The Comox public marina | George Le Masurier photo
Comox, Area C may derail regional economic development planning
Another controversy has erupted over the Comox Valley Economic Development Society, highlighting once again how the community’s political shift has caused turmoil behind the scenes.
In a move that surprised many Comox Valley Regional District directors and staff, the Comox Town Council along with Area C Director Edwin Grieve have disrupted a plan to start discussing the best method of providing a regional economic development service.
Two weeks ago, CVRD directors held a special workshop as a first step toward finding consensus among the board about whether the existing Comox Valley Economic Development Society is still the best method for providing economic development services or if the 32-year-old model needed some reforms.
Although there are hard-line differences of opinion between Comox and Area C and the rest of the regional district board, directors appeared to leave the workshop thinking they had made progress on a path forward.
But just 10 days after the workshop, the seven-member Comox Town Council voted unanimously to initiate a formal service review of the regional economic development function. It’s unclear who Director Grieve consulted, but he also sent a similar letter to the CVRD.
The Local Government Act allows participants in a municipal service to initiate a review of the service or to withdraw from it. The act also specifies the process for both and for dispute resolution.
Part 10, Division 6 of the act specifies that “a preliminary meeting must be held within 120 days” of the written notice to establish the process for the review. It states further that negotiations must begin within 60 days of the preliminary meeting.
The long end of those timelines would delay discussions about how to deliver economic development services for six months.
At the workshop, directors were urged by the consultant facilitator to begin discussions immediately about whether they wanted to continue with the Comox Valley Economic Development Society as it’s currently structured, reform it or replace it with a new service delivery model.
The facilitator pressed directors to have a preferred option for going forward by next December, a year before the current CVEDS two-year contract expires on Dec. 31, 2022.
It’s unknown at this time how this formal service review might affect the board’s plans unofficially made at the workshop. Directors could carry on concurrently with the formal review or wait for the outcome at its conclusion.
One major factor that differentiates a formal service review from the board’s own informal considerations is who gets to participate. The whole board attended the workshop and all directors had input into their agreed-upon strategies.
But The Local Government Act specifies that during a service review only one representative from each participant engages in the negotiations. That means just one director from Courtenay, Comox and Areas A, B and C. It’s not clear who would represent the CVRD, if anyone, as Board Chair Jesse Ketler is a Cumberland Councillor and the Village is not a participant in the service.
WHY A SERVICE REVIEW
The Village of Cumberland and Hornby and Denman islands followed the service review process when they individually withdrew from the economic development function.
But in a statement to Decafnation, Comox Mayor Russ Arnott denied the town was preparing to withdraw.
“Our current staff have full-time jobs and commitments, so the idea that they could take on the economic development portfolio is just not realistic,” he said.
However, neither Area C Director Grieve or any of the Comox councillors contacted by Decafnation have responded to questions about why they took this formal action rather than working through the process discussed at the recent workshop.
But Comox Mayor Arnott said his council started the review because he believes there has been a breakdown in governance and direction of the economic development service.
“For the past few years select members of the service have been constantly criticising the independent work of CVEDS,” he told Decafnation Tuesday. “This has led to dysfunction and inefficiency during the most important economic development challenge in a generation as well as a major loss in experience with staff and board members resigning.
“Our goal is to make this service once again work for Comox and the communities in the valley.”
Three CVEDS board members have recently resigned. Three staff members were laid off and one, Lara Greasly, quit to take a job with the Town of Comox.
In its press release, the Town of Comox noted five achievements it attributed to CVEDS work that “have added countless jobs, enjoyment, and prosperity to the entire valley.”
They were: expansion of the Comox Valley Airport, the evolution of the BC Seafood Festival, enhancements of Marina Park in Comox, the Fixed Wing Search and Rescue training centre at CFB Comox and the redevelopment of Comox Mall.
In his letter to the regional district, Area C Director Grieve also noted the society’s three decades of “bringing benefit to the region.”
“However, over the past two years, this independence has been severely eroded leading to resignations from members of the society’s staff and executive alike,” he wrote. “This in effect puts it at odds to the “Society Act” and doing so turns it into yet another arm of local government exposing it to vagaries the local politics.”
BEHIND THE SCENES
Disagreement at the regional district board has historically often split along the border between Comox and Courtenay. This has become a sharper line since the 2018 municipal elections brought new and more progressive directors to the CVRD board table, and including changes in Areas A and B.
CVRD Director Ken Grant, a Comox councillor, has been vocal at recent board meetings about his disapproval of the changes made to the CVEDS contract and the active role directors have taken toward integration of shared services and setting the society’s work plans.
Sources close to the board say Grant has talked behind the scenes about withdrawing from the economic development function and putting that money into the town’s marina development plans. And he has publicly expressed hostile views about economic development funds going into projects promoted by other directors, such as agriculture, arts and culture and mountain biking infrastructure.
Other directors have starkly different views of economic development that include social and environmental values that they say better represent the shift in community priorities. These directors have pressed CVEDS to include projects in their work plan that address, for example, child care and support for non-profit organizations.
The CVRD board has always had contractual final approval over CVEDS work plans, although past boards have provided almost no oversight or input.
That this board has been more aggressive in setting CVEDS work plans and demanding accountability, and cut its $1.2 million budget by a third, has rankled those who were happy with the status quo.
The CVRD board will likely get a report from its staff about the service review process at either the Nov. 17th Committee of the Whole meeting or at the full board meeting on Nov. 24.
This article has been updated to include portions of Area C Director Edwin Grieve’s letter to the regional district asking for a service review of the economic development function.
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Five years after its last regional district performance review, CVEDS still struggles to bolster its reputation among some sectors of the community, and for a variety of issues. Has an ingrained animosity developed?
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