With a few simple measures, our elected officials can contribute to the healing process in the town and diminish divisiveness
“It’s time to begin the healing process,” Gibsons councillor Jeremy Valeriote said on that memorable evening of October 6, 2015, when four of the five council members approved the zoning and Official Community Plan (OCP) bylaw amendments for The George — councillor Silas White had recused himself due to conflict of interest.
“When an issue touches our hearts like this one does, we feel that there is so much at stake and so sometimes we say things that push the limits of civility – and that’s fine, that’s democracy and it can be messy. But there is a time to forgive and forget and this is that time,” Valeriote said.
But with the building permits in place and construction of The George slated to start “before or after the rainy season,” forgive and forget still seems a long way away. Our once friendly community remains deeply divided.
With a few simple measures, our elected officials can contribute to the healing process. Here are some suggestions:
At council meetings, an opportunity for inquiries should be provided with every topic of public interest. The inquiries should be kept short: two or three minutes per question, a maximum of three or four inquiries per topic, and one question per person. Questions must pertain to the subject. Voting should take place after the inquiries so council can make informed decisions.
At the end of the meeting, there should be an opportunity for the public to ask general questions, with the same rules as above.
The questions must be recorded in the minutes. It makes people feel they are taken seriously.
If more inquiries make for somewhat longer council meetings, so be it. Public engagement is part of the job.
Respectful behaviour at council meetings is imperative. Members of the public should not be allowed to make catcalls, loudly call someone an idiot, or drown out someone’s questions by loud clapping. Of course, personal attacks on the mayor, councillors or staff members are equally out of bounds.
The mayor should try and interact with citizens. When someone is addressing council, it is rude not to look at the person, play with a pencil, rummage through papers, or lean on a hand and simply look bored.
Insulting members of the public — or even a councillor — as has been witnessed, is unacceptable.
Also, denying a member of the public the right to speak while giving it to others creates an impression of not treating people fairly.
This is a serious matter. A member of The Coast Clarion’s editorial team was told by an investigator at the office of the ombudsperson that a mayor behaving in a disrespectful manner towards members of the public, or excluding them, can be cause for a complaint to the office.
˜Conflict of interest, or the appearance of conflict of interest, should be avoided at all costs. At the time of the Gibsons Public Market approval process, six of the seven members of the Advisory Planning Commission (APC) were connected to the market.
Council appoints the seven volunteer members of the commission who make recommendations to council on the form and character of development permits and planning matters.
Katie Janyk, the only APC member not connected to the market, raised the issue of conflict of interest in 2013. After that, Gerry Zipursky recused himself when the market was discussed. According to his LinkedIn profile, he had been the market’s executive director since January 2013. The profile does not list the position as a volunteer one.
APC bylaw 1158, 2012 states that members must declare a “direct or indirect pecuniary interest” in a matter before the APC.
The remaining five APC members denied conflict of interest because they were not paid for their work for the market.
After Janyk raised the issue, Selina Williams, the town’s corporate officer, explained section 10 of the bylaw to the APC members: a declaration of conflict of interest can only be made by the member who feels they are in conflict.
The bylaw also says that council can remove members of the APC.
In June 2012, council appointed Pam Robertson, one of the market’s proponents from the very beginning, as chair of the commission. She later became president of the Gibsons Community Building Society which operates the market. She is still chair of the APC.
Under Robertson’s tenure, virtually all APC recommendations to council start with “we recommend council approve the project with the following recommendations. . . ” Instead, he APC should merely be listing changes it would like to see made to projects. It would give the public confidence the town respects its OCP.
Mayor and council should make a pledge that the OCP will not be amended until the end of their term in November, 2018.
After the OCP amendment for the George, which is much higher than the OCP allowed, people are wary. Any development proposal — even a preliminary introduction — causes trepidation: will council approve this? Do we have any say at all?
A pledge not to amend the OCP will restore some trust.
As for public hearings and public meetings, they need to be an opportunity for council to recognize valid concerns, not a legal requirement that can be fulfilled by passively listening and then simply disregarding the wishes of an overwhelming majority, as has been witnessed a number of times over the past years.
Council meetings should not be held during July and August.
Council procedure bylaw 1207, 2015 states that notices of special council meetings must be given at least 24 hours in advance. It would restore a lot of trust if that were changed to at least a week’s notice.
Town documents need to be readily available to the public. The rule of thumb should be that if a document would become available through a Freedom of Information Request (FOI) anyway, it should simply be provided without a long process.
FOI’s are costly. Not only to the town, but also to the citizens, who, after a certain threshold, have to pay per page — before seeing the contents.
Often, the requester will then find blacked out pages, multiple duplicates, photos enlarged to a degree that they are meaningless, pages with numbers rendered illegible so that it is unclear what belongs to what, or even entire commercial brochures.
This should be avoided. It is unfair.
The Coast Clarion has seen an FOI request for the mayor’s emails about The George. Two emails with a general content were released. According to staff, the mayor had never received or sent emails about The George.
These kinds of statements do not instill trust in our local government. A policy of more transparency would greatly restore faith in council and staff.
Announcements that town staff are drafting a report summarizing the cost to the town of George Hotel-related inquiries and claims do nothing to improve good relations.
First of all, the town could have saved money with more transparency.
Will council be able to recoup any money? Probably not. The citizens were exercising their democratic rights.
But the announcement does fan the flames of division in this town. Citizens supporting The George will use the report to point a finger at so-called nay-sayers. Residents who used their civic right to make inquiries or question the town’s decisions may perceive the announcement as a veiled threat.
Citizens have the right to ask questions. It is part of the democratic process.
It would be wise for the town not to pursue this report.
As part of the healing process we should all try to respect one another’s opinions, especially when we don’t agree with them. This goes for both sides. It is the only way to move forward.
Many municipalities provide a weekly opportunity for citizens to speak with the mayor in his office. Why not make an appointment with mayor Rowe and give him a chance to take the pulse of the community, exchange ideas, give suggestions, hear concerns?
The mayor cannot claim he is too busy to talk with citizens. They pay him handsomely, and he works for the community. For us.
The phone number for appointments is 604-886-2274.
The Coast Clarion is interested in hearing about your experience.