BC Seafood Festival cancelled at last minute, two more CVEDS directors quit

BC Seafood Festival cancelled at last minute, two more CVEDS directors quit

Archive photo from the 2019 BC Seafood Festival

BC Seafood Festival cancelled at last minute, two more CVEDS directors quit

By George Le Masurier

Organizers have cancelled the BC Seafood Festival, which was scheduled to take place next weekend. Comox Valley Economic Development Society Executive Director John Watson informed his board of directors of the decision at a meeting this morning, during which two more directors resigned.

Watson gave little information about why he cancelled the event, mentioning it only as a footnote to a broader discussion about the appropriateness of tourism marketing to bring snowbirds to the Comox Valley this winter, according to sources who attended the meeting.

Decafnation has since learned that local hoteliers expressed concern about the event during a time when COVID virus cases are surging and when health authorities are recommending against unnecessary travel.

David Rooper, general manager of The Old House Hotel and Spa, told Decafnation that he had pulled his participation in the festival yesterday. He had been already advising guests who had reserved rooms for the three-day event.

Bill Kelly, general manager of Crown Isle Resort, said he had recommended that Watson cancel the event.

Earlier this week, the North Island Medical Health office had contacted the CV Economic Development Society to ensure that it was following all the public health orders and guidelines. At the time, The festival’s website was promoting ticket sales broadly and its line-up of featured chefs, many of whom were from the Lower Mainland, where travel in and out had been restricted.

That resulted in changes to the website to advertise only Vancouver Island chefs and to restate pandemic protocol such as physical distancing and mask-wearing. But it continued to promote an appearance by a world champion oyster shucker from Ontario.

The festival website was still up and offering tickets this morning. It was taken down shortly before noon today.

Watson and Board Chair Deana Simkin have not replied to requests for information and comment about the cancellation.

Courtenay Councillor Melanie McCollum said Watson’s communication concerning the event was not clear. He gave no details about the cancellation except that the hotels had recommended it. But earlier in the meeting, she said, Watson explained that the festival was scheduled because the hotels wanted it.

There was no discussion by board members about the cancellation, according to McCollum and Area B Director Arzeena Hamir. But neither were surprised.

“The board was never informed the festival was being planned, we never talked about it happening,” McCollum told Decafnation. “It was a surprise when I learned a couple of weeks ago that it was going ahead.”

Hamir said the board might have figured out it was happening by the society’s financial reports that used to be distributed at meetings. But Watson hasn’t presented any financial reports to the board in 11 months, since last February.

 

TWO MORE DIRECTORS RESIGN

During the meeting, Diane Naugler, the Dean of the Faculty of Business and Applied Studies, announced her resignation from the board. Mike Obal has also resigned via email, although his resignation wasn’t recognized during the meeting.

Five directors have resigned in recent months: Naugler, Obal, Brian Yip, Bruce Turner and Justin Rigsby. That leaves Simkin, Tony Hayes, Paul Ives, Spender Serin, Jasmin Badrin and Melinda Knox as the remaining public board members.

Five elected officials also attend board meetings in a non-voting capacity: Hamir, McCollum, Area C Director Edwin Grieve, Area A Director Daniel Arbour and Comox Mayor Russ Arnott.

 

SUBSCRIBE TO OUR NEWSLETTER

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Decafnation newsletter.

More CVEDS | News
The Week: Comox has a hissy over CV Economic Development Society changes

The Week: Comox has a hissy over CV Economic Development Society changes

It’s stormy weather this week down at the Comox Public Marina  |  George Le Masurier photo

The Week: Comox has a hissy over CV Economic Development Society changes

By George Le Masurier

Well, folks, another week has passed so that must mean another new controversy has erupted over the Comox Valley Economic Development Society. And this one has pulled back the cloak — just a tiny bit — on the behind the scenes politicking at the regional district and the lockstep march of the Comox Town Council.

In the midst of what appeared to be a collaborative attempt to reach a shared vision for the future of regional economic development, Comox Town Councillors have unanimously decided to derail that process by triggering a section of the Local Government Act. That section is often used as the first step in withdrawing from a service.

It’s no secret that the CV Economic Development Society, known as CVEDS, has become a focal point that epitomizes the Comox Valley’s geopolitical polarization. And it’s a red hot point right now.

The region’s remaining old guard, epitomized by Comox Council and Electoral Area C Director Edwin Grieve, love the CVEDS status quo. The new blood of elected officials in Cumberland, Courtenay and Areas A and B do not.

