Who wields the real power: staff or elected officials?

Who wields the real power: staff or elected officials?

PHOTO: The Edmonton organics processing program is the largest in North America.

 

Who do you think makes the important decisions that affect our communities?

It’s natural to answer, “Our elected officials.” That’s who we hold accountable for our government’s performance. But all too often elected officials haven’t read or can’t understand technical information presented to them by staff or independent consultants, and so they simply acquiesce to recommendations put before them. 

And that puts staff in charge.

This natural tension erupted at the Comox Strathcona Waste Management (CSWM) board last week, creating a showdown over where to build the new organics composting facility.

During a routine process to award the contract for engineering services, board member Marg Grant, representing Comox Council, triggered a debate that angered many directors. She asked if there would be one or two composting facilities.

Comox Valley Regional District Senior Engineer Mark Rutten answered that the CSWM’s advisory committee wants to explore all options for siting the facility, including Pigeon Lake or having two facilities.

“It’s worth reviewing,” he said.

The advisory committee consists of one staff member from the municipalities of Comox, Courtenay, Campbell River, Tahsis, Gold River, Sayward and seven staff members from the CVRD.

Rutten’s remarks set off a firestorm of angry comments from elected officials on the board, which has previously debated the issue and decided to build the organics facility in Campbell River.

Upset directors, such as Larry Samson, of Campbell River, accused staff of attempting to subvert the board’s decision.

Larry Samson
CR Councillor

“We’ve already debated this. Staff doesn’t like the answer, but we’ve already hashed this out,” he said.

Comox Valley Area B representative Ron Nichol said, “This is the first I’ve heard of two facilities. We debated this for over a year.”

Charlie Cornfield, of Campbell River, suggested staff was trying to change the Terms of Reference for the consulting contract without board approval. He was alarmed that no communication had come back to the Campbell River council about reconsidering the facility’s location.

The board amended the motion to award the contract to specify the Campbell River location. They were, in other words, admonishing Rutten for suggesting the advisory committee could disregard a board position.

The incident exposes the potential for staff to subtly direct projects by only feeding elected officials the information they think will get them the results they want.

Marg Grant
Comox Councillor

Marg Grant, of Comox, cast the lone vote against the amended motion.

“The Town of Comox Council’s position has always been: the entire region would be better served with two small compost facilities vs. one large facility in Campbell River,” she said via email.

Grant said the organics pilot project at Pigeon Lake has proved successful, it has existing infrastructure, it’s compatible with the site and staff have already been trained.

She also questioned the costs of backhauling organics to Campbell River, which Comox town staff raised in the advisory committee.

According to the minutes of the March 30, 2017, advisory committee meeting, “Town of Comox staff expressed concern regarding potential higher tipping fees associated with this project if hosted in Campbell River rather than the Comox Valley.”

But the other directors said it’s unlikely a Campbell River location for organics would increase garbage dumping fees. Campbell River, like every other north Island community, will truck their municipal waste to the Comox Valley, and the Comox Valley will send it’s organics back to Campbell River on what would otherwise be an empty truck.

This furor over siting the organics facility highlights the delicate relationship between the CSWM board and its staff advisory committee.

Directors also expressed concerns that the advisory committee receives reports before the board gets them, including in-camera reports, and that staff recommendations appear to give more weight to the advisory board’s suggestions than the views of elected board members.

The story behind recent Comox union negotiations

The story behind recent Comox union negotiations

In a press release published by the Comox Valley Record recently, Comox Mayor Paul Ives put a positive spin on the town’s new five-year collective agreement. But there’s much more to this story.

It is good news, of course, that the town finally reached an agreement, considering that the last contract expired in March 2016, about a year-and-a-half ago. But why it took so long hints at the unreported backstory.

What Ives and the rest of the Comox Council don’t want you to know is that they tried to crack their public employees union with a two-tiered wage proposal.

Ives didn’t mention that the union staged multiple flash mobs waving signs of discontent around the Comox Valley, or their overwhelming strike vote, or the reason for such unrest by good, hard-working people.

According to several sources with inside knowledge of the negotiations between the Town of Comox and CUPE local 556, which represents municipal employees throughout the Comox Valley, the town hired an out-of-town negotiator who pressed a proposal that would have divided employees.

The town proposed that all new hires in certain categories would be compensated according to a different, and lower, wage structure. For example, when the town hired new custodians and gardeners, they would have worked under a separate compensation agreement, and the town would have paid them less.

That idea didn’t sit well with the town’s working people.

During the negotiations, Comox employees staged many flash mobs around the Comox Valley, waving signs that urged support for protecting the livelihood of future town employees.

So, after 80 percent of the town’s employees voted unanimously to strike, the town withdrew its proposal, terminated its hired-gun negotiator and a contract agreement was reached.

Surprise! All the employees wanted was a fair deal.

