It’s the party that matters most, not the candidate

It’s the party that matters most, not the candidate

People often ask me about the differences between the U.S. and Canadian electoral systems. There are many, but one stands out as the most important.

Individual candidates hardly matter in British Columbia elections.

Canadians vote first of all for the party, its record or its campaign promises. And there’s a valid reason for this party-first voting tradition.

An MLA in B.C. is expected to publicly support and vote the party line. Every time. Without exception.

While differences of opinion may be tolerated during private caucus sessions, an MLA who dares to criticize his or her party or to vote against their party can expect a swift eviction notice. Cariboo North MLA Bob Simpson discovered this hard truth in 2010 when he criticized his party leader on a community website.

Political parties learned long ago that if they failed to pass a piece of legislation, the public would lose confidence in them, and that, in turn, would make another general election unavoidable and its outcome uncertain.

So party leaders acquired the power to discipline MLAs who fall out of line.

And to keep them in line, well-behaved MLAs receive rewards. Some get cabinet appointments, some get travel junkets, some get pork barrel benefits for their ridings and some get other coveted appointments; the list of possible benefits is long.

As a result, most individual Members of the Legislative Assembly in a parliamentary democracy are much less powerful than members of American state legislatures or the U.S. Congress. In the U.S. system, Republicans and Democrats frequently swing their votes across party lines based on specific constituency interests. Not so much on the Big Ticket issues.

But this ability to vote independently of party affiliation, bestows greater importance on individual candidates in the U.S. system than in British Columbia.

On the flip side, it also makes American elected officials more vulnerable to the influence of lobbyists. Without a party leader telling you how to vote, the temptations dangled by outside interests, who aren’t accountable to voters, can be persuasive.

It’s also clear in B.C. politics that only the select few in the premier’s tight group of confidents have any significant impact on party policy. This is also true in the U.S. system. But as U.S. President Trump and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan have discovered, a fracture in party unity can disrupt the plans of the boys and girls at the top.

So, unless a candidate in B.C. is embroiled in some scandal or ranks high enough in the party to have a material impact on policy, the local campaign rarely hinges on the record or actions of an individual candidate.

And that’s what makes the May 9 provincial election difficult for many voters.

What if, for example, you dislike the B.C. Liberal Party’s policies on education, the environment and government transparency … and maybe you have a particular aversion to party leader Christy Clark..

Maybe you just think that after 16 years it’s time for fresh faces in Victoria.

But what if you find the Liberal candidate more likable, smarter and more sympathetic on the local issues that concern you than the NDP candidate?

You might consider voting Green or Conservative, but if you’re at all pragmatic, you know neither of those parties has a chance to win.

If you’re interested in the direction of British Columbia generally, and how it fits with your world-view, rather than only your personal interests or those of your specific community, you have no choice.

You must base your vote on party policy, not on the appeal of any individual candidate.

 

Comox Valley Agriplex: white elephant or dream facility?

Comox Valley Agriplex: white elephant or dream facility?

For more than three decades, some Comox Valley community organizations and elected officials have touted the need for a convention center.

The Comox Valley lacks a facility that can accommodate the large numbers of people or trade show booths and equipment required by big event promoters, which some see as a potential economic driver.

But others view such large facilities as future white elephants, often underused and almost always a drain on taxpayers. In this view, the Valley simply has unrequited conference center envy.

So while there’s been much discussion about building a convention center in the Comox Valley, it has never gotten further than a lot of talk.

Until now.

The Comox Valley Farmers Institute (CVFI) and the Comox Valley Exhibition Grounds (CVEG) have recently formed an unlikely and somewhat uneasy alliance to achieve what generations of community organizations could not: a multi-use facility for a variety of community user groups that can seat up to 5,000 people.

The CVFI imagines a facility where people can play indoor soccer, tennis, pickleball or ride horses. Where groups can hold large sit-down dinners. Where promoters can stage equipment trade shows, monster truck events, BMX competitions and concerts.

The CVEG envisions a smaller Agricultural Awareness Center that has gotten a little lost in the grand idea of a multi-use facility. They imagine a 12,000 square-foot facility that would benefit farmers with a commercial kitchen and diagnostic lab to develop and test new products.

But in order to get support from MLA Don McRae and other elected officials, the two groups had to merge their competing proposals. The payoff was a B.C. Liberal Party promise of $5 million toward the project, if they’re re-elected.

