Who wields the real power: staff or elected officials?

Who wields the real power: staff or elected officials?

PHOTO: The Edmonton organics processing program is the largest in North America.

 

Who do you think makes the important decisions that affect our communities?

It’s natural to answer, “Our elected officials.” That’s who we hold accountable for our government’s performance. But all too often elected officials haven’t read or can’t understand technical information presented to them by staff or independent consultants, and so they simply acquiesce to recommendations put before them. 

And that puts staff in charge.

This natural tension erupted at the Comox Strathcona Waste Management (CSWM) board last week, creating a showdown over where to build the new organics composting facility.

During a routine process to award the contract for engineering services, board member Marg Grant, representing Comox Council, triggered a debate that angered many directors. She asked if there would be one or two composting facilities.

Comox Valley Regional District Senior Engineer Mark Rutten answered that the CSWM’s advisory committee wants to explore all options for siting the facility, including Pigeon Lake or having two facilities.

“It’s worth reviewing,” he said.

The advisory committee consists of one staff member from the municipalities of Comox, Courtenay, Campbell River, Tahsis, Gold River, Sayward and seven staff members from the CVRD.

Rutten’s remarks set off a firestorm of angry comments from elected officials on the board, which has previously debated the issue and decided to build the organics facility in Campbell River.

Upset directors, such as Larry Samson, of Campbell River, accused staff of attempting to subvert the board’s decision.

Larry Samson
CR Councillor

“We’ve already debated this. Staff doesn’t like the answer, but we’ve already hashed this out,” he said.

Comox Valley Area B representative Ron Nichol said, “This is the first I’ve heard of two facilities. We debated this for over a year.”

Charlie Cornfield, of Campbell River, suggested staff was trying to change the Terms of Reference for the consulting contract without board approval. He was alarmed that no communication had come back to the Campbell River council about reconsidering the facility’s location.

The board amended the motion to award the contract to specify the Campbell River location. They were, in other words, admonishing Rutten for suggesting the advisory committee could disregard a board position.

The incident exposes the potential for staff to subtly direct projects by only feeding elected officials the information they think will get them the results they want.

Marg Grant
Comox Councillor

Marg Grant, of Comox, cast the lone vote against the amended motion.

“The Town of Comox Council’s position has always been: the entire region would be better served with two small compost facilities vs. one large facility in Campbell River,” she said via email.

Grant said the organics pilot project at Pigeon Lake has proved successful, it has existing infrastructure, it’s compatible with the site and staff have already been trained.

She also questioned the costs of backhauling organics to Campbell River, which Comox town staff raised in the advisory committee.

According to the minutes of the March 30, 2017, advisory committee meeting, “Town of Comox staff expressed concern regarding potential higher tipping fees associated with this project if hosted in Campbell River rather than the Comox Valley.”

But the other directors said it’s unlikely a Campbell River location for organics would increase garbage dumping fees. Campbell River, like every other north Island community, will truck their municipal waste to the Comox Valley, and the Comox Valley will send it’s organics back to Campbell River on what would otherwise be an empty truck.

This furor over siting the organics facility highlights the delicate relationship between the CSWM board and its staff advisory committee.

Directors also expressed concerns that the advisory committee receives reports before the board gets them, including in-camera reports, and that staff recommendations appear to give more weight to the advisory board’s suggestions than the views of elected board members.

Erik Eriksson announces bid for mayor of Courtenay

Erik Eriksson announces bid for mayor of Courtenay

The 2018 municipal election campaign got a jump start this week when Courtenay Councillor Erik Eriksson told Decafnation that he’s running for mayor.

Eriksson is the first Comox Valley candidate to formally announce his campaign.

While most incumbents and potential newcomers are still mulling the pros and cons of committing to a four-year term that won’t end until 2023, Eriksson said he couldn’t wait to start building support.

Eriksson said it wasn’t his intention to contest incumbent Mayor Larry Jangula for the mayor’s chair, but he also couldn’t wait for Jangula to finally decide if he’s retiring or seeking another term. Jangula has hinted at stepping down next year.

“I just had to get my campaign started,” Eriksson said. “It takes time to put together a successful support team for the mayor’s office.”

Voters go to the polls on Oct. 20 next year. The official nomination period for candidates begins on Sept. 3, 2018 and runs for 10 days.

Eriksson, who begins his sixth year on Courtenay City Council in 2018, is running on a simple platform: building partnerships.

He believes people who live in the region’s three municipalities and three unincorporated regional districts have common goals, and that by working together they can be more effective.

