Archive for the 'City of Powell River' Category

What are you fighting for?

By David Parkinson

Waves

There are people wearing frowns
Who’ll screw you up
But they would rather screw you down.

(Arthur Lee, “You Set the Scene”, 1967)

A couple of recent events have got me thinking about how we’re supposed to start working together as a community in order to produce positive changes in the way we consume, travel, eat, and generally live our lives here in (possibly) the final hurrah of the growth phase of industrial civilization.

The first was the City of Powell River‘s public consultation meeting last Monday evening (October 19, 2009) at Dwight Hall in Powell River. This was an Open Space event where those present got to determine the agenda in the context of a shaping question, which in this case was something to the effect of “Given Powell River’s future economic uncertainty, we need to pay attention to…”. Attendees were invited to fill in the ellipsis at the end of that sentence, until we had gathered up three sets of twenty-five potential things we needed to pay attention to as we move into an uncertain future. Some of the subjects for discussion were very much on the economic side of things (e.g., taxes, rates of pay for City employees, the cost of transportation and shipping), while others were much more concerned with the general livability of the region (e.g., accessibility for people with physical disabilities, green space).

Once we had created the ‘agenda’ of topics for discussion, we had three sessions of about 20 minutes during which we were free to find the group discussing the topic we found most interesting and contribute to that conversation. At each of these groups someone was documenting the main threads of the conversation as a record of the event.

The subjects which struck me as most interesting were those which were oriented towards the creation of a resilient region: food security, local currency schemes, micro-credit and the spawning of many small businesses, better transportation options, and so on. Of course, as always happens at an Open Space event, there were more things to talk about than time in which to talk about them, so the attendees had to focus on the three conversations of greatest interest or urgency to them.

The first of the three conversations I took part in was on the topic of “focusing on where we are now rather than where we have been as a region”, and this drew a group of about ten people. It was clear that the person who had originally proposed that topic intended it to spark some creative thinking about how this region can move forward and prosper economically, even if we lose the large employer which has traditionally defined this community (i.e., the paper mill).

I was the designated note-taker for this group, and I quickly became overwhelmed as the conversation spiraled off into a heated debate over the best way to create wealth in the community: by bringing in a small number of large employers from outside the region, or by encouraging a large number of smaller employers to spring up from within the region. Then we went off into a tangent focusing on the merits (or not) of Plutonic Power‘s run-of-river project in Toba Inlet, and things got a little tense for a few minutes.

The thought that came to me, as I sat trying to distill the conversation into notes, was that in this culture we have very few good methods for identifying the challenges we face, for talking about these challenges honestly but respectfully, and for working together on good solutions even in the face of disagreement. Obviously, a group of ten random strangers are not going to solve the problems of the world — or even those of their own region — in a few short minutes; but what is always slightly sad to observe is how quickly we harden our positions and defend them against all contrary opinion or facts. We thrive on controversy and conflict, to the extent that many of us would rather rail against the wrongs we see than imagine a better future and work backwards to figure out the positive steps we can take now that might get us there. Opportunities for genuine dialogue tend to hit dead ends quickly and dissolve in mutual distrust.

There is nothing wrong with conflict arising from differences of opinion. What is unfortunate, and what is really damaging our prospects of designing a decent future, is that our main means for settling conflicts is by applying the principle “money talks”. Increasingly, the mechanisms we use to determine our direction as a society is by selling the decision to the highest bidder. Anyone with an alternative vision is free to stand on the sidelines and kvetch, but that’s about as far as dissent goes.

I believe that less kvetching and more positive action is what we need now. We could all spend the rest of our short precious lives identifying all of the things in this world which we abhor and working to overturn them — and any successes we had would be wiped out by any number of new atrocities to seize our attention. But what kind of life is it to be always pitted against, never fighting for? We are going to have to become better at imagining creative alternatives to all of the lousy idiot ideas destroying our world, ignoring as best we can the junk and the rottenness, and pushing forwards into our own dreams. We need to learn to work with those who hold different visions, when this is possible without sacrificing our vision and our dignity — this might not come around too often, but we need to continue looking for those opportunities.