Courtenay and Comox councils have supported the idea and the Comox Valley Regional District is playing along. Its Committee of the Whole green-lighted a master plan for the Comox Valley Exhibition Grounds this week that includes a future 78,000 square-foot-plus multi-use event center.

But that doesn’t mean the facility is a certainty because there are a number of public and financial concerns that haven’t been addressed. They are:

Traffic congestion — The exhibition grounds area is already congested during event days. Cars often park along Headquarters Road even during regular Saturday morning Farmers Market events. When larger events take place — Music Fest, Rib Fest, etc. — the roadside parking extends further and along side roads like Vanier Drive. Daily traffic to Mt. Washington or to the Island Highway — it’s the truck route — complicates the congestion, though the dead-ending of Piercy Road at the old bridge and large roundabouts will help.

Parking — A new 500-car parking lot is proposed on the CVRD’s recently acquired property, the former Stonehenge Farm, which will help and be adequate for most community user groups, but parking will still spill onto side roads for large events.

Loss of ALR land — Removing property from the Agricultural Land Reserve must meet a provincial test. Calling the facility an ‘agriplex’ and having one or two farm-related events isn’t enough. The CVEG’s Agricultural Awareness Center, however, does qualify.

Construction costs — Current estimates range from $12 million to $15 million, but that could go higher after the CVFI meets with user groups and finalizes a design for the proposed project. Soil engineers may add extra cost to the project given the nearby floodplain and how far down they find bedrock suitable for the foundation’s footings.

Politics — The B.C. Liberal Party has promised $5 million, but what happens if the NDP forms the next provincial government? There’s been no promise of funding from the NDP. Or, what happens if the B.C. Liberals win the May 9 election, but the Comox Valley riding elects an NDP member?

How much are taxpayers willing to pay? — There is no formal business plan yet that estimates the amount of taxes Valley residents will pay to subsidize the multiplex operation on an annual basis. And these types of publicly owned facilities always need an annual public subsidy.

With the regional district’s approval, the CVFI and CVEG now know they can build a multi-use facility on the site. The next step is to meet with potential community user groups to determine if they will use it, at what rental price and if they have specific requirements that must be built into the design. Only after that, can the groups accurately estimate construction costs.

But they also need a professional management firm to assess the potential market of organizations likely to rent the facility. Because without sufficient outside revenue to pay operating expenses, including administrative overhead, one of two things will happen: local community user groups won’t be able to afford the rental fees (outside revenue keeps them low), or Comox Valley property owners will pay higher taxes to subsidize the facility.

 

Simply making statements doesn’t mean they are true

Simply making statements doesn’t mean they are true

Andrew Gower, a partner and branch manager of Wedler Engineering LLP’s Courtenay office recently wrote a letter to the editor about the proposed Comox No. 2 pump station. I wrote this letter in response. Neither were printed in the newspaper due to their length, but both can be found on the Comox Valley Record’s website.

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Taking a page from Donald Trump’s playbook, Andrew Gower has made statements in a letter to the editor about sewerage system planning at the Comox Valley Regional District as if they were true, but that in reality have no basis in fact.

He also channels Trump when he attacks people who have concerns about the CVRD’s sewerage planning. And his letter does not disclose that his employer, Wedler Engineering LLP, has done work for both the CVRD and Comox. This creates a direct financial interest that undermines his letter’s objectivity.

But let’s deconstruct Gower’s statements.

Gower suggests the risk of a force main rupture along the Willemar Bluffs will be eliminated by building a new pump station at Beech Street in Area B. This seems true, but doesn’t tell the whole story.

It’s the removal of a pipeline full of raw sewage from the foreshore that eliminates the risk, not the building of the proposed Comox No. 2 pump station. There are several other options that would also eliminate the Willemar Bluffs pipeline.

Two of those options were studied and found to be less expensive in the long-run than the current plan. They are: upgrading the Comox Jane Place pump station, and upgrading the Courtenay No. 1 pump station now, rather than in 12 years.

Gower paraphrases CVRD engineer Kris LaRose as saying all the Courtenay/Comox force main sewer pipes have considerable remaining life. That is LaRose’s hope, but it’s not a fact.

The CVRD started this project without having studied the condition of the force main pipes. They have launched an assessment project that will conclude in June, but it will not provide sufficient data to verify the long-term viability of the pipes.