So now, with changes afoot, no one is complaining more about proposed reforms to the regional district’s relationship with CVEDS than Comox councillors. There’s a reason for that.

The old guard loves CVEDS because it has historically done their bidding. A case in point: no Comox Valley jurisdiction has benefited more from CVEDS activity than the Town of Comox.

This imbalance has rankled everyone else. And it’s one reason why Cumberland and Hornby and Denman islands have withdrawn from regional economic development services.

But that’s not the only factor driving the new blood’s desire to transform CVEDS. These elected officials want economic support services that accommodate the community’s shift toward social and environmental values.

The new blood sees the old CVEDS as promoters of environmental projects like the Raven Coal Mine and bullish land developers such as 3L Developments. They see CVEDS undermining a proposal by an active Exhibition Grounds user in order to promote a convention centre on ALR land. They see a lack of accountability, a lack of interest in the social issues that affect economic vitality and a lack of attention to non-profit organizations that contribute to economic readiness.

They also see the regional district’s reprehensibly long history of a lack of meaningful oversight of an organization funded with public money.

It’s not surprising that the Town of Comox would object to any reforms of the regional economic development service that might divert staff attention and funding to other beneficiaries. Like the agriculture community. Or the arts and cultural community. Or some other physical location of the valley.

But the extent of Comox Council’s territorial protectionism is confusing and conflicted.

This was evident at a recent CVRD workshop solely focused on economic services. Comox Councillor Ken Grant objected to any funding or initiative to promote mountain biking or improve the sport’s infrastructure because it might benefit Cumberland, where the most trails and amenities exist, but who no longer participates in the service.

Other directors were quick to point out that being known Islandwide as a mountain biking mecca brings economic benefit to all kinds of businesses across the entire Comox Valley.

In fact, it was a Comox business — the former Simon’s Cycles, now known as the Comox Bike Company — that practically invented mountain biking in the Comox Valley. There are still two bike stores in Comox and residents/taxpayers/voters often go to the Cumberland Community Forest to ride.

And yet, Comox wants support for its own marina and Comox Valley Airport projects.

Here’s the problem. Everything was working fine for Comox until the new blood turned its attention to the CV Economic Development Society. Now, no longer in the majority, the town sees its influence and benefits drifting toward other areas of the community. And they don’t like it.

So, they’ve started a statutory service review of the regional district’s economic development service under the Local Government Act. But the regional district had already scheduled a complete review and reimagining of the service for next year.

It doesn’t seem to make sense. Except, the formalized service review includes a provision for Comox to withdraw from the service if it doesn’t like the outcome, which it probably won’t. This is the same process requested by Cumberland when it decided to withdraw.

Comox Mayor Russ Arnott implied in a statement to Decafnation this week that the town doesn’t intend to withdraw. But what other benefit exists for going the formal route over the already planned informal route?

Well, the public can’t discern the town’s motive or long-term goals of this action because Mayor Arnott has locked up his pack of councillors from speaking about it without his permission.

When Decafnation asked councillors for more explanation and for their personal opinion on what they hoped this action would achieve, they refused to talk.

Councillor Alex Bissinger said the council decided that only the mayor could speak on the topic to avoid “mixed messages.” In other words, any slight deviation from the company line might cause trouble.

Heaven forbid that a Comox council member might have an opinion that differs from the rest of the council or whose feelings about an issue might present a perspective that hasn’t been pre-vetted. Imagine the chaos that would ensue!

By comparison, Courtenay council members regularly disagree with each other and express their views openly for public consumption. By Comox council standards, it’s a wonder the city gets anything accomplished. But they do and their constituents usually know what they’re doing and why.

So the CV Economic Development Society drama will now play out in a formalized setting without all the voices at the table. Only one representative from Comox and Courtenay will be able to participate.

Even the recently formed Economic Development Select Committee will meet this week to fold up its tents. It had been charged to investigate efficiencies and cost savings from integrating CVEDS activities and office space with the regional district.

But that committee’s effort was probably going nowhere anyway. CV Economic Development Society Executive Director John Watson has arranged for new office space in … wait for it …

Comox Town Hall.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WANT TO READ MORE ABOUT CVEDS?

Go HERE to read all of our stories on the Comox Valley Economic Development Society

 

 

SUBSCRIBE TO OUR NEWSLETTER

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Decafnation newsletter.