Did Mayor Ives and council members want to break the union? That is a logical interpretation of its proposed two-tiered wage structure. The purpose of the proposal is clear: At some point in the future, as existing workers on the current pay grid retired or moved on to other jobs, the town would employ only these lower-paid workers.

What other explanation is there? I suppose is it also possible that the Town of Comox’s finances are in such bad shape that they have to reduce expenses by squeezing their working-class employees.

But it wouldn’t seem so, considering the town just spent nearly $2 million on a twin-sail-roof building, and other upgrades at Marina Park, without knowing exactly how it will be used. The town is only now holding meetings to figure that out.

And that dollar figure doesn’t include the new children’s splash park, which is a nice addition.

Mayor Ives refused to comment for this story, except to say that all my “facts are as usual wrong,” but he declined an opportunity to specify and correct the errant facts to which he referred.

 

Comox Valley Agriplex: white elephant or dream facility?

Comox Valley Agriplex: white elephant or dream facility?

For more than three decades, some Comox Valley community organizations and elected officials have touted the need for a convention center.

The Comox Valley lacks a facility that can accommodate the large numbers of people or trade show booths and equipment required by big event promoters, which some see as a potential economic driver.

But others view such large facilities as future white elephants, often underused and almost always a drain on taxpayers. In this view, the Valley simply has unrequited conference center envy.

So while there’s been much discussion about building a convention center in the Comox Valley, it has never gotten further than a lot of talk.

Until now.

The Comox Valley Farmers Institute (CVFI) and the Comox Valley Exhibition Grounds (CVEG) have recently formed an unlikely and somewhat uneasy alliance to achieve what generations of community organizations could not: a multi-use facility for a variety of community user groups that can seat up to 5,000 people.

The CVFI imagines a facility where people can play indoor soccer, tennis, pickleball or ride horses. Where groups can hold large sit-down dinners. Where promoters can stage equipment trade shows, monster truck events, BMX competitions and concerts.

The CVEG envisions a smaller Agricultural Awareness Center that has gotten a little lost in the grand idea of a multi-use facility. They imagine a 12,000 square-foot facility that would benefit farmers with a commercial kitchen and diagnostic lab to develop and test new products.

But in order to get support from MLA Don McRae and other elected officials, the two groups had to merge their competing proposals. The payoff was a B.C. Liberal Party promise of $5 million toward the project, if they’re re-elected.

Courtenay and Comox councils have supported the idea and the Comox Valley Regional District is playing along. Its Committee of the Whole green-lighted a master plan for the Comox Valley Exhibition Grounds this week that includes a future 78,000 square-foot-plus multi-use event center.

But that doesn’t mean the facility is a certainty because there are a number of public and financial concerns that haven’t been addressed. They are:

Traffic congestion — The exhibition grounds area is already congested during event days. Cars often park along Headquarters Road even during regular Saturday morning Farmers Market events. When larger events take place — Music Fest, Rib Fest, etc. — the roadside parking extends further and along side roads like Vanier Drive. Daily traffic to Mt. Washington or to the Island Highway — it’s the truck route — complicates the congestion, though the dead-ending of Piercy Road at the old bridge and large roundabouts will help.

Parking — A new 500-car parking lot is proposed on the CVRD’s recently acquired property, the former Stonehenge Farm, which will help and be adequate for most community user groups, but parking will still spill onto side roads for large events.

Loss of ALR land — Removing property from the Agricultural Land Reserve must meet a provincial test. Calling the facility an ‘agriplex’ and having one or two farm-related events isn’t enough. The CVEG’s Agricultural Awareness Center, however, does qualify.

Construction costs — Current estimates range from $12 million to $15 million, but that could go higher after the CVFI meets with user groups and finalizes a design for the proposed project. Soil engineers may add extra cost to the project given the nearby floodplain and how far down they find bedrock suitable for the foundation’s footings.

Politics — The B.C. Liberal Party has promised $5 million, but what happens if the NDP forms the next provincial government? There’s been no promise of funding from the NDP. Or, what happens if the B.C. Liberals win the May 9 election, but the Comox Valley riding elects an NDP member?

How much are taxpayers willing to pay? — There is no formal business plan yet that estimates the amount of taxes Valley residents will pay to subsidize the multiplex operation on an annual basis. And these types of publicly owned facilities always need an annual public subsidy.

With the regional district’s approval, the CVFI and CVEG now know they can build a multi-use facility on the site. The next step is to meet with potential community user groups to determine if they will use it, at what rental price and if they have specific requirements that must be built into the design. Only after that, can the groups accurately estimate construction costs.

But they also need a professional management firm to assess the potential market of organizations likely to rent the facility. Because without sufficient outside revenue to pay operating expenses, including administrative overhead, one of two things will happen: local community user groups won’t be able to afford the rental fees (outside revenue keeps them low), or Comox Valley property owners will pay higher taxes to subsidize the facility.