Revelstoke city CAO, mayor criticize ‘Stoked Living’ rezoning opponents in media release

Mayor and Chief Administrative Officer rebuke pamphlet distributed by the Stoked Living rezoning and OCP change opponents, including recently resigned city councillor, and get into an argument about what constitutes 'fact' and 'opinion.'

One side of a pamphlet opposing the Stoked Living rezoning that was distributed to Revelstoke mailboxes in mid-September. Image: Image provided upon request from the pamphlet distributors

The Mayor of Revelstoke, Gary Sulz, and the city’s Chief Administrative Officer, Dawn Low, issued a rare public rebuke of a private citizen who distributed a pamphlet to all mailboxes in the city opposing the proposed ‘Stoked Living’ development on Hay Road.

The move comes two days before a public hearing on the topic of rezoning and an Official Community Plan (OCP) amendment needed for the proposal to proceed.

Former Revelstoke City Councillor Steven Cross, who resigned in January citing ethical objections to council’s plans for a self-pay raise first proposed by Coun. Cody Younker, distributed the pamphlet via post to all mailboxes in Revelstoke over the past several days, he said.

The document lays out arguments against the city rezoning and altering the city’s OCP to allow the development on Hay Road to go ahead.

Cross told the Mountaineer he worked with a group of 12 other residents opposed to the development to create and distribute the flyer across town.

City wades into mud fight over the ‘facts’

Why did the city decide to take a side two days ahead of a public hearing? We decided to fact-check the fact checkers. Is the city’s statement a paragon of objectivity and balance, or did the mayor and CAO wade into a mud-wrestling pit?

Fact check 1

In a statement made in the media release, the mayor stated, “It is my duty as Mayor to make sure that the information distributed to the public is balanced and accurate.”

Is it? Who did the “distributing” here? In this case, it was Steven Cross and fellow opponents of the Stoked Living rezoning, mostly neighbours who are concerned about increased traffic, safe roads and sidewalks for schoolkids, increased density, parking, city development policies, and neighbourhood character in an area already slated for over 1,000 more units in the Mackenzie Village development.

The second side of the pamphlet opposing the Stoked Living development rezoning.

The city’s communication policy does say that the city will make an effort to correct erroneous reports in the news media, but is it the mayor’s job to try to correct all statements made by all residents everywhere? What about during the run-up to a public hearing, which is specifically a process to collect public opinions on proposals? Must one person’s strong opinion be “balanced” under fear of rebuke from a city media release? Does the duty to ensure every resident’s opinion is “balanced” extend to social media, too?

Wait until they hear what people have been saying on Facebook. In fact, those in favour of the development have also been trafficking in opinion. Will the mayor and CAO wade in to restore “balance” there too?

Fact check 2

The city media release contained three prominent bullet points, each with a statement from the pamphlet and the city’s response, and our comment.

What the pamphlet said: “Our [c]ity did not even insist on the full 5% parkland portion from the developer…”

What the city media release said on this point: “Council is insisting on the full 5% parkland dedication. On August 11, 2020 [c]ouncil recommended that 5% parkland dedication be obtained rather than cash in lieu and directed staff to work with the applicant to achieve 5% parkland dedicated which is in the preliminary sketch plan as part of the public hearing documents.”

Our comment: The city and council are two separate things. In its earlier stages of the plan, the dedicated park space was less than 5% of the property. At that point, it was city staff who were working on the development prior to it being presented by council. So, it’s true that city staff did not insist on 5% parkland dedication. It’s also true that council asked for it to be changed, and there are more details to the change.

Again, the city response is gaslight-y, not helpful, and closer to one end of the opinion spectrum than straight-up-and-down facts.

The next two points are consolidated with one comment:

The section of the pamphlet the city quoted: “The legal solution to that is for Council to pass a moratorium on comprehensive development until the OCP is fully updated…”

What the city media release said on this point: Council is not authorized to pass a moratorium on development applications. Council and staff must follow Provincial legislation which states the Council must consider all development applications.

The section of the pamphlet the city quoted: “Telling Council to reject comprehensive development and zoning changes until the overall planning house is in order will not stifle regular scale building development at all.”

What the city media release said on this point: “Council and Staff are obligated under Provincial legislation to process development applications under the current Official Community Plan and Zoning Bylaw.”

Our comment: While it’s true that the city couldn’t impose a broad moratorium on development, with large developments like these, the consequential decisions on big projects happen well before they reach the council table. And there is a distinction between “all development applications” and what was in the sentence facing criticism: “comprehensive development,” which is a specific thing. Comprehensive developments are basically agreements between the city and the developer where the developer gives a lot of control and oversight to city staff in exchange for being allowed to do things not permitted in the regular zoning. Council could certainly signal disinterest in pursuing more comprehensive development zones until the OCP is complete. The city can also “process” a development application and issue a report saying they do not recommend it, as has happened in the past. Again, a bit gaslight-y and probably not worth it.

We also reached out to Steven Cross about the city statement, and he also had counterpoints to each point.

“The mayor is correct that the city is obligated to process development applications – that does not mean they need to be approved if they require changes to OCP and zoning,” he said. “Once again – all the more proof that the OCP updates should come first before any more development needing special hearings is approved.”

