Good Neighbor Agreement could help resolve sewage plant problems

Good Neighbor Agreement could help resolve sewage plant problems

Photo Caption

George Le Masurier

By George Le Masurier

For the past three-and-a-half decades, residents of Curtis Road have fought with dozens of elected officials and two iterations of the regional district (before and after it was split into two jurisdictions) over noxious ordours from the nearby sewage treatment plant that they don’t use and never wanted.

For two-thirds of Curtis Road property owners, whose families have lived there since before the treatment plant was built in the mid-1980s, it’s been a long ordeal.

For all that time, they have complained, protested, made presentations to the commission that governs the plant and written letters to cabinet ministers and provincial agencies. And they once successfully sued the regional district over the loss of property values due to the odours.

Now, Curtis Road residents are taking a different, more collaborative approach that they hope can resolve the issue through a better understanding of each other’s missions. The long-term goal, they say, is to encourage voluntary actions rather than legal challenges.

The residents have proposed a Good Neighbor Agreement.

“The agreement sets out what our expectations are of our neighbours at the sewage treatment plant for basic things such as odour level, noise and light pollution,” said Jenny Steel, spokesperson for the residents association. “Our association believes that this would really help both sides and improve our relationship moving forward.”


What is a GNA and who uses them

Formalized Good Neighbor Agreements are a relatively new method in Canada to resolve existing disputes or to preemptively address potential areas of dispute in the future.

The City of Parksville, for example, requires cannabis retailers to sign a Good Neighbor Agreement spelling out their responsibility to the community before they will receive a business license. The City of Quesnel, along with the RCMP and Northern Health, have a GNA with Elliot Street Supportive Housing for mutual respect and conduct.

Good Neighbor Agreements exist in larger centers, too. The Vancouver Union Gospel Mission has a GNA with the Strathcona and Downtown Eastside communities. And similar agreements exist in Victoria, Calgary and Toronto.

Decafnation was not able to find any other Good Neighbor Agreements in the Comox Valley.

But that’s not surprising. No Canada-wide data is readily available, but according to a 2004 evaluation by the University of Colorado Law School, there were only 50 Good Neighbor Agreements in the entire United States at the time.

“These so-called Good Neighbor Agreements (GNAs) take a variety of forms, but typically commit the company to mitigate the offending practices in exchange for the community group’s commitment to stop legal and public relations challenges to business operations. Many community activists believe that GNAs are a promising tool for community empowerment,” the law school reported.


Curtis Road proposal

The proposed Curtis Road GNA with the regional district addresses a variety of issues beyond odour problems. It includes visual stigma, groundwater issues, noise, light pollution, emergency planning, communications, complaint management and access to information.

“This Good Neighbor Agreement has been created to help alleviate negative environmental and public health and nuisance impacts. It establishes a set of standards that will result in respect for the fundamental rights of host community citizens to a healthy and peaceful environment,” says the residents association proposal.

Steel presented the proposed Curtis Road GNA at last month’s Courtenay-Comox Sewage Commission meeting. Commissioners referred it to CVRD staff for review and recommendations at a later date.

It will not be on next week’s sewage commission agenda.

But Steel remains hopeful.

“We’re hoping that our suggestion for a senior level meeting to review the agreement will take place soon – but the wheels grind slowly,” Steel said.



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Neither private or public, Economic Development Society provides limited financial information

Neither private or public, Economic Development Society provides limited financial information

Farm Cycle Tour display at the Visitors Center  /  George Le Masurier

George Le Masurier

By George Le Masurier

Third in a series of articles examining the Comox Valley Economic Development Society

If a citizen wants to know the salaries or travel expenses of their elected officials or local public employees, or how much their municipality spent on new streetlights, that data is readily available. If not, the public can obtain any financial data through a Freedom of Information request.

Private individuals and organizations, on the other hand, have no obligation to talk about their finances in public. And the Freedom of Information Act doesn’t apply to them.

The Comox Valley Economic Development Society exists somewhere in the grey area between these organizational models. It is neither a private or public organization.

CVEDS is a so-called arms-length entity. It delivers a service that CVRD directors two decades ago determined did not easily fit into the traditional administrative government model. It takes public funding, but acts independently.

And the limited financial information that the society releases publicly has long been a frustration for both citizens and elected officials.

CVEDS does not follow the standard financial reporting model used by all public institutions. They have created their own reporting format that does not break down the individual cost of its various initiatives or the wages and benefits of individual employees earning more than $75,000, a requirement of public reporting since the early 2000s.

