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 maneuvers in municipal governments when they are discussed and explained in open meetings.
But it appears that the Courtenay City Council discussed 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.
If Cumberland voters approve up to $4.4 million in borrowing to bring the village’s treatment plant up to provincial standards, it will help to acquire grants and free up funds for a new fire hall
Cumberland voters have an extra and important box to check on their municipal ballots this year. Besides picking a mayor and four councillors, residents will decide if the village can borrow money to upgrade its wastewater treatment plant.
This doesn’t seem like a controversial topic, one that might be expected to get an overwhelming “yes” vote from all but the grumpiest taxpayers.
Consider the benefits:
— An upgraded plant would discharge clean water into Maple Lake Creek and ultimately the Trent River.
— The village’s plan is affordable, less than half as expensive as the previous South Sewer Project proposed by the Comox Valley Regional District.
— The project is scaled for two decades of population growth and designed to meet increased Ministry of Environment standards.
— And, the most compelling argument of all, the village has to do the upgrades regardless of Saturday’s vote. Their wastewater treatment has been out of compliance with provincial standards for more than a decade. If Cumberland doesn’t act soon, it could face million dollar fines on top of the inevitable costs to upgrade.
But the project did become controversial this summer when a group of residents opposed the plan and defeated the village’s Alternate Approval Process, which would have achieved consensus without a referendum on the ballot.
REFERENDUM: Are you in favour of “Wastewater Upgrade Project Loan Authorization Bylaw, No. 1084, 2018” to authorize the Village of Cumberland to borrow up to $4,400,000, including interest, over a period not exceeding 20 years in order to finance the construction of an upgraded lagoon wastewater treatment plant? YES or NO
The opposed residents were supporters of the village’s Fire Department and its quest for a new fire hall. They feared that project would get lost if they supported borrowing for the wastewater plant upgrade.
According to Cumberland Councillor Jesse Ketler those differences have been resolved and she hopes the referendum will pass comfortably on Saturday.
Ketler told Decafnation that a decisive showing of public support in the referendum vote actually makes it more likely the village can obtain grants and other external funding for the upgrades. That would reduce the amount the village had to borrow, and in turn make more funds available for a new fire hall.
The village hopes to pay for the $9 million wastewater project with 73 percent of the funding from grants. The other 27 percent would come from the development cost charges (DCC) the village has accumulated and only $1.2 million from borrowing.
Ketler said it would be a win-win-win for the fire hall, the wastewater treatment plant and the environment if the referendum passes.
Cumberland currently uses lagoon aeration and settling to treat its sewage. The non-disinfected effluent is discharged into Maple Lake Creek, the Trent River and ultimately into Baynes Sound.
The proposed upgrade expands the lagoon aeration capacity, removes phosphorus, uses a “fish friendly” disinfectant and then “polishes” treated water to remove organic contaminants such as pharmaceuticals.
Village staff has estimated a total cost (capital construction and 20-year operating costs) to taxpayers of between $310 per property per year to $49 per property per year. The high figure assumes no grant funding, which Ketler says is unlikely.
The BC Ministry of the Environment sent enforcement notices in 2017 and again in 2018 warning Cumberland that it’s out of compliance with provincial regulations and faces possibly large fines.
“We need to develop an environmentally-sustainable method of treating the liquid waster,” said Mayor Leslie Baird. “This solution is the result of nearly two years of planning by community volunteers, technical experts and agencies and moving it forward will address a significant issue in our community’s infrastructure.”
16 candidates for six Courtenay City Council seats answered questions from the Comox Valley Chamber of Commerce last night in front of a full house at the Sid Williams Theatre. Taxes and amalgamation were the hot topics
It took more than an hour, but the candidates for six seats on the Courtenay City Council finally got down to the two nitty-gritty issues that have defined the 2018 municipal election: taxes and amalgamation.
After the candidates gave their opening statements, they were asked to describe their best attribute, how they prepared themselves to sit on City Council and how they would handle dealing with different points of view once elected.
Then came the real questions.
The candidates were asked how they would strike a balance between revenue and services.
Eight of the 16 candidates responded that Courtenay taxes were too high and that city spending was out of control. The other half either defended the city or took no strong position on the issue.
FURTHER READING: Go to the Elections 2018 page
Brennan Day came out swinging with the harshest criticisms of the incumbent council, and tried hard to position himself as the hard liner on financial issues, promising to “take a hard stand on hard issues.”
He said lowering taxes didn’t have to mean cuts in services. It meant doing things more efficiently.
“We’ve got a $130,000 horticulturalist and $90,000 gardeners,” he said
Day said from watching hundreds of hours of council meetings online, he’s noticed “scope creep” at council. He said the current council wasn’t “focused on bottom line issues.”
Day also said council “meetings put you to sleep.”
Incumbent Doug Hillian said everyone would love for their taxes to never go up. But Courtenay shares the bulk of Comox Valley policing costs, he said. And the alternative to having sufficient staff to run the city is to contract those jobs out to the private sector.
“Then watch the user fees go up,” he said, noting this was the experience in communities that have gone that route.