Eriksson isn’t using the “A-word” (amalgamation) because that’s a long and complicated process, which Valley voters have rejected in the past. But he believes there’s ample space for municipalities, the regional district, K’omoks First Nation and CFB Comox to share more services.

It’s one of his best skills, he believes, to resolve problems by helping people to find a common purpose.

“It’s amazing how effective you can be if you just talk … and discover that common ground,” he said.

Eriksson points to his support for the Committee to End Homelessness, the Community Health Network, the Food Bank and the Courtenay Youth Music Centre  as examples.

If elected, Eriksson would apply those skills to bring the council together.

And he’s motivated by a single purpose, “to make things better for people who don’t have it so good,” he said.

Some candidates like to work on building campaigns privately, and announce at the last minute. But Eriksson didn’t hesitate to publicly announce his candidacy early.

“It’s going to take time to show voters all the ways we can work better through partnerships. I want to use the credibility I’ve built to champion this cause,” he said.

 

The story behind recent Comox union negotiations

The story behind recent Comox union negotiations

In a press release published by the Comox Valley Record recently, Comox Mayor Paul Ives put a positive spin on the town’s new five-year collective agreement. But there’s much more to this story.

It is good news, of course, that the town finally reached an agreement, considering that the last contract expired in March 2016, about a year-and-a-half ago. But why it took so long hints at the unreported backstory.

What Ives and the rest of the Comox Council don’t want you to know is that they tried to crack their public employees union with a two-tiered wage proposal.

Ives didn’t mention that the union staged multiple flash mobs waving signs of discontent around the Comox Valley, or their overwhelming strike vote, or the reason for such unrest by good, hard-working people.

According to several sources with inside knowledge of the negotiations between the Town of Comox and CUPE local 556, which represents municipal employees throughout the Comox Valley, the town hired an out-of-town negotiator who pressed a proposal that would have divided employees.

The town proposed that all new hires in certain categories would be compensated according to a different, and lower, wage structure. For example, when the town hired new custodians and gardeners, they would have worked under a separate compensation agreement, and the town would have paid them less.

That idea didn’t sit well with the town’s working people.

During the negotiations, Comox employees staged many flash mobs around the Comox Valley, waving signs that urged support for protecting the livelihood of future town employees.

So, after 80 percent of the town’s employees voted unanimously to strike, the town withdrew its proposal, terminated its hired-gun negotiator and a contract agreement was reached.

Surprise! All the employees wanted was a fair deal.

Did Mayor Ives and council members want to break the union? That is a logical interpretation of its proposed two-tiered wage structure. The purpose of the proposal is clear: At some point in the future, as existing workers on the current pay grid retired or moved on to other jobs, the town would employ only these lower-paid workers.

What other explanation is there? I suppose is it also possible that the Town of Comox’s finances are in such bad shape that they have to reduce expenses by squeezing their working-class employees.

But it wouldn’t seem so, considering the town just spent nearly $2 million on a twin-sail-roof building, and other upgrades at Marina Park, without knowing exactly how it will be used. The town is only now holding meetings to figure that out.

And that dollar figure doesn’t include the new children’s splash park, which is a nice addition.

Mayor Ives refused to comment for this story, except to say that all my “facts are as usual wrong,” but he declined an opportunity to specify and correct the errant facts to which he referred.

 

Here’s a novel idea: politicians working together

Here’s a novel idea: politicians working together

I’m amused and somewhat disappointed at all the hand-wringing about the imminent British Columbia minority government.

Since the May 9 election that gave no single party a majority of seats in the B.C. Legislature, political pundits, former elected officials and newspaper editorials have quickly pointed out that recent minority governments have failed to last.

That’s historically true. The last B.C. minority government to last more than a year was a Liberal government that lasted 1,406 days, or 3.85 years, back in 1924-1928.

But the argument that every minority government will fail relies on a modern phenomena: minority governments require too much compromise and negotiation.

Too much compromise and negotiation?

Are British Columbians so used to absolutely NO compromise and negotiation from dictatorial majority provincial governments that the idea our MLAs might have to talk seriously with each other is abhorrent?

Don’t you find the notion slightly insulting that Canadian elected officials cannot cooperate and collaborate for the common good?

A recent Globe and Mail editorial said, “… it requires a leap of quasi-religious faith to believe that this (NDP and Green Party) coalition can hold for anything close to four years … It also means parties having to compromise with their partners.”

As if that’s something Canadians can’t or won’t do. Why not?

Where did this notion come from that says every piece of legislation proposed in the B.C. Legislature must pass? And if one doesn’t, then convention dictates that the government must resign and British Columbians must go back to the polls and elect a government that can do whatever it wants.

