By George Grams – Salt Spring Island Islands Trust Trustee
In considering whether to respond to the many requests I’ve received from members of the local community to make public my position on incorporation I have at all times been guided by Islands Trust policy. Two policies give direction on the subject. The policy on Standards of Conduct, clause 2.7, directs that elected officials shall:
“. . . respect local autonomy and avoid becoming publicly involved in the local politics or controversial local issues in an area outside a local trust area or island municipality that he or she represents unless the elected official first consults with the local trustees or municipal trustees.”
In addition, the Islands Trust Policy Statement states:
“Trust Council holds that island communities within the Trust Area are themselves best able to determine the most effective local government structure to support their local autonomy and specific community needs within the Object of the Islands Trust.”
These policies explicitly discourage trustees from outside Salt Spring from becoming publicly involved in Salt Spring’s incorporation debate. However, local trustees are not so bound. Neither policy contains any language that directs local trustees to refrain from expressing an opinion on the subject.
I am also mindful that precedent has been set on this issue. For example, at least one former CRD director, whilst in office, effusively and frequently expressed anti-incorporation sentiments without demur from within the community on his right to take a position. I have refrained from expressing my views on the optimal local governance model for our island for the five years the current governance review has been in process, but that review is over and we are only a few days away from casting our vote. I have purposefully refrained from campaigning and am not doing so now, but I consider it entirely appropriate that I inform the community that elected me how I intend to vote in the referendum and the reasons why. My position statement is made in my capacity as an island resident, not in my capacity as a member of trust council or trust executive.”
Imagine the provincial government with no premier, no de facto chief executive, no provincial ‘ambassador’ to communicate BC’s priorities and plans to other provinces and levels of government.
Imagine, too, if we were to retain the ministries but eliminate the cabinet, so coordination between ministries ceases. Instead, each ministry would set its own priorities without reference to the others, and each would be responsible for setting its own tax levels.
Imagine we abolished the ministry of finance, so the government had no department to provide financial and taxation advice to the ministries or the cabinet, and the government had no ability to undertake a coordinated approach to overall taxation and spending within the province.
Transpose the above on Salt Spring and that’s our current governance structure. With a taxation base for local services of $15 million, we have no mayor (de facto CEO and ambassador), no council (local equivalent of a cabinet) and no finance department to collect and manage our multi-million dollar tax base. Instead, we have eight independent service providers that never meet to discuss and agree priorities or taxation implications and don’t prepare coordinated plans for service delivery. Each agency sets its own targets in isolation of other community needs, without consideration of the island’s overall ability to fund improvements. This is the heart of our unique governance structure which has led to chronic problems that defeat our ability to find solutions. Below are some examples.
- the worst affordable housing crisis in the CRD area;
- a water management crisis that has precipitated a $40 million law suit against NSSWD, the Trust and a non-profit society and paralyzed development over nearly half the island;
- improvement districts operating huge budgets under rules and regulations that deny islanders the same level of scrutiny and transparency that apply to a municipality. The result – a union contract negotiated without legal or professional advice that has hooped this island’s taxpayers indefinitely;
- capital expenditure commitments of $28 million to fund essential water infrastructure upgrades with no possibility of grant support;
- a potholed and poorly maintained roads system dangerous to pedestrians and cyclists for which we’re taxed way more than we get back;
- no ability to green our transport system through such measures as increasing pedestrianization in Ganges or legalizing low speed electric vehicles;
- decades of failed attempts and tens of thousands of wasted dollars in abortive costs to provide a decent ball park for our youth. Still no ball park;
- the mismanagement of the replacement liquid waste plant in Burgoyne leading to the resignation of the entire CRD commission and a fifteen year wait for a workable replacement;
- a harbour boardwalk conceived and partly built decades ago that has defied all attempts to complete.
We’ve had 43 years to refine our current governance format, without much success. There’s now general acceptance it has major deficiencies that just can’t be repaired. The choice
electors face is to continue with a system with recognized major defects, or to adopt an incorporated model that offers significant advantages in addition to fixing existing weaknesses, but that has some risks attached which have to be weighed against the benefits.
The risks I mostly hear expressed are those that apply if a council were to make bad decisions. Would we be victims of unsustainable growth? Could our council be hijacked by developers? Would a council raise property taxes disproportionately? Would a council be less environmentally focused or weaken our links with the Trust?
Bad politicians make bad decisions regardless of the governance model within which they function. Where I believe incorporation can make a difference is in enabling implementation of good decisions made by an enlightened council. Here we have the skills, the culture, the values and the will to be one of the greenest communities in Canada, but we’re obstructed from going the distance because our current governance model makes it so difficult to get anything done.
Imagine, instead, a council finally solving chronic problems but taking us further, of greening our built environment so we become an example to the rest of Canada, with the lowest ecological footprint on our continent.
Imagine a council setting policies, bylaws and regulations that do more than pay lip service to affordable homes, net-zero energy dwellings, alternative energy solutions on a community-wide basis, pedestrian and cycle friendly streets and a meaningful strategy for transitioning to a green economy.
Imagine treating our sewage sludge in a new facility that relies on structured wetlands and reed beds, a man-made habitat that supports wildlife and promotes biodiversity.
Imagine being able to go further than the Trust in preservation and protection through measures such as an eco-asset strategy and meaningful tree protection.
Imagine the benefits to this island had there been a council that would have helped Salt Spring Coffee Company achieve its dream, of growing organic food under glass using waste heat from the roaster, of providing courses in organic, fair-trade business practices to other Canadian companies from a LEED gold business campus and learning centre.
I don’t fear the decisions a council would make or the future our councillors would help us shape because I trust my fellow islanders. I have faith in our values and in our collective judgment. I believe the referendum presents us with an opportunity to grasp the tools with which to tackle perennial island problems and to better prepare our island for an ecologically secure future as fully functioning members at the heart of a federation I am committed to, the Islands Trust.
That is why I will be casting my vote for hope and change.