Wednesday, July 4, 2018

My Mayoral Announcement

So I've taken the plunge, and announced my candidacy for Mayor of North Cowichan in the October 20th election.

You can view a video of my announcement speech here.

And if you don't want to take the time to watch that, I have reproduced below the speaking notes for my address.

I should be noted that I ad-libbed much of what I said, so the video won't exactly match the script below.  Let's say that the text here is actually a more accurate representation of what I intended to say.

In any event, I hope I can count on your support in the upcoming campaign.


___________________________________________________________________________

Good morning, and welcome everyone.

Most of you received an email inviting you to this event, so the purpose of today’s breakfast will come as no surprise to you.  But let me make it official.

This morning, I am officially declaring my candidacy for Mayor in the District Municipality of North Cowichan in the October 20th election. 

Those of you who know me know that as little as 8 months ago, I had pretty much sworn off running again.  After 10 years at the Council table, I had determined I was done, and that I was going to retire and spend time with the grandkids.  But in the last few months, I’ve been increasingly concerned with the crop of potential candidates for mayor.  By my read, the way the October mayoral race is shaping up, we could end up with one of two situations;  The first is the status quo, and I'm convinced we can do better.  The other option involves a situation that will make the dysfunction at the Nanaimo Council table look like a kindergarten sandbox.

To be clear, you didn’t come here to hear me to talk about my opponents – and I’m not going to get into any further specifics on this – but that list of potential opponents serves provides the context for why I’ve changed my mind over the past few months, and decided to run for mayor.
As with my previous three runs for Council, my campaign this time will be themed on the notion of “Common Sense for Community.”

That’s a nice slogan, but what does it mean? 

Well, “Common Sense” means operating in a system where Council makes decisions based on input from the entire community, not just particular groups who claim to represent the community.  Some of those groups make very strong claims, but often they’re not backed up by facts.  If there are two sides to an issue, and these groups only come to us advocating for only one side, there’s a problem.   We recently saw the formation of a group calling itself the “Cowichan Communities Coalition.”  They appeared before Council back in May to make the pitch that they want to work cooperatively with North Cowichan to improve community consultation on planning issues.  And they said that bylaws and policies around growth and development should be “guided first and foremost by the needs and values of local neighbourhoods.”   That’s nice language, but who determines what those needs and values are?   Is it the Chemainus Residents Association?  The Cowichan Valley Naturalists?  One Cowichan?  The Quamichan Lake Neighbourhood Association or the Quamichan Watershed Stewardship Society?  The Sahtlam Neighbourhood Association?  The Somenos Marsh Society?  Because each of those groups are represented in this new coalition.   And, their well-meaning claims notwithstanding, they can’t possibly speak for their entire community.  

For example, the Chemainus Residents’ Association continually claims to “represent” Chemainus residents.  And I will gladly acknowledge that they represent a substantial slice of people there; that’s absolutely true.  But that group only presented us with one side of the discussion, for example, on Echo Heights.  I don’t want to revisit that debate - frankly I’m glad it’s behind us - but the fact is that even today, more than 5 years after we made our final decision, there’s not a month goes by that I don’t hear from someone in Chemainus indicating that the CRA was not representing them; and that on Echo Heights, we could have done better."  I’ve heard the same criticism of the Quamichan Lake Neighbourhood Association.  They claimed to represent the entire neighbourhood in the discussions over Donnay Drive and the Kingsview Development project.  But again, the fact is that I have heard from dozens of people who wanted me to know that the QLNA did not represent their position.

That’s why the law around Council’s role - the Community Charter - is very clear; the Charter starts - in its’ very first paragraph - with the notion that Council has to operate “within a legislative framework that supports balance and certainty in relation to the differing interests of their communities.” 

If we listen to just one “side” of the debate on development, we’re actually breaking the law.  Councils have no choice but to make their decisions based on the best interests of the community as a whole.  Not based on how particular groups interpret the “needs and values of their local neighbourhoods.”  Yes, the input we get from these groups should be taken into account.  But not exclusively.   Because here’s the thing.   Any group that claims to represent an entire community is – by definition – not big enough.    The Community Charter is clear that the only ‘group’ with the legal legitimacy to represent an entire community is Council itself.  Representative democracy means we have to take all community input into account.  

This requires clarity of thought, and I want to be clear.  I’m not against community associations.  They serve a valuable purpose, and they absolutely deserve a place in the discussion about community planning.  But they should never be the only voice at the table.  The discussion has to be broader than that. Ladies and gentlemen, that’s not only the law that governs the function of a Council; it’s also “Common Sense.”  And it’s “for Community.”

Which bring me to another point.    In past campaigns, I’ve often been asked by well-meaning people.. “Al.. aside from you, who should I vote for?”   That’s not a question I’m going to answer directly in this campaign.  (Other than to say, obviously, that I’d prefer you didn’t vote for my opponents in the mayor’s race.)  But when it comes to the make-up of the incoming Council, I firmly believe we need all the voices at the table.  

We need the folks who are passionate about the environment.  We need folks who have strong opinions about social development in our community.  And yes, we need the “pave-everything” kind of councillors who will advocate for development in a strong but reasonable way.  Because at the end of the day, when the new Council is faced with difficult decisions – and those decisions will come – I want to be able to say, as mayor, that we had the best possible input from all sides of the debate.  And that the decision we came to at the end of that process included a sober consideration of all of that input, and that it was the best one for the community.

“Common Sense” also means – in the context of the mayor’s chair – setting a direction for Council as a group.  I have been at the North Cowichan council table for ten years, and I can honestly say I’ve never had real sense of who we were as a group.  In a way that’s OK, because individual councillors bring their particular perspective to the table.   But often, being on Council has been like being in a rowboat where 4 people want to go in one direction, and three others are rowing as hard as they can in the opposite direction. 

What we need instead is the kind of leadership that gives Councillors a collective sense of identity - of collective priorities - to set a direction the entire group wants to go.  This sends clear - rather than conflicting - signals both to staff and to the community.   I’m not going to get into specifics this morning, but I can tell you that I have some definite strategies which I’ll elaborate on during the campaign to build a true team around the Council table.  The only thing I will say on that right now is that we need to get councillors out of “campaign mode”, and into “governance mode” as quickly as possible after the election.   And it has to be said that a mayor can’t do any of this this alone; there has to be buy-in from all of Council.  And as we’ve seen in Nanaimo, if you have people who are determined to make a mess of things, a mess will happen.  To that end, I hope the voters choose wisely when it comes to the Council that I’ll be working with.

Something else that defines common sense.  I’m not going to over-promise during this campaign.  If you’re here because you think Al Siebring will solve all the problems at North Cowichan Municipal Hall, you might as well leave now.  In fact, I’d suggest you drive to Nanaimo.. get on a plane, and go to Edmonton.  They’ve got a big mall there which includes a feature called “Fantasy Land.” 

Because the fact is that the mayor is only one vote of seven, and needs to build credibility and alliances with Council members in order to get anything accomplished.   Most of you who know me know that I generally come from the “conservative” end of the political spectrum.  I believe in the individual.. I believe in balancing development rights with environmental protection, and I believe that where possible, private enterprise, neighbourhoods, families, and individual citizens are much better equipped than government to deal with problems in society.   I saw a meme online a few weeks ago that said: “If government could actually fix everything, don’t you think they would have done it by now?”  That kind of illustrates my philosophy.  

