White Rock Mayor Wayne Baldwin and councillors faced a barrage from some of their most persistent critics at last week’s meeting, after comment was invited on the city’s 2015 annual report and financial statement.
Residents Ken Jones, Garry Wolgemuth, Dorothy Bower, Pat Petrala and Roderick Louis, and former resident Dennis Lypka, repeatedly took council to task for what they perceive as a lack of communication and transparency, disrespect of residents, decision-making without public input and unwillingness to accept feedback or criticism for their decisions, while former councillor Margaret Woods hammered at what she felt were incorrect accounting procedures.
The terms of the city’s purchase of White Rock’s water utility from Epcor, the decision to force multi-family units and businesses to arrange their own solid-waste collection, clearing of Marine Drive’s ‘hump’ and the city’s emergency preparedness in light of the catastrophic fire at Five Corners were among issues that speakers characterized as showing a disconnect between the civic government and taxpayers.
It was a meeting in which the subject of communication was touched on again and again, including a staff progress report on development of an online city ‘portal’ for interaction with the public, and a report from city clerk Tracey Arthur on the volume of freedom-of-information (FOI) requests received by the city – which has necessitated hiring another employee to assist the staff member tasked with handling them.
And while council members were mostly silent while speakers reacted to the annual report – the call was for public comments only, not discussion – one councillor did mention the perceived communications gap while speaking on the report on FOIs.
Acknowledging that the current council term has been “a rough and rocky two years,” Coun. David Chesney said there has been “no shortage of pretty hot-button issues.”
“We should all take a deep breath,” he said, adding that he doesn’t think “for the large part, (council) has kept things secret intentionally.”
But he said there was a need for the city to be “proactive rather than reactive.”
“We can do better,” he said.
In presenting the illustrated annual report to council, city manager Dan Bottrill said it was intended as a statement of the city’s “values and vision.”
Speakers were less kind.
Petrala slammed it as a “PR exercise… (a) superficial document with pretty pictures and very few facts and some spin.”
More than that, she charged, it covered “an ambitious, self-determined term agenda to completely change the community’s feeling, demographic and economic mix.”
Lypka said the report’s description of “privatization” of solid- waste collection for multi-family units and business was incorrect.
“That wasn’t privatization – that was abandonment,” he said.
He also noted there has been no full accounting of the purchase of the water utility made public.
“We still don’t know what the cost is – the taxpayers are the ones who have to pay that off, and the users pay that cost,” he said.
“Why,” questioned Bower, “if this is the biggest thing that happened in the last year, is it still a secret?
“The contempt that is shown for constituents shows anything but public engagement – it’s unbelievable,” she said. “We are constituents – we have the right to ask questions.”
Wolgemuth said that having deliberations of the city’s official community plan (OCP) working group “closed to the public” is a continuing issue of contention.
“The fact that it is closed to the public and that a lawyer’s opinion was sought raises a lot of suspicions,” he said.
Wolgemuth added that while email communication was supposed to replace the question period at council meetings, “a lot of emails don’t get answered.”
“Stuff that should be answered is going to FOI (requests),” he said.
Louis pointed out that, under the parameters with which it was established, the OCP is required to receive an annual progress report.
“This has not been done since 2009,” he said.