Epcor sought confidentiality agreement: White Rock mayor

Provision prevents city from discussing terms of water-utility purchase without Epcor's approval for three years.

White Rock's Merklin Street water reservoir

A three-year confidentiality agreement included in the City of White Rock’s water-utility purchase last month came at the request of Epcor to protect its business interests, according to Mayor Wayne Baldwin.

Baldwin told Peace Arch News Monday that city manager Dan Bottrill took part in purchase talks with Epcor and that the mayor “wasn’t privy to the negotiations first-hand” regarding the confidentiality provisions.

“There’s some issues with respect to their private corporate protection of their business interests,” Baldwin said, when asked for the rationale behind the three-year period, which has received some criticism. “So that kind of period, I gather, is somewhat normal in that kind of deal.”

The confidentiality terms – included in a redacted water-purchase agreement obtained by a resident from the BC Comptroller of Water Rights, and subsequently posted on the City of White Rock’s website last week after a Nov. 18 PAN article – state that no details about the purchase can be made public without written consent of both parties.

Critics say that provision means Epcor could choose to keep the as-yet undetermined purchase price confidential.

“I don’t think we could allow that to happen,” Baldwin said, noting the price should be made public. “We would have to be very insistent that that information comes out.”

Epcor’s spokesperson Tim LeRiche deferred inquiries back to the city, telling PAN earlier this month that “it’s their operation and they should be answering questions about it.”

After initially announcing in June that the city would look at expropriation, negotiations led to the city taking ownership of the utility on Oct. 30; two weeks later, Bottrill revealed there was no agreed purchase price, and that the matter may go to binding arbitration if not resolved.

Comparing the process to expropriation, Baldwin said it presented no concerns from the city’s standpoint.

“We believed it was necessary to move as quickly as possible on this,” he said. “From our point of view, it was necessary to have a fixed date, otherwise we could simply allow the process to go on and on and more and more investment would be paid and the price would go up.”

The purchase has raised concerns with residents, who for months requested details.

More recently, questions have been raised about the public-consultation process the city has undertaken for a financial plan amendment, announced Nov. 9, that would increase the 2015 water-utility capital expenditure budget by $1,034,000.

Under the Community Charter, the city must undertake a process of public consultation; the city asked for written comments to be submitted prior to this week’s council meeting, as opposed to in-person feedback, something resident Charles Fast criticized.

“Simply asking for written submissions does not, in my opinion, satisfy having a public-consultation process,” Fast wrote in an email to mayor and council.

At Monday’s meeting, prior to a unanimous vote to adopt the amendment, Coun. Helen Fathers asked for the reasoning behind the change in process.

Financial services director Sandra Kurylo explained it’s not typical for the city to amend its financial plan bylaw this late in the year.

She said the charter “does not specify the format of that public-consultation process,” and that written comments comply with past practices in similar situations.

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