Don White - Jan to August, 2017

Time to put the Pratt-Samra saga to rest for good

By Don White

[08/30] I see "the video" is again the subject of letters to the News Bulletin and online posts in Facebook groups. Yes, I mean the video of Wendy Pratt allegedly recorded by Samra at an in camera Council meeting.

 Once again, there's a flood of judgments and opposing views. Did Pratt's actions constitute assault and meet the definition of violence? Did Samra provoke the actions, and was she inappropriately recording Pratt during in camera session? And who was the most disrespectful?

At the risk of continuing to beat what should be a dead horse, let me register a few points. 

 First, about the “assault.” Under the strict legal definition of the term, as I understand it, any physical contact if unwanted - that is, even a mere touch to another person or to an object they are holding - is technically “assault.” So, physical assault covers a wide range of actions from light touches to hitting with a weapon. Obviously, some forms are much more egregious than are others. But if Pratt made any contact at all to Samra, or to her phone if Samra were holding it, the act technically meets the legal definition.

 Second, about “violence.” Claiming physical violence while withholding a detailed description and supporting evidence suggests something other than factual disclosure is being served. Given that no documenting evidence has been provided to the public, accepting statements made by anyone that the incident was violent amounts to an act of faith. 

Third, the public has almost no evidence to support any assertion by any side about what actually took place. Until all the needed information becomes available, everything said about the incident - including why the CAO believed charges should be laid in the first place - must be taken as speculation (or even wishful thinking). 

 But we are not completely in the dark. There is one record of evidence-based judgment about the Pratt-Samra Saga we do have. 

 Following the incident at the in camera Council meeting, charges were laid and investigated by the RCMP. The parties then agreed to diversion rather pursue it in a court. This much is in the public record. For a case to go to diversion, the defendant must plead guilty, thus Pratt's guilty plea. In diversion, the crown typically states its case, the defence lays out any mitigating circumstances, and a judge decides the consequences. 

 It is my understanding, although uncorroborated, that a letter of apology was deemed appropriate remediation given the nature of the offence. That letter was written by Pratt and given to Samra. And that’s it. The incident was over, done with, complete. Justice, as they say, was deemed to have been served, and balance should have been restored. Pratt's resignation was not required.

 Now that the diversion is complete, charges of assault and violence may be more about political beliefs, motives, and promoting the agendas of the persons arguing than they are about the incident. Such promotion includes the leaking or even referring to “the video”, claiming the incident to be about race, and speculating on the motives and personalities of others.

Prolonging the nasty speculation that seems to invariably accompany discussion of this incident does good to neither Pratt nor Samra. Personally, I really don't care if I ever see the rest of the recording. If I do eventually screen it, I suspect it will only confirm one or another scenario I have already imagined. And, I suspect, it will also confirm that diversion programs work and the ordered redress was appropriate for the “assault” that happened.

So maybe it's time to stop trying to second guess all the unknown factors about this saga and about what's in the missing minutes of the video. Maybe it is time to lay to rest the talk of violence. Perhaps we should recognize that any “assault” has already been paid for in the currency most appropriate. Even more important, perhaps its time for all of us to stop using the incident to support for our own political objectives. At least, let's admit that when we cite the Pratt and Samra Saga it's our own agenda we’re pursuing.

It’s time for a forensic audit of Nanaimo City Hall

By Don White

0816 – To say I’m dismayed by what's occurred subsequent to recent events at City Hall is, at best, an understatement. In fact, I'm incredulous, even shocked, depressed by what has taken place. As someone recently asked in social media, “How did the key questions about what's happened with Council get to be about racism?” And you can add, “to be about violence” to that list.

Accusations of racism and violence toward an indigenous woman have appeared in a number of news media and online petitions - both locally and elsewhere in the country. Some originate with the CAO, some from her relatives, some from others. Perhaps the most damaging for the long term came from a member of the Snuneymuxw First Nation citing diminished co-operation and removal of the SFN flag from Nanaimo City Hall as threatened consequences.

For whatever reason, the accusations published have mostly centred on Nanaimo's Mayor. They claim he either created or enabled a toxic environment where racism and violent assault could happen and then ignored it when it did. Yet no supporting evidence is offered.

Whatever have been Bill McKay's shortcomings since he was elected, lack of sympathy for and good wishes toward First Nations aren’t one of them. The only comment that mentioned race that I recall hearing from him followed the 2014 election. When the poll results were posted, McKay expressed pleasure that voters had elected Bill Yoachim, a member of Snuneymuxw First Nation, and said he was delighted he would be serving with him on the Council. 

As for ignoring or denying a violent assault against an indigenous woman, McKay has simply stated that he cannot confirm or deny that such an assault occurred. He has pointed out that he wasn’t at the meeting where the event in question is alleged to have happened and that he has seen no more than the leaked video clip on YouTube, the same as other viewers. For this reason, he believes he hasn’t the evidence to judge what happened. 

So why the accusations centring on the Mayor? Why the claims that he turned a blind eye to violence and racism? Why are some of the same, old delegates to Council meetings now back aiming the same tired, divisive vitriol at particular members at the table? And why are many Council members sitting passively and tacitly approving? 

What is now occurring bears an uncanny resemblance to the campaign run by the same individuals that effectively hamstrung Nanaimo's elected Mayor and unsuccessfully attempted to oust him at the beginning of the current term. It is the same actions that turned our City Council into a bickering, dysfunctional body. So why has the same crusade again ramped up?

The much disseminated charges of racism and of ignoring alleged violent assaults, intentionally or not, function like a campaign that puts out fake news. It's a manoeuvre frequently used (as we've been watching elsewhere) to deflect attention from key issues. Without suggesting this was the intention of the accusers, it may be useful to ask the first questions we hear in any mystery story: Who would benefit by changing the thrust of the investigation? And what's at stake?

One obvious stake is the CAO's severance payment. It has been suggested that Samra's demands are big time. Whether she receives that payment might well depend on establishing that a toxic, racial, violent environment existed in Nanaimo City Hall, and that it was sanctioned, even honed by Mayor McKay. A trial in public media might be the best of all arenas. With racism and violence now firmly in the public eye, attention could be deflected from questions about the process by which the CAO was hired, her subsequent pay raise, her bonus payment and reimbursed expenses. Interestingly, this deflection would also serve anyone who approved her hiring and such payments. 

Which calls up another cliché from every police drama: “Follow the money.” Concerns about our City's finances are far broader than questions about the CAO's severance. How did Nanaimo go from “no new taxes needed to service an $80-million loan for a hockey rink” to being unable to provide washrooms and wheelchair access in our parks? Why were the budgets of Parks and Recreation decimated and what happened to those monies? What did Council do with the funds they saved by reducing the number of managers and staff? What financial decisions beside the purchase of automated garbage trucks have been made behind closed doors?

Whether outcries of racism and violence are actual attempts to divert public attention from these matters remains unproven. Nonetheless, little reflection is needed to recognize that it’s time for a full forensic audit of our City Hall. (For that matter, it's also time for a third party investigation of all those in-camera meetings, negotiations, and events that have taken place since 2014.) In fact, it might be illuminating for a delegation at the next open Council meeting to ask which Councillors support the audit.

Given the slow-to-the-point-of-refusing-to-answer responses to public Freedom of Information requests of City Hall, it appears an audit may be the only way Nanaimo taxpayers will get the information to which they are entitled. Don't let your attention be derailed by unproven and unsupported charges of racism or anything else. It's time voters demand this crucial investigation gets started.

Another four puzzles about recent events at City Hall

By Don White

[08/10] Adding to the lists in previous columns, Aug 6 and 8, here are an additional four ponderables to make an even dozen.

(9) Who is managing the CAO?

Following the CAO's outburst of profanity at the in camera Council meeting on July 26, several complaints against her were filed by staff with the City's Human Resources Department - which raises an interesting question. How can the HR department at City Hall objectively manage complaints about the CAO if the HR department reports to the CAO? How can anyone be impartial if an investigation involves their boss?

(10) What about the exodus of departing staff?

Why did the City recently lose so many senior managers and staff? Published reports claimed 23 senior staff and managers have recently departed leaving some departments leaderless and/or with unmanageable work loads. Exactly how many, when, and why did these people leave? Our chief sustainability officer, Kim Fowler left her newly created position in mid-May after beginning work only last December. Director of HR, John Van Horne said at the time that he didn't know whether Fowler quit, went elsewhere, or was fired. Surely that doesn't still apply. And why has Mayor McKay announced he may not run again just when the tables appear to be turning against his arch rivals, the CAO and Council Five? Where's the core of the toxicity?

(11) What's the best scenario - for whom?

It's probably safe to assume that employees who left City Hall during our CAO's tenure will get little benefit (although, possibly, some satisfaction) from the way that the current situation ends. For McKay, the best scenario may only be a quiet exit (possibly with immeasurable relief). For BC's new Minister of municipal affairs, Selina Robinson, her hands-off policy will mean Nanaimo's current debacle will be chalked up as a failure by her to act. Given that local taxpayers will foot the bill for everything that happened and will happen, our best scenario may result from our insisting on an investigation to determine who should be accountable and the attendant liabilities. As one Facebook post put it: the way things are going, Samra will get her desired severance and the five councillors who hired her over the objections of others can claim they terminated her in the best interest of Nanaimo. Which begs the question ...

(12) What will be done about how she was hired in the first place?

Published accounts have suggested the process of approving Samra for the position of City Manager was rushed and questionable. Apparently, only a few minutes were spent before the start of a public meeting for her contract to be approved by Councillors Bestwick, Kipp, Fuller, Hong and Yoachim. Mayor McKay had excused himself from the process as being in conflict (apparently, Samra had acted as his lawyer). Councillors Brennan, Thorpe and Pratt opposed the hiring. Apparently, no interview or reference check of Samra had been conducted. Brennan's lawyer later asked the Mayor to suspend the CAO's appointment until an independent investigation of the process could be completed. That suspension didn't happen, although McKay did complain to Peter Fassbender who was Minister of Community, Sport and Cultural Development at the time. Fassbender, like Robinson, refused to intercede.  