That’s because the current study will only examine the pipeline exterior for existing leaks. It will not show the inside condition of the pipe, so engineers will get little information about when or where the pipe might burst in the future.

Next, Gower says, “… the risks posed by the … pump station are very small,” and he refers to a hydro-geological report. But that report was prepared for a rejected site on the beach access at the bottom of Croteau Road. It’s been misused to apply to the Beech Street site.

Before the CVRD hired him, this same hydro-geologist prepared a report on the Beech Street location that identified a “high risk to the permeable aquifer lenses” of the area. This report said a leak or failure of the pump station would jeopardize drinking water quality.

But at least Gower admits there is some risk to the neighborhood. The Engineers Canada Code of Ethics requires engineers to “Hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public and the protection of the environment ….”

Gower says there’s only a “miniscule” risk that a modern pump station would fail. But you only have to Google “sewer-pump-station-failures” to see that the statement is not true. Just last last week, a pump station in the village of Richmond, Ont. dumped raw sewage into the Jock River after the station failed due to high volumes of rain.

The issue of risk is critical given that the CVRD has said the pump station project will not proceed if the risks to the health of all cannot be “guaranteed,” which is a threshold neither Gower nor the regional district’s engineers can possibly meet.

And even if the risks were “very small,” the results of a failure would be catastrophic. And all the risks would be assumed by people who don’t benefit from the pump station.

The fact is, even the best engineers and their plans are not infallible. The engineers who planned the Courtenay/Comox sewerage system in the mid-1980s promised that a pipeline dug into the foreshore below Willemar Bluffs would not accelerate erosion, despite warnings from residents and environmentalists.

The engineers were wrong, and a class action lawsuit proved it.

Those same engineers promised that the Courtenay/Comox treatment plant on Brent Road would not emit any noxious odours. Wrong again. And another successful lawsuit against the Courtenay/Comox Sewage Commission.

More than 30 years and millions of taxpayer dollars later, the odour problem still isn’t fixed, though there are hopes for improvements to be made this year.

Gower attempts to state as fact that the DND representative on the Courtenay/Comox Sewage Commission “would have looked at the facts and evidence presented, and considered all options carefully.” But that is not the case.

The legal representative of the neighborhood has documents that indicate the DND representative was not aware of the social implications of his vote, and had no prior knowledge of such key points as whether a recommended study had been done on the integrity of the force main from Goose Spit to the Jane Place station.

He had not been fully briefed by his predecessor or commission chair Barbara Price before the pivotal vote, in which he cast the deciding “yes” vote, and all three Courtenay directors voted “no.”

Gower then claims that “all currently legislated procedures and processes were followed.” Again, this is an opinion, not a fact. This has not been established by the CVRD with reference to provincial and municipal legislation, and only a court of law can reach this conclusion.

Gower accuses those asking questions of using “hyperbolic language” and “bullying” and — showing he’s willing to go over the top — of destroying democracy itself.

Civic engagement is the cornerstone of democracy. Governments exist only at the will of the people, who must speak out and vote and hold elected officials accountable. The suppression of these rights — which I suggest are civic responsibilities — results in despotism and tyrannical rule.

Gower states that the critics’ “points are not valid.” How would he know? He has not met with residents of the Beech Street neighborhood or others who are concerned that the regional district is missing an opportunity to create a better sewerage system for the entire Comox Valley.

He doesn’t seem to understand that this is about more than a pump station in Area B. It’s about governance, environmental risks and ending the patchwork delivery of wastewater services, which has and will continue to cause inter-jurisdictional fights.

In summary, Gower makes statements without evidence and without all the information. His guarantees are meaningless. And his direct financial interest makes his objectivity suspect.

By way of background, the Engineers Code of Ethics says to “… endeavor to interpret engineering issues to the public in an objective and truthful manner.”

George Le Masurier is an Area B resident who supports a Valley-wide shared sewerage service that addresses population growth, new technology and climate change and takes in more service areas and more ratepayers so the burden — and benefits — can be shared more widely.

 

I’m running on May 9, and I’m no GOOBER, by golly

I’m running on May 9, and I’m no GOOBER, by golly

Those of us who study elections seriously have stumbled upon an alarming discovery about British Columbia politics: spending too much time in Victoria reduces your intelligence to the rough equivalent of a kumquat.