And friends, we need to build a community that understands the concept that every time we pile on new rules and regulations we are adding costs.  Those costs come either through higher taxes to pay for the regulation, or higher costs to produce the commodity we're regulating.  For example, we all recognize that we’re in an affordable housing crisis, and yet we keep adding costs to the development process.  The CD Howe Institute – remember, this isn’t some right-wing think tank like the Fraser Institute, it’s named after a Liberal Finance Minister – the CD Howe Institute came out with a study earlier this year which estimated that more than $600-thousand dollars in the price of every new single-family home built in Vancouver was directly attributable to local government regulations.  It’s no wonder that the average single family home in Vancouver is now priced at well over a million dollars! 

I honestly don’t know what North Cowichan’s current regulations add to housing costs here, but I would consider it a priority to reduce - where feasible - our share of those regulations if they can be shown to be contributing to the crisis in affordability.

I went to see our Municipal Clerk last week.  I was curious about something.  North Cowichan’s website – under the “Bylaws” tab – lists 53 Bylaws.  They’re listed alphabetically, from Animal Control to Zoning.   But I suspected there might be some more.  So I asked our clerk how many bylaws we actually have on the books.  Turns out he’d had to look that up recently as part of the preparations for that amalgamation with Duncan that never happened; staff was doing some research on how many bylaws would have to be harmonized if amalgamation went ahead.  Anybody wanna take a guess as how many bylaws North Cowichan has?  

There are 3,706.    Admittedly, some have been amended and some have been repealed, but there’s 3,706 Bylaws on the books.  These go all the way back to 1914, when the council of that day passed a Consolidation Bylaw which rolled all the Bylaws which were passed between 1873, when the muni was incorporated, and 1914 into one.  There were about 300 bylaws before 1914, all rolled into that consolidation Bylaw.  So really, the total number is around 4,000 bylaws. 

There is one thing a mayor can do.  A mayor has the statutory authority to appoint select committees which report to Council.  As I said, I’m not going to “over-promise” in this campaign.  But one thing I will commit to is the establishment of a Regulatory Review Committee to weed through those 4-thousand bylaws.  To be clear, some of them will be kdpt.  But some will be amended, and common sense tells me that a good number of them will be repealed.

Folks.. there’s lots more things I could say, but I want to leave time for a few questions, and then you’re going to get the obligatory fund-raising pitch before we let you leave. 

Let me close with this:  I’m running for mayor because I firmly believe we can do better.  Yes, we’ve been posting a relatively respectable growth rate in recent years.  About 1.5 percent last year - the fourth-best number since 2008.  But we can do better.  Yes, we’re working on social issues in this valley: homelessness, the opioid crisis, and poverty.  But as a community - and not necessarily through government expenditures, but tapping into the resources we have in the community – through local churches, service clubs, and individuals who want to step up and help out, we can do better. 

And when it comes to the mayor’s position, when you look at the choices that appear to be presenting themselves this fall, I’m convinced we can do better.  That’s why I’m running. 

I hope I can count on your support.  Thank you. 





Monday, May 14, 2018

So... Amalgamation -- Yes or No?



I've been spending a lot of time lately thinking about the June 23rd amalgamation vote. 

Practically everywhere I go, people want to talk about this.  They're asking me for my perspective as though somehow - presumably because I'm on North Cowichan Council - I can provide them with some definitive words of wisdom that will settle the issue in their minds and give them a final answer on how to vote.  Warren Goulding, the publisher of the Cowichan Valley Citizen, wrote what can only be described as a scathing indictment of me and my fellow North Cowichan Councillors for "hiding in the weeds" on this issue.  It's his position that each of us on Council are obligated to make our positions known; that not doing so amounts to shirking our responsibilities as elected officials. 

I refuted some of Warren's argument on my Facebook page, essentially making the case that getting politicians to weigh in on this when it's those politicians - more than anyone else - who have a vested interest in the outcome of this discussion, is probably not the best way to have the community make an objective and dispassionate decision.  "Maybe", I wrote, "we shouldn't have bothered" with the hiring of an independent third party to get the unbiased information out there.  Maybe "we should just let the whole debate degenerate into nothing but political 'opinions' from both sides."   

And it's clear that there are a lot of "opinions".   Many of them visceral.  Many of them ill-informed.  And a lot of them very passionate.  There's been lots of discussion on this; there's a pro-amalgamation Facebook page, Letters to the Editor, and lots of chatter on Social Media.  In fact, the social media debate got so heated on the PlaceSpeak website (which was set up as part of the "unbiased" third-party information package on this) that they've shut down the discussion page because of all the bias, anger, and misinformation that was being posted by folks promoting one side or the other in this discussion.

And as I read the opinions on this - both for and against - I don't find most of the arguments to be terribly compelling. 

The "no" side is trotting out claims that amalgamation will inevitably lead to higher taxes for everyone.  Policing is the biggest issue there, with the nay-sayers claiming that costs are going to go through the roof if we amalgamate, because we'll all be forced to pay for policing in the City of Duncan.  On the face of it some of this is true, but what they're not telling you is that Duncan residents will very likely be paying those costs on their own after the next census in any event, because the City will finally cross the Rubicon of the 5-thousand population mark.  Fundamentally, the only difference amalgamation would make is that those extra costs (over a million dollars a year), would be spread among about 20-thousand households rather than the few thousand households in Duncan itself.  And the Province has promised to help with the transition if the vote is "yes", by off-setting about $8-million dollars in policing costs over the first five years of the life of a newly amalgamated municipality.  But the bottom line is that - amalgamation or not - costs for policing will be going up.  The question really comes down to who will pay.  Will it be just the citizens of Duncan, or will this cost be spread more widely?

Fire protection is another favourite alarm bell for the "no" side.  They keep on adamantly insisting that amalgamation will inevitably lead to the need for a full-time paid fire department.  Which is absolute poppycock.  It may happen, but it would equally be fully within the powers of the Council of the newly amalgamated municipality to leave things exactly as they are in terms of fire protection.  And once those Councillors understand the tremendous value we're getting from our paid on-call (volunteer) department(s), it's a pretty good bet they won't want to go down the road of a fully staffed and fully paid fire department.  In my ten years on Council, I honestly can't think of a single municipal operation in either Duncan or North Cowichan where taxpayers are getting a better bang for their buck than in our current fire protection system.

There are other "no" arguments as well.  Duncan Councillor Sharon Jackson - who's strongly on the "no" side of this - keeps insisting that Duncan will lose its identity in an amalgamated municipality.  And that City residents will be swallowed up into a new political entity where they'll have no political input or clout. 

Let's take these one at a time.  The "identity" piece is clearly a shibboleth.  Ask the folks in Maple Bay, Crofton, or Chemainus about their "identity."  They are pretty proud of their communities, and seem to be able to promote their distinctive identities quite clearly and proudly within the larger governance paradigm of North Cowichan.

And the "political input"?  Puh-leeeze, Sharon, give your head a shake.  Duncan's population is larger than Chemainus.  There's no denying that Chemainus has considerable influence within the current governance of North Cowichan, but if Duncan residents were to truly get engaged, there's no reason they couldn't exert the same - or even greater - clout in a newly amalgamated entity than their neighbours to the north. 

