A shifting political climate means change for 32-year-old society, but board still divided
Achanging political climate that brought new faces and fresh perspectives to the Comox Valley Regional District boardroom has thrust the three-decade-old Comox Valley Economic Development Society into an uncertain future.
And that uncertainty has been compounded by a regional district board that appears to have been ill-prepared to renegotiate the society’s existing contract by its March 31 expiration date.
Ten months after serving notice last June of its intent to enter contract negotiations, the board still struggled with an irreconcilable diversity of opinions about whether the Comox Valley Economic Development Society (CVEDS) should be scrapped, tweaked or left in its present form.
And further hampered at the last minute by the COVID pandemic, regional directors ultimately punted its decision-making into the future.
In the interim, the CVRD signed a revised two-year contract with CVEDS provided less funding and made more demands for accountability.
“It was a poor process. Guilty as charged,” CVRD Director Doug Hillian
They also created a three-director Liaison Committee to review the society’s performance and explore new models for delivering economic development, destination marketing and Visitor Centre management.
The regional district originally created the Economic Development Society in 1988 as an arms-length organization with its own governing body to “… encourage the responsible expansion of the Comox Valley economic base.”
Operating under the guidance of its own hand-picked board of directors, the society ballooned into an agency for destination marketing and industry event productions.
But the 2018 municipal elections brought a new, more progressive political perspective to Courtenay’s municipal government and to some rural electoral areas and created change that eventually spread to the regional district.
The old status-quo regime was out. Younger and more progressive thinking was in.
Two years later, that new political climate has begun to impact the Comox Valley Economic Development Society.
Blank cheque, free rein and unquestioned allegiance are now out. Financial transparency, increased scrutiny and meaningful performance reviews are in.
A REGIONAL BOARD DIVIDED
In June of 2019, the Comox Valley Regional District announced its intention to renegotiate their existing five-year contract with CVEDS, which was due to expire on March 31, 2020. That gave elected officials more than nine months to gather the information they needed to assess the effectiveness of the 32-year-old society and chart a course for its future.
But by the expiry date, the board had not yet held sufficient meaningful discussions to produce a majority view about how or whether to revamp CVEDS.
Sensing the philosophical divide and without clear direction from directors, CVRD staff did not push the board for a timely contract decision. Nor had the board garnered helpful information from a consultants report that had been conducted on narrow, contract-specific terms of reference.
CVRD Director Doug Hillian said he was “disappointed” in the evaluation. For starters, the consultants delivered their report late, well past the Dec. 31, 2019 deadline. Hillian said it was one of the factors that delayed the contract negotiations.
“I had hoped the full report would have given more insight than it did,” Hillian told Decafnation. “It was unsatisfactory on every level.”
“Economic development has been at arms length, in its own silo, for so long, but we’re understanding now that it needs to be part of the whole,” CVRD Chair Jesse Ketler
CVRD board chair Jesse Ketler agreed.
“The performance review was purely contractual and was no help to directors in reaching agreement on how to approach the CVEDS contract,” Ketler told Decafnation. “In fact, in some ways, the report made the problem worse.”
Without a guiding document, the discord among directors became a stalemate.
“There was disagreement among directors on how to proceed with CVEDS and the conflict was tense,” Ketler said.
The CVRD board did have discussions during which numerous aspects of CVEDS were identified that people wanted to be examined or changed. But no director ever made a motion or proposal to either seek a new model or to sever the contract with CVEDS.
However, as the contract deadline approached, staff initiated the idea of holding a board-only workshop to get directors on the same page about the best way to handle economic development, tourism marketing and Visitor Centre management.
But before the workshop could take place, the COVID virus struck. The workshop was cancelled and dealing with the pandemic lockdown became the board’s priority.
Just this week, the CVRD board rescheduled the workshop for mid-October.
“It was a poor process. Guilty as charged,” CVRD Director Doug Hillian told Decafnation. “There was not enough in-depth discussion until it was too late due to failings of the performance evaluation and the onset of the pandemic.”
“It would have been helpful to have had a working committee and the workshop much earlier.”
So the hope of reaching a long-term plan for economic development and other services was made more difficult, according to Board Chair Ketler.
“But the board felt it needed to do something in the short-term to respond to COVID,” she said.