Despite requests for more detailed financial information the CVEDS board has declined to provide it. That has raised debate over whether the public should expect that the finances of groups and organizations funded largely, but not exclusively, by taxpayer’s money be open for public scrutiny. 

A 2014 performance review of the organization by Urbanic Consultants observed, “While CVEDS has been providing audited financial statements annually per the Service Delivery Agreement, the statements do not necessarily give an account of how taxpayer money is being put to use.”

And, the consultants added, “the unique political landscape of Comox Valley warrants an effort to earn, build and maintain social license within the community.”


Sources of CVEDS income

The society holds a contract with the Comox Valley Regional District and received more than $1.2 million from local taxpayers in 2018 and another $290,000 from provincial and federal governments, according to its most recent unaudited financial statements.

Complicating the issue of financial transparency, the society also received the Municipal and Regional District Tax, better known as the hotel tax. Those funds come from private businesses — primarily hotels — that have agreed to add a two percent surtax onto their room rates to promote overnight tourism for the Comox Valley.

Visitors Centre on a weekday

CVEDS other income comes from advertising and ticket sales, retail commissions and bookings and earned interest, which are not technically public funds, although they wouldn’t be possible without taxpayers’ money propping up the society.

From the 2018 unaudited statement of financial position obtained by Decafnation, the Economic Development Society received $1,202,310 from local taxpayers as of Dec. 31, 2018 and another $1,003,522 from other public and private sources. With amortization of deferred capital contributions, last year’s total revenue came to $2,272,618.

Those other sources of revenue included the hotel tax ($320,781) and funding from the provincial government and agencies ($289,976). Other income amounted to $460,051, and the deferred capital contributions added $66,786.

CVEDS spent all but $76,742 of that income.

The society’s financials also show capital assets of $4,989,058, which is the assessed value of the Visitor’s Centre property and the building.


How CVEDS spends it

Wages and initiatives are the society’s two largest expenses.

In 2018, wages and benefits at $704,473 were the second biggest expense, accounting for about 58 percent of $1,213,605 total general expenses, not counting the cost of initiatives and contract services that CVEDS breaks out separately. Wages and benefits were about 32 percent of all expenses ($2,195,876).

There is no breakdown of how wages were split between CVEDS’ five full-time employees and roughly 4 FTE at the Visitors Centre, although some public officials have unsuccessfully requested information about individual compensation.

According to Schedule 6 of the financial statements, which shows income and expense by its three main focus areas — economic development, the Visitors Centre and destination marketing — wages and benefits are almost evenly split between economic development ($276,955) and the Visitors Centre ($282,388).

But only $145,129 in wages were attributed to destination marketing, which is the source of the largest share of CVEDS revenue, coming from the hotel tax, provincial grants, the CVRD and event revenue from the BC Seafood Festival and Expo. 

An analysis of the wage break down indicates that CVEDS staff spent nearly as much time managing the Visitors Centre as it did on economic development, and nearly twice as much time as they spent on destination marketing. That has raised some questions considering that the festival is the society’s single largest event.

Decafnation asked Board Chair Deana Simpkin and Executive Director John Watson on Sept. 23 to explain the distribution of wages among the society’s activities. Neither have responded.


Cost of initiatives

CVEDS spent $982,271 on initiatives and contract services in 2018. It was the single largest expense item.

But the financial statements provide no further details. The line item is not broken down to explain how much was spent on individual initiatives or even similar types of initiatives.

However, from an analysis of the individual MRDT and destination marketing operating statements, included in the overall financials, it appears that about half of the amount spent on initiatives, $464,978, represents the cost of staging the BC Seafood Festival.

Watson would not confirm or deny that estimated cost, but did say the festival is the society’s single largest initiative.

“(The Seafood Festival) is the largest single event and is steadily growing each year. Starting from a single evening it has now grown to 10 days of various activities and many, many partners,” Watson told Decafnation.

Lara Greasly, CVEDS’s marketing and communications manager said the “Festival/Expo Income and Expense … is the largest event supported by the Destination Marketing program.”

Greasly said tickets and related sales make up approximately 43 percent of revenue for the Signature Weekend and Expo. Sponsorship and related contributions comprise the other 57 percent.

On the expense side, 38 percent of total expenses were spent on marketing the event. Other expenses include the Seafood Expo – 12 percent, rentals/site – 20 percent, food and beverage – 12 percent, entertainment and competition – 5 percent and production — 13 percent.