These current events raise important questions about governance and liability. What if, in fact, the process of hiring the CAO really was improper? Should taxpayers be on the hook for any settlement paid to the CAO that was approved by the same individuals responsible for her hiring in the first place? Should these five councillors even be allowed to negotiate or vote on Samra's severance payment? Furthermore, in such a scenario what would be the liability of the Council Five and/or particular members of the coalition? 

Surely, we need - and have grounds to demand - open, third party investigations and assessments of whether the interests of Nanaimo citizens have been served or sacrificed by both our local and provincial governments.

 

Four more things I wonder about recent events at City Hall

By Don White

[08/08] Carrying on from the list published in this column on August 6 ...

(5) What about the trigger that set things off? 

The special, in camera Council meeting where the CAO's profane outburst occurred was convened to receive and consider a report by independent, Vancouver labour lawyer Roslyn Goldner. The report assessed a complaint Samra filed asserting the behaviour of Mayor McKay and Councillors Brennan and Pratt towards her created a hostile work environment. 

And its findings? The CAO has claimed that the report confirms her allegations. Mayor McKay has claimed the CAO is “factually incorrect.” The Globe and Mail (who received a leaked copy of the report) stated fault was found on both sides. The McKay-Samra relationship is conflict-ridden and resembles a classic power struggle, which created the hostile work environment.

So what happens now? This is the big question. As yet, Council hasn't disclosed their intentions regarding the consultant's assessment. The CAO, however, has discussed aspects of the report in public - even though the matter is confidential and arguably grounds for her dismissal. The CAO is no novice to such matters, so why the disclosure? And why accompany it with a profane outburst at the meeting where the report was being discussed? Watch for how these factors figure in any negotiations to terminate the CAO's employment contract - by both sides.

(6) Will something happen about leaking confidential information? 

Will censure of the CAO happen because of her disclosing portions of the confidential Goldner findings to media? What about her providing the link to a video of Wendy Pratt recorded during an in camera meeting? Once again, there are more questions raised than answers. Perhaps the biggest question is: will the City (aka the Council) initiate a lawsuit against the CAO as it did against the Mayor for allegedly sharing confidential information with a former administrative assistant? The alternative is that Council do nothing just as it did about the leaked report left on the windshield of a Nanaimo citizen and subsequently published on Facebook.

(7) Why are voters always the last to know (yet expected to ante up)?

At what point do we, the citizens, voters, and taxpayers of Nanaimo, have the right to know what's happening? We have been kept in the dark about a plethora of in camera meetings; the details of the alleged assault by Wendy Pratt; the extent of Samra's reported injuries; and now the latest report by Goldner. Confidentiality, in the mind of some Councillors, appears to be intended more for protecting themselves than taxpayers, who are expected to foot the bill. 

(8) When are we entitled to higher intervention?

The Local Government Department of the BC Ministry of Community, Sport, and Cultural Development is responsible for overseeing the workings of local Councils. However, the new Minister, Selina Robinson, has refused to help. At what point are Nanaimo voters justified in demanding she intervene and deal with the dysfunction at our City Hall?

[Another four on Thursday.]

Four things I ponder about recent events at City Hall

By Don White

(1) Are recent events really components of an end game?

Has the CAO decided to pull up stakes and get out of City Hall? Samra has always appeared to be a smart and clever woman, but her outburst at the recent in camera special council meeting, June 26, is not the kind of thing people do if they wish to stay employed. Was the behaviour in any way intentional or does it only coincidentally raise questions about her termination?

If the CAO wants to go, what are her available exit strategies and attendant payoffs? Is there any reason - other than loss of her severance package - why she can't just fold her tent and go? Does she only receive her severance if the City of Nanaimo terminates her contract? When they hired her, the City agreed to pay her out even if her termination is justified. But what about the negative connotations of being fired? Can they be framed in such a way that they'll reflect positively on Samra?

 (2) What are the chances of the CAO's termination? 

What will it take to prompt a firing? Are there already sufficient grounds? Will Council say “enough” only if there is continuing behaviour like the CAO's recent public outburst? Will criteria for her termination be consistent with similar cases, such as the termination of John Hankins, CEO at the Nanaimo Economic Development Corporation for writing an op-ed piece criticizing Nanaimo Council for removing tourism from the Corp's mandate?

If necessary, who will do the terminating? Obviously, the City Council, but won't the Council Five (Bestwick, Kipp, Fuller, Hong, and Yoachim) who hired the CAO (over voiced objections) in the first place, at least have to fracture their coalition to have enough votes for termination? Are any of those councillors reluctant because it will be seen as an admission of bad judgment when hiring her at the outset? 

 (3) Does responsibility for hiring the CAO come with related liability?

Are Council members liable if the best interests of taxpayers have not been served? If the City was willing to initiate a lawsuit against the Mayor, can it also sue those on Council who voted to increase the CAO's salary despite the terms of her employment contract being frozen for the initial four years? What about the bonus of $24,500 paid to the CAO? What about their agreeing to her extraordinary, no fault, severance package - should that payout become necessary? What if the procedures used to hire her were improper?

 (4) Will voters remember this legacy until the next election?

Regardless of what happens, will voters remember who created or otherwise contributed to the current mess when the time to vote next comes around? Voters managed to escape the $80M event centre fiasco, but this debacle is another unwanted monument the majority on the current Council have willed us.

 [More tomorrow.]

3 - Numerous implications in Event Centre vote

By Don White

Third  in a series

A third very important point that I took away from the January 25 special meeting of the council is this: 

Point 3: No voter/taxpayer spending controls - except ...

Voters/taxpayers would be wise to think of the referendum as the one control they have over council spending on the event centre. If the No vote wins, the possibility always exists for council to rethink the project, complete site and other testing, improve on project inadequacies, reduce its risky aspects, and come back to taxpayers with a revised and hopefully, improved plan. 

This applies not only to the current council, with all its squabbling and other foibles, but also to future councils who stand to inherit the outcome of the referendum - good or bad. At the same time, however, the converse applies to a Yes result. If the Yes side wins in the referendum, the one failsafe taxpayers have for the project and its costs is breached. By giving the City Council permission to borrow the $80 million, in effect voters give council permission to start running with the project as it stands, that is, with no spending cap and the entire financial risks being borne by Nanaimo taxpayers. 

Implications: Voters/taxpayers voting in the referendum would be wise to consider the referendum, firstly, as a request by the present council, in all its imperfections, for permission to proceed willy-nilly with the event centre regardless of community, social, financial, or other concerns.

The only way to check or withhold this authorization appears to be by voting No and the No vote winning. The fact that the referendum, on the surface, asks for permission to borrow $80 million should be considered to be secondary in importance (as horrendous as that sounds). Voting

yes and granting permission to borrow the funds, in effect, constitutes taxpayers giving free rein to those on City Council who want the centre for whatever reason. Voting No and withholding borrowing permission is the only way to ensure council remains accountable, and that they continue developing the project plan until it addresses the major publics concerns.

2 - There's no assurance of $80-million spending cap on arena

by Don White

Second  in a series 

01/26 - The second important point I took from yesterday’s special meeting of the council concerns taxpayer protection/vulnerabilities associated wth project spending.

Point 2: No Spending Cap

During the meeting I came to understand that Nanaimo voters are being asked to approve the borrowing of 80 million dollars in the referendum, but, and this is a *big* but, that does not necessarily reflect what council may actually decide to spend on the project either now or in the future. In other words, voters should not confuse the amount council is currently asking to borrow with the actual total cost of the proposed event centre, either as it currently stands or including any overruns or add-ons that council may later approve. As yet, I have not heard of any cap/limit being placed on the amount council may choose to spend on the project overall. 

During the meeting Mayor McKay stated that he would not support the project if projected costs exceeded $80M, but no other councillor stated the same position. However, even the Mayor didn’t make it clear when he would withdraw support. Only before the project started? Even after construction had begun? Would he still opt out if the building's footings had been poured? And, even if the Mayor did withdraw support, would that be enough to halt construction/further expenditures? No other council member currently supporting the project made the same declaration.

I think that it is important for voters to consider the lack of a cap on the project spending in light of two important aspects: (1) projected versus actual costs of similar public projects. (When was the last time you heard of a project commissioned by any level of government coming in at or under budget?) (2) taxpayer confidence in the current council. (Can voters trust that this council can/will look after their fiscal interests given that this council is frequently described as being, at best, dysfunctional? To me, it seems a bit like agreeing to co-sign a mortgage for a married couple who are in the middle of divorcing.)

Implications: Since the estimated cost of the project recommended by the architects is $87 million, and council has *apparently* shaved that down to $80 million, it would be prudent for voters to assess their support for the project in terms of the likelihood that final costs may be significantly more than currently estimated. Since taxpayers are the sole parties bearing the risk for the event centre, funds for any overage, either deliberate or unintended will come ultimately from the taxpayers. Consequently, a “yes" vote on the referendum gives the current council permission to spend whatever it wants on the event centre, and declares taxpayers are willing to cover this spending. In this light, the referendum (more on this in another post) should be considered to be a vote on your willingness to back a project that lacks a limit on its spending by a council that is in the middle of suing one another.

1- Nanaimo taxpayers on their own for events centre risk

by Don White

First of a series

01/26 - A lot of good information came out of the January 25 Special Meeting of Nanaimo Council (some intended by council, some perhaps unintended). The first important point I took away was this: 

Point 1: Risk

I think one of the clearest pieces of information (and vital points to keep in mind when considering all aspects of the project) came at the very end of the meeting. A question posed by one of the final speakers in the question period was, “Who is in this with us? Who shares the risks [for overruns, etc.]? The answer coming immediately from Mayor McKay was, “No one.” 

Implications: Nanaimo voters and taxpayers should understand from the outset that *any and all* risks, financial and/or otherwise, associated with the proposed event centre are *entirely* on their shoulders. No other partner, level of government, etc., is involved. If the project costs more than estimated for whatever reason, if there are any associated costs not included in the estimates, etc., taxpayers, one way or another, will be paying the price.

