The buck (doesn’t) stop here

The buck (doesn’t) stop here

Island Health fails public accountability scorecard

By Stephen D. Shepherdson

The key to maintaining the public’s confidence in its government departments and agencies, is the concept of public accountability. Nothing touches Canadians like the delivery of healthcare services. Island Health’s board of directors met people in the Comox Valley last week and heard from five different groups making formal presentations.

The gap between the serious nature of the issues presented by community representatives and the response provided by Island Health is staggering. Island Health acknowledges its accountability but does it, in fact, hold itself accountable?

They did well in coming to the community. The public forum itself is important in terms of demonstrating accountability to taxpayers and the community being served. There are a number of positive initiatives underway such as the neighbourhood care model for homecare.

As measured against the high-level expectations embodied in the BC Taxpayer Accountability Principles (June 2014), Island
Health might give itself a passing grade. From the viewpoint of this taxpayer, there is much opportunity for improvement.

For example, how did the board and its presenters perform against the principle of ‘respect’? Did they engage in “equitable, compassionate, respectful and effective communications that ensure all parties are properly informed or consulted on actions, decisions and public communications in a timely manner”?

Did they “proactively collaborate in a spirit of partnership that respects the use of taxpayers’ monies” (BC Taxpayer Accountability Principles, June 2014)? In my view, they substantively missed this mark.

Island Health staged the forum in a manner that avoided any need to directly address the specific concerns of the community members assembled. Despite advance knowledge of the points of view for the five presentations they selected, no attempt was made to meaningfully address the concerns presented. By comparison, considerable hard work was put into the community’s presentations. 

Advance questions from the public were answered in a written handout that, in most cases, provided unclear and confusing responses. 

Communications specialists would call the room set-up ’confrontational’ in that it made the presenters accountable to the public in attendance while the board sat on the side as the public’s observers. The meeting was adjourned early omitting the Question
Period for questions from the floor as referenced in the published agenda.

It is disrespectful to ask people to do something and then ignore their efforts and point of view. The board lost an opportunity
to address the questions raised or even give the community one positive take-away.

What does good public accountability look like? First, leaders are clear in acknowledging the situation or issue being addressed. Second, leaders use facts and stories that deal with people to frame the issues. They employ facts and analyses that reflect current results, describe activities underway and identify root causes of the issue or problem. Third, leaders acknowledge limitations and constraints and are careful to address constituent expectations.

FURTHER READING: B.C. Taxpayer Accountability Principles

What did we hear or not hear on March 29? We did not hear that the board holds itself accountable, there was no “the buck stops here” moment.

There was no acknowledgment of issues like the need for more home care support services (except an oblique reference to working on it), the inequity of the current residential care bed allocation, and the immediate need for more residential care beds than planned. Even if solutions are not readily available, acknowledgment of issues is key to public accountability.

It was not clear that stories about people’s experience at the new Comox Valley Hospital and its state of cleanliness were heard by the board and management. The reaction was defensive, failing to differentiate between ‘unusual and critical’ vs. ‘normal’ issues with a new hospital start-up.

That reaction does not make me feel that the Board and management are in control. I would have expected to hear an acknowledgment that we are experiencing problems and this is what we are doing to resolve them. 

Finally, in terms of public accountability, we must be careful not to attribute responsibilities to Island Health that are the responsibility of the BC Ministry of Health. Financial resources are not infinite, they are limited. But Island Health is accountable for its allocation of entrusted resources, the quality of healthcare service delivery, operational improvements, employee engagement and morale, and community relationships.

The community wants and needs Island Health to be successful on all of these dimensions; after all, these are the services we need in our community. Words on a website and declarations that “we do all those things” are well intended. But, if the board and management do not acknowledge the need for direct action when issues are raised with them, then public accountability claims ring hollow.

Stephen D. Shepherdson, Comox, is a retired management consultant and operations management specialist. He wrote this commentary for Decafnation, and may be contacted at:


Turbidity at Langley Lake?

Turbidity at Langley Lake?

Union Bay residents meet to protect their watershed


Forty-five residents of Union Bay met on Monday evening, March 19, to discuss their concerns about proposed logging on the lake that provides them with drinking water, and to begin to work together on how to address these concerns.

