EDITORIAL – Dallas public hearing issue shows need for some new rules
An editorial by Mel Rothenburger.
TRANSPARENCY IS ONE OF the most important responsibilities of local government. The public must not only be able to watch the public proceedings of its City councils; it must be able to easily review decisions after the fact.
Public hearings into development matters are especially important because they affect people where they live. Last week, a developer asked to modify a restrictive covenant on property on the Trans Canada Highway in Dallas.
The change was to allow a gas bar, car wash and drive-thru restaurant. By way of letters and petitions, nearby residents overwhelmingly opposed it.
The hearing itself has proven as contentious as the application. Coun. Denis Walsh, one of two councillors who voted against the proposal, has challenged a statement he says Coun. Dale Bass made during the hearing that she lives in the neighbourhood and was told the Dallas Community Association did not oppose it.
Walsh contends her comments amount to new information the council wasn’t aware of and was contrary to procedural rules.
Restrictions due to COVID-19 allow local governments to meet in person but don’t allow the public to attend. Instead, councils must provide an opportunity for the public to participate online.
If you search for a video record of the public hearing, you won’t find it. Those who didn’t sit in live have no way of knowing the details of who was for and against, whether Coun. Bass really did make a rookie mistake, whether the community association and not just its president was OK with the development and why the council decided to ignore the wishes of those most directly impacted.
This mess demonstrates a deficiency in the process that can’t be blamed on COVID-19. The council talks a good game on public engagement but in some respects does a pretty shabby job.
Public hearings need to be taped and made easily and immediately accessible, and minutes of those hearings published within 24 hours.
Mel Rothenburger is a former mayor of Kamloops and a retired newspaper editor. He is a regular contributor to CFJC Today, publishes the ArmchairMayor.ca opinion website, and is a director on the Thompson-Nicola Regional District board. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pity the poor residents if attempting to protect their little plot of land against a staff hell bent on a project going forward. The public hearing are equivalent to leading the lambs to slaughter.
The atmosphere is charged. If staff has decided to support the change, their actions are to do everything possible to ensure approval. Staff then takes a partisan role and becomes the Developers’ advocate. The variance report prepared by DES and sent to Council is completely one-sided, favouring the applicant. The staff is familiar with the naissances, the jargon and at ease with the process. The neighbourhood is usually ‘outgunned’.
Residents have to prepare and present their own materials before Council. For many this is very difficult to do. No resident advocate/voice. It is a combative process, pitting staff against residents. Intimating environment resulting in all likelihood causing many not to participate. The opposition has to prove the staff wrong.
The public hearing puts Council in a difficult position. Who do you believe, the highly paid professional staff or the general public? A public who may not have articulated their concerns all that well. Council generally disregards whatever the public says unless the staff is in agreement.
There is a better way. Provincial Legislation allows communities and regional districts to establish advisory planning commissions. The advisory planning commission review and advise Council of rezoning applications, amendments to the Official Community Plan, proposed community and neighbourhood plans, etc
I agree 100% with your article Mel as well as with all of the opinions printed so far. Is there a remote possibility Council might revisit their foolish decision to go against the residents wishes? I realize that means they’d need to say “we may have been hasty in this and want to rethink it” – wow, that would be a first for this Council!
Stuff like this happening in the venue of a public meeting can make for a lot of hard feelings and rightly so. That’s perhaps a reason some of these folks might turn out to be single term councillors.
I am quite surprised at the Mayor not siding with the people who went to all the trouble of submitting a written summary of their reasons against the covenant being removed.
Denis and Sadie should be commended.
REally REally good point Mel. All public processes should be fully internet accessible audio and video recordings. Yayyyyy! You nailed it!
Need for new rules? As if! There is the need of a whole new council, Mr. McQuarrie (https://armchairmayor.ca/2020/12/13/mcquarrie-two-years-later-are-our-city-councillors-doers-or-wafflers/) latest opinion piece notwithstanding. A council consistently capable of asking relevant questions and not willing to put up with sillywilly answers from staff or others.
There was a covenant and everyone who needed to know knew about it. It arguably should’ve been left in place. Also how can this totally incompatible land use ever be allowed?
Also, the people affected by the nuisance were opposed to said nuisance. But if one lives far enough away then the nuisance is only somebody else problem.
Also, whatever happened to “the voice of the people”?
I admire councillor Walsh for demonstrating grit and resolve, he shouldn’t be alone.