Mar. 19, 2017

Welcoming Don White to Nanaimonet.com

Don and his wife moved to Nanaimo three years ago. In the 1960s he completed a BA in psychology at UBC as one of the early researchers working with BC killer whales. He then spent his working career as a documentary filmmaker and consultant, working for government, business, and institutions such as the National Film Board. More recently, he returned to university, completing an MSc at SFU, where he is now a PhD candidate. His current focus covers human population and the use of evolutionary theory to explain human behaviour.
In Nanaimo, having written a number of articles about the Event Centre on Nanaimonet, Don saw an opportunity for continuing to inform and engage Nanaimo voters. He considers the operational nature of our local governments to be a crucial factor in our efforts to protect and responsibly develop this beautiful but vulnerable setting we live in.
To comment on any of Don's opinions, please go to the bottom of this page and have your say.

Dealing with the fallout from City Hall's dysfunction

By Don White
Sept. 17, 2017

I've lived in a lot of communities, large and small, both in and outside Canada, but I don't think I have ever experienced one as divided as Nanaimo is right now.

 Once again, the citizens of our city are polarized. There seems no middle ground concerning the actions/inaction of our Council, the status/actions of the CAO, the flood of departing managers and staff, violence, racism, and a spate of other issues. Both sides are digging in.

 Yet the visible divisions are based almost entirely on speculation. Almost every accusation is founded, at best, on only partial information. These unknowns, not the knowns, are what are tearing our community apart. 

 Our ignorance is almost entirely attributable to Council. The impenetrable barriers to getting information, the stonewalling in the Q&A during open council meetings, the innumerable in-camera meetings, the select leaks by one or two Council members, are major contributors to what's happening in Nanaimo. 

 The lack of full disclosure produces the rampant speculation, the unfounded accusations and disagreements we see among Nanaimo citizens. The real legacy of the current council's dysfunction is the polarization of our community. Council and management at City Hall have forgotten that their function is to serve taxpayers and voters, not themselves. A major part of serving the electorate is revealing what's going on and why key decisions are being made.

 We need to know the full story of what's has happened in our City Hall back to the beginning of this council. Regardless of which side of the divide you occupy, regardless of who you believe to be right or wrong, we all need the complete history of what has taken place on each contentious issue. For any allegation to actually have substance, we need an accurate accounting of facts. 

 Getting this information is the shared need of everyone living in Nanaimo, and it should be our common goal. None of us will ever know where responsibility really lies on any issue involving City Hall unless we break through the barriers to information this council has created. Nor can we assume that redacted disclosures are more than just self-serving. Secrecy and spin are all too familiar hallmarks of the current administration. We need full, independent, disinterested, and formal investigations of every aspect of City Hall since the beginning of the current term. 

 We need a complete forensic audit telling us where money has been spent, transferred, reallocated, used, i.e. the true state of Nanaimo finances. As became obvious during the run up to the arena referendum, tracking the ins and outs of Nanaimo finances is anything but straightforward. Only a forensic audit will provide all the needed detailed information, without necessarily implying the existence of any criminality. 

 We also need a full investigation of all actions and decisions made by council and senior managers, along with individual voting records. We need a complete and factual account of the hiring of the CAO and the ensuing protests. We need to know the reasons behind the censuring of the Mayor and full details of any legal actions contemplated, initiated, and/or abandoned.

 Because our community is so divided over interpretations of the Pratt-Samra video, the full video needs to be released along with the findings and assessed remedies of the police investigation and subsequent legal hearings. The same for the Goldner report - especially since it was sent to the Globe and Mail and is now the stuff of the media at large. 

 If the Goldner investigation did not extend back in time to the hiring of the CAO and also if it did not investigate other aspects of City Hall that could be racist, violent, or abusive it needs to be expanded. The public record concerning the reality of an abusive/violent/racist environment at City Hall needs to be complete.

 We also need to know the full details of Council, managers, and staff relationships, terminations and exit interviews of the individuals involved. We need to know the reasons for each departure, as well as the substance and sources of any staff complaints. 

 We need these several investigations to be conducted now. Not later. And we need to be relentless in their pursuit. When you get right down to it, the ignorance of Nanaimo voters is appalling. Let's stop telling ourselves that we can wait until the next election in 2018. Further waiting may well prove to be disastrous. 

We must increase our presence in the Q&A of open council meetings. Let's put blame aside for now and simply demand disclosure and investigation. Let's send letters and emails to the Mayor and Council and request they be added as official correspondence to the meetings so anyone can speak to the topic regardless of whether council and staff include it in the agenda. 