Random thoughts while watching recent council meetings

By Don White

0727 - Councillor Sheryl Armstrong gets the gold star for succinct, relevant, to the point comments, questions, and observations. Most other Councillors seated at the table ramble on endlessly, are frequently off point (way off point!), unrestrained by the Chair, and shamelessly self-serving.

- Mayor McKay appears determined to demonstrate his breadth of vision is smaller than a pothole. He seems happy to decimate untouched parkland to build a couple of more houses. Email this man downloads of “Big Yellow Taxi.” It's apt and almost as dated as his thinking.

- What was called “the coalition of the majority on council” appears now in disarray. In retrospect, this “coalition” may have existed only for hiring the CAO, hamstringing McKay, and borrowing $80M for the hockey rink. Now, it has as many cracks as Nanaimo streets.

- Divisions are also appearing among the City managers and staff. Some attending council meetings persist in treating voters like the enemy and still default to delay and obfuscation; others appear to really want to do their jobs and provide the public with answers and requested information.

- The recent exodus of senior staff from City Hall may be hampering the remaining employees from doing their jobs efficiently. This may be contributing to the lengthy delays, for example, in handling requests for information. We may no longer have the staff to run our business properly.

- The Q&A is now the most informative part of council meetings. It is also the place where items of most consequence often pop up. Many delegations appearing at the microphone seem better informed on background and consequences of particular issues than many at the council table.

- Some council members continue to appear completely unprepared to accomplish the meeting's business. As a case in point: Councillor Hong claiming to a delegation that he was blindsided by the staff proposal for the GNWD parklands - how is this even possible?

- Mayor McKay's frequent disrespect for the public at the podium during the Q&A is one of the City's ugly wonders. If McKay would aim even 10% of his admonishments to stay on track to other Councillors when they go on their usual rambles, meetings would be over in an hour. 

- Director of Community Development, Dale Lindsay wins staff honours for most respectful dealings with the public. Generally, he answers everyone to the best of his ability. And a tip of the hat to City Clerk, Sheila Gurrie. She often does very well when put in an untenable position.

- Even delegates are learning that respectful questioning and mild incredulity gets them much farther than attacking Council members.

- The most wonderful development of all is the number of first time and returning regulars who show up at the microphone. The Q&A is now more than just the meetings' high point. It is the crucible where it's being determined whether those currently at the table will ever be capable of governing on behalf of their electorate. And what a show! A continuous stream of Nanaimo citizens appearing and demanding accountability from Council. Let's hope it never ends.

What voters told City Council in the byelection

By Don White

[07/11] The messages from the byelection seem clear, but are members of Nanaimo City Council wise enough to listen? That’s the real question in the 16 months until the next general election. Judging by the lack of real change following the arena referendum, we might expect the answer to be “no.” So, if only to facilitate improvement, let me try to spell them out.

Sheryl Armstrong's winning of close to 50% of total votes cast on July 8 was not a result only of her platform. The result also reflects what voters thought they saw in her and what she represents. As one post in social media described her, of all the candidates, Armstrong appeared to be “the most bully-proof.” That is not the only characteristic that swayed voters. 

Armstrong was also perceived as being independent, as coming to City Hall without factional allegiances, with no old debts to pay. She was viewed as representing Nanaimo as a whole, as someone who would vote for or against initiatives based only on the soundness of the proposal and its broad implications for the entire city. 

For another thing, Armstrong was judged to be capable of seeing our city as part of a larger world. Diane Brennan has already connected the preservation of local parkland to the Paris Climate Agreement. Similarly, Bill Bestwick may be Council's most consistent environmental advocate in a world of rapid change. Voters saw Armstrong as a councillor who will be a credible representative and able to proactively connect with provincial and federal counterparts.

 Armstrong's election also represents the operationalized wish of voters for something different at City Hall. Her landslide represents an emphatic rejection of what is still viewed as City Hall's insufficient transparency, accountability, and community involvement. Improvements on all three factors were demanded in the run up to the arena referendum, but the current council is perceived to have responded poorly. Armstrong's election can be seen as a censure of this lack of correction by our council.

Those messages to City Council from the voters are clear and unmistakeable. And they come with important implications. Anyone choosing to run in 2018 should understand that they will win or lose on the same basis on which Armstrong was elected. Intentionally or not, Armstrong's campaign has set the benchmarks for everyone to match. Every member of Nanaimo's City Council now has 16 months to demonstrate their adherence to and promotion of the same values that voters believe they saw in Sheryl Armstrong. 

If you want to get elected in 2018, you had better listen closely. And remember the old adage: talk is cheap; actions are what count. Voters in both the referendum and the byelection have demonstrated clearly they have had enough of mere assurances. On this, not even Armstrong gets a pass. Her election represents a raising of the bar, but now she, herself, must also meet the standard that voters believe that she has set. This may be her biggest challenge. 

Equally important - and stating the obvious - Armstrong was elected as an individual. That self-evident fact contains the ultimate message from the byelection to our current councillors. When the election rolls around in 2018, it won't matter if you were part of a council coalition or whom you know in town. It will come down to what voters remember of your behaviour, how you voted on specific issues, and whether you acted transparently, were accountable, and listened to those who put you into office. In a city lacking municipal parties and political slates, when voters go to the polling booths, candidates live or die alone.

Vote for the environment in the byelection

By Don White

July 5, 2017 - Ask people in Nanaimo what they value and love about our city and they rate its natural environment up near the top. Whether it's the splendour of the Colliery Dam and Neck Point Parks; the killer whales that swim past Icarus Point; the nesting eagles (I'm watching one fledge as I'm writing this); migrating waterfowl; or the many walks in the city and the surrounding area. The wonders of this town!

Yet the published platforms and questions put to the byelection candidates don't really tell us their positions on environmental issues. That's a crucial, missing piece for Nanaimo voters.

 Along with fiscal and social topics, most information about candidate positions focusses on some aspect of growth and development: passenger ferries, revitalizing the downtown, development of the waterfront, how to bring more residents and tourists to Nanaimo. 

The emphasis suggests that the prosperity and well being, even happiness of Nanaimo residents is directly tied mainly to economic issues and the number of our residents. If we can only get more businesses, build more houses, get more money changing hands between more people in a bigger tax base all will be well, or at least somehow better than it is at present. 

Don't mistake my meaning here. I don't deny that benefits can be derived from growth and also from development. But any causal connections between those factors and well being, between economic indicators, population numbers and quality of life are tenuous, at best. 

Such correlations can as easily be negative. Disasters are great stimulators of the national GDP. Nothing like a good storm or fire to heat up the GDP. Spending money doesn't necessarily indicate improvement. As for growth: ask people in the world's most populated regions about their quality of life. 

There is another factor of relevance to Nanaimo voters. Both growth and development can negatively impact other things that are important to us. The natural environment is arguably one of our most valuable resources. And when it's gone, it's gone. Consider farmland in Richmond, the Fraser River estuary, the ability to drink safely from a stream. Once it has been replaced by a shopping mall or housing development, you can't go back. At least not within our lifetimes.

This is not a rant against growth and development; it is a cautionary note. Today, with our climate and environmental health going sideways, Nanaimo's development needs to be managed carefully, mindfully, and with the greatest caution. It needs to be guided to a degree that is perhaps well beyond the demonstrated ability of the current council. 

In the current byelection, we need to begin to move in that direction. As voters, we need to assess the candidates running for the single seat on council as to where they stand on these same issues. Check their websites. If nothing has been posted, email or call them. And when you get the answers post them for other voters. Let us know. This is too important to ignore.

 Nanaimo is currently on a cusp. We must ensure that development occurs within our boundaries and actually produces a net benefit for all our citizens - not a select few. We need councillors that recognize the need for economic prudence, for environmental protection and conservation more than ones who blindly endorse mindless growth.

What we need to hear from byelection candidates

By Don White

06/27 – As the date for the byelection looms, I've been wondering about how best to exercise our options as Nanaimo voters. I've also wondered what are realistic expectations to have for the candidates in terms of changing our current City Council. 

What can we reasonably expect of one elected person? What can a single councillor do about City Hall's current practice of stonewalling the electorate on everything from the state of city finances to the recent exodus of senior managers? Can any one individual, newly elected to replace Wendy Pratt, realistically and effectively change our City Hall? What about our big three “wants”: increased consultation, transparency, and accountability? 

Taking even a quick look at the candidates' existing platforms, it's not hard to find promises regarding increased consultation. Many of those running for the single seat on council pledge to actively seek voter input, make a real effort to learn what voters want, hold regular consultations with the voting public. 

But consultation on its own doesn't necessarily produce change. Even the current council held community meetings on the NEC. However, nothing changed in council's arena proposal following the meetings. As voters, it's crucial we ask ourselves about the missing elements.

Without our City Hall fully disclosing the reasons for their decisions and the basis of their plans, we lack a functioning transparency and evidence that Council hears us. Without our Council and City Managers providing a full, accurate accounting of our city's finances and all its spending, accompanied by realistic, objective projections for the future, true accountability doesn't happen.

That's a problem for voters in the current byelection. Despite pledges for consultation, there's little being stated by our candidates about how they will improve City Hall's performance on these factors. Consequently, as things stand, we lack what may be critical information we need for voting. We may lack a solid basis for choosing between candidates. 

As a fix, consider this: ask the candidates how they, personally, intend to work toward providing for our other “wants.” Their plans for improving accountability and transparency at City Hall will reveal more than just their commitment to changing current practices. They will also tell us their intention to ensure that voters are fully informed, empowered, and ready for the next municipal election in 2018. Now, there's a solid basis for distinction!

Those are the real questions we want our candidates to answer - just in time for the Chamber of Commerce Candidates Debate at the Beban Park Social Centre, starting at 6 pm tonight where you can meet the candidates and the public forum beginning at 7 p.m..

Think global, vote local

By Don White

[06/21] A fair amount of information has appeared in local media detailing the qualifications and views of candidates for the current byelection. Put together, it seems to provide a fair overview of each candidate's intention to serve effectively despite the dysfunction of current council and an often-caustic atmosphere. Taken at face value, their endorsements of civility, transparency, and accountability are good to hear. 