The answer was to form the Economic Recovery Task Force while continuing to negotiate a new contract with CVEDS.
The CVRD and CVEDS finally reached an agreement on July 27, four months past the expiry date. The two-year contract required CVEDS staff to provide administrative support for the Economic Recovery Task Force.
(Editor’s note: See the sidebar information on this page.)
Among other changes, the new agreement included the formation of a Liaison Committee of the CVRD board to continue discussions with the CVEDS board of directors about its future, and to review and clarify specific deliverables required in the contract.
A CONTENTIOUS COMMITTEE
During a contentious meeting on August 25, the CVRD board selected three directors to form the Liaison Committee: Chair Doug Hillian, Area B Director Arzeena Hamir and Comox Director Maureen Swift.
At first, Area C Director Edwin Grieve proposed Hillian, Comox Director Ken Grant and Area A Director Daniel Arbour to form the committee. But several directors opposed this composition, including Courtenay Director Will Cole-Hamilton.
“Over the next two years, there is the opportunity to see if this model is sustainable or not,” Hillian
“I will vote against this composition. There are different schools of thought around this table that were quite divisive during the course of our sessions,” he said at the August meeting. “This group of people — and I count myself among them — have reservations about this agreement and it would be good to have representatives on that (liaison) committee who clearly represent that viewpoint.”
Cole-Hamiltion added that the board will only come out of the process united “and with a clear conscience if the full spectrum of viewpoints is represented appropriately and respectfully.”
That led Grant and Arbour to withdraw their names from the nomination.
Grant said he was stepping out because he couldn’t “see this going in any way” to make the CVEDS service better.
Comox Director Maureen Swift and Arzeena Hamir were then nominated, with Grant and Swift cast the lone votes against adding Hamir to the committee.
HILLIAN, KETLER ARE OPTIMISTIC
Despite its rough start, Hillian told Decafnation last week that he’s optimistic about what the committee can achieve.
“This opens the door for discussions about whether CVEDS is in sync with community and board values, whether the relationships impacted over the years are salvageable — whether this is a structure that the board wants to continue investing in for the long-term,” he said.
Board Chair Ketler believes the values of CVEDS need to align with the changing values of our community and that of the CVRD board.
“Economic development has been at arms length, in its own silo, for so long, but we’re understanding now that it needs to be part of the whole,” she told Decafnation. “We see that now especially with COVID — things like housing, food, health and a safe environmental are all foundational to economic prosperity.”
Hillian hopes the committee’s work can answer questions “such as personnel, operation style and is it the right structure.”
“Over the next two years, there is the opportunity to see if this model is sustainable or not, while also working toward better integration and communication,” he said.
HIGHLIGHTS OF THE NEW CVRD-CVEDS CONTRACT
The Comox Valley Economic Development Society has historically benefited from five-year contracts, more than a million dollars in local taxpayer funding and sparse oversight. Their new contract with the regional district, valid for just two more full years, looks dramatically different.
Under the new terms of the agreement signed July 27, the CVRD has, among other things:
— reduced funding by about $160,000 for the remainder of 2020 and by $400,000 (nearly a third of its budget) in 2021 and 2022.
— ordered an annual schedule of remuneration and expenses for all employees earning more than $75,000 per year.
— specified that CVEDS follow Canadian accounting standards, maintain accurate records and permit CVRD inspection.
— required that the five elected officials assigned to the CVEDS board be given a full vote in all board matters.
— imposed mandatory performance reviews of all staff and the executive director.
— created a liaison team to investigate possible structural changes, integration of operations and generally review all aspects of the CVEDS’ function.
Since the contract renewal, destination marketing officer Lara Greasley left for a post at the Town of Comox. And CVEDS has laid off three employees of the Visitors Centre.
The CVEDS staff has also closed their offices above the Comox Valley Art Gallery on Duncan Avenue and moved them into the Visitors Centre near the Island Highway.
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The Comox Valley Regional District may have signed a two-year agreement with the Economic Development Society but the work of reforming that 32-year-old entity carries on through a select committee and board-wide workshops
On Vancouver Island, every community except the Comox Valley handles economic development with municipal or regional district staff, and none of them mixes economic development with tourism marketing
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Comox Valley taxpayers and elected officials have limited metrics and financial information to assess whether their $1.2 million-plus investment in the Economic Development Society provides a good return