 At the same time, let's assume this Council will not act. Whether for self-protection, lack of courage, or simply because they're hamstrung, the record of this Council is to do nothing unless they're forced. We need to take it to them.

 We need every councillor to know that continuing to withhold the information will significantly impact their chances of re-election. Even more: let's examine the possibilities of taking legal action. If voters can sue individual councillors for damages arising from their actions/inaction (and there's every indication that they can), let Council know we intend to take this action. 

 The same for the needed, independent investigations of everything that's gone on since this council was elected. If council won't commission the investigations and reports we need, let's find out how we can initiate them, ourselves. 

 Whatever we do, let's do it all together. Let's stop fighting with each other. We've allowed ourselves to be distracted by the behaviour of various members of this Council and by the background noise. We need to refocus and get down to business.

 Consider this to be a call for unified action by the full Nanaimo electorate. If we can unite on anything, it should be on obtaining a full accounting of our City Hall right from the beginning. Armed with that information, we can make assessments of responsibility based on fact, not speculation. Even more important, we can begin to bridge the rifts created by the lack of information provided by this council, and get back to building the community we want.

Two more UBCM motions that need approving

By Don White

0907 - Who says social media is a waste of time? In a recent Facebook discussion of my last column recommending support for Councillor Brennan's motion to return municipal elections to a three-year term of office, Robert Fuller noted that two other worthy motions are already on the table for the upcoming September meeting of the UBCM.

 One is a call by Penticton and endorsed by the Southern Interior Local Government Association that a recall mechanism for municipal governments be created. Specifically:

 “Whereas constituents may believe local government elected officials are in breach of integrity and/or eroding public confidence; And whereas the recently extended term of office for local government elected officials in British Columbia negatively affects the ability of the local electorate to vote for change in their local government: Therefore be it resolved that UBCM request the Province of British Columbia amend legislation to include a recall process for local government elected officials.”

 Wow! Penticton could be our sister city!

 The other is a motion by Oak Bay to extend the election contribution regulations proposed for provincial elections to municipal governments.

 Whereas there are currently no limits on election campaign donations or restrictions on corporate or union donations for local government elections; And whereas all major political parties have committed to enacting some form of electoral finance reform for provincial elections in the coming term: Therefore be it resolved that should the provincial government make changes to provincial campaign finance regulations to limit and restrict campaign donations, those changes be extended to include campaign finance regulations for local government.”

 Was Oak Bay watching disparities in the most and biggest signs in our recent by-election?

 So think about this for a minute. Imagine these two motions along with Brennan's call to reduce the term of office all passed at the UBCM. Imagine Victoria then cedes to the requests. Do you realize how municipal governments might change?

 With the term of office back to three years, more qualified, experienced people would be inclined to run. With a level campaign field, candidates would have to demonstrate their qualifications, experience, and competence as the basis on which you choose them. If we made an error who we thought a candidate was, (hey, it wouldn't be the first time!) we wouldn't be left at their mercy for the full length of their term.

 Is it possible that this could happen? Obviously, voter discontent exists in many municipalities. Two of the motions are already on the agenda. Brennan's may be added. The UBCM pursues the wishes of its members. So we need our own Council to support these motions. And why wouldn't they? I mean, can you think of a non-self-serving reason to oppose any one of them?

 As to the province agreeing to the wishes of the UBCM, at this point we have no reason to assume that it won't happen. There is a new government in place for the Province of BC. Why would they deny the UBCM requests? We are the same voters that just elected them. Wouldn't the NDP-Green coalition want to show they are more in tune with voters than the Liberals were?

So now that you have your email writing skills well-honed, add a request to our mayor&council@nanaimo.ca that they support the motions from Penticton and Oak Bay at the UBCM. “(As a resident and voter of Nanamio) I request that you support resolutions: A1 Local Government Election Campaign Financing Oak Bay; and B2 Recall of Local Government Elected Officials Penticton.” Again, feel free to copy-paste that sentence in your email.

 If you haven't already sent a request that Nanaimo Council support Brennan's motion for a reduced term of office, you can request support for all three in a single note. But keep in mind that Brennan's motion is the most immediate. Council votes September 11 - that's Monday! - on whether to ask the UBCM to put it on the agenda. Combined requests need to go immediately.

 Don't hang back because you think sending emails to Council is somehow intruding where we have no business. Telling our elected officials what we want and need is what participatory democracy looks like. If we don't tell them, how else are they to know?

