White Rock council has reconsidered its decision earlier this summer to move council chambers out of city hall.
But Monday’s 4-3 vote that was prompted by a surprise motion has some councillors questioning the legality of the rethink – despite assurances from city staff that no rules have been broken.
“We were discussing a lease of community property when we hadn’t even issued an RFP (request for proposals), and we had nothing on paper in front of us,” Coun. Larry Robinson told Peace Arch News Tuesday. “I couldn’t even believe we were voting on it. It was wrong, it was just wrong.”
Coun. Helen Fathers was highly critical of the process that led to Monday’s vote, and told PAN that she and Robinson have called for a special council meeting to be held to get to the bottom of what transpired.
A special council meeting is a step available under the Community Charter, and one the city’s mayor said is typically reserved for when an issue requires urgent action; criteria he doesn’t feel has been met in this case.
“It smacks more to me of being some kind of inquiry of the events that took place, and I don’t think that’s particularly necessary to occupy council’s time with,” Mayor Wayne Baldwin said Wednesday.
The motion in question was brought forward by Coun. Bill Lawrence, who called to rescind a July 15 decision to move council chambers into a city-owned building at 1174 Fir St. and direct staff to invite expressions of interest for shared use of the space.
Lawrence supported the decision in July but on Monday told council he was swayed to change his vote after learning that a waterfront IT company sought more space.
He said he mentioned the possibility of such space in the Fir Street building to the principals of the company – which he identified as Prizebox Entertainment – and made his motion “as a result of their enthusiasm” for it.
They would want use of the whole building, he said.
Lawrence’s motion passed 4-3, with Robinson, Fathers and Coun. Al Campbell opposed.
Fathers told PAN she plans to dig into the issue and “find out what’s transpired behind the scenes.”
“It’s the process which is the worrisome thing for me,” she said. “Obviously, there’s been considerable conversation.”
Robinson – noting Lawrence’s motion came “right out of the blue” – said he started questioning what was transpiring as soon as the company was named.
“It bothered me that a specific entity was being mentioned as a potential tenant for a city property when we didn’t even have an RFP out and we didn’t have any information on that company before us,” Robinson said.
Fathers told her peers that the motion “sideswiped” her and makes it look like council “completely ignores” its own bylaws. She cited the city’s Council and Committee Procedure Bylaw which states, in part, that council may only reconsider a matter that “has not been acted on by an officer, employee or agent of the city.”
City manager Dan Bottrill confirmed extensive work has been undertaken with consultants regarding the site, and contracts have been awarded for carpets, painting and electrical work.
However, city clerk Tracey Arthur told council that after Lawrence advised of his intentions late last week, the city’s lawyer assured her the steps taken do not preclude rescinding the decision.
Robinson said the lack of prior notice or discussion brings the issue of openness into question.
“If you’re new and you keep things very confidential, that raises the public suspicions,” he said. “I would say it was an innocent mistake, except that our staff went and got a legal opinion on it.”
Lawrence – who won a seat on council in a byelection last November – told PAN Wednesday that he had done business with Prizebox in his role as co-owner of the Sandpiper Pub.
After learning “toward the end of last week” that they were looking for more space, he suggested they consider the Fir Street site, and then moved to see if the July 15 decision could be undone.
He noted that rescinding council’s earlier decision saves taxpayers significant money, and said he is “indifferent” to the negative reaction of his peers.
“It all comes down to doing right by the taxpayers of White Rock, that was the main focus,” he said. “There was nothing meant to be untoward at all.”
Baldwin said he advised Lawrence Thursday to check into the legalities of revisiting the decision, and was made aware Friday morning of the advice received. Based on that advice, he had no choice but to allow the motion to come forward, he said.
“Contrary to some beliefs, there was no conspiracy,” he said. “If we make a decision and some information comes forward that says maybe that decision wasn’t a good one, maybe you should revisit it. I think there should be some opportunity to do that.”
Coun. Grant Meyer said that while he, too, was surprised by the motion – he learned Friday afternoon that it may come up – he is not concerned with the process that led to it.
“Anyone can put something on the agenda at the last minute. I’m just obviously glad that staff did check into everything and made sure everything’s fine,” he said.
Meyer had also opposed the idea of moving council chambers from the get-go, describing renting out the Fir Street building as something that will be easier if it isn’t being used for city business at the same time.
“I think it’s better value for the taxpayers.”
As of PAN’s deadline, Baldwin hadn’t made a decision regarding the meeting request, but said if the intent is to find out “who said what at what time, who met with whom at what time, I’m not interested in that at a council meeting.”
“I think they’ve got the answers. If they choose not to believe it, that’s their problem.”
Reached Wednesday, Prizebox CEO Tracy Wattie confirmed the company is interested in the site as a possible head office.