The political maneuvering began as the agenda, for the Strathcona Regional District Board’s May 27th meeting, was adopted. Regional Director Jim Abram added a “subsequent,’ which he said was way down the agenda. A number of comments, scattered throughout the video below, show that the other rural directors knew what was coming. Regional Director Brenda Leigh alluded to Abram having “something better to propose.” Cortes Island Regional Director Noba Anderson expressed disappointment that one of her colleagues “is trying to put forward a motion ahead of time to not even allow this discussion.” Two major Quadra Island projects – the proposed BC Ferries passenger service and new firehall – have also been delayed because of the Electoral Areas Services Committee’s (EASC) prearranged decision. The public hearing for Rainbow Ridge is postponed until sometime after September 7th, 2020.
Cortes Island Ahead
Once again, Cortes Island has shown itself to be ahead of the cumbersome Strathcona Regional District. Over the past two months, virtual meetings have become an accepted component of our lives. Anyone with a telephone or computer can attend. Community meetings are also broadcast live over Cortes Radio, CKTZ 89.5 FM. In a time of physical isolation, many Cortesians are actually experiencing a more intimate, albeit virtual, acquaintance with the people and organizations around them.
As for holding in-person meetings, the recent opening of Mansons Friday Market showed what can be accomplished. A steady flow of local residents moved through the hall, at six foot intervals. While the numbers were probably lower than previous years, every booth reported ‘sales were great’. Arriving half an hour after the market opened, I found that many items had already sold out and others were fast disappearing.
Cortes Island presents a glimpse into what could have been, but it is only one of four electoral areas within EASC.
The Need For Prompt Action
The rezoning hearing for a proposed 22 unit affordable housing development in Mansons Landing, known as Rainbow Ridge, was originally scheduled for last April. It was delayed because of COVID, so staff advised that the rezoning hearing be held electronically on Thursday, June 25, 2020.
“ … Our 22-unit project for 965 Beasley Rd–now called Rainbow Ridge– was also declared eligible for later rounds of funding at that time. The second round of the Community Housing Fund was announced a few days ago, on May 21, and all projects with some form of BC Housing support are eligible to apply. Happily, this includes Rainbow Ridge. It is a rolling funding call, with applications being accepted starting May 27th 2020, but there is a strong indication that applying early will increase an organization’s chance of being funded.”
Wrong Property Identified
Regional Director Benda Leigh objected, “We are talking about the 22 units that have been applied for and already funded by BC Housing … Nobody should be distracted by the idea that we’re holding up millions of dollars, because we are not.”
Her comment appears to have risen from a misunderstanding. The Cortes Island Seniors Society also owns a two acre parcel beside the proposed development. Cortes Senior’s Village was built fourteen or more years ago. They recently started construction on another four units for that development. While this obtained funds from BC Housing, there has not been an application for the 22 units under discussion.
Director Anderson pointed out that Rainbow Ridge needs this additional funding to go forward.
Should The Hearing Be ‘In Person?’
The next debate revolved around the question of whether the proposed rezoning meeting needed to be ‘in person.’
“I am not attached to there being an ‘in person’ component for this. If it is possible, it would be great. This is a recommendation coming forward from staff and I support it because my colleagues from the electoral areas believe having an in person meeting is really critical … We could do this online, providing people can comment,” said Anderson.
Campbell River Mayor Andy Adams responded, “I think to hold an in person public hearing at this time is offensive and I will not be supporting this. I see no problem with doing this electronically.”
Director Claire Moglove, also from Campbell River, added, “I think it is important that municipal and regional governments proceed with their business, as long as it is done in a safe way. At the city we have also struggled with public hearings and are now going ahead with electronic public hearings. If there is a way to combine that, as Director Anderson indicated, I don’t see where that is a problem as long as anyone else can attend virtually.”
Leigh did not like this, “I cannot support an in person public hearing on June 15. We are dealing with seniors who are the most vulnerable group, as far as COVID goes. We are also dealing with Directors who have been told we would have to travel on a water taxi crammed in with no six foot separation between us. Ten people or so, with staff … I am not prepared to risk my life to go to an ‘in person’ hearing.”
She added, “I think in person hearings are ideal. They are the most democratic way of conducting our government business … We need to defeat this motion and I think director Abram has something better to propose.”
What Does The Ministerial Order Say?
The Provincial Government recently released a Ministerial Order (No M139) which, in section 8.1 pertaining to Regional Districts, states:
“A board, a board committee established under section 218 [appointment of select and standing committees] of the Local Government Act, or a body referred to in section 93 [application of rule to other bodies] of the Community Charter as that section applies under section 226 [board proceedings: application of Community Charter] of the Local Government Act, may conduct all or part of a meeting of the board or committee by means of electronic or other communication facilities.”
