Courtenay-Alberni candidates address climate crisis in forum

Courtenay-Alberni candidates address climate crisis in forum

Candidates from left, incumbent Gord Johns, Barb Biley, Sean Wood and Jonah Gowans  /  George Le Masurier photos

Courtenay-Alberni candidates address climate crisis in forum

By George Le Masurier

At the only federal election forum in the Courtenay-Alberni riding focused strictly on the climate crisis, four of the five candidates showed up and answered questions from a panel of four and an audience of about 300 voters.

Incumbent NDP MP Gord Johns, Liberal Jonah Gowans, Green Sean Wood and Barb Biley representing the Marxist-Leninist Party spent nearly two hours on stage at the Florence Filberg Centre Oct. 4 in a deep dive into what actions the next government should take to fight climate change.

Conservative candidate Byron Horner refused to attend, and offered no explanation for his absence.

The candidates who did attend found agreement on some issues such as the need to create equality for the most vulnerable as Canada’s transitions to a greener economy, lowering the voting age to 16 and ending federal subsidies to the fossil fuel industry.

But Wood said the other parties were just “handing out gifts” during the campaign by suddenly promising to end to oil and gas subsidies. He credited the Green Party and its leader Elizabeth May — “the most ethical and trustworthy leader” of all the parties — for getting the topics into the national conversation.

Johns detailed $48 billion in tax breaks and other gifts to corporations that his party would invest in green energy technology.

He also criticized Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau for promising in 2015 to cut fossil fuel subsidies but failing to follow through.

“The NDP put forward a motion (to end subsidies) six months ago, and the Liberals voted no. We proposed declaring a climate emergency, and the Liberals said no. Then they tabled their own (climate emergency) bill and the day after that approved purchasing the TransMountain pipeline,” he said.

That just shows “who pulls the strings,” according to Biley.

“Decisions aren’t made in Ottawa, they’re implemented in Ottawa. They are made by fossil fuel companies,” she said. “How can you declare a climate emergency and then buy a pipeline.”

Wood said government has failed to act more quickly on climate issues because the major political parties “whip” their MPs to vote as their party executive tells them to vote. And he took a shot at the provincial NDP.

“The NDP promised no Site C, no LNG, no fracking, that they would get fish farms out,” he said, but they didn’t do it. “The Green Party doesn’t whip its elected members. The constituents are our bosses. That’s how it should be.”

In her closing statement at the forum, Biley followed that idea by saying small parties raised the level of political discussion because the major parties break promises “over and over again, and just expect us to suck it up.”

“We should follow the example of youth in hitting the streets, of women taking back the night, of our coastal forest workers refusing to take concessions and assert our own plan for climate action. Empower yourself now,” she said.

She said Canada must transform its political system so it genuinely represents the people, not the parties.

Johns said in his first term as the Courtenay-Alberni incumbent MP, he has fought for the coast,” and brought conservation and other climate issues to the conversation in Parliament.

“Sixty percent of our communities are progressive. But without electoral reform, we split the vote,” he said. “Because of that, Conservatives can win this riding.”

Earlier Johns received the largest audience response of the night when he said, while addressing how previous Conservative governments gutted the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, “The first thing we should do is not let the Conservatives govern again.”

John said he was one of about 30 MPs of the 356 total in the House of Commons who attend an All-Party Caucus.

“No one party will solve the climate crisis,” he said. “It’s going to take everyone.”

Wood said his party’s polling shows support for candidates in the riding was neck-and-neck, and that the Conservatives weren’t as strong as “everybody else.”

“Don’t vote against something, vote for who you want,” he said.

Liberal Jonah Gowans said no political party has all the best ideas. The Liberal Party of Canada has a history of taking the best ideas from wherever and adopting them.

The forum was a collaboration of the Cumberland Forest Society, Project Watershed, K’omoks First Nations, Climate Strike Canada, Dogwood, the Comox Valley Conservation Partnership and the United Church.

The assembled panel that asked the first questions of the candidates included Nalan Goosen representing youth of the Comox Valley, Celia Laval of the faith community, Caelan Mclean of K’omoks First Nations and Don Castledden and David Stapley of the Conservation Partnership.

Disclosure: The author moderated the climate forum.

 

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The Week: Island Health takeover for public safety, and Horner’s negative campaign

The Week: Island Health takeover for public safety, and Horner’s negative campaign

Is a storm brewing, or is this the light at the end of the tunnell?  /  George Le Masurier photo

The Week: Island Health takeover for public safety, and Horner’s negative campaign

By George Le Masurier

This week, Island Health took the rare step to assume operational control of the Comox Valley Seniors Village, a privately-owned long-term care facility. Island Health has only taken this dramatic action twice in the past 15 years.