Guarding CVEDS financial data

Getting CVEDS financial information can be difficult.

Even the Comox Valley Regional District is unclear whether it should share CVEDS’ financial statements. When Decafnation asked for a copy of the 2018 statements, the CVRD initially said it would provide them, and then later changed its mind and refused.

The audited statements were available, however, at the society’s annual general meeting in May.

The availability and depth of CVEDS financial reporting partly results from the nature of its unique contract with the CVRD.

Private contractors with local governments have no obligation to provide any public information. But they bid on competitive contracts.

Because the CVRD created the Economic Development Society through a bylaw, its contract is regarded differently. There is no Request for Proposal issued and no other individual or organization can bid on the contract. And the regional district is the society’s only contract.

According to some, that makes CVEDS immune from divulging further financial information.

So the question arises: Can taxpayers and elected officials reasonably assess whether CVEDS provides an acceptable return on investment with the limited financial information available to facilitate public understanding?


Return on investment

In the 2014 CVEDS performance review, Urbanics Consultants notes that the results of economic development activities are “notoriously difficult” to quantify. But the consultants recommended that CVEDS start tracking their work for its direct monetary impact versus resources expended.

“We feel that there will always be a certain level of scepticism surrounding the value of CVEDS activities unless it can produce the metrics that taxpayers want (e.g. jobs added, tax revenues increased, etc.),” the consultants wrote.

That recommendation has not been addressed says CVEDS Director and Vice Chair Bruce Turner because economic development is a complex activity. He says there are no metrics that could measure the results of some initiatives.

Besides, Turner says, only about one half of one percent of annual Comox Valley tax revenue is allocated to CVEDS.

“We’re not spending a lot of money on economic development,” he said.

But figuring out how that money is spent concerns Area B Director Arzeena Hamir.

“One of the frustrating things for me as an elected official is tracking where tax dollars are spent,” she told Decafnation. “The CVRD provides a certain amount for destination marketing and a certain amount for economic development. With the way the financial statements are currently presented, I have a hard time tracking if citizens are getting value for their tax dollars. Where where those ED dollars spent and what was the impact? I have a hard time getting those questions answered.”

Hamir says if individual industries can’t say that CVEDS activity helped move the dial, “then what are we doing with our tax dollars?”

Turner says every CVEDS activity has a KPI — key performance indicator — attached to it, and they are listed in the strategic plan as expected results.

But when asked for the KPIs for the BC Seafood Festival and Expo, Turner referred Decafnation to CVEDS Business Development Officer Geoff Crawford who provided a link to a document showing photos and statistics from the most recent event. 

Turner says these KPI statistics, such as number of tickets sold, are “output” measures, which he distinguishes from “outcomes.”

“Outcomes are those longer term results beyond the control of CVEDS alone,” he told Decafnation. “While CVEDS can contribute to their achievement, outcomes require the collaboration of all the primary stakeholders in the Comox Valley … and the province.”

Turner said investments in economic development compares to a municipality investing in infrastructure, “it’s not so easy to measure.”

“How do we measure the value or benefit of the information provided by CVEDS that helps small businesses make better business decisions to remain competitive?” he said. “How do we measure the contribution to well-being and wealth preservation and growth that economic development contributes to all community members. For example, would our homes retain their value with economic decline?”

But Area A Director Daniel Arbour asks that question in a different way.

“If there was no BC Seafood Festival, would the Baynes Sound shellfish industry collapse?” he told Decafnation. “There should be measurable outcomes.”

CVEDS Board Chair Deana Simpkin takes a more practical approach.

Simpkin measures the success of events like the seafood festival by the increase in traffic through her downtown Courtenay restaurant, High Tide Public House.


Next: How different sectors of the Comox Valley view CVEDS and has the society rebuilt relationships with complimentary local organizations.



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Island Health takes control of Comox Valley Seniors Village to keep residents safe

Island Health takes control of Comox Valley Seniors Village to keep residents safe

George Le Masurier photo

George Le Masurier

By George Le Masurier

It took a five-month letter-writing campaign, but Island Health announced Sept. 30 that it would take immediate administrative control of the Comox Valley Seniors Village.

A group of family members demanded an investigation and better oversight of the facility by Island Health earlier this year after three residents died as an indirect result of a norovirus outbreak at the facility.

But having seen no evidence of corrective action by Retirement Concepts, the corporation that owns the facility, on May 20 the family members asked Island Health to assume full operational responsibility.

