A quick perusal of the Agenda was sufficient. I knew I had to attend the next meeting. Chair Michele Babchuk was bringing a Cortes Island resident’s complaints before the SRD Board. On Thursday December 4, more than a half dozen Cortesians filed into the new SRD Boardroom to listen. Though seemingly humbled, Babchuk pointed to the SRD’s accomplishments and stated that Sue Ellingsen was wrong to single out Directors Jim Abram and Brenda Leigh for criticism: the SRD Board is collectively responsible.
Chair Babchuk’s Report
“I want to thank Ms Ellingsen for writing. I think it’s important that our constituents hold us accountable and give us the ability to give us their clear perspective. It’s never easy to read some of the stuff that’s in there around constituents feeling we act in an unprofessional or ineffective manner, especially when issues from that area have consumed our agenda for the last year. I actually think that, although there has been some historic issues, we’ve actually been able to cover off quite a few in the last year – with the fire service and of course the hall tax. I want to add that, from the Board’s perspective, a lot of the issues in this letter are now done …“ says Chair Babchuk, in the podcast above.
She adds, “ … The only piece that I would really like to take a little pause with is that, as a board, we work by via resolution – whether that is in camera or out of camera. All of the resolutions around the stuff mentioned in this correspondence has sat on the table. The board has a very strong mandate with almost unanimous, or unanimous, decisions around a lot of those. So to pull individual directors out and single them out as part of the problems … I do not believe is constructive … Should there be interpersonal stuff between directors, I understand, but as a board, we function by resolution … ”
Gail Ringwood’s Response
One of the Cortes Island residents present at the meeting, Gail Ringwood, says, “I was very disappointed in the Chairperson’s response to Sue Ellingsen’s two letters, which should have come up long ago. I guess they came up ‘in camera’ because when Michele talked about the two letters, she just … looked at Sue and acknowledged that she was, in fact, sitting in the room. [Babchuk] did not address any of the questions that had been brought up in those letters and I think everyone on Cortes is interested in hearing some kind of an actual response, particularly to our elected Regional Director being censured. That is still out there, not being talked about at all because everything is ‘in camera’ – which is their whole story, it’s ‘in camera.’”
“I was making downward thumb motions in the background and thought ‘Oh I’d better be careful, I could be kicked out and never be allowed in again to these ‘open to the public’ board meetings.’”
Sue Ellingsen’s Response
“It was nice that Michele Babchuk took the opportunity to at least acknowledge my letters. She did say that it was good that people in Area B, or other areas, felt they could object and draw to the attention of the board what they feel is incorrect behaviour. However, in light of my two letters, you and I can both say she responded to nothing. She gave me nothing on censure, she gave me nothing on how she runs meetings. It must be difficult to run meetings and keep people in order, but when someone calls someone across the floor a liar – and you do not even let that person say ‘excuse me, I did not say that’ – it’s not being very well chaired,” says Sue Ellingsen.
The Nov 6, 2019, Incident
The incident Sue refers to occurred during the Nov 6, 2019, Board Meeting. Director Anderson said she was pleased that the hall tax and first responders bylaws were finally passed, but they could have been handled much more efficiently. Jim Abram said, “The whole thing would have gone much more quickly if Area B Director had not insisted on a non-binding referendum.” When Director Anderson tried to correct that statement, Chair Babchuk shut her down.
(Personally, I’m not convinced that Abram actually implied Noba was lying, or that Babchuk is guilty of anything more than making a wrong call. However, the fact that at least two Cortes observers found Babchuk’s handling of the situation offensive suggests it was the wrong call.)
Sue Ellingsen’s First Email
“Attention Chair Michele Babchuk and all Directors, I have just been perusing the lovely glossy brochure about the SRD that was distributed at the Area B Budget presentation here on Cortes this week. I especially enjoyed reading Mission and Values.
“Item 1. As a not infrequent observer of your meetings I have observed that there is no apparent spirit of collaboration and community.
“Item 2. I saw no care and respect amongst several of your members.
“Item 3. Open and honest simply were not in evidence. You must have heard Abrams call area B Director a liar. We know she did not ask for a non‐binding referendum. Unless you wish to produce minutes of a Board meeting where she made this specific request, you should perhaps muzzle Abrams.
“Item 4. You have delivered particularly ineffective and unprofessional public service to Area B.
“Item 5. Accountable?? Time to explain your removal of Cortes Island issues from the table because of a totally bogus foolishly contrived law suit that was tossed out by the courts. If, as your lawyer tells you, this lawsuit had nothing to do with you, why did you embrace it and “cut off Area B Director’s legs at the knee” (exact quote from Brenda Leigh, Campbell River Mirror, Wednesday May1, 2019, Pg A4)?
“Perhaps you should pay her legal costs?” – Sue Ellingsen
Censuring Noba Anderson
On Oct 24, 2019, Directors Abram and Unger brought forward a motion that the SRD Board censure Anderson for revealing “confidential and privileged information” contained in three secret SRD documents. As this was an ‘in camera’ motion, and no one else on Cortes appears to know anything about the incident, we do not know who Director Anderson allegedly showed the documents to or what, if any, damage was done. This motion carried.
