted at the Comox Strathcona Waste Management (CSWM) board last week, creating a showdown over where to build the new organics composting facility.
During a routine process to award the contract for engineering services, board member Marg Grant, representing Comox Council, triggered a debate that angered many directors. She asked if there would be one or two composting facilities.
Comox Valley Regional District Senior Engineer Mark Rutten answered that the CSWM’s advisory committee wants to explore all options for siting the facility, including Pigeon Lake or having two facilities.
“It’s worth reviewing,” he said.
The advisory committee consists of one staff member from the municipalities of Comox, Courtenay, Campbell River, Tahsis, Gold River, Sayward and seven staff members from the CVRD.
Rutten’s remarks set off a firestorm of angry comments from elected officials on the board, which has previously debated the issue and decided to build the organics facility in Campbell River.
Upset directors, such as Larry Samson, of Campbell River, accused staff of attempting to subvert the board’s decision.
“We’ve already debated this. Staff doesn’t like the answer, but we’ve already hashed this out,” he said.
Comox Valley Area B representative Ron Nichol said, “This is the first I’ve heard of two facilities. We debated this for over a year.”
Charlie Cornfield, of Campbell River, suggested staff was trying to change the Terms of Reference for the consulting contract without board approval. He was alarmed that no communication had come back to the Campbell River council about reconsidering the facility’s location.
The board amended the motion to award the contract to specify the Campbell River location. They were, in other words, admonishing Rutten for suggesting the advisory committee could disregard a board position.
The incident exposes the potential for staff to subtly direct projects by only feeding elected officials the information they think will get them the results they want.
Marg Grant, of Comox, cast the lone vote against the amended motion.
“The Town of Comox Council’s position has always been: the entire region would be better served with two small compost facilities vs. one large facility in Campbell River,” she said via email.
Grant said the organics pilot project at Pigeon Lake has proved successful, it has existing infrastructure, it’s compatible with the site and staff have already been trained.
She also questioned the costs of backhauling organics to Campbell River, which Comox town staff raised in the advisory committee.
According to the minutes of the March 30, 2017, advisory committee meeting, “Town of Comox staff expressed concern regarding potential higher tipping fees associated with this project if hosted in Campbell River rather than the Comox Valley.”
But the other directors said it’s unlikely a Campbell River location for organics would increase garbage dumping fees. Campbell River, like every other north Island community, will truck their municipal waste to the Comox Valley, and the Comox Valley will send it’s organics back to Campbell River on what would otherwise be an empty truck.
This furor over siting the organics facility highlights the delicate relationship between the CSWM board and its staff advisory committee.
Directors also expressed concerns that the advisory committee receives reports before the board gets them, including in-camera reports, and that staff recommendations appear to give more weight to the advisory board’s suggestions than the views of elected board members.