A BC Supreme Court has granted the Mack Laing Heritage Society intervenor status in the Town of Comox’s application to alter the naturalist’s public trust. MLHS hopes the new council is open to out-of-court discussions
There’s renewed hope that the fate of famous Comox naturalist Hamilton Mack Laing’s public trusts and his heritage home, called Shakesides, might be settled out of court.
Over the objections of the Town of Comox, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Douglas W. Thompson recently granted the Mack Laing Heritage Society intervenor status in a case to alter the late naturalist’s public trust.
The town applied to the court in 2017 to change Laing’s trusts so it can demolish Shakesides and use the money and property Laing left the town for other purposes. The Mack Laing Heritage Society (MLHS) has opposed the town’s application.
In a court hearing Oct. 16 in Nanaimo, Justice Thompson said he thought he had given clear instructions to the town and the BC Attorney General in mid-April to sign a consent order allowing the MLHS to present their evidence “with no restrictions” at trial.
The town has refused to sign several versions of the consent order because they want to exclude much of the MLHS evidence and limit the society’s time before the court.
This time, Justice Thompson directed the parties to sign a consent order, which he framed for them, and instructed MLHS lawyer Patrick Canning to write.
As of today, the Attorney General and MLHS have agreed to the terms, but the Town of Comox has not yet accepted the order as written.
The MLHS hopes Comox will sign the consent order soon. And, now that the municipal election is over, perhaps enter into talks that prevent further costly court appearances.
“We think the court did the right thing in making MLHS (an) intervenor, and if we get to court we have faith that the right thing will happen there as well,” said MLHS President Kris Nielsen.
“However, our true hope is that the new council will work with us instead of against us to realize the terms of Laing’s will, which Comox agreed to when they took his money in trust. To that end we have a business plan and generous support from many construction and heritage professionals.” he said.
FURTHER READING: Read more on the Mack Laing case
The justice also granted additional time for the MLHS to present new evidence, despite objections from the town and the AG. He gave MLHS until Oct. 30 to file the new evidence and gave the town and the AG until Nov. 30 to file responses.
MLHS has prepared a business plan for restoring Shakesides and transforming it into the nature house envisioned by the famous Comox naturalist. The plan includes commitments from about two dozen Comox Valley construction companies to supply materials or labor at little or no cost to the town.
“We just wanted to make sure someone spoke for Mack in court,” said Gordon Olsen, a former friend of Mack Laing. “And we hope Comox doesn’t waste any more taxpayer dollars on this unnecessary litigation. Instead let’s honour the legacy of this amazing and generous man.”
There is no court date set to hear the case. It would not likely get onto the Supreme Court docket until February at the earliest.
Nielsen said that delay gives the society and the town an opportunity to hammer out a solution by the end of the year.
The Town of Comox has petitioned the court to vary the terms of Laing’s trust, including the right to demolish the famous ornithologist’s iconic home, called Shakesides. The society wants to present a business plan for a future use of Shakesides that honors Laing’s agreement with the town.
The society also wants a forensic audit of the Laing financial trust.
MLHS has argued for years that the town mishandled Laing’s funds. A private citizen, Gordon Olsen, commissioned an independent audit by a Campbell River firm that concluded Laing’s trust should be worth more than $400,000 today.
The town has admitted to claims by the MLHS, individuals and other organizations that it had misspent Laing’s money. In a Nov. 29, 2017 staff report, Town CAO Richard Kannigan presented a long list of inappropriate expenditures.
In December 2017, the Town Council voted to add back nearly $200,000 into the trust.
Meanwhile, the town has racked up additional legal fees by fighting the MLHS.
Who is Mack Laing
Hamilton Mack Laing (1883-1982) was one of Canada’s foremost naturalist-collectors; he was a photographer, artist, writer and educator whose output included over 700 journal and scientific articles.
He wrote a biography of his friend Major Allan Brooks, another well-known Canadian naturalist.
Laing left several unpublished manuscripts, journals and field notes, and hundreds of letters, papers and photographs. These are available for viewing at the Royal BC Museum, the Winnipeg Archives and the Canadian National Museum of Natural History.