 

Let's get back to the three-year term for council

By Don White

0905 – There's something about the first week of September that seems to set the stage for everything in the coming year. Even though I know that - and have sensed it as long ago as elementary school - this year I almost let a critical moment slip by unnoticed. 

 If we want qualified people running in the next election, we need to start identifying them. That's the first task. And then - maybe the biggest job - we have to persuade them all to run. Before they even begin to think about campaigning. That takes significant prep time. And I suspect we shouldn't just be leaving it to potential candidates - particularly the best ones - to self-select.

 There are many reasons why some of the best potential candidates, those with experience and the best credentials may be reluctant. For one, there's the example of the current circus down on Wallace Street. But one of the biggest impediments could be the length of term.

The province changed the term of office to four years from three for the 2014 municipal election. But it can be a tall order to ask individuals to commit an extra year of their lives to an office of this sort. And for mid-sized cities like Nanaimo where councillor is designated and remunerated as a part-time job - but often comes with a full-time workload - the prospect is even less attractive. 

 The best people for public office tend to be the busiest and in big demand elsewhere. It stands to reason that if we want the best candidates, we should reduce deterrents to highly qualified people stepping up and running in the next election. 

 I got this far in my thinking when I learned that Councillor Diane Brennan has tabled a Notice of Motion in Council aimed precisely at this problem. At a Committee of the Whole meeting on August 28, Brennan asked that Nanaimo Council endorse taking a motion to the upcoming meeting of Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM) requesting Victoria “return municipal terms to three years to allow a broader range of councillors with experience to participate at the municipal level of government." 

 Brennan believes that the current “four-year term will deter many councillors from running for a second term thereby reducing the number of experienced councillors on councils throughout the province.” So you can add reluctance of experienced people to run again to the list of problems. Even if we get qualified people to run once, after four years they're unlikely to enlist again. We'll be perennially stuck with a constant stream of newbies. 

 The vote on Brennan's motion is significant because it's unlikely the province will consider a term reduction without a strong request being made by the UBCM. In turn, the UBCM won't make such a request without a motion being tabled by a BC municipality. To my knowledge, Nanaimo is the only city bringing such a motion to the UBCM meeting in September. So nothing's going to happen unless a majority of Nanaimo City Council vote yes on Brennan's motion.

 What are the chances of this passing? I'd say, at best, they are uncertain. I've heard at least one Councillor likes the current term. But this doesn't necessarily mean it will be an uphill battle. In many ways, a shorter term is a win-win situation both for Council and Nanaimo voters.

 Not only does reducing the term have the benefits that I've noted, it's also an opportunity for current Council members to demonstrate they really are thinking of what's best for voters. It could be the restart this Council needs. Bill Bestwick recently challenged all others at the table to resign with him and trigger a by-election. This is a far easier way to show accord with the local voters. 

 As for voters, who doesn't support shortening the term? Had the Province left the term of office at three years as it was before 2014, we would now be preparing to elect a new council in October. Do we need more arguments than that?

 So here's the take-home message: we can't afford to assume the change will happen without a strong voice from the electorate and their representatives for each step along the way. Applied to the all-important first step: starting now until September 11 - that's only one week - we need to ensure that Nanaimo Council knows we want Brennan's motion passed and taken to the UBCM. 

 The easiest way to do this is to email the mayor&council@nanaimo.ca. That way everyone will get a copy, and you only have to send it once. The content of your email can be as simple as a single sentence: “As a resident and voter of Nanaimo, I support Councillor Brennan's Motion for the UBCM, and I request that you vote for taking it to the upcoming meeting of the UBCM, in September, 2017.” 

Feel free to copy and paste that sentence to your email. If you have the time, add your own reason(s) why this initiative should be supported. Your unique argument could provide the telling point that persuades a teetering councillor and/or UBCM to demand Victoria return the term of office to 3 years.  

Ask to have your email added to the correspondence for the September 11 meeting. That way it becomes part of the official record and provides Nanaimo with strong evidence of voter support when they take the motion forward. Share this article on social media, and send its URL to everyone you know. Finally, think about appearing as a delegation at the next council meeting. 

This is our critical moment and it needs our immediate attention. There is less that a week until this crucial Council meeting and the vote. This initiative will impact what the 2018 election looks like. We need to get our emails out to help our Council - and ourselves - restore and recreate a more frequently occurring process for ensuring we have accountable governance for our City.