Further, the claim about a "lack of influence" is actually kind of galling coming from someone who sits on a Council that has exactly two City residents on it.  That's right folks.  Five of the seven people on the current Duncan Council don't even live within City limits.  (And the two that do aren't property owners; they're renters.)  So let's cut the nonsense about how amalgamation would "reduce the influence" of Duncan residents in the governance of their community.  Even without amalgamation, decisions about tax increases and other city governance issues in Duncan are being made, in the main, by people who don't even live there.  

But some of the arguments from the "yes" side are almost equally unconvincing. The pro-amalgamation people are citing "savings" of up to $830-thousand dollars a year if the two municipalities become one.  They glean these numbers by cherry-picking some items from the Urban Systems technical report that was prepared for the Citizen's Assembly.  And on the face of it, those numbers may be (close to) accurate.  But as someone who's helped put together municipal budgets for 10 years now, I'm not convinced that those "savings" would actually translate into reduced taxes across the board.  In fact, I'm pretty sure the net effect would be minimal.  Those savings, when spread across the total budget of the newly amalgamated municipality, amount to about a 1.5% cut in the taxes that would need to be collected.  But the reality is that our tax increases - in both Duncan and North Cowichan - have been considerably higher than that.  So in effect, whatever "savings" might be generated by amalgamation would - at best - only serve to slightly slow down the rate of tax increases.

What I'm trying to say here is that anyone who believes amalgamation will result in "lower taxes" is dreaming in technicolour.  The same number of people will require the same number of services after amalgamation as before.  And that costs money.  Yes, there may be some "economies of scale" by having these services delivered by a single provider, but we shouldn't be expecting huge savings here. 

So at the end of the day, the finances on this are neither as grim as the anti-amalgamation forces would have you believe, nor as rosy as what's being painted by the pro-unity forces.  Which is another way saying what I wrote back in April, when I first touched on this amalgamation issue on my blog.  I wrote then that "a lot of people will have a vested interest in 'selling' you one side or the other of the proposition."  And I went on to urge you to do your own research. 

So where do I stand on this?  I have followed the history of this closely.  In fact, let me tell you a little secret.  A few years before I was elected to Council, I was invited to a meeting of a group of business folks in town who thought "the time had come" to consider amalgamation again.  The top three municipal bureaucrats in the Valley, (the CAO's), were all retiring or getting ready to leave; Paul Douville in Duncan, Frank Raimondo at the CVRD, and Jim Dias in North Cowichan.  The thinking was that this would be an ideal time to try to merge some governance structures.  Of course, it never happened. 

I campaigned on this issue in 2008, and I managed to get myself elected, which means there must have been a number of people who agreed with me.  But I couldn't convince the rest of the Council of the day that it was a good idea, so my campaign pledge died on the vine.  The notion was resurrected just before the 2014 election, and voters approved the notion of spending some money on studying the idea. 

This led to the establishment of the "Citizen's Assembly", a truly random collection of 36 residents from both municipalities, balanced by gender, age, and place of residence.  That Assembly - at the end of a detailed and in-depth analysis - came to the conclusion that the financial impact of amalgamation probably wasn't going to be a determining factor one way or another.  Here's a quote from their report
"Many of us assumed that amalgamation would save money and hoped it would lead to lower taxes. Others feared that amalgamation would only drive up costs. As we learned from the technical study, amalgamation is likely to have only a modest impact on residential and business taxes.  On its own, amalgamation will not save much money."
Which is basically what I've been trying to say above; that both the naysayers and the folks in favour are over-stating the dollars-and-cents impact of re-uniting the municipalities. 

But a majority of the Assembly also came to the conclusion that amalgamation was the right thing to do.  Again, a quote:  
"We believe that amalgamating Duncan and North Cowichan into a single municipality will make possible lasting co-operation. Amalgamation will enhance the sustainability of our communities by strengthening our fiscal foundation and allow local government to pursue a more coordinated approach to encouraging economic growth, delivering efficient and effective public services, and ensuring that residents benefit from good local planning and strengthened environmental stewardship.  We believe amalgamation will ensure that local government in the Cowichan Valley pursues a common vision and that residents benefit from a harmonized approach to services, policies, and governance."
If I've learned anything in my ten years in local government, it's to be somewhat skeptical of "experts" -- quite often, the real wisdom lies with "ordinary folks."  And it was 36 ordinary folks with an interest in civic governance - but no axe to grind - who delivered a crystal clear message in that Citizen's Assembly report. 

I've run in three elections now; each time, my campaign has been based on the slogan "Common Sense for Community."  And irrespective of the various financial scenarios that are trotted out by either side in this debate, the "bottom line" to this discussion - for me - isn't a financial one.  It's a "Common Sense" one.  And common sense tells me that it's time to undo a mistake that was made in 1912, and re-unite these two municipalities.

I'll be voting "yes" on June 23rd. 


Tuesday, April 10, 2018

To Merge? Or not to Merge?

So the questions have started.  People are approaching me on the street, in the grocery store, and online, asking me how I'm going to vote in the upcoming amalgamation referendum.

One person I was speaking with today opened the conversation with:  "I know you've always been pro-amalgamation, Al, but I appreciate the fact that you're trying to be balanced here."

Well, here's the thing.  When I first campaigned for a seat on Council in 2008, one of the things I committed to was that I would bring forward a motion within 90 days of the election to hold a referendum on this issue.  I made that motion, and it failed rather spectacularly.  There was no appetite on the rest of the Council at that time to take on this issue. 

So it essentially died for the next 6 years.  Then, near the end of the 2011-2014 term, then-Councillor Jen Woike - in conjunction with then-Councillor Martin Barker in Duncan - resurrected the discussion.  That resulted in a question being put on the ballot in the 2014 election, asking the voters whether they would be OK with both Duncan and North Cowichan spending some money on looking at the issue of re-uniting the two municipalities.  In both cases, the voters approved of the idea, although the margin of approval was considerably smaller in Duncan than North Cowichan.

That set in motion 3 years of discussion, spearheaded by a "Committee of Four."  Two Councillors from Duncan (Michelle Bell and Michelle Staples), and two from North Cowichan (Maeve Maguire and myself), looked at how to proceed with this.  First we approached the Province to get them to share in some of the costs of doing a study.  They agreed.  Then, both Councils agreed to the appointment of a "Citizen's Assembly" to consider this.

An outside consultant (Urban Systems), was contracted to produce a report on the technical aspects of the amalgamation.  There was also some input from some long-serving (and retired) politicians and municipal administrators, including former Duncan CAO Tom Ireland and former Mayor Mike Coleman, as well as several familiar names from North Cowichan, including former CAO Jim Dias and long-time councillor Glen Ridgway.

At the end of the day, the Citizen's Assembly considered that technical report and the input from those veterans, and wrote its report.  That report recommended that a vote be held on the issue, and also came out in favour of a "yes" vote.

Which brings us to today.  Last week, Municipal Affairs Minister Selena Robinson issued two "Ministerial Orders", (one for Duncan, and the other for North Cowichan), ordering a vote to be held on June 23rd.

So, where do I stand on the issue today? 