Langley Lake is a small, shallow lake that currently provides drinking water and fire services for over 600 Union Bay residences. Island Timberlands owns the land around the lake and has announced plans to log within 20 meters of the shoreline in 2019.

The evening was the first public meeting of the newly formed Union Bay Watershed Protection Society. The group’s intention is to first, stop logging around Langley Lake, and then to promote provincial legislation that enables all BC communities to protect their watershed. Current provincial legislation does not make this possible.

Residents at the meeting all expressed concern about the likelihood of increased turbidity in their water after the logging. The Union Bay Improvement District (UBID) has just approved plans and financing for a new water treatment facility, but it is not designed to handle the turbidity that could be the result of the logging.

“Surely we can learn from the experience with Comox Lake and the very expensive system that they have to install now. Let’s be pro-active and not let this happen here,” said Yolanda Corrigall.

The meeting learned that UBID’s water quality monitoring shows that after a section of the lakeshore was logged in 2008, turbidity increased and did not settle to pre-logging levels until 2017. Longer-term residents described how their tap water used to be “brown” and that they needed to use in-house filters.

The meeting also heard about the efforts of the residents of Stillwater near Powell River, who went through a long but ultimately successful process of protecting their watershed from logging. This lead to a discussion of what actions Union Bay residents could take, and plans for further actions.

The agenda included 20 minutes for people to take the immediate action of writing letters to elected officials. Hand written letters are still one of the most effective ways to reach our elected representatives.

The meeting started with an acknowledgement that Union Bay has a fractious history and that there are many tensions in the community. Towards the end of the meeting several residents expressed a cautious new hope that working together to protect our water might help heal some of the divisions in the community.

Facilitator David Mills asked the group to work respectfully and to focus on our common concern – safe, clean drinking water.


FURTHER READING: Logging at Langley Lake; Contact the Union Bay Watershed Protection Society at


Alice de Wolff is a Citizen Journalist for The Civic Journalism Project. She may be contacted at


Graduating woman enters the world

Graduating woman enters the world

Isfeld senior influenced by strong women

Editor’s note: Today is International Women’s Day



The person I am is greatly influenced by the women I want to be. The people and places where I’ve seen acts of femininity, strength, controversy, and attitude, have shaped who I’m becoming.

I’d like to say I’ve already done a lot of growing, and that I’m emotionally and mentally developed for a teenager. This is partly because of the impressive amount of purposeful women I’ve surrounded myself with.

Kiley Verbowski, the one who showed me femininity doesn’t belong in a box, allowed me to be less stressed about not having long hair and a petite body. My mother, who has occupied her time with sports into her 50s. My sister, whose intelligence and can-do attitude is something I always aspire. Frida Kahlo, an early feminist who taught me, alongside Dr. Claire, that it’s okay to be a sexual woman, or alternatively, an abstinent one.

But these are other people, not me. So I ask, what have I done to be a strong woman?

As a graduating woman, how do I know I can make it in the real world? I’m far too full of insecurities to dive into the many new things heading my way with any kind of confidence. The lack of courage is at a point where I don’t even feel sure if I can call myself a woman.

I feel too young and unaccomplished to have that status. I relate being a woman to a strong and independent type of person, a person I feel I’m not yet.

And still, these insecurities feel almost natural. Just because I’m young and naive doesn’t mean I’ll be stuck that way for long. Learning will be a full time job after I graduate, and that goes the same for all my classmates, regardless of gender.

I feel excited to surround myself with new women, to learn more about them and myself. Women unlike the homegrown island girls I’ve spent my whole high school career with and feel judged by and whom I judge. I’ll get to grow to be confident in a different way, and feel empowered by my friends.

I can take on my own part of the world and have the stamina to challenge what I disagree with. I will be ready to deal with the unavoidable oversexualization of my body and workplace sexism.

My attitude is positive and realistic. Struggle is inescapable, so all I can do is look forward to bringing a personal touch to everything I do.

Sarah Nuez is a senior at Mark Isfeld High School and a contributor to the Comox Valley CivicJournalism Project. She may be reached at


FURTHER READING: The importance of strong women; Beyond #MeToo, with pride, protests and pressure


Water bottling project raises aquifer concerns

Water bottling project raises aquifer concerns

This article has been updated to include a statement from NDP MLA Ronna-Rae Leonard.