Which brings me to the second event, which resonated with these reflections about conflict and conversation. From this week’s mailbag, someone writes in to say this about my colleague Tom Read, who helps manage this blog and contributes a weekly column:

He [i.e., Tom] is using your site as a soapbox to promote his vision which is highly inappropriate for Texada–his dominance on the site has discouraged other contributions, surely, you must know that on the logging stats, so SlowCoast has become non-relevant.   He supported the Westpac LNG plant and now the Texada South Quarry. So not the best eco stats.

Tom has publicly expressed his belief that the proposed quarry development at Davie Bay is a potentially critical piece of Texada’s economic future. For the record, he did not support the proposed liquid natural gas (LNG) terminal. If anyone wants to know more about Tom’s position, they can contact him easily enough. His opinion is nuanced and expresses his genuine concern for the fate of the place he calls home. And of course you can feel free to disagree with him. Sadly, though, it’s always seems to be more fun to make these intra-regional and inter-personal conflicts as black-and-white as possible; to start drawing up the list of enemies; and to backbite and shun the ideologically suspect. Perhaps our correspondent hopes that I will ditch Tom from Slow Coast so that my ‘logging stats’ (whatever the hell that might mean) will improve and Slow Coast once again becomes relevant. That won’t be happening. This project is an equal partnership and does not require a loyalty oath. I can’t ditch Tom anymore than he can ditch me — thankfully.

What I find especially irritating about this is that Tom has written directly about the Lehigh quarry proposal precisely one time, back on July 10, 2009. The rest of the time he writes about all kinds of things having to do with living on Texada: small-scale farming and animal husbandry, canning and food preservation, living in a remote location, and all sorts of other posts which I would file under the general heading of ‘sustainability’ or ‘regional resilience’. When he’s not writing for Slow Coast, he’s out there working on a number of worthwhile community projects. We need more of this; not mere ideological purity and monocultural thinking.

If anyone out there has something to say, please send your comments or your contributions. Better that than try to tear down the things you disagree with. This site is no one’s soapbox, but is intended to reflect the variety of opinions in the region. If we can no longer express our truths without someone trying to shut us down or shout us down, the conversation is over.

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It’s ba-ack

By Denise Reinhardt

North Harbour and Millennium Park: Should we borrow $7.43 million? Who gets to decide?

Democracy is in trouble again in Powell River. Last November, City voters approved the borrowing of $1.43 million for the land under Millennium Park and $6.0 million to rehabilitate the North Harbour. The Municipal Finance Authority is the provincial agency that sells bonds for capital projects like these, and we might think that the City could just go to the MFA and borrow the money, after its citizens agreed to the borrowing.

Not so fast. Under the rules of the MFA, Regional Districts must consent to a municipality’s borrowing, so the City needs the Regional Board’s guarantee for the borrowing of the combined $7.43 million. The City asked the Regional Board to issue the standard “security issuing bylaw” containing that consent, and the bylaw was on the agenda at the last Board meeting, without any previous discussion by the Board. At that meeting, the bylaw was referred to the Board’s Committee of the Whole for discussion and it will probably be sent back to the formal Board meeting for action on April 23rd.

There, the security issuing bylaw will probably pass, because the City’s two directors can outvote the five rural directors. If the City defaults on either or both of the loans, the rural citizens of the Regional District will be on the hook for up to $7.43 million for these projects without ever having the chance to say yes or no to the borrowing. And the voices of caution in these times of financial uncertainty may never be heard, except at two upcoming meetings of the Regional Board.

How is this possible that the City can outvote the rural areas?  Because the provincial rules established for Regional Board voting say so. In the Powell River Regional District, there are five rural directors, from:

  • Area A, north of town;
  • Area B, immediately south of town;
  • Area C, south of Area B to Saltery Bay;
  • Area D, Texada Island; and
  • Area E, Lasqueti Island.

The City has two municipal directors who sit on the Board. For many matters, the votes are unweighted. But for some issues, chiefly decisions on money matters, votes are weighted. City directors only vote on matters that affect the whole Regional District, including the City, as this security issuing bylaw does.

