I COME NOT TO PRAISE COUNCIL NOR TO BURY IT
While people around the globe are trapped in stifling apartments, here we are free to roam six mountains of forests, a paradise that is home. This summer we are being asked to stay home. What if we did this? What an opportunity not only to eat local, buy local, hike, bike, swim, boat and hang out locally, but also to know how things go down locally: how decisions that impact the beauty of the Valley are made, who has power, who does not; I’m talking about local government.
I was never going to write an article on Council because, like most people, I was going to live and eventually die blissfully ignorant of what went on in our municipal halls and Council chambers. Then I tripped over some logging tapes that led through the forests in a direct line to Council and a shocking discovery (shocking to me): Council votes on issues without having all the facts. Over two years advocating for our forests, I have seen it happen and it has been painful to watch.
Watching a recent Council meeting it was agonizing; Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar came to mind. You know the one where Mark Anthony begins: “Friends, Romans, country men, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him…” Sometimes Council make big mistakes and like Caesar, the fault lies not in them, nor in our stars but in ourselves—our community, and for that matter all communities in the province—for we have collectively created an impossible situation.
It is said that being a Councillor is like trying to drink water from a fire hose. It is more than a full-time job. If Councillors were to do all the work expected of them—getting through 800-900 page meeting agendas, reading massive reports from staff and consultants, investigating the facts, listening and responding to citizens and citizen groups, attending meetings, being on committees, etc—I figure the job, done right, could take at least 60 hours/week. But these people usually can’t even put in 40 hours because we pay them only $25,000/year. Unless they are financially independent they need to have another full-time job to survive. Half of them do. So they have to make the choice—burn themselves out or rely on the overview provided by staff and not take into account all the critical details.
Council is supposed to be our watch dog—every Councillor a little tugboat directing the large Municipal Ship, as it calls itself. Yet, without councillor-specific support staff or enough time to research on their own, Council often ends up serving as a rubber stamp for staff recommendations and perspectives.
What is the point of having Council if they don’t have time to be critical and why do we pay Councillors so little? I asked around and discovered that most people, like me two years ago, know almost nothing about Council. So I figure, since Council is deciding the fate of our Valley, it’s time someone described what Councillors are up against.
As an example, here is what happened at the online meeting before the summer break. It began at 11 am and went to 10:30 pm. It covered an 845 page agenda. Councillors who work Monday to Friday had a weekend to digest it—a tome to be comprehended and queried, and also emails about the RCMP and forests, including articles from Where Do We Stand warning about a non-transparent seemingly biased public consultation process about the forests. Toward the end of the meeting I just about collapsed. It was exhausting and I was just sitting on the sidelines.
Listening to just a few of the issues our community is facing—the homeless crisis, opioid crisis, water crisis, climate crisis, forest crisis, the pandemic—I wondered when one of the Councillors would crack up or break down under the pressure. None did, though the Mayor, trying to pronounce Chemainus, cracked jokes about being so tired he was slurring his words. (You’ve got to love the Mayor’s sense of humour: even when you disagree with the guy, he makes Council meetings fun.)
The Big Ship is on course plowing straight ahead—that is its function. It’s not the job of staff to come up with visionary ideas and suddenly change course. Their job, it seems, is to resist change because change comes with a price and their responsibility is to stay on budget. Their mission seems to be to warn Council not to rock the boat, stay the course.
Ditto, it is not Council’s job to unilaterally impose their visions. Their job is to listen to the community to find and articulate the visionary ideas and then to push the Ship in a new direction for the greater community’s benefit. Our job is to reach out to Council on important matters.
It is said that change begins locally and reaches outward. We need to change. It is said our politicians are reflections of us. The bigger the mirror—be it provincial, federal, or international—the more we are able to lose ourselves in the faceless crowd; the smaller the mirror the more we are forced to look into our own eyes where denial ceases to be an option.
Instead of blaming our local government for making mistakes it’s time we opened our eyes to take responsibility for what is happening in our backyards. It begins with ensuring that our local representatives can do their job.
It is time to begin a conversation. If not now, when we are being asked to stay home, when will there be a better time?
PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT OR RUBBER STAMP?
This Tuesday, North Cowichan's Pubic Engagement Committee meets to review the draft engagement plan(I think they’ve decided to call it a Draft Engagement Framework”) to canvas community members and stakeholders for input that will help shape the engagement framework for North Cowichan.
Public engagement on how to do public engagement.
It sounds a little crazy, but it might be exactly what's needed right now.
2020 is North Cowichan's year of Public Engagement with the Official Community Plan, Forestry Review and Climate Action Plan Update all happening this Fall.
Each of these engagements could involve citizen working groups, online community meetings, PlaceSpeak topics, web pages, mail-outs, popup sessions, online and phone surveys.
People are paying attention to Municipal politics and are willing to engage - but they don't want to be a rubber stamp for a predefined plan.
For example, if you join a working group, you need to know what you can (and can’t) influence and the scope of your group's mandate?
Also, you also need to know if the meetings will be recorded and available to the public before you join the group
The Forestry Engagement Working group showed up this Spring willing to do some work and found that they were really just a rubber stamp.
At the initial meeting they were all introduced, read the terms of reference, given a quick introduction to the Forest Review and 20 minutes to review the draft survey and the meeting was over.
The next meeting was scheduled for 3 months later – after the public engagement for the interim forest management plan would have been completed.
They were not shown the discussion guide, the mail-outs, the content for the online forums, the web pages or any of the completed engagement materials - other than the draft survey.
After the group protested, it was able to get 2 additional meetings and made some progress reviewing the materials. But it is still a work-in-progress, they have not full-filled their mandate to ensure that the engagement materials are fair to all sides of the issue.
In addition, the Municipality withheld key information from the Group.
The results of the Forest Carbon Feasibility Report were not presented to the group at the first meeting.
The Group had to request this information be released and in the second meeting they did get a presentation on the findings - but with key information missing.
The projected Carbon Credit revenue calculations were not presented to the group. The fact that Carbon Offsets can generate as much revenue as logging is critical to understanding the available forest management options and needs to be included in the Public Engagement materials. (and not buried at the bottom of the discussion guide)
If North Cowichan wants to engage with the public in a meaningful way, it needs to reach out to the public and co-develop a Public Engagement framework that ensures openness and transparency.
Otherwise, it all just feels like a rubber stamp.
3. Exciting New Opportunity for North Cowichan
The Carbon Project Feasibility Assessment by 3GreenTree Ecosystem Services Ltd. makes the case that North Cowichan (MNC) could stop logging, sell carbon credits, generate comparable earnings to the logging and greatly reduce our net greenhouse gas emissions.
Learn more at the North Cowichan Forest Carbon Project website