COMMENT: How to repair Rossland's breached trust, Mr Mayor?
Dear Mayor Greg Granstrom,
There hasn’t been a revolt. You’re still the mayor and, much as the city would benefit from someone new, CAO Victor Kumar is still the CAO. Trust was broken and very bad process was used to achieve a dubious goal, but it’s time we moved on.
To move on, however, we should first ask ourselves: what did we learn from this experience so the same mistake doesn’t happen again?
In brief, public money was spent on a design to apply for a grant towards a project that council never proposed, nor had ever heard of until Dec. 19 when it appeared suddenly on the menu only to be rammed down council’s throat.
As the Dec. 28 grant application deadline loomed, council learned that you and the CAO had spent more than two months dreaming up a $5 million four-season swimming pool, and had hired architects and engineers to draw up designs and a preliminary budget.
The central problem is that you never asked anyone’s opinion before you rode off into this particular sunset.
The CAO made an unobtrusive note in the Oct. 7 information package, “Grant to be submitted for pool upgrade; Response required: No.”
Is that how democracy is served?
No, a true democrat would have written, “Grant available for recreation facility, several options; Response required: Yes,” and added it to the agenda as an essential topic for council to discuss, not a mere information item.
If debate was impossible at the Oct. 11 regular meeting, council should have been directed to set a new date to compare recreation possibilities and consider strategy to guide staff for the application.
In an additional information item in October, the CAO should have mentioned that the city needed to assess the state of the pool, so would be hiring some engineers. Subsequently, in the engineers’ report, I would expect to find the word “assessment,” instead of “renovation design” and “year round facility.”
I know you promised to “provide more information” in the future, Mayor Granstrom, but the problem here wasn’t caused by a lack of information. It was a lack of proactive, participatory democracy. The problem is that council, at the very least, wasn’t asked for their ideas—and there are good ideas in this town, by gar, and crazy ones too.
Back in October you should have given us, the public, a couple weeks to hash it out, maybe with a public meeting, or through an informal council discussion at a committee-of-the-whole to set recreation strategy.
It is wrong to approach grants with an attitude of, ‘we’ll apply for the money first and ask public opinion later.’ Public opinion should be sampled regularly and fearlessly.
It is the mayor’s solemn duty, by law, to “reflect the will of council.” Instead you forced the hand of council on Dec. 19 with strong behaviour that pool society member Aaron Cosbey called “unacceptable.” Cosbey reflected after the meeting, “His role is a facilitator of discussion, not a driver of an agenda.”
At the meeting, council was fed misinformation by the CAO—such as his repeated assertion that the pool was the only recreation facility the grant could have been put towards—while he gave the distinct impression that there was no longer time to change the application.
When Coun. Kathy Wallace asked if there was an alternative, the CAO flatly denied that there were options—the deadline was looming.
Coun. Jody Blomme sought clarification, “So we only have two options here? Yes or no? Black or white: ‘no’ means kiboshing any other idea?”
There were other options, but you and the CAO shunned them. For example, staff could have rewritten the application for a relatively modest ($400,000) pool upgrade. That could have been accomplished in five working days, but would have burst your dream of a year round pool towards which, as you emphasized, a “significant amount of staff time” had already been spent.
I think it would have been justified to deny the application entirely, to send a clear message that process is king in this council, not two people with personal agendas.
Afterwards, Coun. Jill Spearn said she was “surprised, no flabbergasted at the process of this grant application and the project design overall.”
But despite misgivings, both Spearn and Blomme voted in favour of it because they figured that something was better than nothing. Only Coun. Kathy Moore voted against the flawed process and proposal.
Wallace and Coun. Tim Thatcher both said, “it’s just an application,” and gave it their vote.
I can only agree with Cosbey’s assessment: this was a “dereliction of duty” by council. The next time you and the CAO bluster and baffle your agenda forward, I hope that council is not bowled over again.
It was not “just an application.” The grant was an opportunity for Rossland to get $400,000 (not $4 million) towards a $500,000 recreation facility in Rossland. Think what $25,000 in “assessment” costs could have done to elevate any number of alternatives. Consider the possibilities!
The problem, just to be clear, is that you and the CAO were the only ones considering the possibilities back in October.
If you’d asked us, we could have told you that a four-season pool is a crazy idea for Rossland. Through the old-fashioned democratic process of talking about it, we could have struck on something worth more to us, an idea born of the town—who knows, maybe it would have been something to do with the pool?
Let me think of redeeming features of the $5 million pool plan. Ah, here’s one: Some kids will choose to take year round swimming lessons while their parents lounge in the hot tub and the odd person swims (very short) laps without having to drive down the hill to Trail.
Whoop, there’s a problem already. Whether or not it’s the case, it’s fairly easy to misconstrue the mere suggestion of this project as a rebuff over the failure of Trail and Rossland to find agreement over regional rents for the Trail Aquatic Centre issue. If regional cooperation is a goal, this idea doesn’t serve our need.
But ignore that, here’s a heavier problem: Rossland is working hard to keep taxes down while also funding a multi-million dollar infrastructure project downtown. We can hardly afford to spend a million or two on a year round pool. Maintenance and operation costs would exceed the $130,000 per year that Trail is asking us to contribute to their state-of-the-art, half-Olympic-size pool, complete with every amenity and just down the road.
I’m not saying TAC’s a good deal either, but if TAC is a bad deal, then this $5 million pool is a really, really bad deal.
As you emphasized last week, the application passed “by resolution of council”—by hook or by crook, I might add. In any case, it’s in the stack of apps now, waiting to ask the taxpayers of BC to shell out $4 million so the taxpayers of Rossland can chip in another $1 million and build a glorified hot tub.
Here’s what I hope council has learned: councillors must be vigilant to ensure that proper process is followed. Eyes must be open to catch little things like “grant for pool upgrade,” and question by what process the pool upgrade was chosen. Councillors must be strong so they don’t feel bullied out of their reservations and pushed into a vote. I hope that future resolutions based on broken processes will be voted down, on principle, until the process is repaired. Without due process, democracy dies.
And in the future, Mayor Granstrom, I hope you will ask the public first before bashing ahead with an idea. Please don’t merely “inform” council. Spread the word and have a debate so people can formulate their opinions and write or speak with councillors about it. We’re a town of smart people of many opinions, and we want to be asked when $400,000 grant applications come down the pipe.
“To repair” means to mend, “to make ready again.” But repair has a second meaning as a verb: to go to a place, which derives from repatriare, “to return to one’s country.” To make ourselves ready again, to return to our place of democracy, our system depends on a public that influences council, a mayor that reflects the will of council, and a CAO who makes it so.
Here’s to our repair. Here’s to earning and keeping the public trust.