Cross also issued a point-by-point critique on his Facebook page.

Also, the pamphlet was four pages long. Why pick a few passages to criticize, particularly when the ones cited are open for debate? Does that mean that the rest of the facts are good?

What message does the city statement give to those who would express opinions about the city? That, for speaking out, your views could be cited as factually wrong in a one-sided story in the local paper?

In the slippery mud pit, it’s way harder to get a lock on your opponent than you might think.

Another fact for the record

We didn’t choose to report on it at the time, but since the theme of the city media release is the facts of the matter, here goes. In early August, we did a routine search of public corporation documents on the numbered company advancing the Stoked Living proposal. However, when we searched for the company on the provincial registry, it wasn’t there. In fact, the numbered company on the city paperwork for the proposal had changed at one point, so there were actually two different numbers listed on city reports — neither of them to be found in the corporation search. So, we asked the city if there had been an error. City staff responded to say yes, the number, listed prominently at the top of each council report, had been incorrect all along, and they provided us with a new number, one that hadn’t appeared on any of the city reports. All of them varied by one digit. The same day, we noticed that city staff entered into the city’s council document hosting platform and retroactively changed that number on all council reports on the Stoked Living proposal dating back to 2019. Getting a figure wrong is one thing, but retroactively changing public reports without notifying the public on a particularly controversial subject is another. How often is this happening? Are other ‘facts’ being retroactively altered?

We followed up with some written questions to the city:

Revelstoke Mountaineer: Does city staff follow any policy regarding retroactively changing published public legal documents?

City of Revelstoke CAO Dawn Low: The reports to [c]ouncil are not considered legal documents.

RM: Is retroactively changing published documents a common practice? Has the city done this before?

CORDL: No this is not common as council reports are thoroughly reviewed, the mistake was made on the application form.

RM: Has the city sought legal advice on what to do in this instance?

CORDL: Again, reports are not considered legal documents.

RM: Does the city have any comment on this?

CORDL: The amendment was simply to correct a typo for the name of a company. The applicant himself accidentally wrote it down wrong on the application form.

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We decided not to do a story on the error since it wasn’t really that consequential (other than calling into question whether the city did an adequate due diligence check on this). But since we’re getting into the weeds on this, there you go.

There was no city media release setting the record straight on this error of fact.

Councillors react

The latest iteration of the Stoked Living development proposed for Hay Road. Photo: City of Revelstoke image

On Twitter, Councillor Cody Younker had a facepalm for the city’s move. Councillor Nicole Cherlet followed up with a comment, describing opponents of the rezoning as opinionated and full of rage.

Speaking of Steven Cross, whatever happened to the by-election?

Councillor Steven Cross resigned in January, and there has yet to be a by-election to fill his vacant council seat. Months passed without any word from the city on plans for a by-election, then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the province suspended by-elections. However, in late summer, the province announced procedures for by-elections and they have resumed in B.C. One has already occurred and several are scheduled in other municipalities for September and October.

We followed up with questions about the by-election and media release and soon after it was distributed, setting a response deadline for end of day, but we didn’t hear back from the city. (This has been increasingly common in the past eight or so months: staff often take a week or more to respond to simple inquiries, and often insist on written questions, a break from the past when senior staff were often freely available to chat about projects.) It’s common courtesy to respond to media questions if you have just emailed a media release to us.

So, what’s the point?

If you got this far, congratulations, you’ve probably just wasted five minutes of your life. It doesn’t have to be this way. The city’s September 15 media release was an unforced error, at best, and another example of the city’s need to modernize its communications framework. The mayor and CAO are heading into a public hearing, which has been scheduled for a full day in anticipation of controversy, and open-mindedness and impartiality by mayor and council are key to maintaining public trust in the public hearing process. Criticizing opponents of the rezoning on city letterhead and sending it out to all media and social media channels available to them doesn’t instill confidence in their impartiality, especially when the record wasn’t warped and the effort to set it straight wasn’t so plumb.

The neighbours are allowed to have opinions; the public hearing process that is specifically a chance for them to be heard. Many of them have strong personal concerns about how the proposed development would impact their neighbourhood. It’s a real thing that impacts their lives and stirs up emotions and opinions.

A sober thought

If you sensed a jaded tone in this story, you’re right. Although there will always be controversies in city politics, things don’t need to be done like this. In contemporary society, we have conversations about the corrosive effect of social media misinformation and disinformation on democracy. We also need to recognize when it’s happening here. We have multiple parties arguing over the facts, each with their perspective. Is there any reason to believe that won’t be the situation moving forward on anything controversial? If the city wants to thrive, it’s incumbent upon government to formulate a robust response. What that is remains to be seen, but possible solutions are out there.

Public hearing

As reported on revelstokemountaineer.com, the public hearing is scheduled for Sept. 17. Registration is required for telephone and in-person. Residents can also submit letters, which have been piling up (you can read all 122 pages of them here, here) mostly opposed to the rezoning.

Aaron Orlando is a Revelstoke-based journalist who serves as creative director of revelstokemountaineer.com and Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine. He's been on the news beat in Revelstoke for the past 14 years, serving in senior editorial roles. If you have aaron@revelstokemountaineer.com or call/text him at 250-814-8710.