Editorial: What Have We Done?

During the couple of weeks immediately surrounding our two elections (federal, and assent voting), I have not wanted to muddy the waters with discussion of any issues outside the immediate and practical ones:  evaluating and choosing our federal candidates, and determining the community will regarding Bylaws 328 and 341.  Now that both elections are over, however, I think we might want to reflect on the last year in Cortes politics and what the results of our recent referendum imply.

Central to all the unprecedented events of the last year, I suspect, is the hall tax service.  If we trace the whole back story of the hall tax proposal, this article will be miles too long;  so I direct the curious reader to a stack of old Tideline articles and Campbell River Mirror articles for lot of messy history.  Let us just say for the moment that 

  1. the issue has been contentious;
  2. after being defeated initially under an Alternative Approval Process which requires only 10% opposition to stop a proposal, some years later the hall tax service saw approximately 2:1 support (66% of signatures) based on petition and letter writing;
  3. opponents of the hall tax service focused their efforts intensively on preventing it from ever coming to a public vote, successfully creating much delay and confusion at SRD;
  4. during the “fake referendum” in October 2018, there was about 69% support to proceed with a referendum;
  5. over the last 18 months, a variety of what I could call anti-democratic tactics were adopted by opponents of the hall tax service, to try to discredit Regional Director Anderson and derail Cortes business at SRD;
  6. in October 2019, when finally we were allowed a real referendum, the proposal received 75% support.

What do I mean by anti-democratic tactics, and what conclusions do I draw from the referendum results of October 26th?

Anti-democratic tactics

Opponents of the hall tax service proposal based their strategy on preventing a referendum from happening. Presumably they were well aware of majority support for the proposal, and hence the only way to “win” was to prevent a vote.

Over time their tactics included: misinformation and disinformation disseminated (often anonymously) on Cortes Island via Tideline and the Marketer (and even Cortes Radio); disinformation directed at SRD, overstating the scale of opposition to the hall tax service; covert lobbying of SRD Directors from other Areas to oppose and undermine our own Director; and after the closely-contested election of 2018, harassment of voters and an attempt to litigate Director Anderson out of office when a legitimate election process failed to remove her. Things happened on Cortes that had never happened before — things that deeply shocked some people and merely annoyed others, but all of them were consistently aimed at disrupting normal political process.

I would call these tactics anti-democratic because they attempted to circumvent, sabotage, or manipulate the normal process of local politics in order to project the will of a minority bloc and override or pre-empt the majority vote. For reasons not obvious to me, these tactics for a time succeeded. Whether SRD was in some way complicit with the minority bloc, or merely a gullible victim of their tactics, at times it has certainly seemed to be singing from their sheet music.

 SRD’s behaviour has been inconsistent and skittish — despite fairly obvious indicators such as petition signature counts — as if support for the hall tax service were minimal or questionable, the margin of approval so fragile as to make it a dangerous and delicate decision. Such epic havering and wavering over a very straightforward request for a referendum on an issue with 66% popular support! SRD apparently chose not to believe our Regional Director’s assessment of the level of public desire for resolution of this issue, but instead to believe disinformation being conveyed through secretive private lobbying.

SRD also appeared to take particular exception to the hall tax service; when this proposal had been in the works for almost a decade, bogged down in SRD obstructionism, SRD chose to “fast track” a very comparable tax service proposal from the Cortes Fire Halls, leapfrogging it ahead of the hall tax proposal remarkably soon after it had been submitted. (Director Anderson insisted that the two referendum requests should be dealt with in tandem. )

It is possible that the frivolous and unfounded litigation filed against Director Anderson in January 2019 was part of the same strategy to prevent the referendum from taking place. Perhaps the litigants imagined that if Director Anderson were removed, a less dedicated Director might not work as hard to bring the majority viewpoint to the table? Certainly they succeeded in getting SRD to freeze all Cortes Island business for a while (yet more delay), until public outrage and activism got the process moving again. SRD took this obviously vexatious litigation far more seriously than it deserved or than common sense would have indicated — once again either collaborating with, or being the dupe of, anti-democratic hijinks.