However, I suspect we can't accurately assess the candidates' true suitability for council based strictly on what's been published. Nanaimo is no longer a small town. Nor is it particularly isolated from the world at large. We are also an integral part of several, much larger communities, provincial, national, and global - with connections that run both ways. For this reason, we also need to assess the candidates from a larger-than-local perspective.

The fact of bi-directional influence is crucially important. Much of our lives is affected by provincial and national policy, and by global markets. What we experience locally is affected not only by what happens in Victoria and Ottawa, but also by industrial agriculture, manufacturing, and resource extraction occurring thousands of kilometres from here. Think of pollution. Think of social policy. Think of how our climate, air and water quality are significantly affected elsewhere. 

This suggests we need effective local voices that work to advance our interests, needs, and values both here and elsewhere. We can't always trust that our interests will be served by other levels of government. They simply may not care. When did you last feel represented in Victoria, never mind in Ottawa, or on the global stage? Who advocated on our behalf when talk turned to pipelines and exporting the dirtiest US coal past our pristine harbour?

This is exactly where our choosing a candidate in the current byelection fits in. Besides their capabilities and intentions regarding municipal housekeeping, we need to assess their ability to develop an overarching vision for our city and to articulate that vision both inside and outside Nanaimo. We need city councillors who can be effective voices, who can connect us to the bigger picture, who represent our city as the gem it is, not make it an embarrassment. The quality of our lives comes from more than automated garbage trucks and potholes, and we need to choose the candidate who is best able, among those running, to move us in that direction.

It's fair to question whether a local politician can be heard on the larger stages that I've mentioned. Provincial and federal bodies often seem disinclined to listen to local voters (except when they want our vote). But that doesn't mean that “lower” governments are voiceless in “higher” arenas. When U.S President Donald Trump recently pulled the US from the Paris Climate Agreement proclaiming he was withdrawing on behalf of Pittsburgh, the mayor of Pittsburgh declared his city was on board with Paris, not with Trump - and the whole world heard him! When effective voices speak at any level, those further up the ladder tend to pay attention. 

Keep in mind that it isn't just the willingness of a candidate to take our values forward that should count toward our choice in this election. An effective representative needs to be capable of understanding and articulating how local, regional, national, and global visions fit together. S/he also needs to be seen by others as a credible representative to whom attention should be paid. With credible, effective representatives, higher governments will listen to Nanaimo voters in the same way that Nanaimo City Council listened in the recent referendum.

It may seem that a byelection is a relatively minor affair and that it's unnecessary to keep all this in mind when choosing a candidate. But this by-election is where it all begins. So when we are gauging the candidates' commitment to dealing with routine, municipal affairs, we should also gauge whether they can effectively carry our voices beyond our city boundaries. It may turn out that no one candidate fits all our needs exactly. But if we choose the one that's closest, we begin moving Nanaimo towards the future that we want.

It's time council started using the hook

By Don White

05/01 Where to start? Where to start? I had thought about taking off a bit of time to reset and develop a new perspective on Nanaimo City Hal, then along came the open Council Meeting of Monday, April 24. 

To be accurate, most of last Monday's meeting ran without a bump. Everything went smoothly right up to the scheduled Q&A. That was the point when Tim McGrath, local citizen and chronic interrogator of select members of City Council, again went for Diane Brennan. In what resembled a workshop demonstration of harassment, McGrath engaged in an escalating harangue that obliterated Brennan's attempts to answer the very questions that he posed. Meanwhile, instead of rising as a united body and having McGrath ejected from the room, the majority of Council suddenly discovered items on their iPads that needed their full attention, and all eyes stayed tilted downwards until Mayor McKay abruptly adjourned the meeting. 

Monday night's finale cuts to the core of what is wrong with our current Council. This is not the first time that McGrath has confronted particular council members, yet Council has done nothing to effectively prevent occurrences like these. Because of council's ongoing lack of action, such disruptions interfere with everything from housekeeping to bigger issues like a vision for our city. Because of the lack of an uniformly applied policy, personal abuse and misogyny remain the order of the day. Meetings can resemble open season on any councillor who is out of favour with members of the public, with other councillors, or city staff (but that's another story). The current Council's inconsistent behaviour actually sanctions the abuse of members like Diane Brennan (why are the victims so frequently women?) even while they simultaneously fall over one another to protect City staff from similar affronts. 

Whether intentional or not, Council's failure to act together to curtail abuse in council meetings also decreases the meetings' democratic functioning. McKay was the only one at the table who acted to stop the escalating aggression. Left alone, however, his hurried adjournment of the meeting seemed almost a reflexive act to protect Brennan. Unfortunately, the hurried adjournment prevented anyone else from asking questions of this council. At least four other voters who had waited patiently during the evening were denied a chance to speak. 

Together, issues like these can only dissuade desirable candidates from running for this Council. Would anyone with intact self-esteem want to work in an environment like this? Social media are already asking who will stand for office given the free-wheeling, exposed, and highly criticized nature of the job. These factors have significant implications for the coming by-election. 

If Nanaimo voters want anything to change, they need to ask why the current situation came about and why it continues to exist. Monday night's finale not only clarifies the issues, it also shines a light on the problems' origins. Council's action on harassment seems to be more about who is doing it and who is the recipient than about abuse, in general. If someone's pit bull at the podium attacks a Council member, most on Council seem willing to accommodate him. Acting to prevent harassment seems to fracture along the lines of the lingering blood feuds that have historically plagued this council and Nanaimo politics in general. 

Specific problems define possible solutions. It's time to provide Brennan and Nanaimo voters with protection from individuals who act the way we witnessed Monday night. Council needs an established, applied policy on behaviour in its meetings. It doesn't need guidelines that are read out periodically, but a protocol that's automatically triggered and universally enforced. 

If an individual at the podium persists in behaving as McGrath did Monday night, that individual's access to the podium needs to be curtailed. Freedom of speech and access to council can be preserved by allowing such individuals to make written submissions (only) for both presentations and the Q&A for a period of time. Furthermore, if harassment of any member, such as Brennan, occurs outside of council meetings as a consequence of a councillor doing his/her job, a restraining order should be obtained and paid for by the city. 

For the longer term, voters need to think long and hard about the pervasive nature of the historic divisions in the city that seem to cripple the current Council. How can voters eliminate these factions? One obvious way would be to vote only for candidates who have lived in Nanaimo 10 years or less. (I know, I know. Heresy. Newcomers taking over! Lock and load!) Whatever strategy you choose, however, think of the effect. Even if only for a single term, imagine having a council not aligned with our local, 21st century version of the Hatfields and McCoys. Imagine watching a Nanaimo Council meeting that doesn't resemble the government of a third world country.

While you're at it, think about voting for someone who has at least some experience of the larger world. Nanaimo is not a small town anymore, we need people who can think outside our traditional boundaries and be out there on the larger stage representing our interests and our values. The things that are important to us extend well beyond automated garbage trucks and potholes. It's time to move past the parochial perspective. 

The apparent tolerance of the majority of the current Council's members for occurrences like the one we saw on Monday night needs to be remedied immediately. The claim of honouring free speech by tolerating harassment only reduces the rights it claims to serve. This is of significant importance in the long term. We need the most capable citizens - particularly women - to be part of local governance. Not much chance of that happening the way things are at present. Consequently, voters must stand up now and demand that Council take immediate and effective action to provide the protection to which both Diane Brennan and Nanaimo are entitled.

We owe it to ourselves to change city hall

By Don White

04/10 – I read about the resignation of Nanaimo Councillor Wendy Pratt with a sadness that came close to being despair. Not that I have ever met the woman or corresponded with her. I'm not even that familiar with her career in local politics. My reaction wasn't personal. Rather, the sadness and despair came from what her action signified, from the chain of circumstances and responsibilities that has brought all of us to this low point of our city. 

What has happened to us? How have we allowed this? How have we come to accept the utter absence of civility, the diminishment of honour, and the lack of integrity that permeate the political arenas of our city as our operating norms? How have we let our democratic City Hall be reduced to the standards of the world's worst corporations? When did we agree that voter manipulation should replace the goals of accountability and transparency?

The answers, in fact, are found within the questions. What has happened in Nanaimo has occurred because we've let it. The new norms are a result of our passivity. The behaviour we see in City Hall has grown in the spaces we've provided. The responsibility for what has taken place in Nanaimo lies with all of us who have watched it develop and done nothing. 

From the first Nanaimo City Council meeting I attended, I have been continuously stunned by the lack of civility displayed. The dismissive rudeness of all those seated at the table ranks right up there with the worst I've seen from any elected body. The flagrant disrespect councillors routinely display for anyone who questions or opposes their position - particularly members of the voting public - is the stuff of legend. And they're not alone. Some members of the public happily reciprocate in kind. The stunningly nasty, offensive behaviour of a small faction of the voters creates a feedback loop that seemingly empowers and emboldens like-minded members of Council and City Hall. Yet despite being shocked, I've haven't acted. 

I've witnessed the routine reading of the rules of decorum before each council meeting fall on willfully-deaf ears. Subsequently, I've watched some of the most despicable displays of true bullying that I have ever seen in an institutional environment. I have also heard apparently fabricated accusations, charges of “bullying” where no substantiated abuse existed. In Nanaimo City Hall, “bullying” has become a political stone that is thrown to stifle opposition while true bullying is frequently ignored. Such stones are found in the arsenals of councillors, city staff, and, again, members of the public. Council meetings frequently have all the decorum of a bar fight. And I've done nothing. 

We have allowed our democratically-elected and supposedly democratically-functioning City Council to adopt some of the most despicable practices found in private corporations. We routinely see attempts that equate to manipulating and misleading members of the board and shareholders; strategies designed to destroy anything that looks like opposition, whether it be outside competition or dissenting voices inside the institution; and sexism. 

