Sewage treatment plant seen from Curtis Road  /  George Le Masurier photo

Comox manipulates sewage commission vote, residents cry foul on ‘repugnant’ tactic

Jun 11, 2019 | sewage, Top Feature

By George Le Masurier

In a move one observer called “repugnant,” Comox Councillor Ken Grant and Comox Mayor Russ Arnott moved a motion at the regional sewer commission Tuesday that they intended to vote against.

It was a deliberate attempt to defeat a proposal to allow non-voting representation for Area B on the Courtenay-Comox Sewage Commission, and was made possible because CFB representative Major Delta Guerard did not show up to cast a deciding seventh vote.

It is not known which way Major Guerard would have voted, or why she didn’t attend the meeting.

Courtenay directors had declined to make the motion, saying they preferred to wait for a future meeting when the full commission was present.

The vote ended in a 3-3 tie, with Courtenay directors voting in favor and the three Comox directors voting against the motion they manipulated to the board table. A tie vote constitutes a defeated motion, and the issue cannot be reconsidered at future meetings.

An unidentified audience member called the Comox directors’ tactic “repugnant” as she was leaving the boardroom.

The controversial sequence of events arose because Electoral Area B Director Arzeena Hamir had requested a voting position on the sewage commission.

In a March 15 letter to the commission, Hamir argued that the treatment plant for Courtenay and Comox sewage resides in Area B and offers no benefit to Area B residents. In fact, she wrote, the plant presents ongoing negative environmental, social and economic impacts for Curtis Road residents that live just down wind from the plant.

They have been locked in a 35-year struggle with the Courtenay-Comox Sewage Commission to eliminate noxious odours that lowered the value of their homes and at certain times of the year made them uninhabitable.

Curtis Road Residents Association spokesperson Jenny Steel told Decafnation after the meeting that her group would now take their request for Area B representation to the full Comox Valley Regional District board, and to individual municipal councils.

After the meeting, Hamir told Decafnation that she was disappointed with the results of the vote.

“The residents of Area B have had to make huge sacrifices for the benefit of the region and deserve a voice at the table,” she said. “And while residents of Area B are able to delegate to the Sewage Commission, there is never an opportunity for them to rebut incorrect statements the way a director at the table would have. Again, super disappointed.”

Steel said it was “undemocratic and irresponsible” for Grant and Arnott to move a motion they planned to vote against.

“Comox commissioners knew that the vote was tied and should have waited until all commissioners were at the table,” she told Decafnation. “Staff and Courtenay commissioners seem genuinely to want to build a good neighbour relationship – it’s frustrating that Comox don’t seem to want to come on board.”

 

Arnott: giving politicians a bad name

During the course of debate on the issue, Comox Mayor Arnott took a swipe at himself and his colleagues.

“Maybe we need less (sic) politicians and more professionals on the commission,” he said. “When you add more politicians to anything, it’s not a good idea.”

That got laughs from Grant and Comox Director Maureen Swift, but the Courtenay directors didn’t appear to find it amusing.

Courtenay Director Will Cole-Hamilton responded succinctly.

“If we follow the logic that all politicians are bad, we should all just go home,” he said.

Arnott also tried to argue that Area B representation was not a valid idea.

“This is an emotional issue we’re dealing with,” he said.

Courtenay Director Doug Hillian contested that statement.

“If these are valid concerns (noxious odours, etc.) raised by residents and we direct staff to expend time and energy to address them, then these two positions don’t jibe,” he said.

Cole-Hamilton added that the commission was responding “to a real thing. This is not emotional.”

Hillian said giving the Area B director a seat at the commission table, but without voting power, was actually an enhancement of the democratic process.

“They’re asking for some type of formal voice, to take part in the back and forth among directors, and it doesn’t cost us anything,” he said. “This is an opportunity for trust to be rebuilt.”

Curtis Road residents have continually complained about often unbearable odours since the plant opened in 1985, and have successfully sued the regional district for its inaction once before.

Cole-Hamilton said giving Area B a voice without a vote was a reasonable compromise until the staff makes recommendations this fall on last year’s broader governance review.

Arnott may have been referring to his own emotional involvement in this issue.

The Comox Town Council has been at odds with other Area B neighborhoods for years, such as the Croteau Beach area over a pump station — now deemed unnecessary — preservation of McDonald Woods and over attempts at annexation of the area into municipal boundaries.

Mary Lang, a Croteau Beach resident and Area B representative on the CVRD’s Liquid Waste Management Plan Public Advisory Committee, told Decafnation after the meeting that it’s inevitable some residents get emotional over issues.

“When citizens are disenfranchised from decisions that have the potential to impact their homes, and are solely relegated to 10-minute presentations that they are supposed to feel honoured to have been granted…they might come across as emotional,” she said.

 

Rural residents react

Jenny Steel told Decafnation last night that Curtis Road residents will continue pressing for representation on the commission.

“We’ll be asking for a permanent seat on the sewage commission with voting rights for any decisions impacting odour, visual and noise stigma in Electoral Area B – we think that’s fair,” she said. “We’ve already emailed in requests for delegations to the CVRD board on June 25th and with Comox Council on the 19th.

“We feel it’s important to explain to Comox Council why a seat on the commission is a democratic and practical solution to this 35-year old problem.”

Steel said if Comox commissioners want to communicate through delegations, “then that’s what we’ll do.”

“It’s obvious that they don’t understand the effort required and frustration involved in bringing our issues to their attention. Nor do they understand the abysmal failures of the status quo,” she said.

Within the last year, other Area B residents have asked for representation on the sewage commission due to concerns about a new sewage pump station to serve Courtenay and Comox but located in the Croteau Beach neighborhood.

Comox Valley Regional District engineers, who manage the system for Courtenay and Comox, eventually backed off that plan — which had been strongly supported by Comox directors — because it proved too costly and risky for Croteau Beach drinking water wells and for other technical reasons.

Lorraine Aitken, a Croteau Beach resident and an alternate Area B representative on the CVRD’s Liquid Waste Management Plan public committee, said another Arnott comment — suggesting that Courtenay and Comox take back the management of the sewage function from the CVRD — is a perfect example of emotion over reason.

“Has it occurred to him that the treatment plant is in Area B? The pipes to the plant are in Area B?” she said. “Perhaps he has plans to move the whole operation to the Comox Golf course or the Filberg Lodge, where emotions would never be an issue.”

Aitken also took exception to Arnott’s comment that during his brief six months at the table he has seen numerous delegations and feels that citizens are being well represented.

“If the sewage commission had been doing their jobs properly for the past 35 years, citizens wouldn’t have to keep coming back over and over again,” she said. “If Maureen Swift and Ken Grant (who have been paid to sit at the commission table for many years) had done their jobs properly — read reports, master plans, asked questions, consulted with the public in good faith — they would have solved the problems that bring the residents of Area B back to the commission to point out what the commissioners missed, what they misunderstood, how they screwed up again because they didn’t listen to the residents of Area B in the first place.”

 

What’s next

CVRD staff are reviewing an outside consultant’s review of governance issues, particularly as they relate to the region’s water and sewer commissions. They plan to present a report of their review and recommendations in the fall.

Meanwhile, construction of a new equalization basin at the treatment plant will move ahead this summer, along with an odour level study, an analysis of odour standards across Canada and preparation of cost estimates to cover the plant’s bioreactors to further reduce noxious odours.

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