More Commentary | CVEDS

The Week: Decafnation launches Local Government Performance Review

Are you satisfied with the performance of your Comox Valley elected officials? In 20 months and three weeks, voters will go to the polls again. So we’re curious how Decafnation readers feel about their councillors, mayors, directors and school trustees halfway through their current terms in office

Comox, Area C may derail regional economic development planning

Comox, Area C may derail regional economic development planning

The Comox public marina  |  George Le Masurier photo

Comox, Area C may derail regional economic development planning

By George Le Masurier

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.

 

WHAT’S NEXT

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.

 

SUBSCRIBE TO OUR NEWSLETTER

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Decafnation newsletter.

More CVEDS
CVRD initiates discussions about Economic Development Society reforms

CVRD initiates discussions about Economic Development Society reforms

Comox Valley Regional District offices now located on Harmston Avenue in Courtenay  |  George Le Masurier photo

CVRD initiates discussions about Economic Development Society reforms

By George Le Masurier

Directors of the Comox Valley Regional District have initiated discussions to explore new models for delivering economic development, destination marketing and Visitor Center operations that could potentially realign the Comox Valley Economic Development Society, or even replace it.

It will be the first time in the society’s 32-year history that regional directors have considered reviewing the original model of an arms-length society governed by an independently chosen board of directors.

The consideration was reached toward the end of a two-day workshop held Oct. 13-14 at the regional district’s new offices on Harmston Avenue in Courtenay. The session was facilitated by an outside consultant after conflicting visions for CVEDS’ future had brought the board to a stalemate.

The CVRD created the Economic Development Society in 1988 and continues to fund it. In recent years, CVEDS has received more than $1.2 million per year from Comox Valley taxpayers.

But it had become apparent over several years that CVEDS had lost the trust of some elected officials as well as individuals, nonprofit organizations and businesses across sectors of the Comox Valley. 

CVRD directors seeking change from CVEDS have mentioned the need for more accountability, transparency, especially in financial matters, and whether the society’s recent activities still remain relevant and consistent with the Comox Valley community’s environmental and social values.

During the workshop, Area A Director Daniel Arbour noted that four out of the five Comox Valley jurisdictions funding CVEDS had “at one time or another” considered reviewing or withdrawing their participation, for various reasons.

FURTHER READING: Go to our local government page

He was referring to his own electoral area, Area B, the Town of Comox and the city of Courtenay as those who have at least thought about withdrawing. Electoral Area C is the fifth participant currently funding CVEDS.

Any electoral area or municipality can opt-out of CVEDS participation by giving six months notice. That is still an option under the new contract signed in July. But it is less likely in the near future considering the new agreement expires in two years, on Dec. 31, 2022, and the possibility that regional directors might agree on some reforms.

The Village of Cumberland withdrew support for CVEDS in 2015 and hired its own economic development officer. That became a trend on Vancouver Island as other regional districts and municipalities moved toward new models that separated destination marketing activities from economic development services. 

The CVRD’s consideration of new models would presumably explore whether to handle the three key functions of CVEDS — economic development, destination marketing and Visitor Information Centre management — with in-house staff or to contract for them with an external entity, or some hybrid combination.

Workshop facilitator Gordon Macintosh, the former Islands Trust executive director, urged CVRD directors to decide soon if they want to explore new models for delivering the services provided by CVEDS.

It was important, he said, for directors to reach consensus and to have preferred options in mind before having to give CVEDS notice of the regional district’s long-term intentions next December.

Directors did not take any formal action or vote during the workshop. It’s expected that will happen after CVRD Chief Administrative Officer Russell Dyson presents a staff report with recommendations to the board.

 

WORK PLAN CLARITY

While the second day of the workshop focused on developing a process for reconsidering the strategic future of the Comox Valley Economic Development Society, the first day was designed to give clarity to CVEDS’ 2021 work plan and how regional district directors would measure their success.

Meeting by themselves in the morning, CVRD directors created a list of topics directors would like CVEDS to consider adding into their 2021 work plan. A few CVEDS board members and Executive Director John Watson joined the workshop in the afternoon.

Most of the topics were related to a feeling that CVEDS activities should acknowledge the Comox Valley community’s values, and weave the regional board’s four core values into their business relationships:

  1. Reconciliation and First Nations relations;
  2. Financial responsibility;
  3. Climate change action; and,
  4. Community partnerships. And that they should weave these into their business relationships.

Asked to imagine their ideal economic development function, CVRD Board Chair Jesse Ketler said she envisioned a current and forward-thinking group that “was on top of the shift in societal values.”

“CVEDS was created in the 1980s when everyone was talking about deregulation and free-market capitalism. The only goal then was short-term profit and the result was social/wealth inequality and environmental degradation,” she said. “People now realize that we have to look at the long game and that sustainable businesses are those that consider environmental and social values.”