The weight of votes is based on “voting units” of up to 2,000 people here in Powell River. So, because Area C has over 2,000 voters, its director gets two votes. All the other rural directors get only one vote because they all represent areas with fewer than 2,000 people in them. The rural directors thus have a total of six votes. The City’s population of over 13,000 gives the City directors seven votes. So, unlike in most Regional Districts, one municipality can determine the financial health of taxpayers of the whole Regional District.

In contrast with City taxpayers, the taxpayers of the Regional District will not have a vote on whether they want the Regional District to borrow almost $7.5 million. There is little opportunity for public debate. Still, Regional District taxpayers will most likely end up as guarantors of this huge amount of borrowing.

Many of us think that there are open questions about the City’s projects. The City has not given the Regional District any North Harbour business case or forecast of the users they assume will pay moorage fees to cover debt service on the $6.0 million loan. Some of us see the North Harbour venture as an updated version of a cargo cult — if the City builds it, they will come from Alberta and dock their big boats. But when desirable moorage is going begging in Nanaimo, a harbour that is far friendlier to the boating community, why exactly would people come here? What are the predictions of North Harbour use when people are losing jobs and investment funds at record rates, and no one says that recovery is near? Is building our local economy on carbon-spewing power-boat tourism a good contribution to sustainability?

We are living in most uncertain financial times. The MFA model was developed in times of steady growth of our economy. Under MFA shared liability, if the City defaults, the debt belongs to Regional District property taxpayers. If the Regional District defaults, then the debt belongs to all BC property taxpayers. That means that we should think about big borrowing in context of existing debt and financial outlook. Locally, the Regional District’s existing MFA debt for 2008 was $556,222 and the City’s was $3,554,464, for a total of $4,110,686. The City’s principal, $158,836, and interest, $234,746, will total $391,584 due from taxpayers for 2009. Regional District taxpayers will pay $82,660 for MFA debt in 2009, almost evenly divided between principal and interest.

The Regional Hospital Board, which covers the same area as the Regional District, also is already carrying debt that we all must pay. Additionally, it has committed city and rural taxpayers to pay back a loan of $18 million, as its share of the construction of the facility to replace Olive Devaud. The north side taxpayers will be paying for over $800,000 for a new fire hall. Is this really the time to take on whopping new debt?

We also need to look beyond our parochial interests. The MFA has top ratings from investors’ services, because the liability for loans is spread throughout the province and the risk to lenders to the MFA has historically been low. High ratings mean money is available to the MFA at low interest rates, which it can pass on the its borrowers. But there are rumblings in the financial community that the MFA’s paper could be downgraded, because of the concentration of two-thirds of debt to the MFA in Metro Vancouver and TransLink and the overall financial state of BC, Canada and the world. This could lead to higher interest rates throughout the province, and therefore higher property taxes.

What is more, even the MFA admits that our current financial situation is unprecedentedly bad. Just because there has never been a default on an MFA loan does not mean there never will be one, especially as the financial future looks so bleak. The MFA can raise provincial property taxes to cover an actual municipal or Regional District default or even a threatened default. We may end up paying for all that Lower Mainland debt. Perhaps it is time to ask whether an overheated economy has led us already to overextend our borrowing. Shouldn’t we, like consumers everywhere, be thinking about reining in our debt?

We have two last chances to speak out on this borrowing. The Regional District’s Committee of the Whole can discuss this new borrowing in the context of the entire financial situation, including existing debt and the economic forecasts of no growth or “negative growth”, as well as consider other important questions. The Regional Board will take the formal vote on the security issuing bylaw. That vote should not be a rubber stamp. We can tell the Committee of the Whole and the Regional Board whether we think it is wise or sensible to borrow $7.43 million for these projects now, and bear witness to what the Board members do.

If you think you might want to speak at either or both of these meetings, you can ask to be a delegation by calling (604) 483 3231.

Committee of the Whole: Thursday April 16, 2009 at 4:15 PM
Regional District Offices, 5776 Marine, Townsite (Powell River)
(parking at the rear via Birch Street)

The meeting room holds very few people. If the Regional District thinks that many people may attend, they may move the meeting location, so check at (604) 483 3231 to be sure.

Regional Board: Thursday April 23, 2009 at 7:30 PM
City Hall Council Chambers, 6910 Duncan St., Powell River

See you there.

