Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Podunk Below the Masthead (Tuesday, June 22, 2010)

Regional District decisions jump to the front page, yet more changes for School District 52 and a look at the job ahead for Rudy Kelly, as he takes on his new role with the City of Prince Rupert, some of the items of interest from the Tuesday news files.

Daily News, front page, headline story
SQCRD HAS SET A CAP ON COMMENTS -- Sometimes the news just arrives in the mail, Jean Martin's recent letter to the editor regarding the latest developments at Regional District seems to have set the agenda for Tuesday's Daily News headline. As we outlined on the blog on Monday, Ms. Martin's letter expressed her concerns over the accountability of the lesser known branch of local government, a concern which has translated into a front page peice about Regional District's policy shift on public comment.

Rudy Kelly's arrival at the Civic Centre as the new Director of Recreation and Community Services for the City of Prince Rupert receives a favourable review from the pages of the Daily News.

The weekend success of the Relay for Life is featured on page five, while participation levels were down from last year, the amount of money brought in from this year's relay topped 2009 figures as Rupertites pledged or donated $76,021.36.

The sports section features a preview of next big event on the golf calendar as this weekend's Vic Marion Seniors Open preapres for tee off.

(Daily News Archives for Tuesday, June 22, 2010)

SQCRD has set a cap on comments 
New local talent at the Civic Centre 
A role model in Prince Rupert
UBCIC feels last minute HST consultations too little, too late 
Air Canada is still in the air

The Northern View
Haida Gwaii becomes official as Queen Charlotte Islands returned to the Crown -- Details of the official return of the name Haida Gwaii to islands once known as Queen Charlotte (see article here)

The Northern View
Tax gap between businesses and residents widens -- A look at a CFIB survey outlining the growing tax burden between business and residential tax bills (see article here)

The Northern View
More School District changes set -- With more departures from School District 52 administration the roster for September changes once again (see article here)

The Northern View 
MP welcomes audit -- The NDP MP for Skeena - Bulkley Valley welcomes the news that Auditor General Sheila Fraser is set to conduct an audit on MP's expenses (see article here)

The Northern View 
Relay for Life tops 2009 in funds raised and participation -- The thirteenth edition of the Relay for Life finds great success from its weekend activities (see article here)

CFTK TV 7 News
More staffing changes at SD 52 -- School District 52 sees yet more change as departures and shifting responsibilities once again make the news (see article here)

CFTK TV 7 News
Smoke from wildfires burning in the northwest now visible -- A number of forest fires burning in the Northwest are becoming more noticeable with travel to the east (see article here)

CBC News Northern BC, Daybreak North
Daybreak North is only posting selected items on their website now. 

The most recently posted items can be found on the archive page for Daybreak North click here

Daily News, front page, headline story
SQCRD has set a cap on comments
By George T. Baker
Staff Writer
Prince Rupert Daily News
Tuesday, June 22, 2010 

There was no discussion amongst Board members. The motion was passed unanimously. 

The Skeena-Queen Charlotte Regional District Board doesn’t want comments from the public during Board meetings.

The board has clamped down on comments regarding SQCRD business because they said there was nothing to determine the level of public involvement at the once per month meeting.

But they’ve also limited the amount of questions the public may ask at a board meeting, reminiscent of what is found at School District 52’s School Board meetings.

The SQCRD passed a motion to create a policy that will limit questioners to two questions per board meeting and eliminate any comments from the public.

 “There was discussion at the board level and we found that we didn’t have a policy around [public question period]” explained SQCRD Chair Barry Pages.

According to the new board policy, “questions must be truly questions and not statements or opinions by the questioner, as this is not a platform for debate.”

Debate will now be limited to Board members. Media representatives will not likely be much affected by the new policy, as the board chair “may be available after the meeting for media interviews.”

But the new limits on public conversation with the Board have raised some eyebrows amongst those who have attended the meetings in the past.

Over the past couple of months, the SQCRD board has faced harsh commentary from the public gallery in the boardroom.

Issues over the new hours at the recycling depot, the desperate condition of the annual budget, and pay for the Acting Chief Administrative Officer have been lighting rods for public input – some of it unsolicited.

While the board did not justify the move during the meeting, they did say they were within their rights to do so.

When asked about whether it infringed on the Canadian Constitution, Helen Koning, the Acting CAO, said that the SQCRD did not even have to hold a public question period at all.

 “There is nothing out there that suggests the Board must have a question period from the public,” said Koning. 

However, David Eby of the BC Civil Liberties Association said that this might not be the case.

Eby said that there is plenty of past practice that says that the board can limit the amount of time allotted to the public for question period and the amount of questions that might be asked during that period. However, he said that the decision to block public commentary would be hard pressed to pass a constitutional challenge.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms cites freedom of thought, belief, opinion, and expression, including freedom of the press and other media as a fundamental right.

Eby said if you shut down commentary you could be infringing on that basic right.

 “It is perfectly reasonable and there are ample examples across Canada of city councils and regional councils that limit the amount of time that people have to comment and have questions. It also reasonable to ask for people to focus on the agenda items rather than commenting on some unrelated matter,’ said Eby.

 “However, to prescribe to people that they can’t provide feedback to elected officials in the form a comment and can only ask questions for clarification goes a little bit far. You need some rules to keep the meeting on time and to ensure that it does not go on all night, but telling people that they cannot provide feedback to their elected officials seems like it would implicate some free speech rights.” 

Eby said that what concerned him the most was that some of this is spawning from heated debates in the boardroom.

 “That’s what democracy is all about. Democracy is all about people having an opinion and sharing that opinion even if it may be offensive or disagreeable to another person.

 Eby said that this is especially the case for elected officials who have signed up for the job to hear the opinions of the public.

 “It seems unusual that elected officials would create rules that would limit their exposure to critical comment.”

 At the May Board meeting, Vice Chair and Prince Rupert Mayor Jack Mussallem apologized for offending long time volunteer and resident Jean Martin. Martin had been upset that the Board was reducing hours at the recycling depot to save money and criticized the Board for making the decision to reduce those hours. Even though it would appear that the new policy would place limits on comments, it isn’t clear how strongly the new policy will be enforced.

 Within minutes of the policy passing into bylaw, resident Larry Golden made a comment about the Statement of Financial Information advising the board that director’s cell phone bill information has not been provided in the SOFI. Golden is known for his commentary-spliced questions. He was not asked to leave.

The new SQCRD public question procedures policy reads as such:

 1. The Public Question Period will commence before the adjournment of the regular Board meeting.

 2. The purpose of the Public Question Period is for the public to ask single questions of the Board

 3. No more than 2 separate questions per questioner will be allowed. The Chair can request that any additional questions be forwarded to the Board in writing and may be answered in a timely manner.

 4. Each individual question shall be limited to two minutes and the maximum time allotted for this agenda item shall be ten minutes.

 5. Questions must pertain to the Regional District, Budgets, Board Priorities or Agenda Business

 6. Questions must be truly question and not statements or opinions by the questioner, as this is not a platform for debate

 7. The board chair may be available after the meeting for media interviews

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