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Citizens allege at non-advertised meeting council is deaf to their concerns

By Robin Wark for the Sooke News Mirror, November 13, 2002

Allegations of the Sooke council not listening to its residents and of thinking as a block, rather than independently, bounced around the bottom of the Sooke Community Hall Thursday evening.

These were raised during a meeting which featured four of the five candidates challenging for positions on council. The meeting was organized by a group of concerned citizens, according to George Butcher, one of the forces behind it. Though Butcher is the chairman of the Worried Resident Against Tax Hikes (WRATH), he said the organization was not behind the meeting.

About 25 people, including the candidates, attended the meeting, which was not advertised except through word of mouth and phone calls because it was put together in less than a week, Butcher said. The News Mirror was not invited to the meeting, but the editor attended after learning about it from a candidate.

Neither Mayor Ed Macgregor nor any of the incumbent councillors received invitations.

"They are a known quantity. We have seen them in action," said Butcher, who served as moderator, at the start of the meeting. "We know what they have done. Some of us are rather displeased with their representation."

In attendance, and fielding questions which mostly centred on the proposed community sewer system, were candidates Mel Dobres, George OBriain, Tom Morino and Norm Upton. Noticeably absent were mayoralty candidate Jerry Wolf and council candidate Rick Armour, who has vocally supported the proposed sewer system. Wolf was not expected as he was out of town on personal business, but Butcher said he was surprised Armour was not there.

In a Friday interview, Armour said he felt the people attending the meeting would be the same crowd that was at last Mondayís all candidates meeting at the Sooke Legion. Believing there would be duplication, Armour decided to spend the evening instead working the phones.

Morino started his comments off by noting he gave some thought to not attending the meeting. He said he would have preferred if all of the candidates, including the incumbents, had been invited.

In interviews Friday, Mayor Ed Macgregor and a number of current councillors said they were unaware of the meeting and would have attended if invited.

"If I did get one, Iíd go if there were some rules in place," Macgregor said of an invitation. "I donít mind sitting on the hot spot."

He would have likely taken some heat Thursday as the audience expressed concerns about the council not listening to their concerns, especially about the proposed community sewer system, which they feel the $17.5 million price tag is just too much.

All of the candidates present Thursday night stated their belief it is councilís job to responsive to the voters.

"You are the boss," Dobres said. "The council is the employee. Usually the employee listens to the boss."

Morino said he feels very strongly that it is councilís job to represent the municipalityís citizens.

"Regardless of my views, if the electorate says this, I am compelled to do it," Morino said to applause.

Macgregor, councillors John and Marcus Farmer all said they feel council does listen to those who make representation to them. Marcus Farmer said decision making is the focus of the job and at times people donít agree with the choices council makes.

"You sit there and listen to what everyone has to say ... Just because I donít agree with them doesnít mean Iím not thinking about them and not doing the work," he said.

The mayor and councillors pointed to mechanisms in place such as public question and comment periods at the beginning and end of each meeting and public hearings as chances for residents to voice their concerns.

Macgregor said he feels council has done its job.

"I feel on a general basis that we have tried to be responsive to people and to deal with legitimate concerns."

The mayor said he certainly doesnít mind if citizens question what the district is doing.

"I donít think any council should be concerned about having a few members of the public keeping them on their toes."

Members of the audience Thursday also alleged the current governing body seems to vote as a unit and alluded to the bobblehead doll image described in a recent letter to the News Mirror by watchdog Gail Hall.

"They are of one mind," one audience member said, asking if the four candidates are "strong enough to stand up." All four candidates vowed to think independently.

"I really feel if you were to elect these people sitting up here ... you wouldnít have that problem," Upton said.

However, councillors contacted Friday said the allegations of them not thinking independently are unfounded. Macgregor pointed to a few instances where different councillors voted in opposition to matters, including Janet Evans and Lorna Bary casting votes against a motion to recommend removal from the Agricultural Land Reserve. Marcus Farmer pointed to when he and Jeff Stewart voted against the John Phillips Memorial Golf Course being the site for a proposed long-term care seniors facility.

"I wholeheartedly disagree with any allegations that I or others on the council donít think independently," wrote Jeff Stewart in an e-mail response to News Mirror questions. "What we have is long-term community members who share the same vision on common issues and are striving to achieve these common goals."

The allegation of council discussing matters behind closed doors and then coming forward with a decision was also made. John Farmer said it simply is not true.

"We have said there is transparency in our decision making process here," Farmer said. "Everything we have taken on has come before the public either in a public meeting or a council meeting.

On Thursday, the four candidates were asked, as they were last Monday, if they supported a referendum on the issue rather than the process council has said it will use, with those dissenting to the project writing in with their concerns and those in favour of it having to do nothing.

All four candidates said if elected they would push for a referendum, though Morino said he would first fight against the sewer system as it has been proposed. Current councillors have said the process they have endorsed is the most fair way. John Farmer said it allows complete information about the financial implications of the system to be sent directly to affected taxpayers.

However, OBriain feels it leaves out an important segment of the population ó tenants. He said they will face an increase in rent, but have no say.

Candidates were also asked how they felt about an Advisory Planning Commission being instituted. Unlike the Juan de Fuca electoral area, council deals with all land use matters, rather than having an APC look at them first. All four candidates said they were not opposed to the idea of having an APC.

"You canít expect council to know everything," Upton said.

All of the candidates in attendance also said, in response to a question, they feel land should remain in the Agricultural Land Reserve unless it is proven to not be to worthwhile for agriculture.

"Just because you arenít using it today doesnít mean you canít do it in the future," Upton said.

OBriain said small farms are important home-based businesses and need to be preserved.



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