By Roy L Hales
Some progress was made at the June 27 Strathcona Regional District Board Meeting. When the bylaw for Cortes Island’s proposed Hall service tax finally passed, Chair Babchuk announced she wanted to do a happy dance. Cortes Island’s 2019 Advisory Planning Commission has finally been appointed. Frances Guthrie, Mike Manson, Carrie Saxifrage, Sam Mayer, Brittany Baxter, and Kristen Schofield-Sweet have all previously served on the APC. The bylaw for the proposed hall tax passed and, assuming that there are no hold-ups with the Ministry for Municipal Affairs, we are likely to see a referendum this fall, but the SRD has significant Cortes Issues to address.
(The article below is my overview of what I believe are the key points, there is much more detail in the podcast.)
Leftover From The Legal Petition
Firstly: there is Regional director Noba Anderson’s legal fees which the Strathcona Regional District is reluctant to pay – even though they have insurance. The SRD have not given an explanation for this neglect, as their decision was made in camera. (This situation remains unchanged as of July 11, 2019.)
There is no doubt about Anderson’s innocence. To say that the legal petition to remove Director Noba Anderson from office failed is an understatement. By the time it reached court, even the lawyer who drew up this factually flawed document conceded that “there is no basis for the declarations sought by the petitioners.” He added that, “The Respondent [ie Director Anderson] did not accept a gift contrary to section 105 of the Community Charter.” There was no court battle, only a total capitulation in which the plaintiff’s lawyer acknowledged he did not have a case.
So what possible rationale can the SRD have for refusing to cover Anderson’s legal fees?
Director Anderson’s Legal Fees
I met Noba at the Gorge Marina, a couple of days after the meeting, and asked, “How much has the legal petition cost you in terms of legal fees?”
“I have paid more than $16,000 in legal fees, to date, and the court required that the legal petitioners pay back a little less than $5,000 of that. I have yet to see that and the matter of indemnification at the board is an ongoing matter. I have not been indemnified by the board, but that is not a closed book yet,” she said.
On a personal level, Anderson says it has been really hard.
“I’ve never been through anything like this. First time I’ve ever sat in a court – a couple of weeks ago; First time I’ve ever had a lawyer. Certainly there has been a personal toll. There has been sleepless nights and tearful shoulder crying times, but in the bigger perspective it has allowed me to step aside and gain an even larger perspective on community organizing and community patterns and what is most important here.”
Cortes Islanders Stepped Into The Gap
“Even more interestingly, it has allowed a bit of spaciousness, or vacuum, in that democratic space that other people have stepped up to. Many people who have lived here most of their lives but never engaged in local civics, are now engaged. In our chaotic times to come, as I see societal transformation as an inevitability due to climate change, we are going to need as much local governance in our most organic forms as possible. I do not think the larger government structures – federally, provincially, even regional district – are going to be very nimble to accommodate the speed and magnitude of change coming. The kind of engagement that has been happening here is really, really powerful and I just ask of everybody who has written, and not maybe written before, come to a district meeting, and not done that before, to stay engaged even post the court case because there is a lot coming in this community and we need to find new ways of organizing and turning our attention to the collective things that matter here.”
An SRD Connection To The Legal Petition?
Some believe that EASC, or the larger SRD board, may have influenced the legal petitioners. The only supporting evidence I have seen is in the comments of a post on the Cortes Radio’s Facebook page. One of the leading petitioners, Bertha Jeffery, wrote, “Noba “… should have declared the income especially when asked by the SRD and did the honourable thing and returned the funds. And take down the Go Fund Me page. She refused to and that is what the lawsuit is about.” Jeffery would not explain how she knew about these alleged SRD actions.
In the same stream of Facebook comments a Quadra Island resident, Paul Ryan, claims Anderson “was warned about this from the SRD while it was going on and she refused to stop! ” He insisted this comment was based on “verifiable documentation from several directors!” When pressed to substantiate this allegation, he replied “My pleasure! I would suggest you contact Jim Abram.”
Were The Petitioners Put Up To It?