Ask any woman who has spent time in any boardroom whether the condescension, dismissal, harassment, and abuse she experienced is echoed in our Council meetings. Ask them if they were treated as equals, equally respected, or routinely sidelined and ignored. I have watched our elected Council morph into a group where the latter is the common practice. Our City Hall has begun to resemble the world of business where the success of women depends on their assuming the same traits and behaviour of the very worst of men. 

Now I am faced with the resignation of Councillor Wendy Pratt and I have asked myself how I should view this action. The answer I've come up with is hardly complimentary. I believe Wendy Pratt's resignation to be the inevitable result of every time I failed to stand up and be counted. I see her action as a condemnation of myself and of all of us who stood by and let the corrosive environment develop. I believe that by not demanding otherwise we have permitted vindictive, venomous, abusive relationships in City Hall to flourish. I believe that by doing nothing, we carry responsibility for the events that ensnared Councillor Pratt. I don't know specific details of the actions that led to her resignation, but suspect that whatever happened it would change nothing. 

In the final analysis, I believe that we, the voters, are the ones responsible for City Hall. Until we actively stand and confront the offenders, the situation will only worsen. Until we name and begin eliminating the falsifiers and manipulators, the abusive parties on all sides, the crippling dysfunction that we see will continue. This is not an issue that can wait for the next election. If nothing substantial changes in the interim, the risk is high that another visit to the polls will only reproduce the same nasty, destructive cycle albeit with new players. 

If there's an upside to Councillor Pratt's resignation, perhaps it is the possibility that people like me, along with the rest of the 80 per cent who voted no to the WHL area, will now finally stand up and say that enough has become far too much, far more than any of us will tolerate. Maybe now we will finally demand that City Hall change - and ensure that change start now. Whether you believe that we owe this action to Wendy Pratt, it seems self-evident that we owe it to ourselves. 

We have to make sure we get heard by councillors

By Don White

03/30 An amazing thing happened on March 11 in the Nanaimo Event Centre referendum. A lot of voters, and I mean a lot, felt they had been heard. At final count, 19,179 voters, a full 80%, of those who showed up, voted No, and saw their choice prevail.

This is no small thing. When was the last time you felt represented in a government at any level? When (if ever) did casting your vote leave you with the sense you had a voice? When did you ever think that Victoria or Ottawa cared even passingly about anything you wanted? Tankers past our doorstep? Suck it up. Electoral reform? Yes, well ... maybe another time.

During the run up to the referendum, we heard how Nanaimo needed the WHL arena to stimulate our growth, draw people to the area, and increase our population. The underlying assumption: if we're bigger, we'll accrue benefits. However, The way the referendum mobilized our community and its outcome prompted City Council to abandon the proposal suggests Nanaimo may be exactly the right size. Local, municipal-sized governments may now give Canadian voters their best chance of being heard by those elected to hold power.

Whatever the role community size played in the referendum, the results provided a very clear lesson about what we can accomplish in our city - just about anything we want. When I talk to others in the community or read online posts, I recognize how many of us share a common vision. We want to preserve our multitude of parks. We want to create a vibrant waterfront and downtown area. We want to be inclusive. We want to have cultural events and deal with homelessness - causes that would enrich the lives of everyone.

And now the referendum has shown us that these things are doable. It has demonstrated that if we go about it properly, even Nanaimo’s current Council majority will hear what we are saying. How? By voters (that's us) ensuring that elected representatives (that's Council) listen to our voices. When voters (us again) speak effectively, and continue to speak effectively, we can shape our city’s vision and collectively build the community that everybody wants.

But to do so, we need to understand that hearing is not one-sided. If we want to be heard, we need to speak. And we need to continue speaking. We need to keep on speaking our minds to Council long after events like elections and referendums have been held and gone. Elected bodies are no different than people: if an issue isn't right in their faces, there's a tendency to slip backwards. The squeaky wheel is an essential tool – right up to the point that it's addressed.

Furthermore, elections and referendums give only limited input to elected representatives and then usually only on issues the candidates, themselves, create. That's not good enough for us or anyone. We can't afford to wait for the infrequent opportunities of elections and referendums. Important issues arise far more frequently. Nor can we let our elected officials be the only ones who define what is important to us. If we do, many things we consider vital are likely to be lost. Do you think the vision of the current City Council really covers your breadth of interests?

Fortunately, a number of effective options exist for us to speak and to be heard between elections and referendums. Appearing in front of Council at an open council meeting is one option, and possibly the best. Rising in a council meeting either as a delegate or in the Q&A puts a face on what you're asking or addressing. That makes it personal, not abstract. Despite any reluctance or unease, we should do it. Imagine if every item we believed important had 10 of us stand up.

Writing to council is simple and an easy alternative to actually appearing. If relevant, we can have it entered officially as correspondence. We can email the mayor and council collectively at mayor.council@nanaimo.ca. Or we can write to an individual councillor who we think will listen and carry our interests forward. Find individual email addresses at http://www.nanaimo.ca/EN/main/municipal/city-council/CityCouncil.html. As a followup, consider posting a copy of your letter/email in one of the Nanaimo Facebook groups. Nothing like generating and increasing momentum for an issue! But remember: posting the issue or only raising it on Facebook is no substitute for getting it to City Hall. The latter is essential. Facebook is an extra.

On March 11, we demonstrated that we know how to insist that City Council hear us. When we spoke then, even the Bestwick Coalition was compelled to listen. Unfortunately, there are already signs that Council is returning to how it operated before the referendum - which makes it urgent we stop the backsliding at the outset. We can do it. We have the means. We also need to remind ourselves that councillors can only support our wishes if we tell them what they are. The stakes are big for both. It's a bit like the NEC arena: the risks are entirely on us, but in this case, so are all the benefits.

*    *    *

As an aside: in my last two articles, I outlined concerns about the proposed amendment to City Bylaws that would give the CAO, Tracey Samra, the right to name the CFO, Victor Mema, as Deputy CAO while she is away. Samra insisted that only Mema take over her position. During the Special Council meeting on March 27, Council voted to adopt the amendments with only the Mayor opposing the motion. McKay said that he has never seen a clause like this in any other civic bylaws. Counter to Bestwick’s frequent assertions, McKay claimed the amendment was anything but normal. As a result of the prevailing vote, council gave up its existing right to ratify a recommendation for her Deputy made by the CAO. Score a win for the Bestwick-Samra-Mema triad and another loss for maintaining the democratic nature of this Council.

 

A golden opportunity for city council

By Don White

03/24 Yesterday, I wrote about the difficulty of functioning non-reactively in an atmosphere of pervasive distrust, and that I believed distrust to be the dominant descriptor of Nanaimo politics. I suggested that for this to change, each side needed to work actively at creating a mutually cooperative, trusting relationship between City Hall and the electorate. 

In the article, I set out two possible explanations for adopting the proposed amendments to City Bylaws at the Special Council Meeting on Monday, March 27. In one, as Councillor Bestwick and others have assured Nanaimo voters and Council, the amendments are only housekeeping, normal business, nothing new or sinister. In the other, the amendments are a move by the Bestwick coalition to maintain control over City committees/business when the CAO is absent.

Since the article was posted, I've been reading responses in some Nanaimo Facebook groups. I believe it is accurate to say that most posts subscribe to the second explanation. Significant suspicion exists, at least among some voters, that the amendments are part of a plot to prevent the Mayor and/or non-coalition councillors from appointing a Deputy CAO. 

But I've also realized that Monday's Special Council Meeting offers a golden opportunity - to every council member - to begin dissipating the distrust that permeates a substantial portion of the electorate.

If the amendments are only housekeeping, routine actions, nothing new or sinister - as voters have been assured; and

If significant suspicion still exists in many voters' minds about the motives of councillors for proposing the adoption of the amendments - as online reactions certainly suggest; then,

Regardless of affiliation, voting to table the adoption of the amendments for consideration at an unspecified future date has very little downside and significant potential benefits. Delaying a “routine bit of business” means only that things carry on as usual for a short while longer, and - of very great importance - that Council has heard concerns about trust and motives, and are willing to address them.

Will any Councillor seize this opportunity? Will any member of the Bestwick coalition, who stands to benefit the most in allaying public distrust, also vote to table the amendments? 

We'll see at Monday's Special Council Meeting. Stay tuned.

Restoring trust in the city hall process

By Don White

03/23 I’ve found this a surprisingly difficult article to write. As I was working through the subject, it felt like I was faced with two completely different views, both with strong points, both with weaknesses, and that I had to choose between them. To be honest, I’m still vacillating.

 The issue involves the proposed amendments to the City Bylaws that received their required three readings at the last council meeting on March 20 and are scheduled for an approval vote at the Special Council Meeting on March 27. At first glance, the amendments look innocuous: one to add the Director of Human Resources as an “Officer Position”; and the other to appoint the CFO as the Deputy Chief Administrative Officer “if the Chief Administrative Officer becomes ill or is otherwise prevented from fulfilling the role of the Chief Administrative Officer.”

 Mostly housekeeping, I thought. Routine business. Then someone in a Facebook group wondered if there was a hurried push to get the amendments into law. Someone else observed that the second amendment and its wording were a bit unusual. And I started thinking.

 The amendment for Deputy CAO refers specifically to the CAO (Samra) and CFO (Mema). Samra is CAO and Mema’s boss, so I took her interests to be paramount. Then I went another step. The CAO answers to the Council. In our case, “Council” is often interpreted to mean the Bestwick Five, who hold the slim majority. Consequently, the analysis suggests the Bestwick Five might be beneficiaries.

 How might the interests of the Bestwick Five be served by enshrining this amendment? Well for one thing, once the amendment is approved, whenever Samra is away Bestwick can remain as dominant an influence on City staff via Victor Mema as he is via Samra when she's present. Bestwick will retain the same access to and influence on all key committees and City business that he currently enjoys. (And Samra has hinted that significant periods of absence on her part is imminent.) So if Samra can appoint her deputy and if the deputy toes her line, the Bestwick-Samra influence continues more or less intact.

 That is one perspective, one interpretation of what lies behind the perceived rush to get these amendments into law. If the CAO has the right to name her Deputy, the Bestwick-Samra-Mema triad, intentionally or not, may make an end run around Council’s constitutional right to appoint an acting CAO - with all that that implies. Sound familiar?