Island Health was reluctant to do so.

So the family members started a letter writing campaign. They created a group called Senior Voices Comox Valley and a website asking other family members to share their stories of inadequate treatment at the facility and send them to Island Health.

On Sept. 23, North Island Medical Health Officer Charmaine Enns delivered a report recommending that Island Health appoint its own administrator to oversee Seniors Village.

“It is my determination that the Licensee (owner of the facility) is either unwilling or unable to meet the minimal requirements of the Community Care and Assisted Living Act … to ensure the health, safety and dignity of persons in care,” Enns wrote.


Investigation provided evidence

Enns based her recommendation on a “careful review and consideration” on an investigation by Island Health’s Community Care Facilities Licensing Program.

The investigation found multiple ongoing contraventions of the Care Act and a “lack of timely responses to address the contraventions and the duration of the contraventions were unacceptable.”

The Seniors Voices Comox Valley group had warned Island Health of multiple contraventions earlier in the year. But it was the recent letter-writing campaign that helped get Island Health’s attention.

“We the families and Island Health have learned a lot about what does and doesn’t work in terms of monitoring long-term care delivery. Because they (Island Health) just didn’t know how bad it was until we started writing those letters,” Delores Broten, one of the group’s members told Decafnation.

The family members believe the most serious regulatory non-compliance occurred during the norovirus outbreak, while the top senior management positions remained vacant. A failure to clean the facility violated health and safety regulations, which was compounded by allegedly falsifying records to show the cleaning had been done.

But it was by no means the only contravention.

According to the Enns review of the investigation, Abermann has a difficult assignment.

Investigators found a “multiplicity of deficiencies” related to care plans, which “are critical to ensuring the health and safety of persons as they enable the facility staff to appropriately know, provide and respond to unique needs for those in care.”

There were multiple examples of lack of documentation and no apparent intention to implement a corrective action plan, which was termed a “serious systemic failure.”

The facility has insufficient experienced staff putting residents of the facility “at significant risk of harm.” There has been high turnover of staff and few employees have attended education and training events.

Enns concludes her report this way:

“I do not have confidence this Licensee is either willing or able to come into compliance with the (Care Act) on their own accord,” she wrote.


Abermann appointed

Island Health has appointed Susan Abermann to manage the Seniors Village for a temporary period of six months.

Abermann, a 25-year career professional in BC seniors care, has served as Island Health’s lead for residential care services. She was the executive director of another facility owned by the same operator of the Comox Valley Seniors Village.

The facility operates 136 long-term beds and Island Health publicly funds 120 of them.


History of CVSV

The Comox Valley Seniors Village opened in 2009 by the Canadian company Retirement Concepts, but the problems began to surface in 2017 after it was sold to Anbang, a Chinese insurance company. Anbang purchased 31 Canadian long-term care facilities through its Canadian holding company, Cedar Tree, including seven on Vancouver Island and 24 others in BC, AB and QC.

Cedar Tree, in turn, contracts out management of Comox Valley Seniors Village, and other Anbang holdings, to a management company called Pacific Reach, owned by the former owner of Retirement Concepts.



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Sept. 27 climate action march through downtown Courtenay  /  Submitted photo

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Friday’s youth-led climate strikes in the Comox Valley were the largest events of their kind in living memory and a reminder that climate change has become the central issue in the federal election.

But maybe not for Conservative candidate Byron Horner.

Horner, who is running for the Conservative Party of Canada in the riding of Courtenay-Alberni, has declined an invitation to attend the all-candidates forum ‘Canada and the Climate Crisis‘ happening on Friday, Oct. 4 in Courtenay.

“As a nation experiencing rates of warming double the global average, Canadians are facing huge and growing challenges. Canada is one of the highest per-capita emitters in the G20 — only seven countries around the globe put more carbon into the atmosphere than Canadians. And, yet, this past week’s climate strikes tell us that people are concerned,” Dave Mills, one of the forum’s organizers, told Decafnation.

Historically, Conservatives have taken center stage in the defense of Canada’s environment. The desire to protect what we have and to take responsibility for one’s actions are conservative moral imperatives.

“Horner’s snub could be tied to his party’s connection and long-standing support for the oil industry. Voters should consider whether a candidate unwilling to even talk about climate action is capable of tackling this crisis as an MP,” Mills said.

Find out what the NDP, Liberal and Green candidates have to say about our climate reality. Join the conversation at 6:30 pm on Friday, October 4 at the Filberg main conference hall in Courtenay.