I asked Director Anderson about this.
She responded, “I certainly don’t know of those allegations and I certainly do not know of any SRD connection, however I will say that in open court a few weeks ago, the petitioner’s lawyer did say that his clients were put up to this. So it is now time for truth telling [for] the fourteen petitioners. Was this their initiative and, if not, if they were put up to it – by who? Was it people on the island or others? – I have no idea, but it’s time for that come out now. It is not fair for others to put people up to it who are not fully informed.”
“Whatever the truth is, we can deal with that truth. As I said in my [Cortes Tideline] article, It’s the shadow that consumes us. The truth we can navigate through, however horrific someones personal, private of public truth is, in that truth telling there can be healing, understanding and reconciling, but if we don’t know what happened we can never really heal from it.”
Talk To Me
She urged her constituents, “If there are concerns: talk to me; talk to each other; call an open meeting. Share your grievances. If there isn’t a resolution, by all means the court is an important tool – but not often as a first step. I think if we’d had an opportunity to discuss some of these allegations, and people would have taken a cursory look at the law, we would have avoided all of this and perhaps we would have got to the core issues of why [some] people are unhappy with me. I think maybe they are multitudinous, but I doubt it was mostly because of my dad’s cabin fire.”
For Cortes, EASC Is Broken
Meanwhile, it is becoming increasingly clearer that the Electoral Area Services Committee (EASC) is broken. For most of this year, Directors Abram, Leigh and Whalley have used the committee to oppose Director Anderson whenever she attempted to bring forward a Cortes Island matter.
Why are they doing this? What do they hope to achieve? Can EASC be “fixed” so that it also serves the people of Cortes?
FOCI’s Transportation Co-ordinator
Any hope that the Friends of Cortes Island (FOCI) had of hiring a transportation coordinator this summer appears to have died when the board decided to send it back to EASC. Director Anderson brought this project before EASC on June 12, 2019, only to see it voted down without any discussion.
The application was brought before the entire SRD Board at their June 27, 2019, SRD Board Meeting.
Director Anderson told the board, “ … What happened at the Electoral Area Committee is I spoke to them of the timely nature, because the intent is to start this summer. There is a very different kind of [scene?] in the summer and we do need to be around. The vote was called and I was the only one who put up my hand. There was no other discussion at all from my [three] colleagues. When the vote was called in opposition, director Whalley and director Leigh put up their hand in opposition. No discussion [the motion died].”
How Abram Killed The FOCI Application
She explained, “I spoke to two colleagues after the meeting. What happened is that director Abram had some concern around one component of [the proposal] – i.e. a shuttle across Quadra … Director Abram let my other colleagues know that he wasn’t in support of it and that is all it took.”
“This is what has been happening at the Electoral Committee for a long time … It is not appropriate to have these …discussions where three directors who are not from the area have kind of communication, excluding the director from the area and [having] no discussion in public …”
In the podcast, the other EASC Directors offer several excuses for their failure to communicate with Anderson. Abram claims that the Cortes Island Director should have consulted with him first. To which she responded that she gave him a couple of weeks “to come back to me with any kind of amendment or suggested alternative.”
Director Whalley revealed his ignorance of the application by stating, “In essence this is a business undertaking, paying a person to drive a bus … I don’t think it is appropriate.”
Anderson replied, “Just for clarity, this is for a transportation coordinator on Cortes, part time for a few months to try to advance a whole number of initiatives – one of which being helping to coordinate the possible implementation of a bus. Absolutely not a bus driver; Absolutely not a private initiative.”
Center of the Universe
Director Leigh also objected, “I think Cortes has a tendency to think that they’re the center of the universe. They get all the services and no one else does … So imagine if you lived on Quadra Island and there is a bus service taking you over to Vancouver Island and the bus goes right by you and you don’t get a chance to go on it. It should be a coordinated service with Director Abram, Director Anderson and BC transit because that little bus that you are proposing to run from Cortes is not going to hold the people who want to get on from Quadra … It would only make sense to look at a more regional, at least inter-island, approach. So refer it back to EASC, where it belongs … I’m not supporting spending $7,000 on a coordinator just for Cortes.”