 But not everything supports that view, not in every aspect. For one thing, there seems to be little reason why Samra should not be able to recommend her replacement for such times. For another, I understanding that our previous City Managers (now called CAOs) have always named their own replacements for times when they were absent. It was never seen to be a problem. So why are some people now challenging Council’s enshrining that process in the Bylaws? Perhaps there is an alternative, equally plausible perspective that addresses this aspect of the issue.

 Consider a simple principle that appears to apply to all relationships: when trust goes, it's hard to restore. Lacking trust, we see knives everywhere and suspect them to be places where they're not. It can take a very long time to remove suspicions. The way members of this Council have acted towards each other and towards members of the voting public - and vice versa - has arguably decreased trust at every level.

It’s the same with the way that people are being treated. Instead of council meetings being welcoming, engaging, places of civility, they are often marked by rancour, acrimony, disrespect, and anger. Again, such behaviour seems reciprocal, aimed both ways between combinations of council, staff, and public delegates. Apparently its even worse when Council is away from public view.

In such an atmosphere, it’s only prudent to suspend trust and suspect the worst. Humans, like all animals, are genetically biased to attend first to perceived risks and danger and downgrade benefits. When you feel mistrusting, or mistrusted and abused, you look for plots. The best defence is a good offence, even if the strategy keeps the cycle going longer than it should. Better to be safe than sorry.

From this perspective, we might interpret the proposed amendments to be a form of job security, intended to ensure continuity in an untrusting, abusive world. Alternatively, maybe they are only what they seem, bureaucratic acts of housekeeping, and there is no reasonable basis for suspicion.

So which perspective is the best one? Which one should we choose? Perhaps we shouldn’t be trying to choose at all, but to integrate the various views. If disrespect and distrust promote the existence and perception of hidden agendas, maybe we should try to break the cycle by first attending to the dissing.

So while I may be vacillating about accepting a single explanation for the amendments to our Bylaws, I have arrived one conclusion. Nothing much is going to change until we all, City Hall and voters, begin asking ourselves a few key questions and start acting genuinely on the answers.

Can we ever restore the trust that’s been eroded since the beginning of this Council’s term? Am I willing to do what’s necessary to help in that restoration? What can I do to restore trust and respect at City Hall? Or am I tired of it all and want simply to move on?

If the answer to the last question is “yes" for most parties, it doesn’t bode well for the coming 18 months.

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.

Keeping an eye on this community of ours

By Don White

03/20 - As a first posting on this newly created page of Nanaimonet.com, I think it appropriate to provide a bit of history about how this page and its parent page, City Hall, developed. Hopefully, by doing so I will also provide some context for the posts that you'll find here in the coming months.

A few days after the March 11 referendum, I posted on several Nanaimo Facebook groups about the need to keep Nanaimo City Council's collective feet to the fire. I suggested it was folly to let the significant momentum that had been generated by the referendum dissipate. In my view, the Nanaimo electorate is still very much in need of City Council following through with greater accountability, transparency, and voter consultation.

I argued and currently believe that we should not forget the past nor should we ignore how aberrant and dysfunctional patterns seem to be continuing. Last week's in-camera council meetings on censure and governance strongly suggest that not a lot has changed for this flailing city council.

On Facebook, I suggested having one or more online “centres” that could provide voters with relevant information, highlight the most important issues/consequences, and organize whatever action readers thought appropriate. In short, online info/action centres could maintain and build on the momentum developed during the run-up to the referendum.

At that point, Merv Unger of this website got in touch and suggested Nanaimonet.com could play a role. Merv envisioned an area on the news site that would be devoted to keeping the electorate both informed and galvanized as we move forward to the next election. Such a site, we agreed, could also provide politicians with an indication of the public's mood, the same way Nanaimonet's Arena posts did in the referendum.

The result? Nanaimonet's new “City Hall”, a web location that will host a variety of submissions from a variety of writers, including mine contained here on one sub-page.

To be honest, I suspect that “City Hall” suggests a focus that's a bit narrow for all the kinds of topics I personally want to write about. True, the majority of items will touch on local politics, but I want to be free to range around a bit. We'll see how that develops.

I also worry that “City Hall” suggests I'll be functioning as a traditional, city hall reporter, which I do not intend to be. I prefer having others gather the corroborating evidence of events or council actions. I'm more interested in exploring the implications and inferences of those events and data. It's the approach I used during the run-up to the referendum.

The regularity of the posts will be driven more when I think there is something relevant to say, and less by trying to maintain a regularity of so many items per week or month.

Finally, I should include something of a disclaimer with this initial item to get things off on the right foot. Several posts have appeared on social media sites speculating that I intend to run in the 2018 municipal election. Let me state here that I have no interest or intention to stand as a candidate in the 2018 Nanaimo municipal election, or in any other. Hopefully, this will put to rest such rumours.

That's it for now. Let's see how it goes. 

Voters sent a strong message to city council

By Don White

03/13 At final count, 80.3% of those who voted in the March 11 referendum on the NEC arena said NO to the proposal. Rejection of a city initiative can't be much more emphatic. Equally significant, voter turnout for the referendum was 36.2 % of those eligible. That's 2.1 % higher than the number who voted on electing our currently divided Council in the first place. That seems to be a serious indictment. But voter numbers expressed more than just rejection; they were also a demonstration that voters cared about what was happening in Nanaimo.

Put in context: voters rejected a proposal by a City Hall that seemed to deliberately withhold information voters needed to make an informed choice. In rejecting the referendum, voters effectively rejected those on Council who appeared to have little interest in being accountable to the electorate, have little respect for maintaining transparency in action, or who weren't interested in seeking adequate voter consultation.

Conversely, voters demonstrated they possess a vision for the city that is broader than just a WHL arena (but can include one). They showed they care about the preservation and development of our waterfront, and that they disapprove of the current strangling-by-defunding of our downtown area and other initiatives by City Hall in order to fund a single project. Voters stated they are concerned about the quality and expansion of our infrastructure and want to deal fairly and honourably with others like the Snuneymuxw First Nation.

When rejecting the borrowing referendum, the electorate of Nanaimo also demonstrated that it knows the key for going forward. On March 12, various Internet sites were filled with posts articulating the need for continued pressure on City Council and on the managers and staff that Council has assembled to support them. These posts constitute a clear statement that simply expecting those who pushed for the arena to now spontaneously embrace transparency, accountability, and public consultation is almost assuredly naive.

Nanaimo voters appear to know that for the next 18 months they must continually demand that City Council honour public concern about our city, its culture, and its infrastructure. Nanaimo voters appear to understand that they will have to actively insist that the majority on City Council restore the funds they clawed back from a wide variety of programs and improvement initiatives only so Council could claim “no increase in property taxes for the arena.” There is no reason to consider these tasks undoable. At this time, voters may be very well prepared to take them on.

If so, voter mobilization may be the greatest accomplishment of the NEC proposal and the referendum. If the run up to the referendum successfully mobilized us all as voters, then we understand that democracy is not something we exercise every four years at the polls and then passively suffer the consequences until the next election. As the current goings-on at Nanaimo Council prove: democracy needs to be worked at every day.

The referendum may be over, but the struggle over what will happen to our city is not. Consequently, it is time to turn our attention to those on City Council who generated the arena proposal and the hurried referendum in the first place. Eighteen months until the next election is a long time, more that enough time for things to go sideways, once again. Whether its a renewed push for an arena variant or any other initiative that this council generates, we should assume that we will only get adequate accountability, transparency, and input by holding Council's collective feet to the fire.

Looking at recent history, however, that shouldn't be a problem. We just did it in the referendum. Nanaimo voters appear very much alive and well. There is every reason to believe we can keep going.

Some facts you should know before voting in referendum

By Don White

03/06 -I'm still stunned by what City Hall proponents of the Nanaimo Event Centre (NEC) are imposing on the voters. I started reading about the arena so I could decide whether to vote Yes or No. I immediately found an astonishinglack of crucial information being provided by the city. Now, I suspect that if the City is shy on certain details, best assume the implications are bad for NEC.

At the same time, I've concluded there are a number of crucial points that voters should keep in mind as they head into the polling booths. Taken from earlier articles [still available below]:

(1) All the risk is yours

All NEC risks, financial and otherwise, are carried entirely by Nanaimo taxpayers. No other partner, level of government, or shareholder is involved. If the project costs go up for any reason, taxpayers, one way or another, will be paying the price.

(2) No spending cap on the NEC exists

The referendum is about borrowing $80M, not limiting project costs. The actual price may well increase significantly going forward. (Ever heard of public project costs coming in below the estimate?) When that happens Nanaimo taxpayers have no choice but to cover overages.

(3) The referendum may be your only chance to influence the outcome

Voting yes effectively gives free rein to those on City Council who are pushing for the centre. If the No vote prevails, council can rethink the project, finish site and other testing, reduce the risky aspects, and come back to taxpayers with a hopefully improved plan.

(4) Don’t assume you've been getting all the facts

Based on City presentations to date, voters are being told little about significant risks and the downside of NEC is minimized. To make an informed choice, you need to hear both sides. Crucial information is available online from various Nanaimo new sources and on Facebook.

(5) The WHL is driving the rush to have the referendum

Nanaimo voters are being forced to vote on March 11 without the necessary project evaluations so the WHL can announce the new location of The Cranbrook Ice and the revised schedule by September, 2017. But Nanaimo Council is divided over whether the project should go forward.

(6) The $80M loan approval isn't for the city; it's for the five Councillors pushing the arena

As everything with NEC, the $80M will be spent by the bare majority on council: Bestwick, Kipp, Hong, Fuller, and Yoachim. Do you believe these five will ensure the project is viable, costs are necessary, and the debt is payable without impoverishing other facets we desire for our city?

(7) The only sensible Yes vote is a NO vote

Voting Yes is the NOT the only way to get an arena, WHL franchise, or any other touted aspect. By voting No, voters can reduce the risks of the NEC by having City Hall rethink the project and negotiate with the WHL. Voting No, in fact, is the best way to get the facility all Nanaimo wants!