Ketler said businesses that included social and environmental values into their business model were doing better through the COVID pandemic than those that didn’t.

“People want to be a part of something good. If we try to apply ‘80s style solutions to COVID-era problems we are doing the businesses in the Comox Valley a great disservice,” she said.

Courtenay City Councillor Wendy Morin added that “the polarization on the board, although appearing along political lines, is a simplistic view. Many of us see that economic development practice is shifting, regardless of the politics of the day.”

CVEDS has about six weeks to respond to those requests — either to agree to do them, ask for more resources in order to do them, or to defer them — before its 2021 work plan and accompanying budget receive final approval from the CVRD board.

The topics included: Childcare, event guide and promotion, E-marketplace feasibility, destination infrastructure, co-working spaces, green industry, an arts and culture plan and an agriculture plan.

 

OPINIONS DIFFER

Although the perspective on CVEDS differs among all 10 of the regional district directors, at their simplest they break down into two groups: those who are happy with the current CVEDS structure (Town of Comox, Area C) and those who are less happy (City of Courtenay, Area B and Area A).

Courtenay City Councillor Wendy Morin wondered how the board could overcome entrenched positions based on geographical self-interests.

“How do we get to some common ground when there is such a disconnect between the experiences of Comox and Courtenay in the level of response on pet projects,” she said at the workshop. “Why are some areas getting what they want (from CVEDS) and others are not? How are we going to satisfy all these interests on a regional level?”

Differing perspectives based on territory emerged clearly during a discussion on the importance of mountain biking to the Comox Valley economy.

Comox Councillor Ken Grant said he had trouble with CVEDS spending tax money to promote mountain biking because it benefits Cumberland, which doesn’t help fund CVEDS.

But several other directors said mountain biking benefits businesses across the whole Comox Valley, yet Cumberland bears the burden of maintaining and improving the infrastructure of the most popular trails that bring tourists to the community.

“I have trouble with that. Our marina is the biggest economic driver in the Comox Valley,” Grant said. “So we could ask for money for that, too? Not sure we want to go down that road.”

But Area B Director Arzeena Hamir pointed out that Comox is seeking help from CVEDS and other jurisdictions to build out more parking infrastructure at the Comox Airport.

Similar differences of opinion occurred during discussions on other topics.

Comox Mayor Russ Arnott said Comox business owners had no lack of confidence in CVEDS.

“I guess it depends on who you talk to,” he said.

Area C Director Edwin Grieve said he was troubled by the undercurrent that “something untoward is going on.”

“These people (CVEDS board members) stepped up as volunteers. It’s disrespectful. It’s why directors have resigned. We owe them an apology,” he said.

Chair Ketler talked about the need to “relocalize” the Comox Valley economy.

“One way to do that is through social procurement and supporting social enterprise,” she said.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ABOUT THE WORKSHOP

When CVRD directors failed to find agreement in March on what they wanted from their $1 million-plus funding of the Comox Valley Economic Development Society, regional district staff suggested a workshop designed to break the logjam. But the provincial lockdown to stop the spread of the COVID virus derailed those plans.

Board Chair Jesse Ketler revived the workshop idea this fall and Gordon Macintosh, president of the Local Government Leadership Institute and the former executive director of the Islands Trust, was hired to facilitate it.

It’s possible that Macintosh would return to help CVRD directors navigate through the process of exploring new models for providing economic development and destination marketing services, and how to manage the Visitor Information Center operations in the future. But directors have only initiated discussions so far and have not taken any official actions.

 

 

SUBSCRIBE TO OUR NEWSLETTER

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Decafnation newsletter.

More CVEDS | Government | Top Feature
Tensions rise as Liaison Committee explores integration for CVRD, CVEDS

Tensions rise as Liaison Committee explores integration for CVRD, CVEDS

A display inside the Comox Valley Visitors Centre, which now houses the CVEDS offices  |  George Le Masurier photo

Tensions rise as Liaison Committee explores integration for CVRD, CVEDS

By George Le Masurier

Members of a committee investigating the potential for integration of Comox Valley Economic Development Society (CVEDS) operations with the regional district agreed on a short list of possible shared services at their inaugural meeting last week.

The committee instructed Comox Valley Regional District and CVEDS employees to consider collaboration on financial accounting, the audit process and related costs, office space, website and communications and human resources including staff evaluation and training. Visitor Centre operations were also seen as worthy of discussion by the committee and a presentation on the topic was requested for the next meeting.