You’ve probably noticed this, too.

A candidate carrying a clipboard rings your doorbell and engages you in thoughtful conversation about the issues that affect you the most. Based on their doorstep brilliance, you elect them and off they go to Victoria where, after about two weeks, their ability to maintain rational thought basically resembles an obscure and bad-tasting fruit.

The problem is that all of our province’s major issues, like fully funding basic education, preventing further environmental disasters and when will we have enough medical marijuana stores, are kept in a big storage locker hidden somewhere in the Capital Region.

That means our politicians have to go there to work on them. But due to the rare Geographic Onset Of Brain Erasure and Restore Syndrome (GOOBERS), the problems just get worse.

That’s why those of us who take elections seriously have concluded after much deep thinking that we need to elect someone who refuses to go to Victoria, and why, at the last minute, I have decided to offer myself as a write-in candidate.

I don’t seek any applause, heartfelt personal thank-you notes or unsolicited friendly letters-to-the-editor. Although large envelopes filled with cash would be nice.

I’m just in it for the issues. And speaking of that, here’s where I stand as of 11:45 a.m. this morning, April 10, 2017:

Taxes and Budget deficits – Against ‘em.
The environment – For it.
Education —Hire more teachers for public schools because it will take a really smart new generation to fix all the messes we made.
Plush jobs for all my friends – No problemo.
War – Normally opposed, but I could justify a small offensive on the price of beer.

People have asked me whether I intend to run as a Green, NDP or Liberal because, you know, after the old conservative SoCreds glossed themselves as “Liberals,” nobody’s really quite sure what party designation means any more.

So I’ve worked up some of my own campaign slogans:

Politicians are like diapers, they both should be changed often, and usually for the same reason.

I’ll be tough on crime, so don’t steal. That’s the government’s job.

WARNING: I advise you to support me now because there are only so many really good pork-barrel jobs to go around (actually, both parties have proven this isn’t true, but it’s a good pressure tactic).

Remember, if I get only one vote, I’ll know it wasn’t you.

 

What was the point of Shakesides’ graffiti?

What was the point of Shakesides’ graffiti?

Vandals spray-painted the historical home of Hamilton Mack Laing, known as Shakesides, this week with what appears to be a lame version of tagging.

Squiggles of red paint were carelessly sprayed on three sides of the building, and a circle with an upside down ’Y’ was painted on plywood covering the building’s front window.

This doesn’t look like the work of any young graffiti artist. Not a serious one, anyway. They would not spray meaningless scribbles at a fast walk around a building and then produce a 50-year-old peace sign.

No, this seems like the work of somebody without spray-painting skills attempting to inflict maximum damage in the shortest amount of time.

Who would do such a thing? I don’t know, maybe someone angry about something? A jerk?

The front stairway into Shakesides

But it is interesting that no other sign, bridge, post or even tree was spray-painted. That creates the impression this was about something else, possibly the political and legal battle over preservation of Laing’s home.

Maybe it was an attempt to show that a building in a secluded location is vulnerable to defacing by graffiti. But that logic doesn’t hold. It doesn’t explain the worldwide tagging of downtown buildings, railway cars, subway walls, etc.

The whole point of graffiti is to be publicly viewed.

Mayor Paul Ives told me the town will remove the scrawls. They pretty much have to after last year ordering parks staff to remove good-looking murals painted on the window boards by turning the plywood panels around.

Unwanted graffiti is a nuisance and the bane of every property owner. Except that, in this case, the murals made the building look better.

But the town hasn’t always been so keen. Someone painted the word FUCK on the front of Shakesides two years ago and the town just ignored it. A citizen eventually painted over the obscenity.

And the town has ignored other graffiti previously sprayed on parts of the Mack Laing Nature Park.

When a person or organization wants to tear down a heritage building, they employ a variety of tricks to gain public support.

The type of graffiti a young graffiti artist might do, from a building in Olympia, WA.

The most commonly used trick is to let the building fall into disrepair. Spend as little as possible to repair rot or leaks, don’t make improvements and board up the windows quickly. Make it look as bad as possible.

The Town of Comox has used this strategy on Shakesides for 35 years.

Maybe the person or persons who committed this recent act of vandalism wanted to help the town along in its plan to demolish the house. Who knows? Sometimes, people just do dumb stuff.