Senior Manager Tom Yates said, “With respect to Ministerial Order M139, I have had a number of legal opinions which suggest that the removal altogether of opportunities for people to attend personally, subject to social distancing and all those other things, may open up a bylaw enforcement challenge.”
Chief Administrative Officer David Leitch pointed out that while holding 100% electronic meetings opens up the possibility of a legal challenge, that doesn’t mean there will be one.
“There are, as Director Moglove said, Many local governments doing meetings 100% electronically.”
Director Anderson’s Solution
Anderson suggested that she be the only director present. “My three rural colleagues could do this from the safety of their homes. We would really encourage anybody and everybody who wishes to join us that way.”
Leitch added, “We have talked about this before. There is no requirement for all the Electoral Directors to attend. It has been the will of the EA (Electoral Areas) to attend, but there is no requirement for them to be there.”
He once again pointed out that … there is the ability to have it 100% electronically attended.
Yates added that the ministerial order says directors are deemed to have attended in person if they attend electronically.
“So this is an entirely safe measure for everyone at hand?” asked Anderson.
“Yes,” said Chair Michele Babchuk.
Jim Abram’s Solution
Everything appears to have been decided ahead of time. Regardless of what the rest of the SRD Board thinks, as Cortes is a rural area and only the four EASC Directors could vote. Jim Abram, Brenda Leigh and Gerald Whalley voted against the proposal brought forward by staff.
Then Abram revealed the motion he had being waiting to make:”That the holding of all public hearings in relation to matters covered by Part 14 [Planning and Land Use Management] of the Local Government Act be deferred until after September 7, 2020.”
He explained, “This entire discussion spun off on COVID 19, it was not completely around COVID 19. Certainly that figured into it, but this is also about Democratic process. That’s where I originally started, a number of months ago, about the democratic hearing of public meetings in person – especially when they are large issues. That’s where it started and this is where it has gone today. All I am suggesting, with this motion, is that we defer this until we are sure that we have all our ducks in a row …”
“The electoral areas have the right, under the Local Government Act, to determine whether they want to hold public hearings before a certain date and this is the date I am proposing.”
Chair Babchuk asked Mr Yates, “I’m assuming because that last question was just electoral areas, that this is also just for electoral areas?”
“Yes, that is correct,” he replied.
Moglove commented, “We can’t just put the democratic process on hold when there is a safe and absolutely useful way to conduct public hearings – but I don’t get a vote.”
Director Julie Colborne, who also could not vote, added, “I just don’t understand … Why September?”
Abram mentioned a meeting just before that date and added that this would let directors and staff go on summer holidays.
“It would be an inconvenience for them to try to get this together prior to that.”
Director Anderson reminded the board that the sooner the Cortes Island Senior’s Society puts its’ application into BC Housing, the more likely it will be approved.
“I think we have just done a huge disservice to a major community effort and there was also a misunderstanding by my rural colleagues about the need to be there in person … I think we really need to carry on in a manner that is recommended by staff and deemed appropriate by the province.”
Director Charlie Cornfield said, ” … In Campbell River we are going all electronic, I think there are blended solutions as well. I think it is unfortunate that this course of action has gone this way.”
Chair Michele Babchuk added, “I have no one else on the speaker’s list, but before I call the question, I too am going to exercise my right to say how disappointed I am with this. I think we have done our constituents over on Cortes a disservice.”
The Final Vote
I imagine a few mouths dropped open when Director Leigh voted in opposition to the proposed September rezoning meeting. This prompted Abram to read his motion out again. In the video, you can hear Anderson chuckling as she observed their performance.
“Pardon me, I am not opposed to that. Sorry, I was confused, I am not opposed to Director Abram’s motion,” said Lee.
“Thank-you, can we kind of get it together here,” said Babchuk.
Anderson was the only electoral area Director to vote against the motion. Acting in unison once again, Abram, Leigh and Whalley decided that the zoning hearing would take place sometime after September 7th.
Quadra Projects Delayed
Some might question whether the postponement of these projects is collateral damage from what is increasingly seeming to be more of a personal conflict within EASC.
“Two Quadra Island projects face delays of more than three months after Strathcona Regional District directors voted last week to defer the holding of all public hearings related to planning and land use.
It effectively stalls BC Ferries’ application to create a new berth in Quathiaski Cove for the second Island Class ferry and the rezoning of a property in Heriot Bay for a new fire hall.
The directors made the decision despite a provincial order which allows hearings to proceed safely during the COVID-19 pandemic …” (Read More)
This story was originally published on May 30, and the quote from the Bird’s eye added on June 3, 2020.