An unusually dry fall raises concerns about sufficient water supplies next summer

THE WEEK: Let the people have a larger voice at Comox Valley council meetings

Nov 22, 2022 | Commentary, Latest Feature

By George Le Masurier

If you hear people talking about last month’s local government elections at all, it’s usually about the low voter turnout. Fewer voters turned out this year in every municipality and electoral area, driving the average of votes cast to total eligible voters down to around 27 percent. Even in Cumberland, where the number of registered voters doubled over 2018, fewer people voted.

In the Comox Valley’s three municipalities, 3,970 fewer people voted in 2022 than in 2018. That’s pretty dim considering our population increased over the same four years.

Or think about it this way. If a candidate won a seat on the council with 41 percent of the votes cast by 27 percent of eligible voters, that means they were supported by a mere 11 percent of eligible voters.

This is what passes for a representative democracy? If you’re that candidate, how do you represent the 90 percent of eligible voters who don’t give a damn about you?

This is a malaise affecting most municipalities. But what can the Comox Valley do to interest more people in local government, which arguably has a greater impact on your daily life than anything bubbling out of Victoria or Ottawa?

It’s a complex problem, but there is one simple thing that every local council and board could do that would spark public interest almost overnight.

People don’t vote for many reasons. They don’t think it’s important. They don’t see a direct impact on their lives. They don’t really know what councils are doing. They don’t care who gets elected. Their lives are already busy with jobs and families and there just isn’t enough razz-a-ma-tazz excitement about municipal campaigns to compete with that.

Our local governments fulfill their obligations for public engagement under provincial law, of course. They hold public hearings when it’s required. They invite feedback about specific issues online and at public information sessions. Council meetings are open to the public and streamed live and recorded for viewing at people’s convenience. You can watch them on cable television.

You can watch. But every council makes it difficult for any citizen to stand up and speak directly to the council face-to-face. Think the commercial tax rate is unfair? Think there are too many bike lanes? Think we need another soccer field before we need a pump track, if you even know what that is?

Well, you can’t just go down to city hall and get it off your chest. And if you can’t give the council a piece of your mind in the flesh, maybe you say, “Screw it,” and you give up. You don’t care anymore. You don’t vote.

So, what’s the one thing that could change some people’s attitudes? Allowing open public comment at the beginning of every council meeting.

The Parksville-Qualicum City Council just voted “to improve dialogue and transparency” by adding a 15-minute public question period at the start of every meeting. People can sign up as they come in the door and each person gets two minutes to address the council.

In our experience with council meetings in a variety of U.S. cities, this is the standard. But not in Canada. Parksville is breaking the mold in a good way.

Right now, if you want to speak to the Courtenay City Council, you have to give notice four days in advance. You get to speak for 10 minutes and they limit speakers to three per meeting. You have to fill out a form a week in advance to speak to the Comox Valley Regional District Board.

The Town of Comox does have public comment on its agendas, but you have to wait until the end of the meeting and after any in-camera session, which could take an indeterminate amount of time. By that time, everybody has usually gone home.

Cumberland does its best by allowing delegations to make a written request on the day of the meeting and it also allows a public question period at the end of the meeting. But citizens can only ask questions about items on that day’s agenda and have to email them in ahead of time. The councillors simply respond to the emails. People cannot speak in person to the council.

The Comox Valley’s councils and boards couldn’t make it any more difficult for citizens to speak to their elected representatives. It makes you wonder if they intend to discourage public engagement.

Maybe that’s a little unfair, if you really want to address the council in person you can. But you’ll have to fill out forms, send in written requests up to a week in advance and only about current agenda items, or you have to stay late with the patience of Job.

Why not make it easy, as Parksville has done?

The Town of Comox plans to add two new traffic circles to Comox Avenue as part of the major construction next spring to relocate the main pipe of the Courtenay-Comox sewerage system.

The town will construct one roundabout at the Rodello St. intersection, where that frustrating pedestrian signal light is currently located. They will build a second one about a half-mile away at the Glacier View (Back Road) intersection at the top of Comox Hill. Both have been in the town’s transportation plan since 2011.

