Maple Pool legal bill tops $120,000

Maple Pool legal bill tops $120,000

 BY PHILIP ROUND ECHO STAFF / STAFF WRITER

JANUARY 17, 2014 01:00 AM

 The legal bill run up by the City of Courtenay in pursuing Maple Pool Campground has already reached $121,235 with no end to the proceedings yet in sight.

The figure was revealed on Wednesday by the City’s chief administrative officer, David Allen, in response to questions from the Echo about progress in handling a Freedom of Information appeal.

That appeal has been lodged with the BC Information and Privacy Commissioner by Courtenay resident Dick Clancy.

He is unhappy at what he considers the City’s incomplete response to his request for information about in-camera council motions on the Maple Pool controversy and the votes taken on each one.

Now Commissioner Elizabeth Denham‘s staff have told City Hall they need to see the full records as part of an investigation into whether enough has been revealed to the public about the council’s behind-closed-doors deliberations on the issue.

The Commission has requested an “unsevered copy of the records in dispute” by the end of this week. Any information that the City had severed or withheld from the public “must be highlighted, boxed or otherwise clearly marked to show that it has been withheld or severed.”

And the City’s justification for not releasing the detail after receiving a request under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act must be explained.

Allen told the Echo a response was being prepared and would be sent to the Commissioner, hopefully this week.

“We have been in contact with the Commissioner’s office regarding the appeal,” he said. “The response timeline is a request from this office and not a definitive deadline.”

He added: “The decision on whether or not to release the in-camera motions and voting records related to Maple Pool rests solely with City Council. To date, Council has not resolved to make this information public.”

The City has made some information available to Clancy, giving details of two in-camera motions passed by Council 16 months ago in September 2012. Both were moved by Coun. Starr Winchester and seconded by Coun. Jon Ambler, and both motions are recorded as having been carried with no one listed as being against.

The first included a decision to delay the Maple Pool court proceedings for six months to give time for a meeting of interested parties to consider the validity of a proposal put forward by a group of business people and others to raise the land level at the campground above the 200-year flood level.

The second instructed staff and the City solicitor to arrange a meeting with Maple Pool owner Jin Lin and her lawyer at the time, Clive Ansley, “to discuss possible solutions to the matter and what information is required for council to consider a rezoning application regarding the property.”

The second motion also appointed Mayor Larry Jangula, along with Councillors Winchester and Doug Hillian, to sit in on any meeting arranged between the City, Lin and Ansley; and noted that after such a meeting to discuss possible solutions “further direction from Council will likely be required as far as what information should be required from Ms. Lin before Council will proceed to consider a rezoning in respect of the property.”

But beyond those two motions, on which there had been council agreement to “rise and report,” the number and wording of other resolutions on the issue, and the way elected officials voted on each, has remained secret.

The City has justified the refusal to disclose more by citing a provision of the Freedom of Information Act that states it “may refuse to disclose to an applicant information that would reveal the substance of deliberations of a meeting of its elected officials…if an Act…authorizes the holding of that meeting in the absence of the public.”

The City insists it has complied with the Local Government Act each time it has held an in-camera meeting, so this clause applies.

But that doesn’t wash with Clancy, who told the Commissioner he had not sought any details of the substance of deliberations.

“My request related solely to information pertaining to what motions were passed and what votes had been cast by each of the elected officials with regard to these motions,” he said.

He understood the requirement for confidentiality over in-camera discussions. But any motions eventually passed, and the votes on them, should be available for public view.

“Indeed, it is improper, immoral, and – I believe – illegal to deny this information to the public,” he argued. “The first principle of government is that the people’s business must be conducted in the sunshine.

“Secret meetings of those who conduct the business of the public should be the exception rather than the rule, as sometimes seems to be the case in practice.”

Clancy also advised the Commissioner of his concern over suggestions that once a motion had been passed by a majority, all elected officials should stand together and support it.

“No one has ever argued that applies to open meetings of the council,” he suggested. “If council splits four-three on a motion placed before councillors in a public meeting, the votes are recorded for all to see and those who openly oppose the motion are free to continue their argument against the decision in question.

“There is no principled argument to be made for the proposition that a different standard should apply to in-camera meetings.”

Clancy also suggested democracy dies if elected officials “habitually go in-camera every time they are faced with a controversial issue, a political ‘hot potato’ as it were.”

Specifically on the Maple Pool action, Clancy claimed many members of the public wanted to know where their councillors stood on the issue.

The secrecy, he suggested, was denying citizens the right to know which councillors had voted in accordance with the positions they had taken publicly, and which councillors had taken positions behind closed doors that could not be reconciled with their public statements on the issue.

The matter was not just an issue of proper procedure, he suggested to the Commissioner. The lawsuit Courtenay Council had embarked upon would, if won, effectively require the eviction of in excess of 50 marginalized people from the campground.

But David Allen told the Echo the council was actively striving to resolve the issue.

“Finding a resolution to the Maple Pool situation has been incredibly challenging. We are currently waiting either for the judge in the court case to declare a ruling on the issue, or for the Lins to submit a rezoning application.

“We have been waiting for a rezoning application from the Lins since 2011, and we’ve adjourned the court hearing twice in order to give them more time.”

He added: “Resolving the Maple Pool issue is second only to the Braidwood housing project as City Council’s top strategic priority for 2014. We will continue to work on this very complex issue until we can arrive at a satisfactory conclusion.”

Allen also quashed rumours the council had paid for aerial photography of a line of concrete blocks placed along one edge of the campground by local businesspeople seeking to mitigate flooding concerns.

The blocks – described by Allen as “a significant structure” that might have an adverse effect on the environment or neighbouring properties – went in without City Hall being advised of the work and without the issue of a development permit.

He confirmed photographs of the blocks had been taken on October 25 during a helicopter flight, but “absolutely no cost to the City” had been incurred, as a local pilot had offered the flight to give a bird’s eye view of the whole municipality.

Coincidentally, the flight took place shortly after the blocks had been placed, he added, so photographs were taken that had proved helpful in assessing the scale and positioning of the structure.

pround@comoxvalleyecho.com

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