The mundane decisions that comprise most of an elected official’s term in office reveal little about their values or principles. It’s the pressure-cooker moments that reveal a person’s true colors
Not everyone possesses the characteristics to become widely regarded as an effective elected official. Although, surely, every incumbent or candidate believes they do.
The problem is defining those treasured human qualities. We all have our political perspectives; what we’re in favor of, what we’re against; what we want more of, what we want less.
In a community as philosophically diverse as the Comox Valley, only a saint could distill our collective community values down to a few purely non-political human virtues.
And so, like art, the public just knows a ‘good’ councillor, mayor or school trustee when they see one.
But the occasions to ‘see’ the defining aspects of elected officials occur infrequently in local government. We usually learn nothing about elected officials when they decide issues of minor consequence: which streets to pave or whether to support a festival.
It’s when the polarizing, highly controversial issues arise that elected officials reveal themselves. Will they be like firemen or law enforcement officers who run toward the trouble to help people, or will they retreat? When panic and anxiety strike, will they refuse to succumb and, like the pilot Scully, cooly and calmly steer us to safety?
It’s in the pressure-cooker of those difficult moments that we really see a person’s true colors.
This week’s Comox Valley Regional District board meeting thrust 10 Comox Valley elected officials into a high-stress and fast-moving situation. Did it provide the public with moments of clarity about the directors at the table?
At stake was a critical point in the decade-long controversy over amending the Regional Growth Strategy for the benefit of a single developer, and the crux came in the final weeks of an hotly-contested election campaign.
RELATED STORY: With much drama, CVRD denies 3L Developments
Three candidates for the mayor of Courtenay sat at the table, and all but three of the 10 directors who would ultimately vote in this charged atmosphere were running for election.
The 3L Developments’ application was ready for first reading. Directors had reports from its Technical Advisory and Steering committees and a staff recommendation to deny the application, which was considered before first reading occurred. They could choose to either move it along and continue public consultations through first, second and third readings, or deny it based on the consultations they had already completed. By a 6-4 vote, those chose the latter.
So, how did our elected officials conduct themselves at this meeting? Here’s a director-by-director accounting from our notebook. You be the judge.
The incumbent City of Courtenay mayor began by questioning the accuracy of the committees’ assessment of available housing in order to suggest 3L’s 1,000-plus houses were needed. He said the demand for housing was greater than staff had predicted, and that he had seen on social media “somewhere” that more than 6,000 people were currently seeking rentals in the Valley. Later on, he suggested a petition signed by about 1,500 people opposed to 3L Developments wasn’t representative of public opinion. He suggested we “petition all the people in the regional district.”
The Courtenay councillor running for mayor stuck to a single message throughout the entire proceedings. He said the CVRD was “not complying” with the court order to fully consider 3L’s application if it voted to deny the application before it went to first reading. He wanted to postpone a vote or extend 3L’s application and continue the consultation process and hold a public hearing. He said to decide 3L’s fate now was “disingenuous.”
Eriksson said it also created a personally awkward situation. He said every director has friends who are either for or against the 3L development. “We’re being asked which group of our friends to make happy.” And, he said because the vote was coming during an election campaign, directors were likely to decide on the basis of “what would get us the most votes.”
Before the vote, Eriksson said “This is wrong. It’s not honorable.” He positioned himself with Larry Jangula, Ken Grant and Mano Theos on this issue.
The Courtenay councillor running for mayor questioned a 3L spokesperson about their conversations with the K’omoks First Nation, which the company had mischaracterized and later apologized. After a presentation by a 3L spokesperson, Wells expressed concern that the debate had turned toward criticism of the Regional Growth Strategy, which resulted from a long community-wide process.
Wells said the staff had done a good job of presenting the facts in a clear way. And in response to certain directors, Wells said both 3L and the CVRD directors knew from a flow chart they had all seen at the beginning of the application review process that “the application could be denied at first reading. Unless someone was not paying attention.”
Prior to casting his vote, Wells said many of the arguments heard at the meeting had focused on issues beyond the single application that was before them, and pertained more to a review of the RGS that should take place in a less high-stakes environment. He said his gut was telling him that a future and fulsome discussion was needed on how the RGS was structured, but that it was a separate issue from the 3L application.
The incumbent Comox Councillor seeking re-election said it was unfortunate that first reading came up during an election cycle, and he alluded to “a lot of misinformation” on social media. He said if the board didn’t postpone the vote before first reading it would have only given “lip service” to the idea of adequate consultation. He said the CVRD was setting itself up for another court action by 3L.
The incumbent Courtenay councillor seeking re-election said directors had to do “what’s best” for the community. But he added, “We don’t know what’s best.” He said directors would get more benefit from postponing the vote and gathering more information because “clarity is so critical.”
The incumbent Cumberland councillor seeking re-election noted 3L’s flip-flop on timing. Sproule noted that 3L had asked for an expedited process. But now, she said, in hindsight, they aren’t so happy and wanted more time.
The incumbent Area B director seeking re-election said 3L couldn’t claim their application had received an unfair process. He had kept an open mind, but had made a decision “at this meeting,” and he said it’s time to “get it done.”
Scoville is an alternate director for Area C and, like Barbara Price of Comox and Bruce Joliffe of Area A, he is not seeking election to any public office this year. He was the first director to separate first reading of 3L’s application to amend the RGS from any potential desire to review and update the RGS, which he noted was a much more complex and public process.
He acknowledged the application process can be frustrating, “especially when you have money on the line.” He said no directors want to ignore 3L’s promise of a large park at Stotan Falls, but “it would be nice not to have to decide the issue on that basis.” Scoville praised the thoroughness of the committee reports and said postponing first reading to gather more info by “piggy-backing” on a private owners’ studies was not a good idea.
Scoville said he thought postponing first reading would be a waste of time and money for all concerned “just to come to the same result.” He said it’s better to say no now, “and take it on the chin.”