I've often said that when I first got elected, I "knew all the answers."  But then I add: "Now that I've been at the table for 10 years, I'm finally starting to figure out what questions to ask."  Which is another way of saying that my support for amalgamation has softened considerably since 2008.

Yes, I still think that a single governing body makes more sense.  I still shake my head - as do countless other people - at the notion that we have two Fire Halls located just a few blocks apart.  At the very least, the optics of that in terms of efficiency are lacking.

But I'm not as convinced today as I was 10 years ago that amalgamation should be a slam-dunk exercise in cost savings.  There are a number of particular reasons for this.  One very simple one has to do with policing costs.  Right now, what is formally "Duncan" is policed by "provincially-funded" officers. Under amalgamation, that would end. The question becomes: "What proportion of the current 'blended' detachment can legitimately to be considered to be dedicated to policing in 'Duncan proper?'" 

Conventional wisdom, based on call volumes, etc, says that proportion amounts to anywhere between 6 and 10 officers. The financial responsibility for those positions would transfer from the province to the new "amalgamated" municipality.  At a cost of roughly $180,000 per officer (determined by a contract that is negotiated by the Province, and includes costs for ongoing training, vehicles, guns, uniforms, etc), that works out to an extra cost of between $1.08 and $1.8 million dollars. To be clear, that's an annual amount.  Payable every single year.  And funded collectively, by all the taxpayers of the new municipality. If we remain status quo, and Duncan eventually crosses the threshold of 5,000 residents, that cost would be borne exclusively by taxpayers in what is now "the City".

The issue is more closely examined on pages 34 and following of the Urban Systems technical report which I link below. And this is just one example of how the reality of senior government funding structures tend to mess with our preconceived notions of "increased efficiencies."

Residents of what's now Duncan would also - over time - lose their annual "Small Communities Grant" to the tune of roughly a million dollars a year.  It wouldn't go right away, but it would be phased out.  So that's another cost that would have to be absorbed by the new, unified municipality.

So while it may seem counter-intuitive, I have become convinced that amalgamation isn't something that will automatically "reduce costs."  There may be efficiencies in the long term, yes.  But they are neither as big nor as obvious as they may seem.

However, there's another side to this equation as well.  The Citizen's Assembly report came down in favour of amalgamation not on the basis of a cost-benefit analysis, but rather because of social and political realities.  You can read the report for yourself (it's also linked below), but the bottom line for the Assembly was the notion that we are functionally and socially one community.  And that amalgamation would simply reflect that reality in the governance of what are now two distinct political entities.  The convergence of things like zoning bylaws, Official Community Plans, road maintenance standards, and municipal regulations - according to the Assembly - is a bigger reason to amalgamate than any perceived cost savings.  And that position also has some resonance for me.

Bottom line?  There's going to be a lot of information coming at you in the next few weeks.  A lot of people will have a vested interest in "selling" you one side or the other of the proposition.  Don't believe them.  Do your own research. 

Part of the provincial funding identified earlier is going to a public information campaign; a campaign conducted by another outside consultant to ensure objectivity.  All sides of the discussion will be presented, under the the theme "You Decide."  A website (www.youdecide.ca) will be going live shortly, complete with an FAQ page.  There will also be opportunities for community engagement via four open houses throughout the region, including at the Duncan Farmer's Market.  They're also planning a mail-out to every home in both municipalities. 

One more thing.  The ultimate result of this vote will be going to the Municipal Affairs Minister.  It's not up to either Council to determine a "yay" or "nay" on this.  To be clear, a majority of voters in each municipality would have to approve the amalgamation in order for it to go ahead.  And even then, nothing is guaranteed.  For example, if only 8% of the voters in North Cowichan show up for the vote, and the turnout in Duncan is 10%, and the final vote results are just over 50% in favour, the minister may well look at the results and say: "At the end of the day, fewer than 6 in 100 people voted in favour of this.  So it won't be going ahead."  All of which to say, voter turnout will be critical here. 

So after you review all the information, be sure to turn out to vote.  Whichever way you decide to go, your input is critical.  (And yes, there will be advance voting opportunities.  Details on those dates will be released in the coming weeks.  Bookmark that www.youdecide.ca website and go back to it frequently once it's up and running.  Once that happens, there will be lots of new information posted there on an ongoing basis.)

So how will I vote on June 23rd?   That'd be telling.

 -----

Here's the link to the Citizen's Assembly report:  https://bit.ly/2EBcvKV

Here's the link to the Urban Systems technical report:  https://bit.ly/2HeKpKH

And the website that will deal with all of this - to be going live shortly - is www.youdecide.ca


Saturday, September 10, 2016

What's it cost to save a tree??



Well, the final numbers are in on that escapade to save the old maple tree at the Island Savings Centre.  The Commission which is responsible for the operation of the Centre met this week.  I'm currently on a family vacation with the grandkids in Alberta, so I wasn't at the meeting.  But I emailed Centre Manager Terri Askham after the meeting for an update. 

One of the things she sent me was a written summary of the notes for a verbal report she had presented to the Commission on the "tree issue”   With her permission, here’s the most cogent excerpt:

•    A total of $16,245 in direct costs are attributable to the delay in removal of the James Street maple tree.
•    $6,000 was the direct additional cost required  for  the contractor to accelerate the entrance and exit work to complete on time with what we’ve referred to as Phase 1.
•    The remaining $10,245 included added security, signage, legal, arborist and meeting costs.
•    Financial requirements will mean that while the $6,000 can be charged directly to the project budget, the $10,245 will be absorbed by Island Savings Centre operating budget for 2016.

Yes, you read those numbers correctly.  A total of over $16,000 dollars; that’s what the delays have cost the taxpayers.  I find that number absolutely astonishing. The last line of Ms. Askham's note is the most troubling to me.  More than $10,000 dollars will have to be "absorbed by the ISC operating budget" this year.  I wasn't at the meeting so I didn't hear the details of how that would work, but to me, this can only mean one thing.  In the bureaucratic parlance of the operations of the Island Savings Centre, the word "operating" means primarily "programming".  Recreational programming, and most of that for children from underprivileged families.  I suspect it’s that which will be taking a $10,000 dollar hit before the end of this budget year. 

I understand some of the idealism that drove the demonstrators.  And I can forgive some of them for that.  For instance Siearra Courtemanche, the young lady who was the first to climb the tree back on June 28th when we initially resolved to take the tree down, was absolutely upfront about her position.  And also very honourable.  When a deal had been reached to save large chunks of the tree (before that deal was broken by other protestors, and before we discovered just how bad the rot was), she backed away from the protest.  She was patently not part of the demonstration from that time forward. 

What I can't understand is the actions of my North Cowichan council-mate, Joyce Behnsen.  She was the one who took over as the de-facto "leader" of the save-the-tree movement with Ms. Courtemanche's departure at the end of July.  By all accounts, it was Joyce Behnsen who was coordinating the schedule to ensure the tree was “protected” by protestor presence 24 hours a day. 