But there wasn’t complete agreement or clarity on the larger issue of the scope of the committee’s authority and responsibilities. 

Deana Simpkin, president of the CVEDS board, asked whether she and board members Mike Opal, Bruce Turner and Paul Ives were full members of the committee or serving in an advisory capacity. Turner wondered if the board’s role, in general, had been changed.

In his opening remarks, Committee Chair Doug Hillian addressed that issue saying he hoped the group would work collaboratively and that their work would result in a closer relationship between CVEDS and the CVRD.

“This is uncharted territory, there have been significant contract changes,” Hillian said. “The rationale is that the relationship in the past has not been as close as it might be and this has led to conflict.”

Hillian assured CVEDS board members they were full participants in the Liaison Committee and called the committee’s work a “shared responsibility.”

And he added that “nothing was off the table” for discussion and invited “general comments” from everyone.

But tensions rose when Area B Director Arzeena Hamir commented on the committee’s responsibility “to collaborate in the ongoing review and clarification of contract deliverables,” according to Section 15 of the new CVEDS contract.

And she later asked CVEDS Executive Director John Watson a series of questions about a late three-month report, why minutes of the Economic Recovery Task Force haven’t been made public and why the society hadn’t held a required Annual General Meeting in 17 months.

That didn’t sit well with CVEDS board member Paul Ives who characterized comments about “deliverables” — actions required by the contract — as committee members “taking shots at each other.”

“I’m troubled by this line of questioning,” he said. “Why are we putting CVEDS staff on the hot seat? The CVRD questions are inappropriate.”

Hamir responded that it was “definitely within the purview” of the committee to ask questions of staff and appropriate to check on contract deliverables.

Chair Hillian said if the committee was going to work collaboratively and with transparency, then questions could be asked. CVRD General Manager of Planning Scott Smith also approved the questioning.

Hillian suggested CVEDS could answer Hamir’s specific questions at the next committee meeting when he hoped Watson could “attend the whole meeting.” Watson came late via teleconference to the first meeting and left early.

 

COMPLAINTS ABOUT FUNDING

CVEDS board member Bruce Turner, who attended via teleconferencing, said that reduced funding from the regional district had made it impossible for the board to meet its fiduciary responsibility. He and other board members said the new budget was hampering operations and that a reduced staff didn’t have time to fulfil all their reporting requirements.

Simpkin said there is “a backlog behind the scenes” because one staff member chose to leave and CVEDS had laid off three Visitor Centre staff. The society currently has eight staff members.

She said this lack of resources has put pressure on staff, many of whom are working from home.

For CVRD Director Hamir, the funding concerns raised the question of where regional district responsibility ends and where CVEDS responsibility begins.

“Both boards were aware of the terms of the agreement when they signed the contract, including the funding,” she said. “The contract spells out what needs to be done and when. The ‘how to do it’ is up to CVEDS. These are separate jurisdictions.”

CVRD Director Maureen Swift said the funding issue was the purpose of exploring greater integration with the CVRD.

“CVEDS can’t operate as it has in the past with the new contract,” she said.

Hillian closed the meeting hoping for better collaboration.

“It’s inevitable there would be a little tension considering the difficulty in getting to this point,” he said.

 

WHAT’S NEXT

When CVRD directors couldn’t agree on CVEDS future by the March 31 contract deadline, they chose to sign a two-year agreement with the understanding that the matter was unresolved. That agreement provided for the formation of a Liaison Committee comprising members from the CVRD and CVEDS boards as a means to assure better communication and that deliverables were meeting CVRD expectations.

The next meeting of the Liaison Committee is at 1.30 pm on Oct. 19.

Meanwhile, the CVRD board is holding a two-day workshop next week in an attempt to find common ground among directors about the future of economic development.

 

 

IMPORTANT NOTE FOR COMMENTS

Decafnation encourages comments and a free exchange of ideas about our articles. Please limit your comments to fewer than 200 words. Longer comments may be trimmed.

SUBSCRIBE TO OUR NEWSLETTER

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Decafnation newsletter.
More CVEDS | Government
A shifting political climate means change for 32-year-old society, but board still divided

A shifting political climate means change for 32-year-old society, but board still divided

Responsibility for management of the Comox Valley Visitors Centre is one of many items under discussion by CVRD directors 

A shifting political climate means change for 32-year-old society, but board still divided

By George Le Masurier

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.

 

SUBSCRIBE TO OUR NEWSLETTER

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Decafnation newsletter.
More CVEDS | Government | Latest Feature