Even at the local level, representative, democratic government requires hard work to understand. Every once in a while it pays to have a good conversation about how it works, or doesn’t, and why?
A good example occurred at a recent town hall meeting in Mill Bay, that’s Electoral Area A of the Cowichan Valley Regional District (CVRD), to discuss aspects of building a liquid natural gas exporting facility at the site of the former Bamberton cement plant on the shore of Saanich Inlet.
The industrial plant to liquefy the natural gas is to be housed in a kilometre long floating ship-like structure. A project of this magnitude attracts a lot of attention from residents of Mill Bay and Shawnigan Lake. In the process of the meeting the residents expressed opinions for and against allowing such a facility.
Wanting to make sure everyone understood the rules of the game Ross Blackwell, General Manager of the CVRD Planning and Development Department, is reported to have, “made it very clear to all of us that the CVRD had to take a completely neutral position and could not be seen to be for or against for fear of being sued. So basically we the public are on our own. One wonders why we have elections!”
A problem arises because the Mill Bay Area Director Kerry Davis took Blackwell’s comments to include himself and the fourteen other elected members of the CVRD Board.
Members of the public were not all comfortable with Blackwell’s explanation of local government’s legal procedures and sought the advice of a former Cobble Hill CVRD Director Richard Hughes, who currently runs a popular and informative Internet Blog Cowichan Conversations.
Hughes, who has the social characteristics of a cranky pit bull, spent nine years as a member of the CVRD Board. He reached out on Facebook to get Davis back on track.
“Politicians have not only a right but an obligation to speak up and oppose outrageous plans like this. You don’t just sit back and let slick frontmen from Steelhead [LNG] frame the play. I’m damned if I know where you get your advice from but it’s worth far less than you paid for it.”
Davis, in his first term on the CVRD Board, fired back, “Due to many legal precedents, the CVRD must remain neutral, especially on matters that are likely to involve an application.
The Board and Directors, are also similarly limited because we must keep an open mind until the final vote for such an application.”
Still learning his way around the CVRD maze, Director Davis cautiously and accurately repeated what Blackwell told the public meeting.
Later Blackwell recalled the Mill Bay meeting, “was casual (chatty) and ranging.”
Perhaps backing away from the rather absolute nature of his remarks the Planning Manager claimed the meeting had a conversational format. He explains that the “CVRD has been approached by Steelhead LNG with a view to submitting a development application.”
That is a significant modification of his statement at the Mill Bay meeting that the CVRD had to take a completely neutral position and could not be seen to be for or against for fear of being sued.
An exception to that statement is that after a public hearing has been held for a rezoning application the elected directors must forego listening to any more argument for or against that specific application.
As too often happens in our regional district’s new corporate style governing senior staff tends to make their interpretations of legal procedures suppress the authority of the elected board, and the voters who elected them, and enhance their own responsibilities.
In this specific case Manager Blackwell has either misinterpreted the rules or was misunderstood.
CVRD Director Kerry Davis’s cautious naivete will hopefully bring this issue to a full conversation among the fifteen members at a public meeting of the CVRD Board.