Abram stated then the necessity of hooking up with ferries made a coordinated Cortes-Quadra bus service impossible. “Its not going to have time to stop at 15 locations along the way to the ferry.” He added that FOCI appeared to be bringing forward the idea for a reincarnation of the Cortes Connector, “a business that failed”.
Why were none of these concerns discussed when Anderson initially brought the application to committee?
Where Does The $7,000 Come From?
I wanted to know where the $7,000 for this project would come from, and had an opportunity to ask Director Anderson two days later.
“That grant-in-aid money is entirely from Cortes taxpayers … There are four different electoral pots, each from one of the electoral areas. This money, if it doesn’t get spent, it sits there for now and we can … reallocate it later in 2019 to some other grant-in-aid project … If it doesn’t get spent in 2019, then it simply rolls over into next year,” she said.
The board sent the FOCI application back to EASC. Campbell River Mayor Andy Adams was among those suggesting this sounded like a matter that should be discussed in committee.
As Whalley explained, “The problem with making a motion such as this at the board table, and overriding the Electoral Area, is in effect it makes the electoral area useless. We discuss an issue, we make a recommendation on it and at any time a director can say ‘who cares what EASC says, we will bring it straight to the board’. That’s what we’ve tried to avoid all these years.”
(In the podcast above, Director Anderson describes two possible outcomes of the impending EASC discussions about the FOCI Transportation grant. She also discusses the possibility of Cortes proceeding independently of the SRD.)
How Long Has EASC Been Dysfunctional?
How long has EASC been dysfunctional when dealing with Cortes matters?
“I don’t know whether it is valuable for me to comment on a whole lot of history. I have a code of conduct that says I do not denigrate my colleagues or the board as a whole, but I will say that I think what people are starting to pay attention to and notice is a pattern that has been happening for a long time, the vast majority of the time I have been there. Some seven or eight years ago, I used to leave just about every board meeting and go sit in a back alley and cry for awhile. So whether the conditions have got better or my resiliency is higher, I don’t know.”
As regards the EASC’s personal dynamics, Anderson added, “In different votes we vote different ways, [but] I have often felt very much in the outs in this group.”
There have been attempts at reconciliation.
“I’ve spoken over the years with the Chair of EASC and various Chairs of the Board and various CAOs. We’ve certainly had governance workshops as a board, as a whole, to try to get at some of our core governance issues.”
When EASC Was Given More Authority
From Anderson’s perspective, the situation got worse a few years ago, when EASC was given authority over rural issues.
“A lot of these things, including the grant-in-aid, used to go directly to the board. There are thirteen people on the board, so there is less ability to have cliques. The energy is more dispersed. I really did not support this Electoral Area Administration Service, but I was in the minority … It profoundly affects things here on Cortes, more so than in the past,” she said.
What Does This Dysfunctionality Mean?
Going forward, what does EASC’s dysfunctionality mean for Cortes issues going before the SRD?
“I can only hope that the board and electoral area colleagues will continue to judge issues on their merits and I absolutely trust that staff’s integrity will continue to bring the best recommendations forth … but it is going to be hard. I think there has been a lot of chaos at the board recently, in regard to Cortes issues. There will be a lot of trust regaining and I really appreciate the level of attention Cortes constituents are giving to the Regional District these days. Carrying on, it would be very healthy if we bare witness to what is going on and do everything we can to try to support its increased functionality”
Added July 11, 2019 – Director Abram refuses to comment, insisting I unfairly target him in my posts and radio program. He says I make it look like he is doing something wrong. If I want a comment, I should ask Chair Michele Babchuk.
Babchuk was amiable. She had nothing to say about the way Director Anderson is treated by the other EASC Directors, but did say Abram follows the correct procedures during meetings. When asked, Chair Babchuk said I seemed to treat her fairly enough.
Top photo credit: Tideflats, Squirrel Cove – by A.Davey via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)