Hornby Island has roughly the same number of inhabitants as Cortes Island. They have similar problems with volunteer burn-out, partisanship on public issues, disruptive personalities, and gossip. Reina LeBaron, Hornby Island Residents and Ratepayers Association’s (HIRRA) Administrator, said this is usual in small communities. Some disgruntled Hornby residents even complained to their Regional Director, but the discontent has not festered on Hornby, like it has on Cortes. To some extent I suspect this may be because of Hornby Island’s style of government.
Cortes Island’s Problems
We are living is a disruptive era. While many are calling out for more environmental protections, climate action, and more public voice in government, there are people who believe these voices are too extreme. Thus it is not surprising to find resistance to Cortes Island’s Regional Director, who has so passionately attached herself to the cause of climate resilience.
One of the unusual aspects of the situation on Cortes is the manner in which dissidents found a way to leverage their complaints by seeking out willing ears within the Strathcona Regional District Board’s Electoral Areas Services Committee (EASC). It’s difficult to ascertain how long phone calls and emails from Cortes Island have played a prominent part in the way the SRD treats Cortes’ representative, but last year this became public knowledge.
Another striking characteristic of our situation is the lack of communication. In-so-far as possible within the constraints of the SRD’s governmental system, which seems to make so many decisions “in camera” (i.e. – secretly), our Regional Director has been candid, but the conversation is one sided. Some Cortes residents clearly do not expect a fair hearing for their concerns. So they have resorted to other methods. I was in the courtroom when the lawyer representing 14 disgruntled Cortes residents acknowledged there was no factual basis for the legal petition they brought against our Regional Director. His only response, after sitting quietly while their allegations were torn apart, was to say “My clients were put up to it.” This public disgrace has not stopped the abuse, which usually comes from anonymous sources.
What Does The HIRRA Model Offer Cortes?
So how does the Hornby Island Resident’s and Ratepayer’s Association model offer us a way forward?
“Dealing with community conflict requires a lot of work, thick skin and a lot of community action … That’s where a public forum is challenging, but it is definitely useful to have everyone who is interested in a topic to be in the room and hearing things first hand,” said LeBaron.
Lynn Nunley, President of HIRRA, pointed out, “Our community members do have the right to go directly to the area director and say whatever they want, but our directors have been pretty open minded to analyzing the data and knowing which avenue to pursue to access the rest of the story.”
LeBaron added, “We certainly haven’t had someone lobbying the other directors to oppose our area director, but then Hornby doesn’t have its own area director either.”
HIRRA is a model of direct democracy in which every land owner, or person with at least six months residency on Hornby, can participate. They do not allow proxies, but any residents who meet those requirements can show up at meetings, voice their perspectives and vote.
Joining The Association
“You are not allowed to join the association unless you do so in person. There have been issues with people living off-island, with a second home here, reading about an issue and wanting to become a member so they can vote. This is another level of protection to ensure no one can stack the vote from afar without being informed,” said Nunley.
For the same reason, members are not eligible to vote until 42 days after they register.
There is no age restriction, cost for membership, and it does not need to be renewed.
“We’ve had several babies sleep through meetings and, theoretically, they could be signed up – except that would be a proxy vote,” said LeBaron.
Only People At The Meetings Can Vote
Why do you insist that only people present at the meeting can vote?
“Tradition,” said LeBaron
This requirement goes back to the years when only landowners could vote. They were usually male, paid $5 a year to belong to the ratepayer’s association, and could add their wives for an extra $1. The association was later enlarged to include renters and the term ‘residents” was added to its name in 1979.
“Democratically it makes sense for the type of decisions we make. Most of them are fiscal, monetary and taxation issues,” said Nunley.
If everyone is present, there is a chance for conversation
“Or you can have a big screaming match, which has happened here a few times too.”
What Does HIRRA Do?
“Most of our time and energy is directed to overseeing the Hornby Island services that we are contracted with Comox Valley Regional District (CVRD) to manage/deliver as these are the larger services under our control,” said LeBaron.
- The Fire Department
- Waste Management Recycling Depot
- The Community Hall
- Recreation Committee
- Regional Parks
- Invasive weed control
- the privy council (public outhouses)
Nunley added, “We have quite a good relationship with the CVRD and it has been carefully cultivated over the years. We’ve had some hostile CEOs and directors, when we were working on obtaining funds to improve our recycling and waste management, but they’ve gone or mellowed.”
“Day to day operations are managed by volunteer Committees and some part-time staff, including myself,” said LeBaron.
“Although we have around 500 members on the books, there are usually about 25 people at our monthly meetings. Budget approval and AGM election meetings draw closer to 40 or 50 members. If there is a controversial community issue, we may have twice that.”
“The agenda is circulated to all resident mail-boxes on Hornby about one week prior to the meeting. Any motions involving significant changes (e.g. unusual expenditures, policy changes, etc.) are publicized on that agenda. The agenda is also posted on our community FaceBook page and on the HIRRA website.”
Nunley explained, “Everyone knows the first Wednesday of the month is the usual time. The agenda is circulated to give people a sense of what will be talked about. Do you want to show up? Oh, it’s all budget – Yes! Or its reports from recreation, not so interesting – or vice versa.”
Reina LeBaron emailed, “ …The membership in attendance at meetings votes on motions proposed by the Executive or Management Committees regarding budgets, changes to policy, elections and other significant issues.”
“We have a very hands on method of getting the motions that aren’t generated by the four of us in the executive. Someone approaches Reina or someone in the executive and says ‘I have an issue and would like to flesh it out.” Then they are invited to the executive meeting, which is two weeks prior to the regular meeting. We discuss it and determine if it is related to HIRRA and is an issue we can handle.” said Nunley.
LeBaron added, “That’s for significant motions, like placing a new building or instituting a new tax requisition or something with significant community impact. We are often willing to take motions from the floor, without prior notice, for little things like writing letters, researching something, or the beginning steps of things.”
Committees and Other Organizations
“Over the years, HIRRA has had different committees for different functions. The Hornby Island Community Economic Enhancement Corporation (HICEEC) was originally a HIRRA committee. We did, for awhile, have a housing committee. We’ve also had a possum committee, when we were dealing with invasive possums. We’ve had other committees come and go. Roadside trails was formerly its own committee and has since been absorbed into the parks committee. Basically HIRRA responds to the wishes of the membership in terms of what functions we want to oversee,” says LeBaron.
“Other community groups also regularly use HIRRA’s public community forum to report on their activities or upcoming events. We would not be the place for motions about other groups’ activities except insofar as they impact HIRRA. (e.g. to write a letter in support…)”
“Other islands have approached us to ask how we’ve managed to bring a lot of our tax funding back into community control, and you have to realize we are a mature organization. HIRRA has been running for more than fifty years and it has had its ups and downs. Our relationship with the CVRD has grown. Those things have impacted our legitimacy with the community and our relationship with the CVRD,” said LeBaron.
“This is not going to happen overnight, for another island trying to replicate this. There is a lot of work to be done before you develop the confidence with both the population and your regional district that, in fact, you do represent the island. We never do represent everyone, but [we do] sufficiently to move ahead with things.”
“We are a legitimate place for airing concerns and the meetings are safe for people to do that. There was a time when people didn’t want come to meetings because they were very conflict driven. There was a lot of animosity and people didn’t want to come. Now they don’t want to come because they are kind of boring.”
This change has come about, in part, because of HIRRAs emphasis on good conduct and the fact officers model this.
Top Photo: View from Middle Bench, Hornby Island – Courtesy HIRRA website