Murray Presley said the last five years of tax increases were higher than the cost of living. He suggested there other ways of providing services that were more cost-effective, but he didn’t mention them.
Melanie McCollum said municipalities by law have to balance their budgets, and reducing taxes would mean cutting services.
McCollum has compared the average Courtenay taxes per household with Campbell River and Nanaimo and found the city is “on par” with those municipalities. And, she said Courtenay’s budget seems in line with inflationary trends.
Tom Grant said Courtenay does not have a balanced budget. He said it has huge surpluses of $5 million, and paid for last year’s hiring of 17 staff from those surpluses and reserves.
“People are paying taxes for services that they’re not getting,” he said.
David Frisch said it wasn’t true that the council used reserves to pay for staff. And he defended city spending because Courtenay has an “infrastructure deficit.”
“The core of the town is old, such as water and sewer,” he said. “We’re fixing things.”
Deana Simpkin said the tax rate was not sustainable, and that she believed it was possible to streamline expenses and keep the city running smoothly. That was a sentiment repeated by Judi Murakami, Penny Marlow, Jin Lin and Mano Theos.
Theos said small business are paying three times the tax rate of “regular residents,” and warned that trend would lead to job losses.
Will Cole-Hamilton said he would take a long-term view, and lower taxes by curtailing urban sprawl with infill and densifying the city core. Sprawl forces the city to invest in expensive infrastructure that negates the additional tax revenue it gains.
“With densification, we get all the tax revenue with little expense,” he said.
Candidates were then asked if voters said “yes” to the non-binding opinion question on the 2018 ballot, would they implement the findings of a governance study suggested in the question.
The ballot questions reads: OPINION QUESTION (non-binding): Are you in favour of conducting a study, in partnership with the Province of BC, to review the governance structures and policies of the City of Courtenay and other local governments within the Comox Valley to consider the feasibility and implications of restructure? YES or NO
All the candidates said they would do the study if voters asked them to, but few thought it should take a high priority.
McCollum said the question was difficult to answer because the study hasn’t been done and the outcome isn’t known. Additionally, she pointed out that Comox and Cumberland are not participating by asking their voters the question, nor would they probably participate in any future study.
Doug Hillian said the province was unlikely to undertake the study without participation from Comox or Cumberland. He suggested Comox might change its mind, however, when their population hits 15,000, classifying them as a city instead of a town, and forcing them “to pay their fair share of policing costs.”
Presley said he has advocated since 1996 for amalgamation, so he was in favor of doing the study to get the facts.
Cole-Hamilton said a study might not lead to major projects, but it might point to smaller efficiencies. He said Courtenay could “be the leaders in the Comox Valley” for better planning among the different jurisdictions.
Starr Winchester agreed that “baby steps” could be taken with provincial assistance, and that a governance restructure is needed.
The highlight of the night might have come during Kiyoshi Kosky’s wrap-up speech when he referred to himself as a “delicious apple” that should appeal to voters.
The event was hosted by the Comox Valley Chamber of Commerce.
It’s just three days before the majority of voters will choose Comox Valley mayors, councils and school trustees, and the silly season is in full swing. Here’s what’s going on …
This story was updated at 7.30 am Oct. 16
Many voters have already cast their ballots for mayors, council members, rural area directors and school district trustees, and advance voting for the Oct. 20 election continues tomorrow, Oct. 17, at various locations.
Meanwhile, here’s some of what’s been going on in the various campaigns.
— People in Courtenay have reported receiving robocalls from the pro-life organization, Campaign Life Coalition, urging support for incumbent Mayor Larry Jangula, who recently participated in an anti-abortion rally.
Jangula told mycomoxvalleynow.com reporter James Wood that the mayor’s pro-life beliefs shouldn’t be an issue in a municipal election. But Jangula also said his beliefs influenced the decisions he makes as an elected official. “Of course they do,” he told Wood.
FURTHER READING: Decafnation’s recommendations for mayors and councils
— The BC Conservative Party appears to have gotten involved in local government elections this year. Two Courtenay residents have reported to Decafnation that they received calls urging voters to support just three candidates: Tom Grant, Murray Presley and Brennan Day.
Decafnation contacted Dick Clancy, a Conservative Party campaign manager and the face of the Comox Valley Taxpayers Association, who was on his way to Alberta. Clancy said the CVTA wasn’t behind the calls and had no knowledge of whether the Conservative Party was making them. He called the reports of calls, “Weird, that’s a new one on me.”
— At the Comox all-candidates meeting Oct. 12, sitting council members Maureen Swift and Russ Arnott, who’s running for mayor this year, tried to punt Comox air quality issues to the Comox Valley Regional District. Asked about banning wood stoves, Swift said the issue was best handled at the regional level.
Swift and Arnott said Comox banned backyard burning 10 years ago, but the CVRD issues 400-500 burning permits a year, suggesting that Area B residents might be a bigger cause of the town’s air quality issues.
But back in 2008, Arnott lead a protest of several hundred people in favor of allowing fires at the CVRD’s Goose Spit regional park, which resides in Area B. The CVRD had proposed banning fires at the park completely. With Arnott’s leadership on the issue, fires are still allowed at the park in specified locations and only with wood supplied by the CVRD parks department.