And I truly don't get that.  This is the same Councillor Behnsen who is constantly pontificating in Council (and virtually everywhere else) on issues of "spending" and "accountability".  She's the first to cry foul every time we need to put out a nickel for virtually anything.  And she's also the first to complain that government is "out of touch" with local residents.  She's certainly entitled to hold all of those opinions, and she's equally entitled to be passionate about saving a tree.  But I can't for the life of me understand how she reconciles her hawkish fiscal positions on other issues with the notion that she led a movement that will result in a $10-thousand dollar hit to recreational programming in our community.  Or how she took a position that essentially idolized a tree at the expense of public safety, all the while claiming she was “representing the public” (one of her favourite phrases), when a vast majority of "the public" was clearly onside with taking the tree down.

Perhaps the voters will reward her passion in 2018.  Or perhaps, like me, this episode will leave them with a severe case of cognitive dissonance when it comes to Councillor Behnsen's underlying principles.  Only time will tell.

I know the Commission made some public statements earlier in the piece about "cost recovery" on this issue.  I'm pretty sure that would have been discussed in a closed session at the Commission meeting, but I wasn't there, and I'm not privy to those details.  However, knowing what I know about the way these things work, I suspect that at the end of the day, legal action to recover the $16-thousand dollars would be somewhat pointless.  We'd likely be laying out as much money in legal fees and court costs as the amount we'd be trying to recover.  So this probably turned into a moot point.

The good news out of the meeting this week is that the parking lot construction project is now back on schedule.  If the weather holds, paving is scheduled to start a week from Monday, and the entire project will be completed on time.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Why I won't be changing my vote on "The Maple Tree".

The discussion on that Maple Tree at the Island Savings Centre just won't die down.  People are still pressuring Commission members to "charge our minds" on this issue.

I'm usually open to public input, but on this issue, the matter is completely settled in my mind.

Here, aggregated in one place, is the rationale for my decision.  To be clear, I'm not trying to speak for any other members of the Commission.  These thoughts are mine, and mine alone.  But the points here are an attempt to coalesce a series of answers to a series of questions and challenges that have been circulating in social media and elsewhere.  You may agree with my conclusions - equally, you are free to disagree with them.  But, to quote Martin Luther, "Here I stand.  I can do no other."

First and foremost, as I've said repeatedly, this is a "liability" question.  Mention that one word - “liability” - to any public official in the context of a piece of public infrastructure and they get very nervous.  Because here’s the problem.  We have a report which says the tree is a liability.  And now, if that thing falls and hurts/maims/kills somebody, our insurance company will look us squarely in the eye and say “you knew, and you chose not to do anything about it.  We’re not covering the damage award.  You’re on your own.” 

And no matter how many other reports are generated, or how credible or well-meaning those report-writers are, that one report is “on the books.”  And it’s all the insurance company needs to refuse coverage of losses  (And trees do fall.  Witness the two blow-downs just this week of healthy-looking trees.. each within a mile of the ISC.  I put up a post on this on my FB page last Wednesday night.)

And here's the thing.  When someone goes after government for negligence/liability in an injury or wrongful death suit, the bar (and the damage awards) are always much, much higher than a standard suit against Joe Homeowner.  The courts tend to look at governments, (understandably), as bodies who “should have known better” because – unlike Joe Homeowner – they have all of the expertise and resources of "government" at their disposal.  There is an expectation that government will keep its citizens “safe”.. a much higher expectation and bar there than the expectation placed on an ordinary citizen who happens to have a tree in their front yard that falls over and hurts somebody.  Yes, that ordinary citizen might be sued, but usually the award wouldn’t be – relatively speaking – anywhere near as big as similar awards in cases of “public” infrastructure.

But let's say - heaven forbid - that we get a big windstorm and the maple falls.  And that this results in a $20-million dollar award in a wrongful death suit.  Insurance won't cover.  And these awards aren't usually amortized over 20 years.  Which means the award has to be paid for through a single tax hike.  The math says that tax increase, in a single year, could be well over $650 on average for each of the 30-thousand properties which are part of the group that pays for the Island Savings Centre.  (Some increases, based on assessment, would be much higher.)  Call me chicken if you want, but I don’t want to be the politician standing in front of a crowd and explaining that tax increase when these people can rightfully poke me in the chest with their finger and say “You idiot!  You knew about this!  You were warned!  And you didn’t do anything!!” 

Of course, the frustrating thing about all of this is that the initial report which identified the liability is subject to a non-disclosure clause.  We didn’t even notice that when we signed it, but I’ve subsequently become aware of the fact that most arborists in the Cowichan Valley will not generally contract with local government without that non-disclosure clause.  We can’t release the report, and we can’t even tell you who wrote it.  The reason?  Look no further than the abuse we’re taking over this.  I’ve had several quiet conversations with local arborists on this, and they’ve told me they have no desire to have picketers outside their homes/offices, complaining that they didn’t make the “right” decision about a particular tree.   Which is why we went to Victoria to get the report from Mr. Dunster.  More on that in a minute.

So whether anyone likes it or not, the liability question is number one here.  I will grant it’s probably not what our opponents want to hear.  In fact, many of them are patently and deliberately tone-deaf to this.  But it's the number one reality here.

But what about the two other arborist's reports; the ones that are public?

First, there's the one from Mr. Gessche

Rather than going to the substance of that report, let me take you through a hypothetical.  Let’s say you are buying a house.  You need a mortgage.  But the bank won’t lend you the money until they’re satisfied the house will stand for the 20-year amortization period; that it’s not gonna collapse into the basement.  So they tell you to get a home inspection.  You have a friend in the home inspection business; you call him up and explain your situation to him.  He does a walk-through and writes a report saying the house is fine.  No charge to you, ‘cause he’s a friend.  Do you really think the bank would accept that report if you tell them the circumstances under which it was written?   Even if your friend was duly certified and did his full due diligence, I trust you can see there would be a credibility problem with that.  And sadly, that’s the problem with Mr Gessche’s report.  Nobody paid for it; he did it voluntarily, and his very public support for keeping the tree - while he's certainly entitled to that opinion - taints the credibility of his report from a purely objective perspective. 

All of which is to say that even if we didn’t have the first report, I’d be very hesitant to present Mr. Gessche's report to our insurance company as evidence that the tree was “safe” in the event it hurt somebody.  Because he has clearly stated his bias in the case. 

And then there's Mr. Dunster's report.  That one is interesting.  Dunster is, (even Gessche has said this), the guy who literally “wrote the book” on risk tree assessment.  His report says the tree is (relatively) safe, but he also qualifies that by suggesting we shore it up by sticking a pole up the middle and “cabling” the bigger branches so they don’t collapse.   Which begs the question; if the tree is so “safe”, why even include that suggestion?  The very fact that it’s in there speaks volumes. 

I suspect that some of this goes back to my earlier point about arborists not wanting to be publicly identified with their work.  Mr. Dunster found a very legitimate way to get around that difficulty and speak to both sides of the issue.  Tree supporters can say, with a considerable degree of assurance and credibility.. “Mr. Dunster says there’s no (major) problem!”  

But if the tree fails, Mr. Dunster can equally say to us.. “I told you there was a potential problem.. you should have put in the supports.”   (And remember, in a hypothetical lawsuit, the insurance company is listening to all of this – they don’t really wanna pay out, and Mr. Dunster’s second statement will speak volumes, especially when combined with the first report we received.)  

And as I said at the public meeting last week, giving that tree a wooden enema with cables just isn’t an option.  Not for $10K, and especially not when doing so will only prolong the agony and put us back in this same place in 5 to 10 years.  Sometimes, you gotta bite the bullet.

