Opinion: Residents deserve transparency from Columbia Shuswap Regional District board

Defeat of Columbia Shuswap Regional District Area B regional director's signature election issue highlights need for transparency and engagement from the regional government, which has a lot more political influence in the Revelstoke area than residents may be aware of.

The Columbia Shuswap Regional District administration offices are located on the waterfront in Salmon Arm.

It was Columbia Shuswap Regional District Area B representative David Brooks-Hill’s signature election issue last fall: repeal the building inspection and permitting bylaw that came into effect mid-2018 in Area B. He even had election signs made up reading, “BUILDING PERMITS” with a big red circle and slash over the words. He argued that residents hadn’t been consulted about the bylaw and they didn’t want it. Even though Brooks-Hill was a newcomer to the scene, he soundly defeated Doug Stuart, the retiring Area B director Loni Parker’s long-serving alternate director at the CSRD board table. Together, they brought in the building regulations and inspections bylaw.

Columbia Shuswap Regional District Electoral Area B director David Brooks-Hill campaigned solely on having building permits removed from the area. Photo: David Brooks-Hill/Facebook.

If Brooks-Hill has a mandate from voters to do anything at the regional district board table, repealing the building permit bylaw is it.

When the matter came to the table at their July meeting, Brooks-Hill’s motion was shot down by other regional district directors, even though his original commitment — repeal the bylaw in Area B — had already been watered down to include only areas outside of the fire protection area around Revelstoke. The representatives who defeated his initiative (for now) are not elected by residents of Area B, yet they decided that the Area B voters’ position — ‘No, thanks, we liked it the way it was’ — was misguided. These directors consist of representatives from other areas in the regional district, and municipal representatives appointed by municipal governments in the district, often the mayor from each city and town. Revelstoke mayor Gary Sulz is the City of Revelstoke representative; he voted against Brooks-Hill’s initiative.

Why did the board shoot down the plan to repeal the building inspection bylaw? What were their reasons? Your guess is as good as mine.

The reality, as CSRD staff and directors know, is that when media make an appearance at any of the many CSRD committee and board meetings, it’s media from Salmon Arm, where the CSRD offices are located. It’s impractical for a reporter from Golden or Revelstoke to make the trip over one or two mountain passes to take in the one or two agenda items relevant to local residents. It’s just as impractical for a resident of Trout Lake or Beaton to make the trip. It’s been this way for as long as I’ve been here, and given the economic climate of local journalism these days, it’s unlikely to change anytime soon.

The end result is a board that, for the most part, operates behind closed doors. Yes, you can look through their paperwork online and read the reports, but in practical terms, the words, positions and arguments of individual elected board members are not available to voters.

Why it matters

For Revelstoke-based readers, whether or not a new build in Trout Lake or on Begbie Bench needs a building inspection may not seem like the biggest issue. But what about if Revelstoke Mountain Resort (RMR) shifted its future development to the Greeley area on the Trans-Canada Highway, which is located outside of city limits? A CSRD public hearing on a rezoning application for Revelstoke Adventure Park (RAP) in early August could make that more possible — as I reported when that application popped up almost a decade ago, the entity that controls the RAP is partially owned by the owners of RMR. Do you feel informed about the issues and ready to give informed opinion at the hearing? Do you know the date, time and place of the hearing?

In fact, many substantive issues and controversies that have affected the Revelstoke area are rooted in the regional district.

The recent controversial gravel pit application nearby the Jordan River, for example, is outside of city limits in Area B. Opponents were quick to lobby Revelstoke’s city council about the issue — did they think to petition the CSRD board? Our booming tourist sector has led to many land use conflicts, such as logging on mountain biking trails (or mountain biking in logging areas, if that’s your perspective). There is a deep need for coordinated approach between the city and the regional district on land use planning in order to get the provincial government to the table to work on this issue, which will only intensify as Revelstoke tourism grows.

But does the administration, bureaucracy and board in Salmon Arm recognize that this is an important issue for area residents? Sending the Area B director and his big election platform issue packing isn’t a good sign they have their finger on the pulse of voters who live on the other side of the Eagle Pass.

The second main reason why it matters is influence. It’s my impression that Revelstoke residents are not as aware as they could be about how intertwined the CSRD is with the Revelstoke city government. The CSRD Area B director sits on many city committees and commissions. Many city council funding decisions, such as the Columbia Basin Trust Community Initiatives fund, needs approval from the CSRD board. Many ‘Revelstoke’ land use decisions are in fact outside of city limits and in Area B. The city’s economic development commission is a joint initiative of the CSRD and city. Significant sources of finding for the city and Area B are intertwined at the CSRD board. Many large funding sources for municipal and rural Revelstoke come through the board. The list goes on and on — it’s much more than just these examples.

A first step

Earlier this year, revelstokemountaineer.com petitioned the CSRD board to start broadcasting their board meetings online. A smartphone, a tripod and a free YouTube account are all you need these days. The board asked for a staff report on the issue. We’re hopeful the board will take a step towards transparency and engagement in their decision.

Also of note, the CSRD hired a full-time communications coordinator late last year. Tracy Hughes is the former long-serving editor of the Salmon Arm Observer. I’ve had lots of back and forth emails about communications issues with Tracy over the past months. While I think all local and regional governments need to up their communications efforts, and communication costs money, the CSRD’s approach to date is problematic, and this is highlighted in the CSRD’s media release on the building permits debate, which you can read here. We could argue about this, but I feel the release advances a staff position over the direction of the elected representative. It certainly doesn’t tell you who voted which way (and in fact a dispute has emerged about who voted for and against the building regulation bylaw petition). Asking a paid staff member to report on political board decisions, even giving blow-by-blow newspaper-style quotes, is a mistake — crossing over from communications into spin doctoring, and not just spin doctoring for the organization, but instead spin doctoring for administration-friendly directors’ views over others’. Put the meeting up on YouTube — residents can handle it unfiltered. Who knows — maybe they’d even be convinced by the arguments against repealing the building regulation bylaw?

(As an aside, the media releases from the new communications coordinator are only a small part of the communications work the coordinator does; most of it adheres to standard communications protocols. It’s putting the coordinator in the position to “report” on meetings that residents don’t practically have access to that is the problem — one that could be solved by embracing cheap and available technology.)

A study in contrasts and a final thought

While I served as editor of the then Revelstoke Times Review, I was also the editor of the Nakusp-based Arrow Lakes News, which is located in the Regional District of Central Kootenay (RDCK). The experience reporting on two different regional districts was a study in contrasts.

While both regional government organizations have the same responsibilities, the nature of the organizations is very different. To generalize, the RDCK, which is based in Nelson, takes on a lot more progressive issues and initiatives, such as environmental issues, broadband initiatives and more; the CSRD is a more stripped-down, conservative-leaning organization that seems to reflect the values of its Salmon Arm base and surrounding rural agricultural communities, if I had to generalize.

My point is regional governments can and do adjust to reflect the political directions of voters; the question is: are they hearing the voices of voters in the Revelstoke rural area? Is the CSRD being what the CSRD needs to be for rural areas around Revelstoke? For now, Area B residents certainly aren’t hearing the voices of elected officials in the regional district chambers. That needs to change.

Update: Aug. 10, 2019

The draft minutes of the July 18 meeting has notes on board debate on the building inspection bylaw, including individual directors’ views.

The agenda to the CSRD Aug. 15 board meeting contains a staff report on web broadcasting board meetings. The report recommends not doing so citing concerns over high cost of equipment, staffing to operate, data privacy laws, lack of public call for the service and other concerns.