— Courtenay mayoral candidate Bob Wells has reported that someone supporting Larry Jangula is knocking on doors in East Courtenay telling people that Wells has dropped out of the race. Jangula has denied any involvement.
— Terrance Purden has, in fact, dropped out of the Area C school board trustee race, but it’s too late to take his name off the ballot. Purden has said he’ll resign the office if he’s elected. Purden had taken a position against the province’s curriculum on sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI).
— Somebody has vandalized Courtenay council candidate Judi Murakami’s campaign signs. Many of her signs have been reversed and the blank backside covered with the message, “Vote for Jesus, we need a miracle.” It’s not funny to Murakami who paid for the signs to benefit her bid for a council seat.
— Cumberland mayoral candidate Eduardo Uranga has challenged incumbent mayor Leslie Baird to a one-on-one debate, an offer Baird is not likely to accept. Nor should she. Uranga personally attacked Baird in the recent Cumberland all-candidates meeting — some people have suggested it was bullying — which may have further lessened his slim chance of unseating the popular 28-year veteran of public service.
— There’s a rumour going around on social media that Bob Wells and I are related. It’s not true, at least as far as I can determine. Wells took his wife’s family name; it used to be Le Masurier. He changed it, I guess, because he got tired of spelling it and pronouncing it 20 times a day. I can relate to that. But when I moved back to the Valley in 2015, Wells told me he thought we might be related. I had never heard of him before that day, so I checked with my sister, who is the genealogist in our family. She could find no intersection between the two Le Masurier families.
Most new candidates for six town of Comox council seats would do more to require that developments include an affordable housing component, while sitting council members say affordability is being addressed with a 90-unit building on Anderton
During an all-candidates meeting last Friday, Comox council and mayor candidates separated themselves on two key issues: affordable housing and how the town should manage growth.
About 400 people jammed a Comox Recreation Centre meeting room Oct. 12 to hear the candidates answer questions that included amalgamation (mostly opposed), air quality (mostly for it) and preserving heritage (incumbents steered clear of Mack Laing, newcomers did not).
After all the candidates reaffirmed that they love the Town of Comox, they quickly disagreed on how the town is addressing its affordable housing crisis.
FURTHER READING: Go to the Decafnation Elections 2018 page, and got here to read our recommendations
Asked how Comox should address affording housing, sitting council members Russ Arnott (running for mayor this time), Maureen Swift and Ken Grant said the 90-unit apartment building going up on Anderton Avenue was addressing the town’s housing issues.
But all the challengers said the council could and should do more to ensure developments include a mix of housing types and price ranges.
Alex Bissinger argued for more multi-family units. Don Davis lamented the mall owners didn’t convert its top floor into apartments. Stephanie McGowan reminded voters that 40 percent of Comox residents spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing and 20 percent spend more than 50 percent.
Patrick McKenna said council should encourage developers to build lower-priced units with “affordability” covenants. Nicole Minions would press for more townhouses and collaborations with developers for affordable units and partnerships with organizations like Habitat for Humanity.
Mayor candidate Tom Diamond said it takes five months in Comox to get a permit for secondary suite. He said that’s too long. And he said the town should take a longer-term housing view in its Official Community Plan review next year.
Asked how the town should deal with growth, several candidates turned the discussion back to housing issues.
McKenna said he liked how the town was handling growth, but added, “What I don’t like,” he said, is that 90 units are being built with no covenant for affordable housing. “Nobody asked. Affordability has to be top of mind of staff and council.”
Nicole Minions said housing prices have grown by 40 percent recently, and council hasn’t done enough to collaborate or fast track multi-family units. Don Davis should the town should consider building up and remove its height restrictions.
Mayor candidate Diamond said some developers have abandoned Comox for other communities that have less red tape delays. Arnott said the town requires 10 percent of a development’s value in land or cash, but didn’t say how the town should use this housing reserve.
Asked about preserving heritage, McGowan said the town has lost many heritage sites and would like the new council to find an alternative to the court application to demolish Shakesides, naturalist Mack Laing’s heritage home.
Minions agreed, saying the council could do a second look on Mack Laing and find a win-win. “These (Mack Laing Heritage Society) are good people trying to do what they think is right,” she said.
Bissinger said there was an “amazing opportunity” with the Mack Laing property, while Davis pointed to other Valley communities, like Cumberland (Jumbo’s Cabin) that have preserved historical buildings. Chris Haslett said a fresh set of eyes with new council members might find a reasonable solution.
Incumbent Swift said she was proud the current council has addressed the issues after 36 years. Incumbent Grant didn’t address the Laing issue, and talked about a heritage designation into the town’s zoning bylaws.
Mayor candidate Arnott said the town has protected the Filberg property and tried to save the historical house near the Comox Golf Course that was torn down for a condo development. Arnott said the builder will use some of the old building’s material and called that a “win-win.”
Mayor hopeful Diamond said Hamilton Mack Laing should be celebrated, and that his trusts with the town were an opportunity for pride in the community. “It’s a fantastic opportunity to put Comox on the map,” he said.