Stress and painful division were inflicted on the community by the covert and mischievous tactics — some of them disturbingly reminiscent of the US far right — used by hall tax opponents. By fighting to the bitter end to prevent the referendum by any means necessary, they perpetuated and intensified the existing difference of opinion in the community far beyond its natural bounds. A disagreement which could have been settled easily and quickly by popular vote, was instead dragged out for years — like a divorce in which one person will not let the other move on. Their “anti-tax” attempts to game the system, ironically, cost the taxpayer thousands of dollars … and cost Cortes Islanders thousands of hours of time and energy that could have been better spent.

Referendum Results & Conclusions

Now that the long unhappy struggle is over and the matter decisively resolved, what conclusions can we draw from the vote of October 26th?

The first conclusion and the most obvious is what we knew all along: there has consistently been majority support for the hall tax service. (One prominent Anti, the day after the election, said that the results — which happily surprised some Yes voters — were actually about what he had expected. ) The struggle against it has always been the struggle of a minority bloc trying to prevent democratic process because they knew that a fair and legitimate vote would not turn out “the right way”.

I trust that the SRD Board will pay attention to this obvious fact and realise that Director Anderson has been telling them the truth all along, simply doing her job: bringing the majority will of the Cortes community to the table. But I hope they will pay attention to a few more details as well.

Director Anderson was elected by a fairly narrow margin in 2018; of 634 ballots cast, she received 353 votes. In the recent referendum, 550 people voted and the hall tax service received 413 Yes votes. Not only was this a much higher percentage (75% vs 57%), but it was a higher absolute ballot count than Director Anderson received in 2018, even though from a smaller total voter pool. In other words, people voted for the hall tax service who did not vote for Noba Anderson: in bringing this proposal to SRD she represented constituents who did not vote for her, as well as many who did. Support for the hall tax service is not limited — as some have suggested — to supporters of Director Anderson.

Another interesting detail is that support for the hall tax service has increased steadily over the two year period during which the opposition to it was working the hardest and using the most dubious tactics. At the informal petition stage, the signature proportions were approximately Yes 66%, No 37%. After a lot of what I would go so far as to call “dirty politics” from the Nay side (resulting in the nonbinding or “fake” referendum which delayed hall funding by another year) support rose to 69%. And after the post-election shenanigans — including a slipshod, amateurish attempt to litigate a re-elected Director out of office on the flimsiest of grounds — support rose to 75%.

The conclusion I draw from this is a heartening one: that the people of Cortes were not fooled, distracted, or discouraged by all the smoke and mirrors and mischievous, anti-democratic tricks that were tried between October 2017 and October 2019. In fact, if the numbers suggest anything it is that the Antis lost support, alienated voters, and inspired people to “switch sides” by relying on unpleasant campaign tactics. (I believe this is what the CIA calls “blowback.”)

Cortes came out in unusual numbers for a “boring” local referendum. In fact, more people came out to vote on our two new bylaws than for the Federal election! This shows that Cortes residents care passionately about their local politics, that we are paying attention and do not get bored and give up easily, and that approximately three-quarters of us care more about community institutions and our legacy to future generations than about maximising the thickness of our personal wallets.

We should all feel reassured that positive proposals for community and quality of life, such as the two bylaws we just endorsed with our vote, are not some kind of “special agenda” instigated by any particular Director. They came from the community and had the support of a strong majority. Regardless of who sits in the Director’s seat, the voters of Cortes will continue to have the same values and cast their votes accordingly.

It appears that some believe attacking and somehow defaming or deposing Director Anderson will alter the community’s values and direction; given our referendum result, I hope they will now reconsider. I hope that SRD will now admit that Director Anderson is, in fact, representing a majority of Cortes voters on most issues — and is not running wild or making up projects or proposals to please some hypothetical influential minority. But most of all I hope that those who have seen their anti-democratic tactics backfire will pursue their political aims more honestly and transparently from now on, instead of trying to monkeywrench local governance.

What we have done, in voting so solidly and decisively on October 26th, is in my estimation not just to support our community halls or our fire fighters (worthy as I believe both causes to be). We’ve also supported and upheld fundamental democratic values: by persevering until we finally got SRD to give us a chance to vote, and then by taking the time to come out and vote, thus making the process meaningful. I am as grateful to the No voters who came out on October 26th as to the Yes voters. A small turnout would have reduced the impact and meaning of these results. Democracy only works if we all participate. It only works if we play by the rules and allow it to work. Although October 26th might be seen as a victory for the fire halls, or a victory for the community halls, what it was more than anything (in my view) was a victory for local democracy.

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