(8) YOU are responsible for the referendum outcome

Don't leave it to someone else to convince the undecided to get out and vote against the $80M loan. Many will be swayed by City Hall's slick promotional material and the sense that it's “official.” YOU must get them the information they need to make an informed choice.

Start by emailing or printing this one-sheet summary for someone you know who's undecided. Encourage them to get out and vote. The March 11 referendum is yours to lose ... or win!

Complacency is the biggest danger to a 'no' vote

By Don White

03/03 I was a bit surprised at my own thinking after I attended Tuesday's debate hosted by the Nanaimo Chamber of Commerce and NoVote2017's Citizens' Forum last night at the Beban Park. I came away from both events thinking the No side may have a problem.

Don't misunderstand me. I thought both events were good. Both were well attended and contained a lot of useful information. They yielded insights that filled gaps and drew inferences about the missing information withheld by those at City Hall promoting the arena. The two events, alone, provided most of the essential information needed to make an informed choice on the March 11 referendum.

But - and this is a very big but - I suspect that most members of the audiences, particularly at the Forum, were already committed voters on the No side. Several members of the NoVote2017 committee that I talked with afterwards shared the same suspicion. Speakers at both events were mostly preaching to the choir.

In my view, these events nicely define what I see to be the quandary. Unless the kind of information presented at the Forum reaches undecided voters, the Yes side may win. The $80M loan may be approved simply because it has enjoyed greater media saturation. Not everyone knows where to look for anything but the “official” view of the proposal.

I don't believe we need more information at this point about the proposal's flaws. More than enough solid information is now available to counter the City's promotional material. What is needed now is to get the countering information in front of undecided voters, so they can make an informed choice on the March 11 referendum.

NoVote2017 volunteers have been working flat out since the referendum was announced. Personally, I've frequently wondered how they keep it up. If No voters, in general, really want to win, its time for everyoneto stand up and play a major role.

Identify a couple of neighbours or co-workers who are still undecided or thinking of voting yes. Provide them with informational material such as can be found at sources like the ones below. My bet is that you won't have to convince them on your own to oppose the referendum loan; the material will do it for you. When they've read it, get them to forward the same material to two more undecided voters that theyknow. On referendum day help get others out to vote. Make phone calls, offer rides, car pool.

Building on current momentum, I suggest the No vote has every chance of winning. The March 11 referendum is ours to lose.

Some Information Sources

The Citizen Forum with Jordan Bateman contains an uploaded version of the full event that took place at Beban Park, March 2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rj-gruUeVYo

Each of the following contains many items that can be easily distributed either online or in print form.

NanaimoNet.com contains numerous articles by Gary Weikum, Colin Haime, myself, and others: http://www.nanaimonet.com/432708469

NewsNanaimo.ca contains well researched and documented investigations of what is happening at City Hall between Nanaimo's Mayor, Councillors, and staff: http://newsnanaimo.ca/category/news

On Facebook

A wide variety of information and views on NEC can be found in various Facebook groups including:

https://www.facebook.com/ElectionsNanaimo/posts/1393047377458018

https://www.facebook.com/groups/NOvote2017/

https://www.facebook.com/groups/abetternanaimo/

Divided council is a reason for concern on referendum

Don White

02/28 - I’m increasingly bothered by statements (including my own) referring to “Nanaimo City Council”, or “City Council”, and even “City Hall” - implying these bodies are unified entities rather than groups of individuals with separate points of view. Recent actions reveal Council and City Hall are anything but unified, especialy regarding Nanaimo’s proposed arena. 

I suggest this disunity is of crucial importance because voters are being asked, in effect, to co-sign an $80M loan for whomever sits in this project’s drivers seat. Whoever commands the majority of votes on City Council will largely determine how the $80M is spent and our subsequent ability to pay off principle and interest. 

As few as five votes on Nanaimo Council can make the key decisions during the initial, crucial period when major contracts are determined and the project set in concrete. Consequently, it can be crucially important for voters to know whose loan they’re being asked to co-sign and how comfortable they are with handing over $80M to play with.

Recent events strongly suggest that Brennan and Pratt are no longer the lone opposing voices of the current NEC proposal. Both Ian Thorpe and Bill McKay have recently withheld support for the proposal as it stands. That totals four votes against the arena.  

Councillors who appear to give unqualified support for the current proposal include Bestwick, Kipp, Hong, and Fuller. Although Councillor Yoachim is frequently associated with the core supporters of the NEC on council, I’m not sure that this is accurate. I’ve watched Yoachim for some time, and I’ve come to suspect that the key to understanding his position is the status of City Hall’s discussions with the Snuneymuxw First Nation (SFN). I suspect that Yoachim’s support will ultimately depend on how the Nanaimo-SFN discussions end. 

 In summary, I assess a 4-4 split with one vote undecided. For the moment, let’s assume the City-SFN discussions are “successful" and Yoachim comes on board. That produces the five votes needed to carry the day and control the project’s direction on the city council.  

Where does this leave voters in the referendum? If accurate, how does this assessment shake down to impact the $80M loan you are being asked to co-sign?

 

First, if Yoachim’s support is conditional, it provides significant leverage to the SFN given that the four supporting councillors sometimes seem determined to proceed at any cost. Obtaining Yoachim’s vote could significantly affect Nanaimo voters ability to pay off the debt. 

 

Second, it’s also probably wise to keep the intra-council lawsuit in mind. 680 News, CTV, and The Toronto Star cite Bestwick as stating that the legal action against the mayor was initiated by “several councillors and city managers”, a description that seems to apply equally to the group in City Hall pushing the current NEC proposal. Whether the two groups are the same or not, asking voters to support the $80M referendum with the lawsuit pending is not unlike a couple negotiating an acrimonious divorce asking you to cosign a mortgage for them to buy house. 

Third: getting back to the point with which I started, it’s probably better not to think that “Nanaimo City Council”, or “City Council”, and even “City Hall” are the bodies behind the NEC. It may be more useful to think that it is Bestwick, Kipp, Hong, Fuller, and conditionally Yoachim who are asking for the loan. These five individuals appear to have the votes needed on council to shape the project and determine its contractual arrangements with the WHL, architects, building contractors, and others - and effectively determine Nanaimo’s ability to make the payments on principle and interest for the next 20 years or more. With the other councillors and mayor withholding their support, these five appear to be running on their own.  

Consequently, when you go to the polls and March 11, you might ask yourself: How confident are you in the ability of these five individuals to constrain the project and ensure that it is viable? How comfortable are you in thinking that they will set us on a path of achievable debt repayment? To what degree do you believe they will ensure that the proposed arena won’t impoverish other desirable facets we desire for our city? The fact that Nanaimo City Council or City Hall are not unified in their support for the NEC proposal as it stands is another reason to think carefully about your vote on the March 11 referendum.

When is a no-vote really the end of it?

 By Don White

02/22 - If you can make it past your sense that nothing new developed concerning the proposed Nanaimo Event Centre (NEC) at the February 20 Open Nanaimo Council Meeting, you may realize there was more disclosed than Council had intended 

True, there was nothing really new in Council’s reworked Event Centre presentations. City staff mainly showed shiny visual site depictions, brightly coloured graphs and pie charts that only reframed the same projections the City has trotted out since the beginning of the project. Nor did there seem to be any significant new support for the City’s argument that the project would be viable. All in all, it seemed terribly familiar.

To be fair, much the same could be said about the No vote. Again, we heard rational-sounding, even alarming presentations by professionals that seemed to undermine City’s projections - but the presentations were mostly ignored by council and, apparently, went nowhere. The only highlight of the early evening came from Councillor Hong in response to NoVote2017’s Don Bonner. Bonner pointed out that Council’s published claim that the NEC would host events like Disney on Ice wasn’t true (the proposed arena doesn’t have the minimum number of seats Disney requires). Hong replied that he didn’t care whether the published material referred to Disney on Ice or something else. It was just an example, he argued, of events that might come to the arena. Unfortunately for Hong, the same argument is disturbingly like a justification for using bait-and-switch.  

But at least one significant event did occur relatively early in Monday’s meeting - although it went by in a moment almost too brief to notice. On a motion to approve Phase 3 & 4 funding, Mayor Bill McKay voted with Ian Thorpe against the motion going forward. It’s the first instance I’ve seen when Nanaimo’s mayor has not supported the project within the touted schedule. McKay’s apparent new opposition raises at least one obvious question. Has the original, lone dissenting voice(s) of Diane Brennan (and Wendy Pratt?) now grown to four, including Thorpe and (apparently) McKay? (By the way, where were Brennan and Pratt last night? Their absence masked the growing division in council's support for the NEC.)    

Even McKay’s possible defection, however, can’t stand as the major insight of the evening. In what appears to have been an unintended disclosure, City Manager Tracey Samra claimed that if the No vote prevails in the March 11 referendum, she and her staff would be right out there on Mar 12 renegotiating the deal with the WHL and other parties. Hang on! Renegotiating? With the WHL? If this is true, it means that despite all of council’s denials in the past, despite all statements that the March 11 referendum is a once in a lifetime deal, despite all assertions that a prevailing No vote on the referendum closes the WHL door forever, the option for renegotiating the package with the WHL after March 11 is not just a possibility, but fact. 

Samra’s statement also suggests that Council has been intentionally misleading voters, but let’s put that aside for the more important issue of what voters should be thinking as they are heading for the polls. On one hand, the option presented by City Hall seems designed to be an extremely tempting carrot for those (like me) who really want a viable event centre with exciting hockey games, great shows, community events, a place on which we can hang our dreams for a vibrant community. On the other hand, as frequently pointed out by individuals who appear to think more critically than City Hall, that carrot can easily prove rotten. For voters (again, like me) who are also concerned about the fiscal reality of the venture, there is a lot of risk in the proposal as it stands. 