Sue Ellingsen’s Second Email
“Attention Chair Michele Babchuk and all Area Directors, Please send me the guidelines that the SRD has adopted around censure.
“Would meddling in the election of a director in another area of the SRD be censurable? I am of course referring to Jim Abrams jumping in on social media and bad mouthing Director Anderson while promoting his friend George Sirk.”
“Would receiving emails and phone calls on one’s private lines from constituents in another area, like Brenda Leigh has, and failing to provide the contents of such calls to the appropriate Director and all Board members perhaps be censurable behaviour? Is censure perhaps not being applied fairly across the board?“
“Please help me understand what is naughty and what is OK.” – Sue Ellingsen
It was good to hear Chair Babchuk wrestle with the issues, but I agree that she did not answer any pertinent questions.
Chair Babchuk says it is wrong to single out individual directors but, having sat through a number of Electoral Area Services Committee and SRD Board meetings, it is obvious where the opposition to Director Anderson is coming from. Another reporter told me that though this year was particularly nasty, she has been observing the undercurrents within EASC for the past three years. I personally believe the only way to deal with people who do nasty deeds in darkness is to turn the lights on. You don’t do this by letting them hide behind the excuse they are not personally responsible for their actions.
Coming on the heel’s of her recent court victory and the overwhelming support Cortes Islanders have shown towards the idea of funding our community halls and first responders, the SRD’s two most recent actions against Director Anderson appear petty and vindictive.
Thus I am not surprised to find the names of two EASC Directors connected to them. Jim Abram brought forward the motion to censure Noba and, together with Gerald Whalley, is also behind the motion to not pay her legal fees.
Decision To Not Indemnify Noba
As has been mentioned elsewhere, the SRD actually notified Noba of this last May. A month later, the Supreme Court of British Columbia stated there was no basis for the allegations brought against her. The SRD Board does not appear to recognize this fact. Six months have passed since they first informed Noba they would not pay her legal fees, but they are still using the same rationale that was put forward prior to her victory in court.
The SRD Board states “It also has the authority to deny indemnification when elected officials have failed to comply with the Board’s indemnification bylaw or have acted in contravention of the conflict of interest rules applicable to local government officials through their Oath of Office, SRD Code of Conduct bylaw and/or Local Government Act.”
This sounds reminiscent of the legal petition which the Supreme Court of British Columbia recently ruled has no factual basis.
How EASC Functions
Chair Babchuk says the SRD has accomplished a great deal on the Cortes file. It is true that the SRD Board eventually passed most of the Cortes items this year, but only after a tremendous struggle. I do not believe this would have been necessary were it not for the dysfunctional state of the Electoral Area Services Committee. Given the SRD’s recent actions and inactions, I suspect a personality conflict will continue to shape the manner in which the SRD Board deals with Cortes matters.
In theory, EASC is supposed to review matters from the four electoral areas and pass them forward to the SRD Board with a recommendation on how to proceed. In practise, Directors Abram, Leigh and Whalley appear to have set themselves in opposition to Cortes matters throughout the past year.
“Concerned Cortes Residents”
An article in the Campbell River Mirror states two of them were involved in the SRD Board’s decision to not immediately implement the results of the 2018 referendum on holding a referendum on the funding for Cortes Island’s first responders and community halls. Abram insisted, “The bylaws are not complete, they’re not ready. I don’t know why we’re so intent on doing them right now.” Leigh agreed, citing emails from ‘concerned’ Cortes residents.
That last reference is problematic given that one of the participants in a frivolous lawsuit subsequently filed against Director Anderson appears to claim that she was acting on behalf of the “SRD.” Her lawyer would later claim “My clients were put up to it.”
Opposing Cortes Grants In Aid
Abram. Leigh and Whalley appear to rubber stamp all grant-in-aid applications coming from their own areas and opposed, this year, all but one of the applications from Cortes.
There could be some excuse for their initial opposition to Grants in Aid for the Cortes Island Museum, Southern Cortes Community Association, Friends of Cortes Island Society, Cortes Radio Society, Linnaea Farm Society, Whaletown Community Club and Cortes Island Women’s Resource Centre.
However, Directors Abram, Leigh and Whalley continued to oppose Cortes matters after the court found “there is no basis for the declarations sought by the petitioners.”
When the SRD Board intervened to pass the seven grants in aid mentioned above, “Directors Abram, Kerr, and Leigh recused themselves from the meeting chambers due to outstanding legal issues.” Whalley cast the only opposing vote.
EASC successfully squashed a Friends of Cortes Island application for funding to hire a transportation coordinator. After they voted against it, the SRD Board sent it back to them for reconsideration. So Directors Whalley and Leigh promptly voted the application down again.
The only Cortes Grant in Aid that EASC recommended was funding for Climate Hope “to assist with costs for various climate change initiatives.” Director Leigh opposed this, on both the committee and board levels, unsuccessfully.
In the midst of this cloak of secrecy which seems to hide so many of the SRD Board’s actions, there has been a voice that continually calls out for more transparency. You can listen to it in the podcast.
Top photo credit: The new SRD Boardroom – Roy L Hales photo