Democracy 1, Powell River 0

By Denise Reinhardt

Most of us in Powell River have heard by now that we citizens won a great victory for free speech on March 26, thanks to John Dixon and the BC Civil Liberties Association. The court decided, in the case of Dixon v. Powell River (City), 2009 BCSC 406, that a city may not sue for libel or slander and that the City of Powell River acted unlawfully when it threatened to sue its citizens for speaking freely about city affairs. But, as always when citizens win a victory against repressive government, we still have work to do.

Before we do that work, it would be good to know what was really decided in this case.

The story of this case is well-known to Powell River. The City wanted to borrow $6.5 million to rehabilitate the North Harbour for long-term moorage of pleasure boats. Instead of going directly to the voters, City Council chose to use the “alternative elector approval process”, requiring 10% of the electorate to sign petitions in order to bring the question of this huge loan to a full public vote. This led to what the court in Dixon called “public discussion as to the merits of the proposed local improvement, the method of obtaining the approval of the community, and the management of the affairs and finances of the City of Powell River by the mayor and council.”

Robust debate and exchange of views about the government and its acts are the hallmarks of a democracy. Believing that they lived in a democracy, many citizens spoke their minds about what they saw as a bad idea being put through in an undemocratic way. Much to our collective shock, the City’s lawyers sent letters to three of those citizens, Noel Hopkins, Win Brown and Patricia Aldworth, telling them that their comments were defamatory, that is, false and harmful to the City’s reputation. The letters implied that the City would sue the three citizens (including Aldworth, then a City Councillor) for the “defamation”, demanded a retraction and public apology.

Win Brown, who was concerned that he could not afford to be sued, attempted to withdraw his statements and apologize for them in the Powell River Peak Online. The Peak Online refused, seeing no need for retraction or apology. The City’s lawyer then told Brown that he had to “do something”. Brown went to City Council in open session, where he publicly withdrew his statements and apologized for them. Mayor Stewart Alsgard denied Brown’s request to be assured that the matter was laid to rest. Instead, the Mayor said that the City would consult their lawyer and that the City would not tolerate defamation from anyone. Many in the community were horrified that Brown was forced to endure public humiliation and that the City still kept the threat of a lawsuit hanging over his head, even though he took back his statements and said he was sorry for them.

According to legal doctrine, free speech is the bedrock of democracy. Freedom of expression provides us with the space for disagreement where we can seek the truth and learn what we need to know to take part effectively in civic affairs. “[F]reedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication” are fundamental freedoms proclaimed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Section 2(b).

Freedom of expression is a delicate growth. People representing one ideology or position can use censorship to control the public discourse, either directly or by threatening to sue in defamation. If they do, this has a “chilling effect” on the expression of all citizens, not just on those directly threatened. That chilling effect was certainly felt throughout Powell River after the City sent out the defamation suit threat letters and refused to accept Win Brown’s apology. Robust debate over the wisdom of the North Harbour plan and other City activities was muted. And we were denied the right to hear what members of our community had to say about City affairs.

But there are no police and prosecutors whose job it is to defend free speech. The burden to keep our speech free and to vindicate other Charter rights falls on us as individuals and as members of organizations such as the BCCLA. So our thanks go out to John Dixon and the BCCLA, who took up the cudgels on our behalf and brought their lawsuit against the City of Powell River.

They did so very well. At first, the City filed an elaborate statement of defence. The City withdrew that defence after the election last November; their threats to sue City citizens to silence their free speech had been a major issue in the runup to the election. So, while the lawsuit was unopposed by the City at the end, that does not make the case a slam dunk. The court must still be convinced that the plaintiffs had rights and that those rights were violated, and in this case the court did not grant all the relief requested.

The court first determined that John Dixon had the right to sue, known as standing, because he had suffered personal harm: he owns property in Powell River and his taxes paid for those threatening lawyer’s letters. As well, as a citizen he has the right to speak freely and to hear what others had to say about government actions, and those rights were violated. So, the court recognized that freedom of expression includes both the speaker’s right to be heard and the listener’s right to hear. The court did not decide whether the BCCLA had standing, or the right to sue, concluding that it was unnecessary to do so.

