SRD Approved all but one of Cortes Island’s Grants in Aid

Editor’s note: The following report consists of highlights from a segment of the SRD Board Meeting of Nov 22, 2023. 

The Strathcona Regional District (SRD) Board approved all but one of Cortes Island’s 2023 Grant-in Aid applications. It was a long, often confusing, debate. The SRD Board denied the Cortes Island Academy’s application because, as Chief Administration Officer (CAO) David Leitch explained “this Grant in Aid is in contradiction to our policy in terms of awarding money to other senior levels of government.” The Board initially granted the other Cortes applications, then seemed on the verge of rescinding them. Their decision to pass most of the applications was followed by a motion to change the manner in which Grants-in-Aid are processed.

Photo of entrance to SRD Boardroom by Roy L Hales

The SRD concerns about the Grants and Aids started with Cortes island’s process.

Regional Director Mark Vonsech explained, “My role this year was to tell people there’s $25,000 available for Grants in Aid and give the parameters of what Grants in Aid can be used for.  Then I had the Cortes Island Community Foundation receive those applications and put together a volunteer jury who met over three different days to review the applications. There were approximately $60,000 of applications that came in. These were the choices that they made based on needs in the community, also considering what organizations had received Grants and Aid in the years closest to us.  I didn’t have any decision making in this, it was really up to the community. Now I’m bringing these recommendations forward.”

CAO Leitch: “I think the intent was noble and good.  What the committee that the Director Vonesch had struck was unaware of is that we have a Grant in Aid policy, and so I don’t think they were able to be given the filter that we would typically have.” 

Chair Mark Baker agreed, “Going forward, we should pay close attention to the policy.”

The Board started out by granting: 

The Board decided to deal with the Cortes Island Academy separately. Cortes Island Director Mark Vonesch recused himself from this segment because he is employed by a non-profit (Reel Youth) that works for the Cortes Island Academy. 

Thus he was not present when Campbell River Director Susan Sinnott said, “I admire the  effort of getting a community foundation to try and do the work,  but I would suggest that it should have been sent back to that Community Foundation with the policies and instructions to follow the policies because it’s not fair to the other applicants who might have qualified, and the ones that shouldn’t have qualified.  I think we’re going down a pretty serious path and we can correct this if it’s not a timeliness issue to get these Grants in Aid out the door.”

Regional Director Robyn Mawhinney, of Area C, came to the Academy’s defence:

“Something that I have noticed, as a Quadra Island resident having my kids going through the school system, is that kids on Cortes and the Outer Islands have a much harder time being in high school because you can’t actually commute to high school. You have to move here, either with or without your family. I’m sure there’s maybe other communities here that are remote and rural that have the same struggles where kids end up not completing high school because of the challenges and this academy.  The Cortes Island Academy Society has been created to try and face those challenges and keep more kids  In high school.

She cited a passage in the academy’s application.  

“It says the Cortes Island Academy has begun to change this narrative. However, the academy with its 20 high school students is still not supported entirely by the district, but rather is funded largely by direct fundraising and outside grants. They go on to say that they’re allowed to use one of the portables at the school, but there are 20 high school students in the school’s retired desks designed for elementary students. They’re facing a lot of challenges. The fact that this application is for a  society, which is trying to make changes and better the outcomes of high school students, I think is valid and I will be voting in favor of this one.”

Chair Mark Baker objected, “There’s a reason why we have a policy and giving money to other government agencies, I disagree with.” 

Director Mawhinney: “I felt like this is a society, which is maybe separate from a school.”

CAO Leitch: “I think the funding is shared between the school district and the society. The school district is a partial funder, as I understand.” 

Mawhinney: “Of the academy?” 

CAO Leitch: “Yes. The idea is great that there’s an advisory committee to the Director, but what it looks like to me is that the school district made a Grant in Aid request to the Cortes advisory group.  The advisory group said, ‘yeah, that sounds fantastic’ and it comes to us. We are expected to pay it.” 