The other issue here is the "communication" piece.  I absolutely agree that the Commission could have done a better job on that front.  Particularly in articulating the fact that - Joni Mitchell's little ditty notwithstanding - there is no linkage between the parking lot and the tree.  In other words, even if we weren’t doing the parking lot work, the tree would still be coming out. 

We asked for the initial arborist's report late last year.  That report determined that the tree was a safety hazard/liability.  Once that determination was made, the tree’s fate was sealed, even if we had done nothing to the parking lot.  (See my explanation above about what “liability” means in this context.)  

And it was only after we received the (first) arborist’s report that the discussion started about reconfiguring the parking lot.  We had been putting off that work for several years - actually trying to squirrel away some money for it. But now that the tree was gonna go anyway, it gave us some better, safer options for access/egress onto James Street. 

I tried to suggest to the Commission that we “get ahead” of this back in March, when we made the parking lot design decisions.  I warned that “the tree” would be a problem, and that we should go public with the information then to allow time for public discussion. But the communication plan was considered incomplete without a final dollar figure for the parking lot work, and others around the table thought it best to roll out the communication piece all at once.  Which was fair enough. We didn’t have the final dollar numbers on the parking lot contract at that time – all we’d done was approve the design, the project still had to go out to tender.  Bottom line is that my idea wasn't adopted.  Those things happen. 

So there you have it.  Feel free to criticize all you want, (although I'd ask that you refrain from personal attacks - as Commission Chair Sharon Jackson has pointed out, one person has been unable to resist doing so), but this is, from my perspective, where we stand.

Protestors continue to block the necessary work.  Which means a very protracted and potentially expensive legal battle lies ahead.  This will likely take a few months, but at the end of it all, I'm sure common sense and the facts will prevail. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

A final decision on "the tree"

There are days when I honestly wonder why I'm in local government.  Today was one of those days. 

The Island Savings Centre Commission held a special meeting to make a final determination on the fate of that old, hollow maple tree in the parking lot at the Community Centre - the one by the library entrance.  If you're new to this file, we had an arborist's report done early this year which indicated the tree was in deteriorating health, and posed a potential liability risk.  Concurrent with that report, we were working on a redesign of the parking lot, which is more than 30 years old and in dire need of an upgrade.  Long story short, the recommendation was to improve safety by redesigning the parking lot entrance on James Street.  Rather than two parking lot access points (one in and one out), the new design would provide a single in-out, located precisely where the tree is now.  So the tree would have to be removed.  Which - given the arborist's report - was pretty much a given already, even before the parking lot design was finalized. 

But the decision to remove the tree, when it was communicated publicly, caused a considerable stir.  On June 28th, the day we brought in the tree removal company to "do the deed", a young lady named Seairra Courtemanche climbed up and chained herself to the tree.  The RCMP couldn't talk her down, so the issue went to the CVRD Board.  Often in cases like this, governments will immediately move to "legal" options, including applying for an injunction to remove the protestors.  In this case, the CVRD Board decided to do something else.  They passed a motion to do the parking lot work in stages, starting at the end furthest away from the tree.  In the meantime, they arranged for a community meeting to hear public input on the tree.  That meeting was held on Monday, July 11th.   

The Commission held another special meeting two days later to consider the public input that was received.  We ordered a second arborist's report on the tree, asked some questions about the financial costs of preserving it, and asked about the safety implications of redesigning the parking lot.  Today's meeting was to look at the answers to those questions, and to make a final decision.

We received the second report from Victoria-based arborist Dr. Julian Dunster.  His report essentially says the tree is in rough shape, but that it could be saved by inserting a pole into the middle of it and shoring it up.  Here's a concept drawing of how it would work, taken directly from his report: 

 
Staff have determined the cost of that to be around $10,000.   Mr. Dunster infers this would extend the life of the tree by 5 (or perhaps 10) years.  You can read his full report here.

But the Commission decided not to go that route.  Instead, the tree will be coming out, and the parking lot design will go ahead as originally planned.   We also passed a second motion, “to provide opportunity for the public to participate in a working group to make decisions on the trunk once the tree is removed and the trunk is relocated, as well as how the tree is honoured.”  I'll get to that motion later.  

The discussion at the meeting was intense.  The 50 or so people in the gallery accused us, collectively, of being "stone-hearted".  Commission Chair Sharon Jackson was called out as a "liar".  Folks also demanded I apologize for something I said.  More on that in a minute. 

Context.

Chair Jackson started the discussion by talking about the passions that this issue had engendered, and used the word "bullying" to describe the actions of some who wanted to preserve the tree.  She also referenced a death threat against members of the Commission, which has been forwarded to the RCMP to deal with.  And then she outlined her reasons for supporting the main motion, including the notion that "as stewards of taxpayers’ money, as decision makers who have to weigh likelihoods of failure and the levels of liability, the choice is ours to make.  (And) we should not be making costly and risky decisions based on emotion, but (rather) on the cost/risk benefit analysis..."

Then it came my turn to speak.  Herewith, my speaking notes.  I was interrupted a few times by boos and catcalls from the audience, so this might not be exactly how everything came out of my mouth, but here's what I intended to say:
"I've seen a lot of correspondence on this issue.  A lot of it is before us, and most of the formal correspondence has been in favour of saving the tree. 

One of the letters I saw - and I haven't been able to find it in our package, it came to me by way of an email to my North Cowichan email account - appealed to me to save the tree and closed with the notion that I should "do the right thing, not the easy thing."

As though voting in favour of taking the tree down in front of a crowd of people who are passionate about saving it would be the "easy" thing to do.   Frankly, the "easy" thing for me to do today would be to acquiesce to the pressure we're under.

But I've also received a lot of phone calls and I've had dozens and dozens of conversations about this.  Everywhere I go - whether it's shopping, taking part in the Duncan Parade, or attending social and other events - people want to talk about this tree.  And the folks who are talking to me about it are almost unanimous.  They want the tree down.  In fact, many of them can't even believe we're having this discussion.  

My social media feeds have exploded on this thing; I've had more than 20-thousand views on tree-related posts on my Facebook page since this discussion started about a month ago.  I've had my Councillor Al Siebring Facebook page up for over two years.  There's not a single other issue that has attracted as many visits to my page as this one.  And the comments - both public and in private messages - have run about 90% in favour of taking the tree down.

I want to respect the input that has been received.  But I have to respect all of the input that I've received.

I acknowledge there have been lots of signatures on a petition.  But I also have to acknowledge that the exchanges I've had have been at least as numerous when I add up the emails, the conversations, and the social media interactions.  And those folks, while they're not signing petitions, are also making their wishes abundantly clear."
(At this point, I was interrupted by catcalls from the crowd; folks who demanded to know where all these people who want to cut the tree down were?  Why they weren't at the meeting?  My response was simply that "they have jobs and are probably at work."  That set off howls of protest, and prompted demands later in the meeting that I apologize to everyone in the room for inferring they were a bunch of unemployed slackers.  To be clear, that was never my intent, and it wasn't what I said.  But I'm also not going to apologize for the comment.  Folks can choose to take it any way they want - I was asked where the "supporters" of taking down the tree were, and I gave what I believed to be a factual answer.  Back to my speaking notes:)
"I want to touch, just for a second, on the other arborist's report, from Mr. Todd Gesshe.  (This was a report that supporters of the tree had commissioned to bolster their case.)  Frankly, Mr. Gessche's report failed to convince me, largely on the basis of his qualifications.  He writes that he has "tree risk assessment and consulting experience."  But, while he may have that experience, and he is an arborist, he is not ISA certified as a Tree Risk Assessment Professional.  The distinction is important, because at base this is about the "risk" the tree poses.

