Monday, November 16, 2009

Council passes the one year mark with mixed results

It was just a few days past a year ago that Prince Rupert voters elected the current crop of councillors and new Mayor for the city ).

Last year, Prince Rupert residents elected a mix of ambitious new faces combined with veterans of municipal governance, all eager we imagine to get to work on the prospect of rebuilding the city’s fractured economy.

With that auspicious electoral milestone just crossed, we thought perhaps a review of the last 365 or so days might be in order to get a better picture of the success or lack of in some instances, of this latest collection of elected officials.

As former Mayor Herb Pond was busy moving the boxes out of his City Hall office the new class of 2008 was preparing to get to work .

First of all when you want to be effective you need to be in attendance and when it comes to the attendance report, we find that our newest councillors have proven to be some of the more dedicated of our elected servants.

Both Councillors Ashley and Garon get gold stars for attendance, with nary a session missed, in the case of Councillor Ashley a few of those sessions required phone participation, but while not there in person she did provide input through the miracle of telephone communication.

Councillors Gordon-Payne and Kinney were for the most part very dedicated as well to attendance matters, having missed only one session each of the 20 regularly scheduled meetings so far on the council calendar.

Veteran councillors Bedard and Thorkelson, seemed to have a more complicated personal or business agenda, having been required to miss three sessions each during the last year.

While council members for the most part seem to have been conscientious about attendance, Mayor Jack Mussallem will be taking home a letter from the principal for his string of five missed appearances over the year, a 25 per cent absentee rate at the top job at City Hall.

The Mayor's return to municipal office suffered a setback early on in his arrival back in the Centre chair at council, as he lost out in the election for Chair of the Queen Charlotte Regional District.

One of the key themes of the last council session of 2005-2008 and of the 2008 election campaign, was the need for more transparency and accountability at council and on that we feel there may still be a bit of work to be done.

Prince Rupert council still has a tendency to conduct a lot of its affairs in closed sessions, some of which we are sure are required, but far too many of the council deliberations seem to dissolve into that secretive forum, where such things as pulp mill repossessions, CityWest discussions and such are contemplated without much input or request of such from the public

The Mayor and council tackled a number of items in the past year among some of the more interesting and occasionally controversial ones were:

December 2008

The potential sale of the Alaska Ferry Dock and the rising cost of its repairs became an item of interest in December.

Council also found itself conflicted over the debate regarding the Pacific Coast School, which had hoped to set up shop in Cow Bay until a group of its neighbours raised the alarm with City Council and set in motion some acrimonious moments for the new council.

January 2009

January brought a new year and some new challenges, the plan of the city to form a partnership with Hecate Strait Employment Society, which would allow the society to access funding for programs which it hopes to operate raised a few eyebrows among some in the community, especially with the relationship between Councillor Bedard and that organization.
Former Mayor Herb Pond’s dream became Mayor Mussallem’s as the quest for a Tsimshian Access Project moved forward in January.

The Doctor’s shortage caught the attention of Council in January as well ,as council sought ways to impress upon Northern Health the serious nature of the situation.

And the high profile departure of Douglas Jay from the Pond era came back for one more review as the announcement of the final details as to his departure was made, but alas, due to the confidential nature of the discussions, none of the terms or severance details were provided to the public

February 2009

February brought a new contract for the City Manager, as Gord Howie received a two year extension to his duties making him one of the highest paid employees at City Hall . Councillor Ashley had introduced a motion to have the names of those who voted for or against the extension revealed, but it was not a motion that her fellow council members thought was appropriate. It was a debate that once again gave residents the cause to wonder how dedicated to transparency and accountability the new council may actually be.

The fate of Acropolis Manor once again became a talking point at City Hall with Councillor Garon leading the forces that wished to see the old Manor remain standing as an addition to the Health care service structure in the community, it would be a fight that they would lose later in the year.

The Mayor introduced the idea of liquidating some city assets such as a Fire truck and selling off property, all designed to add some capital flow for capital projects and to help offset the many expenses that have been accumulating from other spending items.