There’s a new water controversy bubbling up in the Comox Valley, and once again the province has dumped another problem on local elected officials.

The B.C. government has approved a controversial groundwater licence for a water extraction and bottling operation on a two hectare property on Sackville Road in the Merville area. They did it despite a strong objection from the Comox Valley Regional District and without public consultation or regard for community concerns.

“The province does this all the time,” said Area B Director Rod Nichol. “We have to clean up the mess and look like the bad guys.”

Nichol compared the water extraction issue to the recent Raven Coal Mine battle and myriad less high-profile issues, such as highway development.

About 200 people attended the CVRD’s Electoral Areas Services Committee meeting Monday (March 5) to protest and urge the CVRD to deny the water extraction applicants a necessary zoning change. The property is current zoned rural residential and would need to be zoned light industrial.



Instead, the committee unanimously endorsed a staff recommendation to refer the rezoning application to various agencies, CVRD committees and K’omoks First Nations. The intent is to build a baseline of data about the source of water (aquifer 408) and how a water bottling operation might impact agriculture and other existing users and potential long-term effects on the surrounding watershed.

NDP MLA Ronna-Rae Leonard emailed this statement to Decafnation:

“I can understand the concerns of Merville residents, as water is a precious resource for any community. My understanding is the ministry performed a detailed technical review of the proposal and noted no concerns about aquifer capacity. I’ve also been reassured that existing well users would get priority in a drought. The project still needs CVRD zoning approval though, and as the local MLA I will be monitoring the situation closely.”

The applicants

Christopher Scott MacKenzie told the committee that he originally drilled a well for domestic purposes. But after his wife, Regula Heynck, insisted on testing and discovering the water had high pH levels (alkaline), the couple envisioned a viable family business.

MacKenzie claimed the alkaline water has health benefits and is “something the community needs … it’s really unique”

A protester disrupted MacKenzie with concerns about how neighbors’ drinking supplies might go dry. He replied that dry wells would be “hit and miss,” and that people “would just have to understand it.”


FURTHER READING: Alkaline water: beneficial or bogus?; Quackwatch


MacKenzie and Heynck have recently moved to the Valley from Ringenberg, Germany, and took out a building permit to locate a $14,613 mobile home on the property.

MacKenzie is the son of the late Keith MacKenzie, who served as president of the Courtenay Fish and Game Club after retiring as carpentry foreman from Candian Forces Base, Comox. His tours of duty included a stop in Germany.

The core issue

The province has already approved a groundwater licence that enables MacKenzie/Heynck to extract 10,000 litres per day or 3.65 million litres per year. But the CVRD must approve a rezoning application to permit “water and beverage bottling” as a principal use on the property.

Alana Mullaly, the CVRD manager of planning services, said the province has jurisdiction on what happens below grade. The CVRD has jurisdiction over what can happen above grade.

She said denying the rezoning application would not cancel the provincial groundwater license.

Without a zoning change, MacKenzie/Heynck cannot conduct water bottling operations as the principal use of the property.

But it’s unclear whether a denial of the rezoning application would mean only that they could not construct a bottling facility on the property or that they could not operate a commercial enterprise from the property even without a physical structure.

The CVRD opposed the water extraction application made to Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development (FLNRORD) on the basis that it was inconsistent with the Rural Comox Valley Official Community Plan Bylaw No. 337, 2014, and the zoning bylaw.

There are environmentally sensitive areas surrounding the property, including many farms and Agricultural Land Reserve areas that rely on groundwater.

Area C Director Edwin Grieve warned that aquifers eventually get pumped down and he wondered what effect that would have on the water supply for nearby farms. He noted that climate changes have caused Portuguese Creek to dry up in the summer.

Grieve said the applicant deserved due process and that the gathering of more information is important.

But Grieve also said earlier that “we could save the applicant a lot of time and money and deny it now.”

What’s next

CVRD staff will refer the rezoning application to a number of agencies, First Nations and its own relevant committees. Not date was set for staff to report to the CVRD board.