Specimens he collected are still in the collections of many major Canadian and American museums.
Mack Laing belonged to the Brotherhood of Venery, a secret fraternity known as the “B.” This influential group of conservationists and naturalists included such notables as Percy Taverner, Kenneth Racey, J. B. Harkin, Ian McTaggart Cowan, John Muir and Aldo Leopold.
The anti-tax wave turned into a progressive tsunami in Courtenay; Long undercuts Jangula; 48% of Cumberland voters cast a ballot and a woman of color will contribute her world view to the regional district
This article was updated to correct the vote totals on the Cumberland referendum
As the Comox Valley awoke this morning, stumbled into the kitchen and stared vacantly out the window at a spectacular sunny late October day, were people thinking about the whirlwind six-week election campaign that ended last night?
Or were they still stoned from too much Legalization Day celebrations? Hung over from too much Election Night joy? Or, just seeing a yard full of maple leaves begging to be raked up?
Well, over here on Nob Hill, at the international headquarters of the Decafnation, we were thinking about what voters were thinking. What the election results mean, and what they don’t mean.
We did notice that of the 22 mayors, councillors and regional directors elected yesterday, Decafnation recommended 18 of them.
But in our own decaffeinated stupor this fine morning, these random thoughts passed through …
— Did Harold Long split the non-progressive vote and derail incumbent Larry Jangula’s bid for re-election? Jangula finished second to mayor-elect Bob Wells by 438 votes. Harold Long got 1,165 votes.
Long and Jangula feuded over a pact that Long says the pair made four years ago. Long would support Jangula in 2014 if Jangula supported Long in 2018. Long says Jangula reneged on the deal and Long ran anyway.
FURTHER READING: Detailed election results here
— The Comox Valley Taxpayers Alliance tried to rally the fiscal conservative vote, but did it actually show up? The CVTA endorsed six candidates for council and Jangula for mayor. Mano Theos was their only candidate to make the cut.
But looking at the mayor’s race, Jangula and Long captured 3,677 votes, more than Wells and Erik Eriksson, who received 3,597. A mere 80-vote differential.
On the other hand, Courtenay voters — where the CVTA exclusively focused their “taxes are too high!” message — elected a nearly unanimous progressive council. Theos is going to feel a little lonely for the next four years.
So, what to conclude? Jangula probably had individual popular support. Long cost him the election. But overall the efforts of the CVTA, despite all the money they spent on full-page advertising, didn’t make a difference. It may even have triggered a counterproductive effect by rallying progressive voters.
— We were surprised that Cumberland Mayor Leslie Baird’s opponent got even 229 votes.
— It’s a cliche, we know, but every vote does count. Incumbent Roger Kishi missed re-election by 2 votes. And the Comox Valley lost an important voice of diversity.
— We don’t think there’s a provision for recounts in municipal elections. Why not?
— Which community had the highest voter turnout and which was the worst? It was no contest. Cumberland had a 48.0 percent turnout the highest in the region. The Comox Valley’s worst was the rural electoral areas at 28.7 percent.
Courtenay had a 37.1 percent turnout and Comox had 40.4 percent. Campbell River did the worst of all at 25.4 percent. Qualicum was the best regionally with 58.9 percent. Parksville had 43.5 percent and Nanaimo did well at 40.3 percent.
— How did mayors fare compared to their elected councillors? Cumberland Mayor Leslie Baird got 83.25 percent of the vote, the highest of any Comox Valley candidate. No village councillors got a higher percentage, but Vickey Brown topped the polls with 63.6 percent.
Mayor-Elect Bob Wells got 40.56 percent of the vote, and five councillors grabbed a higher percentage of the vote. Will Cole-Hamilton topped the city polls with 48.6 percent.
Comox Mayor-Elect Russ Arnott received 61.8 percent of the vote. Two of his council members got more, including Alex Bissinger who topped the polls with 63.9 percent.
— In a move that will benefit the entire Comox Valley, Cumberland voters gave their Village Council approval to borrow up to $4.4 million to upgrade its wastewater treatment plant by a substantial margin: 1,011 to 316.