It’s a convention that perpetuates block voting and absolute loyalty to party leadership. But it discourages honest debate and the ability to amend and improve legislation. A poorly written bill should fail.

Fortunately, the current iteration of a B.C. minority government includes the Green Party, which allows its members to vote their conscience. This introduces the possibility that not every NDP proposal will pass and that the Legislature can continue without calling another election. It also suggests that MLAs might have to collaborate to make policy.
This type of collaborative government works well in other stable and leading countries — like Germany and New Zealand — and made the norm by the electoral system of proportional representation.

If the NDP and Greens can show British Columbians that our elected officials are capable of working together for good governance, despite their disagreements, then we will all benefit.

 

Courtenay-Comox: It’s still a swing riding

Courtenay-Comox: It’s still a swing riding

The newly reconfigured Courtenay-Comox riding dispensed a few surprises for the political experts this year. The biggest one: it’s still a swing riding.

With control of the B.C. Legislature hanging on the outcome of a recount and some 2,000 absentee ballots, the riding unexpectedly became this election’s center of attention. It wasn’t supposed to be so close.

When the B.C. Electoral Boundaries Commission split Cumberland from the Comox Valley, and moved this traditionally strong NDP community into a new mid-Island constituency, the change should have favored the Liberals. Add in growing Comox Valley support for the Green Party, which naturally siphons most of its votes from the NDP, and the stage was set for a third consecutive Liberal victory.

The fact that the NDP won the new riding by a slim 189-vote margin for Ronna-Rae Leonard triggers some interesting observations about Courtenay-Comox voters, as well as the mood of the province.

The vote was clearly a rebuke of Christy Clark. When a province’s economy leads the nation, records Canada’s lowest unemployment rates and balances its budget, the incumbent government should expect to retain a majority.

Instead, voters revolted against Clark’s arrogant attitude, her vendetta against teachers and the ravaging of public school funding, her too-cozy relationship with corporations and her terrible decisions for British Columbia’s environment regarding LNG plants, dams that only benefit Albertans and inviting an armada of oil tankers in the Salish Sea.

All of these issues must have resonated with the 16,000-plus Courtenay-Comox voters who cast ballots for the NDP and Green parties.

On the flip side, the strong military support for the Liberal candidate, Jim Benninger, a former commanding officer of CFB Comox, didn’t materialize.

Political pundits predicted that the absentee ballots would comprise mostly military personnel and that they would lean Liberal. Didn’t happen. The absentee ballots actually broke in favor of the NDP.

Was Benninger just not a good candidate, or do individuals in the armed forces share the majority’s growing concerns for the environment and of inappropriate corporate influence and access to Liberal cabinet ministers? The latter seems more likely.

And let’s not forget that this is still a swing riding. Of the 24 elections since 1933 — including this one — the NDP/CCF have won 11, the Liberal/Social Credit/Conservatives have won 13. (Herbert Welch, running for a Liberal-Conservative coalition, won two elections and served from 1945 to 1952.)

The popular vote in this riding has always been close. Except for the 2001 election when Stan Hagen rode the wave of support for a new Liberal/Social Credit coalition, no candidate has won a majority of the vote. Hagen got 56 percent that year.

And despite Hagen’s and Don McRae’s victories for the Liberals in 2005, 2009 and 2013, they received fewer total votes than combined NDP/Green candidates in each election. In the 2013 election, McRae trailed NDP/Green candidates by 1,768 votes.

In this election, the NDP/Green candidates nearly doubled that margin, out-polling the Liberals by 3,339 votes.

But in both the 2013 and 2017 elections, Conservative party candidates also played a role. They won 1,740 votes in the 2013 election, making that a dead heat. And they won 2,201 votes this year, cutting the NDP/Green lead to 1,138.

So, what does that mean?

It means this riding, with or without Cumberland, is almost evenly split.

So shouldn’t people expect the winning candidate to represent the Comox Valley with a mindful recognition of the progressive policies of the NDP and Green parties as well as the conservative ideology of the Liberals? That hasn’t been the case.

Hagen almost exclusively catered to the big money crowd. McRae less so, perhaps, at least not so obviously. And will Leonard turn her back on nearly half of her constituents?

The problem, of course, is the blind allegiance MLAs must devote to their party leadership. Vote how we tell you. There’s no tolerance for independence in the Legislature.

And until party leaders loosen their tight grip on individual MLAs, British Columbians will be best served by minority governments. When party leaders have to compromise and negotiate, rather than rule with an iron hand, they produce better legislation.

 

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.

 

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