Back to the issue of public support.  I note that on the "Tree of Life" Facebook page, there's lots of talk about how - if we vote to take the tree down - this will come back and bite us at the next election.  That's fair enough, but I can't sit here and make decisions based on how my vote will impact my political future.  For me, this issue remains centered on the two issues I talked about at the last meeting - the matter of liability, and about doing the right thing with taxpayer dollars.   I also find it interesting that the aforementioned Facebook page has only managed to attract, as of this morning, 81 "likes".  That's a far cry from the 1750  names on the petition.  But it's also a far cry from the number of people who've told me in no uncertain terms that they disagree with the notion of keeping the tree.

That Facebook page also links to a gofundme page called "treesarelife.ca".  The goal on that page was to get $3-thousand dollars in donations.  I'm not sure how long it's been up - the first donation was made about 10 days ago - but so far, just two people have donated.  A grand total of $125 dollars.  I will grant that obviously those who want to save the tree have been self-funding their enterprise; I presume somebody had to pay something for Mr. Gesshe's report.   But in a day and age where gofundme has been known to raise millions of dollars in just a few days for certain causes (and I will grant that this one doesn't have that kind of profile, but still...) I think it's fair to say the people of the Cowichan Valley aren't exactly lining up with open wallets to support this cause in any big way.

But that is what we're asking them to do if we save the tree.  We're being asked to spend $10,000 tax-payer-funded dollars for the work that Mr. Dunster recommends.  And then up to $1500 per year for maintenance.  And for what?  To potentially extend the life of this tree by 5 or 10 years.  And then what?  Are we back in this room, debating whether to spend another $10,000 dollars?

It's been said that saving the tree will save us $40-thousand dollars in the overall parking lot budget.  I remain unconvinced.  First of all because - as I said - we'll potentially be back in this same spot in five years, and arguably in a worse place in terms of the parking lot redesign and the expenses associated with it.  And secondly because if we choose to save the tree, the configuration of the parking lot does compromise on safety.  It would be better than it is now, yes.  But it wouldn't be as good as it could be.

While I acknowledge the passion and the energy that have gone into the campaign to save this tree, I won't be doing the "easy thing" here.  Because, as I said, the "easy thing" would be to look at all of you, smile, and vote to save the tree.

Instead, I'll be doing what I consider to be - for all the reasons I've outlined - the "right thing".  I'll be supporting the motion before us."

After some more discussion, the Commission passed a motion that said “That the Big Leaf Maple Tree be removed and the redesign of the Island Savings Centre parking lot proceed in accordance with Attachment B of the General Manager, Community Services, July 12, 2016 report.”  

So the decision is made.  The tree will have to go.  During the question period that followed, Seairra Courtemanche (she was the one who had climbed the tree back on June 28th), appealed to the Commission to at least "save the stump".  To be honest, I wasn't totally clear on what she was asking.  Was she requesting that we save the stump "in place"?  In the location where the tree is now?  Because the motion clearly said that the parking lot redesign would be done with the tree gone. 

In any event, after the open portion of the meeting, we went into "closed" session.  Under the Local Government Act, I can't talk about what was discussed there.  But anyone who watches these things unfold knows what "usually" happens with respect to these cases.  (See my comments near the beginning.)  However, I can tell you that the Commission went a different route, unanimously passing - and then publicly reporting out on - a motion to "provide opportunity for the public to participate in a working group to make decisions on the trunk once the tree is removed and the trunk is relocated, as well as how the tree is honoured."

I see this as an attempt to not do "business as usual" on this, but instead, to engage the community within the context of the decision that has been made.  To be clear, the decision won't be changed; the tree is coming down.  But perhaps something can be done to "save the stump" per Ms. Courtemanche's request - albeit that the stump will be "relocated".  And maybe this can be done in a way that acknowledges the strong feelings about this issue, and brings some closure for all concerned.  After what I saw at today's meeting, I think that is sorely needed.

I started out by saying that today was "one of those days where I wonder why I'm in local government."  To be clear, that wasn't some invitation to a pity-party for "poor Al".  But sometimes, these situations can be difficult and frustrating.  (I went through an entire roll of Tums during the meeting.)

In the end, I'm not particularly proud of the decision we made today.  But I'm absolutely not ashamed of it either.  This isn't about that, and it's not about me.

Difficult decisions have to be made, in spite of how some people feel about them.  I do take considerable comfort from the fact that I wasn't standing alone on this.  Almost every other Commission member - having read and considered all the reports from the professionals and from staff - agreed with me in the final vote, and this includes people with whom I have often disagreed sharply on other issues. 

But it is what it is.  I truly hope we can now move forward. 
 

Saturday, September 26, 2015

UBCM - Value for Money?

Well, that was quite a week.  I'm just back from 5 days in Vancouver, attending the annual Union of BC Municipalities Convention.

I know there are people who question the "value for money" inherent in these conferences.   Someone asked me on FaceBook the other night:  "..does (this Convention) provide real benefit to municipalities?"  

My response?  "...the real benefit to these things is in the networking and the 'face-time' with senior government leaders. We had one-on-one meetings with about half a dozen Provincial Cabinet ministers this week on stuff that's of great importance to the Valley, including the new High School, the cost-share formula for the new RCMP detachment, and several other issues.
Another example is the Chemainus River bridge. That was a $5-million-dollar project which - thanks almost exclusively to lobbying at UBCM and FCM - was paid for entirely by senior levels of gov't!  (We were expecting to pay at least a third, which would have involved borrowing and tax hikes.)  The payback from that project alone paid for about 20 years of UBCM attendance for every mayor and Council. And there are (and hopefully will be) many more coming down the pipeline."

So herewith, a brief report on this year's Convention.

The biggest single issue on our agenda this year was to raise the profile of the High School project.   This project is about much more than "Education" per-sé.  That Ministry is obviously the lead one - this is a high school after all - but there are a lot of other implications and partnerships involved in this.  The vision for Cowichan Place includes not just a High School, but also a Trades Center - kind of a Vocational School primarily for First Nations students.  A version of that Trades Center is already up and running at the old Koksilah Elementary School location and it's been a huge success, with firm job placements for more than 80% of the students who come through that program in disciplines such as welding and carpentry.  And the dream is to put a new, dedicated Trades Center on the University Village campus; located between the new High School and VIU.  The Center would be academically integrated into both institutions.  High School students who, for whatever reason, aren't inclined toward a strictly academic stream of study could move into the Trades Center under a program that is recognized and in some way accredited by VIU. 

So it really is a project that has implications across multiple Provincial Ministries.  Our first meeting - for obvious reasons - was with Education Minister Mike Bernier.  Next up, John Rustad, the Minister of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation.  We stressed the major First Nations component of the Trade School idea.  We also had 15 minutes with the Minister of Advanced Education, Andrew Wilkinson, and Shirley Bond, who's in charge of Jobs and Skills training.   If you re-read the paragraph above, you can clearly see how each of these Ministries has a role to play in the advancement of this project. 