Next, relying on decisions from other provinces, the court concluded at paragraph 46 of the Reasons for Judgment that a government has no right to sue its citizens for so-called defamation:

. . . [G]overnments cannot sue for defamation for damage to their governing reputations. The Charter enshrined value of freedom of expression is paramount and local governments have resort to other means to protect their reputations from citizens who publish critical commentary about the government itself.

In support of this conclusion, the court quoted at length from another decision, which explains the importance of freedom of expression to a democratic society:

It is hardly necessary to repeat here the importance of the rights protected by s. 2(b) of the Charter, namely “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication”. These rights are an inherent aspect of our system of government and have been generously interpreted by the courts. Democracy depends upon the free and open debate of public issues and the freedom to criticize the rich, the powerful and those, such as police officers, who exercise power and authority in our society. Freedom of expression extends beyond political debate to embrace the “core values” of “self- fulfilment”, “the communal exchange of ideas”, “human dignity and the right to think and reflect freely on one’s circumstances and condition”: R.W.D.S.U. v. Pepsi-Cola, [2002] 1 S.C.R. 156 at para. 32. Debate on matters of public interest will often be heated and criticism will often carry a sting and yet open discussion is the lifeblood of our democracy. This court recognized in R. v. Kopyto (1987), 62 O.R. (2d) 449 at 462 that “[i]f these exchanges are stifled, democratic government itself is threatened.”

The court then said:

[47] The passage just quoted is equally applicable to this case. It is antithetical to the notion of freedom of speech and a citizen’s rights to criticize his or her government concerning its governing functions, that such criticism should be chilled by the threat of a suit in defamation.

This means that our freedom of speech trumps the City’s claim of defamation. We are all guaranteed the right to speak freely and to hear free speech about our governments, without threat of censorship or lawsuits.

The court also gave Dixon a declaration that the City’s conduct was unlawful and has not been corrected. The court said, at paragraph 48:

I am satisfied that Mr. Dixon’s right to receive communications concerning his local government were infringed by the defamation threat letters. That threat has not been withdrawn in a manner that removes the chilling effect it had on the electorates’ freedom of speech.

The court granted Dixon an order saying that “The defendant City of Powell River lacks any legal basis or right to bring civil proceedings for defamation of its governing reputation, or bring other proceedings of similar purpose or effect, or to threaten to do so,” including by sending the defamation suit threat letters.

With these words, the court said flat out that the City was wrong and acted unlawfully when it threatened to sue its citizens for alleged defamation. In addition, the court held that the City has not withdrawn the threat, so the chilling effect persists.

Finally, the court declined to issue an order forbidding the City to sue or threaten to sue its citizens because of their criticisms of the City. Dixon and the BCCLA asked for this permanent injunction to enforce the declaration that the City violated the Charter rights of freedom of expression. Unfortunately, the court thought that the requested injunction was too broad, and that it was unnecessary, because the City’s “withdrawal of its statement of defence and lack of opposition to this application [w]as some recognition that its conduct was not lawful.” Paragraph 52.

Some of us doubt that the City has truly recognized that they violated our fundamental Charter right of freedom of expression when they threatened to sue citizens for their criticisms of City acts and policies. The withdrawal of the defence against John Dixon and the BCCLA’s suit looks to us like political expediency, after it became crystal clear that threatening to sue citizens for their free speech was wildly unpopular with those citizens.

So, we need to ask Mayor Alsgard and the City Council: Do you truly acknowledge that you trampled on all of our Charter right of free speech when you sent the defamation suit threat letters to citizens of Powell River? Do you understand why it was wrong to send those letters? And are you sorry that you did?

Our work as citizens is cut out for us. The right to free speech means nothing if we don’t use it. We must continue to let the City and our community know when and why we agree or disagree with what the City says and does, and to tell them what we want them to do. And we must tell the Regional District, the Liberal government of British Columbia, the Conservative government of Canada and the opposition parties what we think and know about their doings. Our democratic rights are under constant assault; we must constantly fight back by asserting them whenever we can.

[Editor’s note: as we go to press, the Powell River Peak has published their coverage of the court’s decision.]


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