If the application passes through the Area C Advisory Planning Commission, then the CVRD would hold public hearings.

In the meantime, people can express their views on the proposal to Tanya Dunlop, senior authorizations technologist, at


Valley farmers discuss ALR

Valley farmers discuss ALR

Mid Island Farmers Institute leading the way

By Chris Hilliar

Despite a rainy blustery night, 35 farmers and interested folk showed up at the Merville Hall on Jan. 17 to discuss how the provincial Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) and Commission (ALC) could be revitalized.

And discuss they did – for a full two hours. Problems and solutions were duly recorded and will form part of a submission to provincial Minister of Agriculture Lana Popham.

The Mid Island Farmers Institute hosted the meeting with President Arzeena Hamir facilitating. Arzeena is co-owner of the local Amara Farm. She has a Masters Degree in Sustainable Agriculture from the University of London, England, and was recently appointed by the province to sit on a nine-member independent committee tasked with revitalizing the ALR and ALC.

“The assumption,” she pointed out, “is that the ALR system is broken.”

Little wonder, the ALR is now 45 years old, its legislation has been adulterated and watered down by special interests over the course of 10 successive governments.

The ALR was originally created by the Dave Barrett NDP government in 1973 when the province was losing prime agricultural land at the alarming rate of 6,000 hectares per year. The ALR enjoyed high public support with a survey in 1997 showing that 80 percent of British Columbians considered it unacceptable to remove land from the ALR.


FURTHER READING: B.C. Public Attitudes Survey, 2014; Share your ideas with the Ministry of Agriculture


Fast-forward to 2014 and a B.C. public attitudes survey revealed that 44 percent of British Columbians had heard little or nothing about the ALR.

But, attendees at the Farmers Institute meeting had clearly heard about the ALR and were quite aware of its benefits and shortcomings.

The designation of farmland into the Agricultural Land Reserve is contentious as some potentially excellent farmland is currently left out of the ALR and some poor quality land is currently held within the ALR.

Some expressed concern about non-agricultural uses of ALR land and the commission itself also came under fire for lack of enforcement, lack of transparency and political interference in its decision-making.

It also became apparent that the economics of farming are not easy on Vancouver Island.

Transportation, both on and off the Island is costly and the loss of the Island railway has affected farm prices and delivery. The small farmer with fixed costs faces an uphill battle against the big food corporations who can discount transportation costs with the result that imported food is often cheaper than locally grown food.

Housing for farm workers is also a problem both here and elsewhere in the province.

The high price of land is preventing young people from starting to farm and exacerbates the problem of succession planning for older farmers.

Some expressed concern that the purchase of land by marijuana growers will drive up land prices and food farmers will not be able to compete.

An added complication is how the province designates land as farmland, which has implications for taxation. Some felt that agri-tourism should not be allowed to be 100 percent of farm income to achieve farm status.

And, to no surprise, some suggested the recent government approval of the Site C Dam on the Peace River would set a precedent for the B.C. government to not protect farmland.

But it wasn’t just problems that were raised at the Merville meeting, there were lots of solutions too.
Someone suggested that the province should buy large farms that come on the market and then lease parcels out to young prospective farmers. They also suggested a Farmers’ Co-op could be established to provide low-interest funding for farming and that the province could help offset costs associated with the Water Act.

Insurance companies need to start recognizing the replacement value of farm buildings not just the assessed value and some felt there should be rewards and incentives for organic certification.

The crowd was also reminded that we could learn from other cultures. Many European countries have a very different style of land use where everyone, including farmers, lives in small villages surrounded by extensive open farmland with no domestic dwellings consuming large amounts of valuable food growing area — surely a stark contrast to the monster homes we sometimes see sitting on prime farmland in BC.

The Mid Island Farmers Institute has just started to compose their submission to send to the Provincial ALR committee.
If you have a comment that you would like to make to the Mid Island Farmers’ Institute you can contact them at:

Chris Hilliar is a Citizen Journalist for The Civic Journalism Project. He may be contacted at


With PR, everyone has a voice

With PR, everyone has a voice

Former Valley resident shares her NZ experience

Editor’s note: Katie Betanzo was raised in the Comox Valley and New Zealand. She’s a former editor of The Breezeway, the now defunct award-winning student newspaper at G.P. Vanier High School. Betanzo moved to New Zealand in 2001 and now teaches media studies and English in Auckland. She’s agreed to write a series of articles over the next year about how proportional representative government works in her adopted country. This is the first of those articles.



