Feb. 6, 2017

City can't deal from a stacked deck in arena referendum


By Merv Unger

02/06 - With roughly a month to go before we vote on borrowing $80 million for an events centre, the stage is being set with the pros and cons of the project.

Numerous citizens have complained that the table appears to be tilted in support of a yes vote. To address that question we have to look at what city council’s – and staff’s – duty is in this regard. Once a project has been voted on by council and approved, it is their duty to support that, and that includes spending money to promote it.

Some may not like what has already been spent, but council and staff have the duty to determine what the project is and what it’s going to cost, they have to determine what is on the table. That work is not free, it costs a lot of money. Whether it is the right amount is something that can be discussed forever.

Citizens should be able to find as much information as they desire before the referendum, and they should get it from the city without roadblocks. A number of people have complained about the information process at city hall.

I got a surprise when I attempted to get basic information from city council. I sent my request by email to the mayor and all councillors.  Coun. Bill Bestwick and Coun. Diane Brennan responded. Then I got an email from City Manager Tracey Samra, whom I had not addressed in the first instance. Her response was that I could look up the information on the city website, or failing that, proceed through the Freedom of Information process. She stated she had the information but would not give it to me. 

 I have been doing business with the city for more than 30 years since becoming a permanent resident in 1982, including the years in the news media with the Daily Free Press and the Nanaimo News Bulletin. That also includes six years as a city councillor. Never have I encountered obstacles when asking simple information.

As I have not stated my position for or against the project, the information I was looking for related to outstanding debt on past major projects such as the Port Theatre, Nanaimo Ice Centre, the aquatic centre and the water treatment plant and others. I was trying to find justification for building a major project if any of that debt was maturing in the near future. In other words, were the “mortgage” payments on any of that debt going to end and we could take on a new project without increasing taxes.

Though it was never set in stone, I remember past city managers advising council that major projects should be spaced so that new ones are not added until past ones are paid off. That was good advice.

I also believe, without having the facts, that we may be in that position now or the very near future with one of more loans being paid off. If that is the case, then we could build an arena without increasing taxes.

During the process I learned something else. My request for information was directed to Mayor and Councillors but went elsewhere as well.

I also sent a couple of emails to Victor Mema, the city’s finance director, but received no reply from him. I did get email advice from Samra that if I wanted to contact Mema I could send the message directly to her instead.

To be fair, past city managers have had access to city council’s emails. The public should know that what they send to any city email address is not necessarily private, the walls have ears.

As for the topic at hand, hoarding city information and forcing citizens to go through the Freedom of Information process is not openness.

Conducting a referendum campaign while appearing to stack the deck raises questions about the fairness of the process. Winning or losing a questionable referendum is not a victory for either side.