Then, later this week, there was more new. The Hospital Employees’ Union went public with its demands that Island Health take over another seniors care home in Nanaimo. And Island Health revealed that it has ongoing multiple investigations at both the Nanaimo Seniors Village and the Selkirk Seniors Village in Victoria.

There is a common thread here: All three of these facilities are owned by the same private company through a complex arrangement.

The Comox Valley Seniors Village was opened in 2009 by the Canadian company, Retirement Concepts, which was later sold to Anbang, a Chinese insurance company in 2017. Anbang purchased 31 Canadian long-term care facilities through a Canadian holding company, called Cedar Tree. The purchase included seven care homes on Vancouver Island and 24 others in BC, Alberta and Quebec.

But Cedar Tree doesn’t run the facilities. It contracts out the management of all its Anbang holdings to a company called Pacific Reach.

And, as if this wasn’t confusing enough, Pacific Reach is owned by the former owner of Retirement Concepts. Full circle.

According to a report in the Victoria Times-Colonist this week, a spokesperson for Pacific Reach blames the problems at all three Seniors Village facilities under investigation on industry-wide labour shortages. Jennie Deneka told the newspaper that the company can’t find enough workers.

It’s true. Adequate staffing has been a consistent problem at the CV Seniors Village, and it is one of the main complaints that family members have been relentlessly sending to Island Health for more than six months.

But what Deneka doesn’t say publicly is why the labour shortage affects her company’s facilities more seriously than other care home operators. One probable reason: Comox Valley Seniors Village reportedly pays about $2 to $4 per hour less than other local care homes, such as Glacier View Lodge and The Views at St. Joseph.

But there are other problems at CVSV that have caused workers to quit. In the last year, the facility introduced unpopular shift changes. It essentially fired all its employees and made them reapply for their shifts, although workers were allowed to keep their seniority. For these and other assorted reasons, CVSV staff went on strike last fall to press for better working conditions and more equitable compensation.

It’s just natural that when trained or experienced staff are in short supply, those who pay the least will suffer the most.

I was checking the city’s online building permits recently — something only a retired newspaper person would do — and noticed that Golden Life hadn’t yet received a building permit for the 120 new long-term care beds and six new hospice units awarded them by Island Health. Golden Life, the Canadian company building new beds on Cliffe Avenue in Courtenay, operates 10 seniors facilities in BC and three in Alberta.

That caught my attention because Island Health promised the beds would open in 2020.

The City of Courtenay told me that Golden Life had just applied for a permit the previous day, eventhough on Sept.16, City Council approved a development permit with variances for the project, which goes by the name Courtenay Oceanfront Developments Ltd.

In general, the development permit deals with form and character elements of the project such as building location, materials, landscaping and access locations.

The building permit, which comes later, ensures the technical elements of the building meet the building code. It also approves site servicing including sanitary sewer, water, and stormwater management. This is also the stage where off-site works such as the intersection upgrade get reviewed and approved.

It’s likely that this building permit approval process could take a month or two because this is a large building requiring multiple complex servicing approvals.

So, if Golden Life doesn’t get started until January, will they still make the 2020 deadline? Stay tuned.

If you live in the Courtenay-Alberni federal riding and spend any time on Facebook, you might have noticed that Conservative Byron Horner is running an extremely negative campaign against incumbent NDP MP Gord Johns.

In one recent ad, Horner says “Johns could not deliver $1 of discretionary spending for our region,” and “The reality is Mr. Johns has no decision-making authority on any federal spending.”

The first part is simply untrue. Johns’ work on behalf of Canadian veterans, for one example, will certainly benefit the Comox Valley area, which is home to many active and retired military people.

And if the second part of Horner’s attack is true, then it will be doubly true for him. The reality is that Canada might elect a minority Liberal government, and the NDP is most likely to hold the balance of power.

And speaking of negatives, what exactly did Byron Horner do when he worked for Merrill Lynch in New York as his online bio states? Did he work there in the 2000s when companies like Merrill sold toxic mortgage instruments that took down the global economy? He doesn’t say. But this is something that Horner should clarify for voters.

 

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Good Neighbor Agreement could help resolve sewage plant problems

Good Neighbor Agreement could help resolve sewage plant problems

Photo Caption

Good Neighbor Agreement could help resolve sewage plant problems

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

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

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

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

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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