The reception we received on this file was truly encouraging.  Every Minister started out by telling us that there was no money for the project in the immediate 3-year capital plan.  But pretty much every single one of them also told us that this could change quite dramatically, and quickly.  This is because projects that do move into that 3-year plan have to be "shovel-ready" and, wherever possible, need to be able to demonstrate good buy-in from the community.  It seemed somewhat surprising to me, but apparently those two factors ("shovel-readiness" and community buy-in) are not as common as you might think, and often projects that make it into the plan are dropped quite quickly when those items are found to be missing.  But in our case, we have them both.  In spades.  Cowichan Tribes and the School District are strongly supportive, and North Cowichan has just gone through an extensive 3-year exercise to develop the land use for the area; the "University Village Local Area Plan", for which we received what amounts to a "Green Planning Award" at the Convention.  (We also referenced the notion that part of the Local Area Plan involved getting traffic off the Highway by extending Festubert and perhaps St. Julian Streets through the current high school property.)  

The other factor that we stressed had to do with the bottom line capital cost.  The project - when it goes ahead - will involve the eventual demolition of the current Cow High building and the sale of the land on which it's sitting.  This is potentially some of the most valuable commercial real estate in the Cowichan Valley.  The School District has factored that value into the cost of the new High School, reducing the net cost of putting up the new facility.  All in all - and in every single meeting - there was a recognition that we had done our homework and that all the factors needed to make this project go ahead were there.  Several Ministers actually inferred that they would like to physically tour the site and have a closer look.  We're hoping to put that together sometime in the next few months.

Other meetings were equally fruitful.  You may recall that earlier this year, we ended up with some unexpected budget pressure to help fund the operations of our new Visitor Information Center.  The Center was built on the premise that the operations would largely be covered by funding from Destinations BC.  That organization had historically been funding these Centers based on the traffic they generated; a "performance-based" model.  We knew that the number of visits would increase exponentially at the new, more accessible location, and that's exactly what has happened.  But this spring, the Province changed the operational funding formula, essentially "freezing" funding at historic levels.  Which left the Center (and the Chamber of Commerce which operates it), in a real budgetary pickle.  They ended up coming to local government for help with the operations budget, and we acquiesced to that request.  We explained the dilemma in our meeting with Shirley Bond, (who's also responsible for the Tourism file), and we received a solid commitment that - because we were the only jurisdiction in the Province that got caught in the middle on this funding rule change - there would be a review of the funding in our specific situation.

Then there was the meeting with Susanne Anton, the Minister of Justice.   We're trying to get some clarity on the funding formula for the new RCMP station.  North Cowichan is footing the entire capital cost of construction, but the Province will be chipping into that cost through a lease arrangement to house provincially-funded RCMP members who police the City of Duncan and a large slice of the CVRD's "rural areas."  What's unclear is exactly what that Provincial contribution will be.  The whole question of manpower at the local detachment has been a topic of ongoing discussion for the past several years, and we again made the case that the Province is under-represented in the total staffing at the detachment.  We're hoping to get some extra provincially-funded members, or at very least some final clarity on this, before we make the final budgetary commitments on the construction of the new building.  I also raised the long-standing issue of "out of jurisdiction" funding for major crime investigations again, and thanked the Minister for the re-write of the Police Act (which had been largely precipitated by our lobbying on this file in previous years.)  I'm hoping that we'll have some final clarity on this issue with regards to the specifics in North Cowichan sometime in the upcoming year. 

There are those who say that these 15-minute meetings with Cabinet Ministers (commonly and somewhat derisively referred to as "speed dating"), can't really accomplish much.  But based on what I experienced again this year, I would respectfully disagree.  There is real value in these sessions, especially if they are done consistently, and if our "ask" in each meeting is clearly focused and well-explained. 

Other meetings?  We got together with the Environment Ministry to continue our push for year-round use of the Chemainus water wells.  Responsibility for this file actually rests with the Province, and we continued to make the case that we want to pump from those wells year-round rather than having to use the Banon Creek supply during the summertime.  That file is also moving forward, albeit more slowly than we would like.  We also had a session with senior staff at BC Hydro on the notion of shifting the public street lights in North Cowichan (which we lease from Hydro), to LED technology.  Hydro told us that they're starting a pilot project in Richmond this fall to test various brands and technologies on this, and that they hope to be able to move forward on this file within two years.  The savings on this would be substantial.  Our CAO, Dave Devana, was at the meeting, and based on some back-of-the-napkin calculations he did there, the pay-back on the capital investment is less than 4 years; after that, we are into a situation where we are saving substantial amounts of money on our annual Hydro bill to power these lights. 

In addition to the formal meetings we had above, the Convention also provides opportunities for informal hallway discussions, both with Cabinet Ministers and other delegates.  We learn from one another; look at best practices in other municipalities, and come back with ideas that can potentially be implemented here. 

And then there's the "Resolutions" sessions.  This is where the collective body - more than 12-hundred delegates representing communities from across the Province - debates issues and forwards concerns to senior levels of government.  This year, we had a total of 166 resolutions to consider. 

North Cowichan led the pack on this.  One of our resolutions was deemed to be the most important of the entire convention, and was the first on the list for debate.  (Kudos, incidentally, to Councillor Kate Marsh for bringing this one forward to our Council table.)  The resolution dealt with infrastructure funding:
ALLOCATION OF NEW BUILDING CANADA FUND  - North Cowichan

WHEREAS local governments collect only 8% of total tax revenue in Canada but are responsible for 60% of the infrastructure demands which contribute to the upward spiraling of property taxes;

AND WHEREAS the Government of Canada, through the Building Canada Fund, allocates monies to the  provinces  that  are  meant  to  address  the  increasing  infrastructure  deficit  and  demands,  but  the Province of BC transfers only 40% of these monies to local government:

THEREFORE  BE  IT  RESOLVED  that  UBCM  call  on  the  Province  to  allocate  60%  of  the  Building Canada Fund directly to local government.

The motion passed unanimously. 

I have to say, though, that I found the discussion on some other resolutions to be somewhat discouraging.  Last fall's elections represented a noticeable shift in the collective make-up of municipal politicians across the Province.  The penchant toward social activism and constant demands in areas that are patently not in our jurisdiction (pipelines, a national anti-poverty strategy, etc), continued to intensify.  (For some historic perspective on this, click here to see a recap of a debate at last year's convention in Whistler.)  I truly believe these kinds of resolutions dilute the effectiveness of our voice on issues that are within our purview, such as the infrastructure funding resolution above.

I saw a meme on social media a few weeks ago, and I fear that it accurately sums up the reality of some of the thinking that was in evidence on the Resolutions floor at this year's convention.

But all in all, this was another very worthwhile convention.  My one frustration (aside from some of the resolutions), lies in the fact that it takes a lot of time to move some of these files forward.  For example, I've been meeting with various Justice Ministers on the "out of jurisdiction" policing cost file at every UBCM Convention since 2009; the file is moving forward at a snail's pace, and I would have like to see this resolved much more quickly.  But the lobbying - while it takes time - is bearing fruit, and you can't really ask for much more than that.