“If the school district had sent SRD staff a request for Grant in Aid, I would have turned around and said, ‘we don’t fund senior levels of government.’ Just like  if I sent a Grant in Aid request to the school district saying, ‘hey, can we get $50,000 for a generator in Campbell River?’ I know what the answer would be.” 

“I think the idea is great, having community advisory groups, but what’s happened here again is there’s no filter from that group.”

“I don’t think anyone would argue about the need, but who should pay for that?” 

Mayor Julie Colburne of Zeballos suggested, “I would rather see us write a letter to the school district and say, ‘why are you not funding education for people to learn where they live?’”

Campbell River Director Susan Sinnott added, “I heard that we had $60,000 worth of requests and $25,000 was awarded, which was the budget. Then we have another $4,500. So there’s a number of potential applicants who’ve been prejudiced by us not following policy. I think it’s a serious issue. I won’t vote in favor of going forward with another violation of policy.” 

Chair Baker: “I agree with Director Sinnott that we violated the policy on the last one, which should be rescinded in my opinion,  and we need to follow the policy going forward until we bring it back to the board to have the policy changed.” 

Regional Director Gerald Whalley, of Area A, had another idea, “I was just going to suggest a compromise.  Perhaps we could say, ‘okay, maybe just this once,’ but from now on, it’s not going to happen again.” 

The motion to grant the Cortes Island Academy $4,500 was amended to state that it be considered a  one-time policy exception. Nine Directors voted in opposition to the revised motion, which was defeated. 

When Director Vonesch returned to the room, the board was reconsidering all of Cortes island’s Grants in Aid. Part of the debate was around the Cortes Island School’s application.

Director Vonesch: “You guys talked for a long time there. (Laughter) A lot of drama.  Two things I guess. What the school is trying to do in this application is beyond what the school district funds. This is enrichment programming. These are not programs that are supported by the school district and it’s not a matter of the school district not properly funding these things. This is extra stuff that Cortes Community wants to do that’s facilitated through the school.”

Chair Baker: “Call the question on reconsideration. All in favor. Opposed? Seeing none, reconsideration is going to take place.” 

Director Sinnott: “My motion would be to reconsider all the grants issued because the process, from my understanding, violated policy in more than one area and needs to be proceeded with via policy.”

Director Vonesch: “Just to the CAO. I texted you on September 5th and I said, ‘can the Cortes School apply for a Grant In Aid’ and you said ‘yes.’  I really wish at that point that we would have had a discussion if there was any doubt that they could apply, because the community has gone through a huge process here to get to this point.” 

CAO Leitch: “I have said this for years and Director Whalley will support me, I’m certain. Grants in Aid need to come to staff. If you do not send the Grant in Aid to me and you start asking me questions and details about it, don’t hold me accountable for my answers. I have never seen this information. So you want to give me a tidbit of what it is and say, I said, yes – I don’t know the context. I never saw it. Now you’re giving the example of what the money is to be used for.”

“If you want us to vet the Grants in Aid, have them sent to staff. We can vet them. But sitting at the board table saying, I said, can they apply? I have no idea of the context of what they’re applying for.  The whole board is hearing right now what they’re intending to use the Grant in Aid for. That could have all been cured if these grants would come to staff first. The EA directors refused to have that happen. So I can’t be held accountable. As for saying, ‘geez, the community has wasted a whole ton of time’ –  I’ve never seen these.” 

Director Vonesch: “Can you explain a situation where the school could apply for a grant today? Why did you say yes? Is there a situation where they could?” 

CAO Leitch: “If it’s not a school district program. That could have helped us out tremendously, saying this is nothing to do with the school district – but it looks to be here that it’s to assist or offset district funding.”

Chair Baker: “It still says Cortes Island School to assist with providing art space, nature based and music programming.”

Director Whalley: “I’m just thinking there may be a solution here. Who were you going to write the cheque to, Director Vonesch? Perhaps instead of the school, there’s another community society that you could designate this money to, and they could help students without involving the school board?” 

Director Vonesch: “Yes, I’m certainly open to  giving it to another society if it’s a technical issue that we can’t write a cheque to the school.”