Voters really had no choice because the village has to upgrade its operations for face potential fines from the Ministry of Environment for being out of compliance with provincial standards. But the strong “yes” vote gives the village extra leverage in obtaining grant external funding and lowering the amount it has to borrow.
— Courtenay voters also approved a non-binding request for City Council to undertake a study of Valley-wide governance reforms all the way up to amalgamation. It will be interesting how this study evolves, if at all, because Cumberland and Comox haven’t expressed interest. The vote was 4,734 yes to 1,494 no.
— Vickey Brown, who stepped down as a school trustee to run in the Cumberland municipal election, topped the polls, besting re-elected incumbent Jesse Ketler by 44 votes. Brown previously sought a council seat in the 1990s and lost by just 10 votes, a 54-vote turnaround.
— Erik Eriksson was the first Comox Valley candidate to announce his campaign. Just over a year ago, incumbent councillor Eriksson said he was running for mayor, a move criticized by some as starting the campaign too early. But it did force other mayoral hopefuls David Frisch — who later dropped out to re-run for council — and Bob Wells to announce their intentions just four months later.
Eriksson finished last in the four-way race for mayor. Was it because he announced so early? Did he ruffle too many feathers with his council colleagues by refusing to abide the chamber convention of referring to each other as “Councillor Hillian,” etc., and using just their first names?
Or did he lose progressive supporters by voting with Jangula, Theos and Ken Grant on 3L Developments proposed amendment to the Regional Growth Strategy? While the optics of Eriksson’s action may have cost him support from anti-amendment voters, he did it to continue the consultation process, including a public hearing.
Eriksson’s fears materialized when 3L filed a multi-faceted lawsuit just three days before the Oct. 20 election, essentially alleging that the Comox Valley Regional District didn’t give their proposal fair consideration.
— It’s interesting that voters convincingly supported Edwin Grieve in Area C, despite being banned from 3L discussions at the CVRD board table because a human rights tribunal found he made ethnically insensitive remarks about a 3L executive. Voters apparently believe Grieve has learned from his mistake and subsequent discipline and were willing to give him another chance.
— For the first time, a woman of color will represent a CVRD rural electoral area. Arzeena Hamir, who defeated incumbent Rod Nichol in Area B, was born in Tanzania, East Africa, moved to BC in 1973, served as a CUSO volunteer in Thailand, where she’s fluent in the language, and spent time in India doing field research for a Masters degree in sustainable agriculture that she earned from the University of London, England.
— Finally, more than half of the Comox Valley school district board of trustees were elected by acclimation (four out of seven). Why is there so little interest in the school board? (Full disclosure, Decafnation did not profile school trustee candidates or survey them on education issues. Nor were we able to profile every mayoral and council candidate.)
WHO DID YOU ELECT?
Here are the latest preliminary results from Civic Info BC. A * preceding a candidate’s name indicates an incumbent. Decafnation will update results as they become available. Boldface type indicates elected candidates.
COURTENAY: 7,372 votes cast; 37.1% turnout of eligible voters
COMOX: 4,392 votes cast; 40.4% turnout
CUMBERLAND: 2,892 votes cast; 48.0% turnout
CVRD: Voter turnout per electoral area not available; 28.7% overall
Bob Wells: 2,950
Harold Long: 1,165
*Larry Jangula: 2,512
Erik Eriksson: 647
Will Cole-Hamilton: 3,556
Melanie McCollum: 3,213
*David Frisch: 3,182
*Mano Theos: 3,149
Wendy Morin: 3,044
*Doug Hillian: 2,827
Tom Grant: 2,738
Jin Lin: 2,626
Brennan Day: 2,338
Murray Presley: 2,316
Starr Winchester: 2,154
Deana Simpkin: 2,095
Judi MuraKami: 1,559
Kihoshi Kosky: 1,436
Penny Marlow: 1,325
Darwin Dzuba: 436
Russ Arnott: 2,715
Tom Diamond: 1,626
Alex Bissinger: 2,807
Partick McKenna: 2,748
Nicole Minions: 2,654
*Maureen Swift: 2,613
*Ken Grant: 2,472
S. McGowan: 2,242
Chris Haslett: 1,877
Don Davis: 1,605
Ron Freeman: 1,603
*Leslie Baird: 1,138
Eduardo Uranga: 229
Vickey Brown: 883
*Jesse Ketler: 839
*Gwyn Sproule: 763
*Sean Sullivan: 602
*Roger Kishi: 600
Ian McLean: 536
Eric Krejci: 480
Daniel Arbour: 1,385
Jim Elliott: 803
Arzeena Hamir: 852
*Rod Nichol: 740
*Edwin Grieve: 987
Jay Oddleifson: 601
*Janice Caton: Acclaimed
Kat Hawksby: Acclaimed
Tonia Frawley: 2,162
Randi Baldwin: 1,128
Sarah Howe: Acclaimed
*Sheila McDonnell: Acclaimed
Michelle Waite: 1,050
James Derry: 338
*Ian Hargreaves: 1,141
Terence Purden: 268
Comox Valley voters have a terrible record of turning out to vote in municipal elections, yet who we elect to our local governments has a more direct and impactful effect on our daily lives. Let’s turn that around this year
Comox Valley voters go to the polls tomorrow, Oct. 20, to elect mayors, councillors, rural regional district directors and school board trustees.