March 2009

March was a relatively calm month for council, the arrival of a new senior executive to replace the now departed Douglas Jay flew by with little controversy.
April 2009

The Ghost of Watson Island made its first appearance on the council radar in April as the city outlined anticipated revenue streams from taxation there to its budget estimates
The first indications of a tax hike also made their debut at council in April
May 2009

May brought the official tax increase notice as the city mailed out the request for more to Rupert’s dwindling taxpaying base.

The taxation increase proved to be a less than well received missive that mobilized some to the editorial pages

The Mayor had his own personal worries this spring, as farmland owned in the Bulkley Valley went under water during the rather intense seasonal flooding
CityWest finances came up for discussion in May as well, as council worked out the details of loan forgiveness for the City owned Telecommunications Company
With taxpayers grabbed for another 3.8 percent, council’s agendas began to receive a bit more attention as local residents tweaked out the details on where some of their tax dollars were going to

June 2009

A mystery session of council also provided a bit of grist for the local rumour mill in June
The heat was on early in the summer for Council, after their decision to disband the area’s health advisory council a move that didn’t seem to be particularly well received in the community.

July 2009

July brought some new zoning bylaws to the city, a move that was presented to council in July much to the chagrin of some at council who felt that the summer holidays perhaps would not allow for proper input from the community, however, despite those concerns in the end the bylaws went to the final draft stage during the summer.
Council also met the new Economic Development Officer for the city and Port Edward as Nellie Cheng outlined her hopes for the position to council
July also found council stepping back from a plan to introduce voting machines to the city’s electoral procedures, after a less than welcome reception from the city’s voters, the idea quietly died and disappeared from the council agenda
August 2009

August found the Mayor offering up hope for those Rupertites that were facing health concerns without the benefit of a family physician as he outlined some positive developments from Northern Health

Subdividing the tonier areas of the west side proved to be a contentious issue for council in August as they examined and discussed zoning issues on Graham and Atlin Avenues
Council set the table for the upcoming hand over of the Watson Island pulp mill property as a closed session of council discussed some of the highlights of the pending abandonment of the property by Sun Wave

By months end, the City would have taken possession of the fixer upper pulp mill , as Sun Wave defaulted on their tax payments and the City became the custodian of the moribund pulp mill at Watson Island.

September 2009

September was also road trip season for council as the Mayor and large contingent of council members were off to the UBCM convention in Vancouver, council also heard details of a possible opportunity for some foreign travel aligned with the Port for a potential Asian adventure
The City received a NO from the Northern Development Initiative Trust, as they rushed in an application that was a poor match for what the NDIT had to offer
Council members were among the cheerleaders at a public meeting held to examine the possibility of a potash Terminal for Ridley Island, many of Rupert’s public officials were in attendance to offer up their enthusiasm for Canpotex’s plans pending final decision by the company in December

October 2009

Canpotex continued to be the focus of the Mayor’s attention in October as he put out a few brush fires when it came to the proposed potash terminal at Ridley Island, first with an interpretation of an expansion of the company’s facilities in Vancouver
Council also received some welcome news from Northern Health as details were released of a plan that could see the Greene Clinic reopened as a community health centre, providing relief for those 4000 Rupertites currently without a family doctor

November 2009

November moved the City into the real estate business, as the price tag was set at 13 to 15 million for those interested in the Watson Island pulp mill site
A Canadian Federation of Independent business highlight Prince Rupert’s place on the spending lists, as a report published in November provided some details on how much the city spends per capita and where some of that money goes, perhaps a helpful document for council as it ponders it’s budgetary concerns this fall.

As this current council heads into its second year of the three year mandate, it seems that many of the old issues continue to haunt council chambers. Such issues as increasing taxation, spending concerns, the inheritance of an aging pulp mill site and little progress in the area of job creation or attracting industry to the community remain a going concern. As well as the continuing dedication to closed council sessions, a move that doesn’t provide for much movement on the transparency and accountability files.

With the first year learning curve now out of the way, this second year will provide Rupertites with a better idea as to where this council and Mayor plan to take the city into 2010 and beyond.
Hopefully they become a little more inclined to share some of the details of their plans with the community, giving us a better idea as to what shape we are in, what needs to be done to improve our fortunes and how much it’s going to cost us in the long run.

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