“I’d also request that we don’t rescind all these grants. It’s gone through a huge process.  Please let the rest of the grants go through if you’re just interested in this one.” 

Chair Baker: “The motion on the floor was to rescind all, correct?” 

Director Sinnott: “It’s a reconsideration. So I was going to move the question on receipt. If we’re going to reconsider, then we’d have each of the other items fresh on the table.”

Chair Baker: “Receipts already been done, so now we’re voting.” 

Campbell River Director Ron Kerr pointed out, “I think this is kind of an educational moment in that we’ve got a lot of new electoral area directors.  The frustration I think here at the board table, is how things have proceeded during all the years that I’ve been on the board, and that’s 12 years on the board. I totally understand why electoral areas get really ticked off at the board because it’s frustrating.  I think  this is an opportunity,  going forward, to improve relationships and not waste time like this, because it really is a time waster.”  

Director Whalley: “There’s always room for an amendment to the motion.”

There were actually several amendments at the end of which Chair Baker said, “Director Whalley, did you want to repeat your motion please? So I understand it.”

Director Whalley: “Did I make a motion?” 

Chair Baker: “I’m sorry to wake you up.” (Laughter)

Director Whalley: “I believe the motion is on the table as it was amended by Director Colborne, and Director Vonesch had the last amendment, so I think what we would have on the table now is the motion as amended.” 

Chair Baker: “Okay, can anybody tell me what that motion is, please?” 

Senior Manager Thomas Yates explained, “Mr. Chairman, I believe the motion currently on the floor is, instead of referring to the Cortes Island school refer to the Cortes Island PAC (Parent Advisory Council).” 

He mentioned “a series of amendments which have not yet been voted on in their totality.”

The minutes show that Director Vonesch moved, and Mawhinney seconded,  ‘that the motion be amended to change the recipient of the grant from the Cortes Island School to the Cortes Island Parent Advisory Council.’ 

At that point the Grants in Aid to the Cortes Island Death Society , Food Bank, CCEDA, and Cortes Island School were approved with only two Directors voting in opposition. 

Mayor Colborne: “I have a subsequent.  I don’t know what the policy number is, however we all understand what we’re speaking about.  I would like to make a motion that policy be reviewed and also the applicable guide so that it makes it very clear what the process is and how that needs to be followed. The reason I would like the grant aid policy to be reviewed is because this is a policy from 1997. The application guide at least is from 1997.  It needs to be made really clear from the get go and for all the electoral areas and the board as a whole.”

Chair Baker: “All in favor?  Opposed. Seeing none, motion is carried.”

Campbell River Director Doug Chapman asked,  “Do we have an understanding now that all Grant in Aid applications come to staff first, and then go to the board?”

Chair Baker: “Do we need a motion?” 

CAO Leitch: “On that? I would say no, but it will certainly be included in the draft amendment and whether the board supports that, it’s been in every draft amendment and not supported by the board.”

Chair Baker: “Can we not just make a motion on it now and just be done with it?” 

CAO Leitch: “No, it’ll be in the draft amended policy.”

Director Mawhinney: “I was wondering if the Grant and Aid policy could come first to the electoral areas or conversation before it comes to the board, so that we may not have to take up quite as much time. We could discuss any changes that we think might be appropriate.”

Chair Baker: “Was that a motion in there?” 

Director Mawhinney: “Should it be?” 

Chair Baker: “Yes.” 

Director Mawhinney: “Okay. I would like to move that the requested policy housekeeping update come to the Electoral Area Services Committee (EASC) for review before coming to the full board.” 

Chair Baker: “Do we have a second? – Director Wally.  Discussion?  All in favor?  Opposed?  We have four opposed:  Directors Lanyon, Chapman, Baker and Rice.” 

Director Whalley: “That motion was carried.” 

Chair Baker: “Yes, it was.” 

Top photo credit: Squirrel Cove on Cortes Island – Photo by Dale Simonson via Fkickr (CC BY SA. 2.0 License)

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