It’s been a long time since I took Politics 101. It was 1996, the year of the first MMP (mixed member proportional) election in New Zealand.

And while I have banished much of the content of those university lectures to the attic of my mind, I remember one story clearly: that of Sir Bob Jones and the 1984 New Zealand national election.

Jones, a business tycoon, wanted to bring down the right-wing government. But instead of throwing his weight behind the major left-wing party, he founded an ultra-right-wing party that won 12 percent of the votes and no seats.

But he succeed in splitting the right-wing vote. That helped the left-wing Labour party form a government with just 42 percent of the vote, and 59 percent of the seats.

This was possible because of the rules of the first-past-the-post electoral system (FPP).

Jones was not left-wing — far from it, in fact. But he could not abide the ultra-protectionist policies of the right-wing Muldoon government. By openly supporting the left-wing Labour Party, whose neo-liberal economic policy was right up Jones’ alley, Jones would have gained little.

Before New Zealand’s electoral reform and conversion to proportional representation, minority parties gained as high as 20 percent of the vote, but won only one or two seats. These MPs languished on the back benches of the opposition, effectively powerless, and the voices of the people who voted for them reduced to inconsequential protest votes.

Fast forward 33 years. In the general election of September 2017, the National Party won 44 percent of the vote, but could not form a government.

This is a good thing made possible by New Zealand’s electoral reform.

Effectively, 55 percent of the population voted for a center-left or left-wing party. Opinions differed about just how left we were willing to go, but that’s reflected in the wide choice of parties and policies. We now have a center-left coalition government, and in the spirit of compromise, we will please some of the people some of the time.

CBC, Wikipedia and Facebook tell me that British Columbia has a minority NDP government. We Kiwis are not strangers to that concept, although coalitions between like-minded parties are more common than minority governments.

The thing is, though, under a proportional system, there would have been no question of Clark forming a government. The Liberals and NDP would each have had 35 seats, and the Greens with 15 would hold the balance of power. (The remaining two seats would either have gone to the largest of the minor parties, or been split between Liberals and NDP — MMP is a tricky beast.)

In a later column I plan to talk about the pros and cons of different types of proportional representation, from my obviously biased perspective. However, it’s worth facing one criticism head on: uncertainty.

In an FPP system, forming a government is pretty straightforward. The party with the most seats is in charge. Under MMP, any group of parties able to command the majority of votes can form a coalition government.

For most elections, this is straightforward: many smaller parties go into the election campaign having already declared which of the major parties they are willing to work with. However, in the event that an undeclared centrist party holds the balance of power, negotiations can take a while.

Case in point: our most recent election. Election Day was Sept. 23. The government wasn’t formed until Oct. 19. There were plenty of disgruntled people following the formation of the government, as I imagine there were in BC following the last election.

There’s a brilliant explanation of our election result here. It involves a group of politicians trying to buy a pie (we are Kiwis, after all). By applying the analogy to BC, it’s very simple to see that Clark would not have been able to “buy the pie” with her share of the seats; the Liberals and NDP would both have courted the Greens.

Still, in the eight elections since MMP was introduced in New Zealand, this sort of protracted wrangling has happened only twice. Situation normal is to cast your vote knowing you are supporting a coalition that will be headed by a major party on the left or right. The Greens will only ever form a coalition with Labour; the Act party (far-right neo-liberals) can’t abide Labour. Pretty simple.

In 1993, the final FPP election here, only 31.5 percent of votes cast were for the National Party, which formed the government with 50 percent of the seats. Eighteen percent of the votes went to the left-wing Alliance party, which gained only 2 percent of the seats.

Since 2002, all governments have been coalitions commanding 50 percent or greater of the seats in the house, as well as 50 percent or greater of the popular vote.

As rule by the people, for the people goes, I think we’re on the right track.

Further reading: The road to MMP; from the website, New Zealand History


Page 3 of 512345