People have said this year’s election is historic because there are so many open seats on the Courtenay and Comox councils. People have said the Courtenay election pits former council members, those who have served in the not-so-recent past, against a wave of younger newcomers anxious to make their mark on a blossoming city.
But the truth is that every election matters. Every election is important. Every municipal election has an impact on the future of our communities and the Comox Valley as a whole. Who will elect has a direct effect on our lives.
Democracy works best when everyone participates. Not everyone can run for elected office, but everyone can vote. When voters don’t turn out, they get a government that doesn’t fully represent them. Sadly, Comox Valley voters have a poor record of voting in municipal elections.
In 2014 only 31 percent of eligible voters turned out in Courtenay; 41 percent in Comox, 41 percent in Cumberland, 31 percent in Electoral area A, 27 percent in Area B and just a meager 19 percent in Area C.
Decafnation hopes more voters turn out this year. Ask your friends if they’ve voted. Tell them where to vote and when. Use social media to generate excitement about voting among your Facebook or Instagram community. Talk about the candidates today so that others might vote tomorrow.
Remember, it’s acceptable and strategic to only vote for the council candidates you really love. You don’t have to vote for six in Comox and Courtenay, or four in Cumberland.
Decafnation has recommended candidates in all but the school board races. They are pictured above, and here’s a handy list to take to the polls with you.
Courtenay: Mayor Bob Wells, Councillors Melanie McCollum, Will Cole-Hamilton, Wendy Morin, David Frisch, Doug Hillian and Deana Simpkin.
Cumberland: Mayor Leslie Baird, Councillors Jesse Ketler, Gwyn Sproule, Roger Kishi and Sean Sullivan.
Comox: Mayor Tom Diamond, Councillors Nicole Minions, Alex Bissinger, Patrick McKenna, Stephanie McGowan, Maureen Swift and Chris Haslett
Regional District: Area A, Daniel Arbour; Area B, Arzeena Hamir; and, Area C, Edwin Grieve.
Who are your favorite candidates? Whoever they are, go vote for them tomorrow.
Courtenay’s year-over-year tax increases compare favorably with surrounding municipalities. So what’s all the fuss about? Maybe the answer lies in the city’s transparency — or lack of it
There’s been a lot of debate this fall about taxes in the City of Courtenay. Some people say they are too high, that low-income people are being driven from their homes and seniors are choosing between taxes and food.
Other local government observers have said the problem isn’t the amount of taxes collected, but the lack of transparency about how and why increases were needed.
The city made itself a target of this debate about a year ago when, in a single meeting, the City Council approved the hiring of 16 new employees and promoted another to a management position.
It was a dramatic move bound to attract attention from fiscal conservative voters. Some would say the optics were terrible. If the city had hired three or four new people over a multi-year period, it might not have drawn such a negative response.
A group calling itself the Comox Valley Taxpayers Alliance (CVTA) has since purchased full-page ads in The Record newspaper to criticize the hirings, Courtenay tax increases in general and to specifically call out the most progressive council members.