This is good news. Roundabouts keep traffic flowing more smoothly than traffic lights provided they are large enough not to slow vehicles down unnecessarily, especially big trucks with wide turning radiuses.

The existing roundabout at Knight Road has a circle diameter of 40 meters. The two new roundabouts will be smaller: Rodello will be 35 meters and Glacier View will be 34.5 meters.

On those numbers alone, it might seem like the town is underbuilding traffic circles on the major artery between Comox and Courtenay. That could cause congestion, especially if one of the semi-tractor trailer trucks gets stuck or has to slow down so much to make the turn that traffic piles up. That could have serious consequences for vehicles climbing Comox Hill in a snowstorm.

But Comox Public Works Manager Craig Perry has confidence that the roundabouts will accommodate even the largest semi-trucks that travel Comox Avenue. He says both roundabouts are being designed by an engineering firm with experience and in accordance with all applicable standards and guidelines.

Although the BC Ministry of Transportation guidelines recommends a circle diameter range of 40 meters to 60 meters to accommodate semi-trucks, the town is meeting the guidelines by reducing the size of the inner circle island to achieve the appropriate turning radius requirements.

Why not just build them larger? Perry says the town has had to work with a large number of limitations, including available property. The town has worked with the firms designing the roundabouts to minimize the land acquisition required. “We are trying to impact neighbouring properties as little as possible,” he told Decafnation.

We noticed a Facebook post by Meaghan Cursons recently. “I do not like skipping autumn. Plus we need this year’s water to fill the lake and flow to the rivers and the salmon. Not snow yet. Snow is next year’s water. We need his year’s water.”

Cursons was spot on and BC Hydro’s data shows just how dry it has been.

Hydro spokesman Stephen Watson says the total precipitation in the upper Comox Lake watershed was 21 percent of normal in August, 16 percent in September and 41 percent in October. November dropped back down to just 23 percent of normal, which should be the wettest month of the year.

A normal November brings about 375 mm of precipitation. As of today, we’re sitting at about 60 mm. While it’s a little rainy this week, more cold, dry weather is expected.

Inflows into Comox Lake during October and November were just 24 percent of normal. Watson says that is the lowest in 55 years on record.

At the Comox Council meeting last week, Coun. Ken Grant took issue with the adoption or rejection of the Code of Conduct policy developed for local governments by the Union of B.C. Municipalities, the province and the Local Government Management Association.

Designed to provide a quasi-authoritative path for local governments to follow in the event of conflicts involving councillors or staff, the code was made optional — sort of — by the province in 2021. The Community Charter now requires municipal governments to either adopt — or provide reasons for not adopting — a code of conduct within six months of their inaugural meeting.

This was deemed necessary after several well-publicized examples of councillors and or staff in various municipalities heatedly airing their differences to the point of distracting councils from conducting business. Work began on the code of conduct in 2017 as a way of cooling down such debates.

“Is there a cost for such a thing?” said Coun. Ken Grant. “I’m not aware of ever having a need for this ever . . . so I’m wondering if (there’s) any value in it.”

Nevertheless, he voted for a motion approving the code. On a secondary motion asking the province to appoint a commissioner to oversee such complaints throughout the province, Coun. Grant again said that he didn’t see the need for a commissioner or a code of conduct.

“I just don’t see the point, frankly,” he said, adding, “I’m sure that they don’t do it for free.”

After some discussion about whether the province or the municipality would be liable for any funding requirements, the council then defeated the motion pending further inquiries by Coun. Jenn Meilleur.

— with reporting by Shane McCune

YAY – Christmas festivities abound at Filberg Park: There are bake sales, seasonal door swags and winter table posies. Santa will visit. The gift shop has longer hours. The main lodge will feature local artists. Every one of these events raises money to support the lodge.

BOO – Isn’t it interesting that the Town of Comox has restored and maintains the heritage home of a lumber baron, Robert Filberg, but wants to tear down and forget about a famous naturalist and ornithologist, Hamilton Mack Laing, who also left his property to the town.

It’s a peek into where our town’s priorities regarding heritage have been and still are considering that a BC Supreme Court Justice is currently reviewing the town’s application to tear down Laing’s home, Shakesides. The court’s decision in this taxpayer-funded $200,000-plus legal action is expected sometime early next year.





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