Sponsors for the forum include the Comox Valley Conservation Partnership, Comox Valley Youth Environmental Action, Cumberland Community Forest Society, Dogwood, K’omoks First Nation, Project Watershed, Unitarian Fellowship and World Community.

Disclosure: Decafnation will moderate this forum




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The Week: CVRD pledges $750,000 to watershed; trouble in the town

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George Le Masurier photo

George Le Masurier

By George Le Masurier

This was a busy week around the world and at home. A teenager crossed the Atlantic to admonish world leaders for not recognizing they have led us into a climate catastrophe, which set off a week of climate activism. The US House plans to impeach President Trump. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh came out the winner in Trudeau’s blackface head-shaker.

And back at home, our cadre of reporters and informats have, perhaps, inched us closer to understanding why Comox Council bounced their long-time CAO. It gets real interesting.

But first, how about we start off with some good news.

At its most recent meeting, the Comox Valley Water Committee unanimously agreed to contribute $750,000 toward the purchase of 226 acres of wetlands and riparian areas in the Comox Lake Watershed.

That’s a major positive step toward protecting the drinking water supply for more than 45,000 residents — and growing — of the Comox Valley.

The Comox Lake Watershed has been used for industrial resource extraction since the 1870’s when these unceded lands within the K’omoks First Nation Territory were transferred to Robert Dunsmuir as part of the E and N land Grant. Logging and Mining have shaped the landscape and climate change is now rearing its head as a real threat to water quality and quantity in the watershed.

The protection of sub watersheds and intact forested riparian areas has been identified in the Comox Lake Watershed Protection Plan as a way to abate risk and treat the cause not the symptoms of water quality issues in the Valley’s drinking water supply. Issues that have led to the need for a $110 million for a water treatment plant.

The water committee committed funds for this effort in response to a request from the Cumberland Forest Society, which has already, on its own, purchased and protected with conservation covenants 270 acres of forest lands. It is currently in negotiations with Hancock Timber Resource Group for another 226 acres that surround Perseverance Creek, all the way from Allen Lake to Comox Lake Road.

The Cumberland Forest Society had already secured approximately 50 percent of the funds it expects to need for the purchase. The recent financial commitment positions the society to enter final negotiations.

This purchase will contribute to a total of 1,200 connected acres under protection, or soon to be under protection, within the south end of the Comox Lake Watershed. That’s a great start to protecting this important watershed.
There is widespread community support for this effort and now our elected officials have demonstrated the political will to get it done. Congratulations to them.

Since our last report about the how and why Comox Council fired Chief Administrative Officer Richard Kanigan, several people close to the situation have phoned and written Decafnation with unsolicited new information. And two of these sources might provide some insight into what’s going on inside town hall.

Their information raises the question whether the mayor and council have had a good grasp of what’s going on beneath the surface.

First, a person has told Decafnation that before Kanigan got the boot, a woman employed by the town had made a complaint. We don’t know the substance of the complaint or who made it, nor do we know that it has any direct connection to Kanigan’s departure. We don’t know the status of this complaint or whether it has been dealt with.

All that we do know is that former Executive Coordinator Twyla Slonski suddenly left her job this summer and resurfaced as the deputy city clerk in Port Alberni.

Second, it seems our reporting last week about low morale among some town employees hit a nerve in the public works department. According to a town employee, 10 other employees have quit the department due to what they felt was management by intimidation.

Our source says all the top brass at the town had been told about the situation and that it was considered serious enough that at one point the town brought in a grief counsellor.

When a new public works manager recently came on board, he listened to employees and suspended the foreman at the center of the allegations. But due to a lack of documentation, the union requested his reinstatement, and he was brought back for a couple of days. But, according to our source, the foreman then left the job again quickly. Employees were told that he’s “on leave.”

We report this incident only to point out that another legal case could be brewing against the town, and that situations involving employees may not have been dealt with swiftly and decisively. And, apparently this isn’t the fault of administrators alone.

In fact, our source says, a public works employee had a conversation with a town councillor about the matter and later a letter was sent to the mayor and council. The source says neither the mayor or any council members have replied.

Add these incidents to the big lawsuit over stormwater pollution and erosion and the implications of the town’s mishandling of the Mack Laing trust agreement and a picture starts to develop.

As a commentor on last week’s report observed, if the mayor and council are at odds with their CAO, and incidents within the town start to make them look bad, it won’t be the elected officials who take the fall.



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