FURTHER READING: Courtenay candidates discuss taxes
Several conservative candidates have jumped on this “high taxes” bandwagon as the basis of their campaign platforms and to win the support and endorsement of the CVTA.
But how much have taxes increased in the City of Courtenay? And how do its increases compare with neighboring municipalities?
Courtenay’s year-over-year tax increases were 1.7 percent in 2014, 3.2 percent in 2015, 4.0 percent in 2016 and 2.0 percent in 2017.
In Comox, tax increases for the same years were, 2.8 percent, 2.7 percent, 3.5 percent and 3.4 percent.
In Cumberland, the increases were 1.0 percent, 4.5 percent, 5.5 percent and 5.0 percent.
In Campbell River, the increases were 4.3 percent in 2016 and 5.6 percent in 2017.
In Nanaimo, the increases were 3.8 percent in 2014, 2.3 percent in 2015, 1.3 percent in 2016 and 4.2 percent in 2017.
In almost every year in all five municipalities, the year-over-year taxes collected for general municipal purposes were higher than the Canadian Consumer Price Index.
But Courtenay tax increases compare favorably with its immediate neighboring municipalities.
So what’s the fuss all about?
Dick Clancy, the spokesman for the CVTA, sat down with Decafnation to explain why his group has focused on Courtenay and not Comox or Cumberland.
Clancy maintains that the city used surplus funds to pay for the 16 new hires, and when you add in the money they took out of reserve funds to balance their budget, the tax increases in 2017 and 2018 were more like 6 percent.
Clancy couldn’t provide detail for his calculations during our meeting, so Decafnation sought an expert analysis from a retired B.C. city chief administrative officer (CAO), who is not a member of the CVTA.
Our source analyzed it this way:
Without new hires the city requires tax increases in the period from 2018 to 2021 of 5.9 percent.
But the proposed budget increases taxes during that time by 9 percent. The city budgeted a tax rate 3.1 percent higher than actually required by expenditure increases.
The total value of the new hires was equivalent to about a 5+ percent tax increase in 2017, but the city didn’t want to pass that along to taxpayers. So it used surplus funds in 2017 and 2018 to balance the budget, as a one-time solution.
But the city needed an ongoing funding solution for the new hires so it budgeted excess tax increases over the next 4 years to smooth out the impact and cover the cost of the new hires. And Courtenay’s budgeted increases aren’t out of line with neighboring cities, towns and villages.
Also, there’s nothing illegal or uncommon about such financial manoeuvres in municipal governments when they are discussed and explained in open meetings.
But it appears that the Courtenay City Council worked out this solution during in-camera meetings, and has never fully disclosed the nature of those deliberations. As with most cover ups, this lack of transparency has jacked up criticisms and suspicions.
The CVTA seems to have inside information that the budget details were discussed during in-camera meetings, but Clancy denied it. The alliance did endorse incumbent Larry Jangula for mayor and incumbent Mano Theos for council.
By law, councillors have a duty to respect the confidentiality of in-camera meetings and may be personally liable if leaking the substance of a closed meeting results in a liability for the municipality.
Discussions in closed meetings are limited to selling or buying land through expropriations and legal matters, such as lawsuits.
But the B.C. Ombudsman says municipalities should record minutes for closed meetings in at least a much detail as open meetings, including a detailed description of the topics, documents considered, motions and a voting record.
Most importantly, the Ombudsman says local governments should “have a process in place to regularly review the information produced at closed meetings. Information that would no longer undermine the reason for discussing it in a closed meeting should be released as soon as practicable.”
Based on these best practices, Courtenay could release the minutes of any discussions about the hirings and subsequent budget discussions during closed meetings.
And it’s a principle that Cumberland, Comox and the Comox Valley Regional District should also adopt.
The Ombudsman goes on:
“Local governments should strive to release as much information as possible as often as possible, in order to demonstrate their commitment to the principles of transparency and accountability and to receive the benefit of a more informed, engaged and trusting public.”
Decafnation doesn’t recall any Comox Valley government ever voluntarily releasing the minutes of a closed meeting as the Ombudsman suggests. Members of the public can request the release of minutes from closed meetings, and also seek them through the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.