It is typically suggested that these options are mutually exclusive, dream or risk, all in or nothing, but if I interpret Samra’s statement correctly, that is not the case at all. As Samra pointed out, inadvertently or not, I am not forced to choose between my desire to have an event centre and my desire to avoid the risks. I can have my carrot and eat it, too! Simply by voting No in the March 11 referendum, I get to refuse the risk associated with the current proposal and then, on March 12, Samra and her team will head out to renegotiate the package with the WHL and get us all the facility we want - a NEC that’s manageable! How good is that? We vote no and wind up satisfying all the voters in Nanaimo!   

That, I believe, is the real takeaway from Monday’s meeting. By voting No in the March 11 Referendum, you achieve a significantly better form of Yes.

 

5 -Who is really calling the shots?

By Don White

By Don White

Fifth in a Series 

01/27 - It may be starting now, the inevitable flood of information concerning what has been going on in all those “in camera” meetings of Nanaimo City Council.  

In a January 29 article posted on newsnanaimo.ca entitled “Nanaimo and Snuneymuxw clash over multiplex on Treaty protected village site” author Dominic Jones asserts: “… sources say the city is under pressure of a deadline set by executives at the Western Hockey League (WHL) in Calgary. League bosses have given city council until the end of March to decide if the city wants the Kootenay Ice of Cranbrook to relocate here. In December, WHL officials inspected and approved Frank Crane Arena as an interim home for the team for two years during construction." 

Whoa! A WHL deadline for being considered as a possible host city for an existing team, a team that has to move because it has been steadily losing money, is behind this headlong rush to get voters to the polling booth? A WHL deadline justifies the attendant risks of not giving voters the time or information needed to make an informed choice on the referendum? Why wasn’t I aware of this? Why isn’t this the first reason given by council publicly for the March 11 date?

 

Whatever council claims about their actions, it’s seems obvious that forthrightness cannot be included. Why am I and other voters only hearing now about the WHL deadline? And only from indirect sources? I understand the proposed move has been common knowledge in Cranbrook for some time. 

More questions: Is desire to shroud knowledge that the WHL is the driver behind the referendum even partly responsible for council not disclosing the full content of discussions with the WHL? Was the proprietary information in Ernst and Young’s analysis of the architect’s proposal only a convenient device to keep it all from public view? 

And more: Is this undisclosed deadline the real reason for 1 Port Drive being chosen over a possibly better site? Was the Howard Johnson (or other) location actually superior but the details required for a referendum were unobtainable in time for a March 11 vote?

Council’s lack of disclosure of such essential information should cause voters to wonder what else council is keeping under wraps. Even more basic, it raises questions whose interests the majority on council are really looking after when they promote the Event Centre as it is currently proposed. I don’t know how you feel, but every day that goes by, I’m less sure they are looking after mine. 

4 - Don't expect a lot of help in getting the facts

By Don White

Fourth in a series

01/26 - The fourth point I took away from the January 25 special meeting of the Nanaimo City Council is this: 

Point 4: Don’t count on getting the information you need to make an informed choice from city staff or council.

For a council that claims to want its constituents both informed and involved in consultations about the proposed event centre, it seems oddly obstructionistic. The old, short notice gambit (posting notices of events like special meetings with only the minimum, required 24 hours warning), the apparently headlong rush to get the referendum done (so there isn’t time for people to learn about the downsides?), making searches for meeting times and venues complicated (to minimize attendance of objectors?), and refusing to speak simply and clearly to the public about important aspects of the project, have started to feel like this council’s accepted practices, at least as far as the proposed event centre is concerned. 

I heard about last night’s meeting only yesterday morning from a friend who, in turn, had only learned about it the night before on Twitter. This was despite her checking city hall notices a couple of times earlier in the day. (Apparently the meeting notice wasn't posted until about 4:30 on the Jan 24, just half an hour more than the required 24 hour minimum.)

Because of the short notice, the person representing a group of Protection Island residents had to plead with council to be allowed to speak separately for both the group and himself as he hadn’t had sufficient time to get someone else to represent the residents. Council first denied him that right, and only after a procedural quirk surfaced, did they finally allow him to speak for both.

Regarding the clarity of explanations, last night I listened to what seemed to be needless obfuscations from city staff about which pot of taxpayer money was paying for which expense - as if general revenues, property taxes, construction and operating costs, were wholly separate entities rather than merely accounting entries or classes of assets and liabilities making up a common pot. I could go on, but back to Point 4. 

Implications: Now that the majority of council have decided what *they* want, it is probably wise to assume that you will not get a completely balanced view of the project from the city council or staff enabling you to make an informed choice on the referendum question. Attending the scheduled open houses will likely provide you with only the council-vetted messages. To make an informed choice, you will have to search for the less-positive information.

Attending various council meetings can actually help in this. Last night, I listened to people making presentations who sounded like they knew a lot about the engineering problems, construction concerns, and viability of projects such as this. (I’m still absorbing the information that Toronto had to sell Rogers Arena for 1/10 of its construction cost because the event centre wasn’t sustainable. An event centre wasn’t sustainable in a city the size of Toronto!).

Since we now lack a comprehensive printed newspaper, you will have to go elsewhere. Check out all the sources you can online. Be very critical about the things you hear. Don’t just take the word of people like me; these are only my opinions. When you uncover something you think important, pass it on, let the rest of us know. If a lot of people do this, maybe we can create a body of truly informed voters. And maybe, just maybe, before you show up to vote on the referendum ... go back and re-read my Points 1-3.

NOTE this site is posting whatever information we can on this topic, on both sides of the issue. We invite readers to submit any information items they come across. news@nanaimnet.com

3 - Numerous implications in Event Centre vote

By Don White

Third  in a series

A third very important point that I took away from the January 25 special meeting of the council is this: 

Point 3: No voter/taxpayer spending controls - except ...

Voters/taxpayers would be wise to think of the referendum as the one control they have over council spending on the event centre. If the No vote wins, the possibility always exists for council to rethink the project, complete site and other testing, improve on project inadequacies, reduce its risky aspects, and come back to taxpayers with a revised and hopefully, improved plan. 

This applies not only to the current council, with all its squabbling and other foibles, but also to future councils who stand to inherit the outcome of the referendum - good or bad. At the same time, however, the converse applies to a Yes result. If the Yes side wins in the referendum, the one failsafe taxpayers have for the project and its costs is breached. By giving the City Council permission to borrow the $80 million, in effect voters give council permission to start running with the project as it stands, that is, with no spending cap and the entire financial risks being borne by Nanaimo taxpayers. 

Implications: Voters/taxpayers voting in the referendum would be wise to consider the referendum, firstly, as a request by the present council, in all its imperfections, for permission to proceed willy-nilly with the event centre regardless of community, social, financial, or other concerns.

The only way to check or withhold this authorization appears to be by voting No and the No vote winning. The fact that the referendum, on the surface, asks for permission to borrow $80 million should be considered to be secondary in importance (as horrendous as that sounds). Voting

yes and granting permission to borrow the funds, in effect, constitutes taxpayers giving free rein to those on City Council who want the centre for whatever reason. Voting No and withholding borrowing permission is the only way to ensure council remains accountable, and that they continue developing the project plan until it addresses the major publics concerns.

2 - There's no assurance of $80-million spending cap on arena

by Don White

Second  in a series 

01/26 - The second important point I took from yesterday’s special meeting of the council concerns taxpayer protection/vulnerabilities associated wth project spending.

Point 2: No Spending Cap

During the meeting I came to understand that Nanaimo voters are being asked to approve the borrowing of 80 million dollars in the referendum, but, and this is a *big* but, that does not necessarily reflect what council may actually decide to spend on the project either now or in the future. In other words, voters should not confuse the amount council is currently asking to borrow with the actual total cost of the proposed event centre, either as it currently stands or including any overruns or add-ons that council may later approve. As yet, I have not heard of any cap/limit being placed on the amount council may choose to spend on the project overall. 

During the meeting Mayor McKay stated that he would not support the project if projected costs exceeded $80M, but no other councillor stated the same position. However, even the Mayor didn’t make it clear when he would withdraw support. Only before the project started? Even after construction had begun? Would he still opt out if the building's footings had been poured? And, even if the Mayor did withdraw support, would that be enough to halt construction/further expenditures? No other council member currently supporting the project made the same declaration.

I think that it is important for voters to consider the lack of a cap on the project spending in light of two important aspects: (1) projected versus actual costs of similar public projects. (When was the last time you heard of a project commissioned by any level of government coming in at or under budget?) (2) taxpayer confidence in the current council. (Can voters trust that this council can/will look after their fiscal interests given that this council is frequently described as being, at best, dysfunctional? To me, it seems a bit like agreeing to co-sign a mortgage for a married couple who are in the middle of divorcing.)

Implications: Since the estimated cost of the project recommended by the architects is $87 million, and council has *apparently* shaved that down to $80 million, it would be prudent for voters to assess their support for the project in terms of the likelihood that final costs may be significantly more than currently estimated. Since taxpayers are the sole parties bearing the risk for the event centre, funds for any overage, either deliberate or unintended will come ultimately from the taxpayers. Consequently, a “yes" vote on the referendum gives the current council permission to spend whatever it wants on the event centre, and declares taxpayers are willing to cover this spending. In this light, the referendum (more on this in another post) should be considered to be a vote on your willingness to back a project that lacks a limit on its spending by a council that is in the middle of suing one another.

1- Nanaimo taxpayers on their own for events centre risk

by Don White

First of a series

01/26 - A lot of good information came out of the January 25 Special Meeting of Nanaimo Council (some intended by council, some perhaps unintended). The first important point I took away was this: 

Point 1: Risk

I think one of the clearest pieces of information (and vital points to keep in mind when considering all aspects of the project) came at the very end of the meeting. A question posed by one of the final speakers in the question period was, “Who is in this with us? Who shares the risks [for overruns, etc.]? The answer coming immediately from Mayor McKay was, “No one.” 

Implications: Nanaimo voters and taxpayers should understand from the outset that *any and all* risks, financial and/or otherwise, associated with the proposed event centre are *entirely* on their shoulders. No other partner, level of government, etc., is involved. If the project costs more than estimated for whatever reason, if there are any associated costs not included in the estimates, etc., taxpayers, one way or another, will be paying the price.