North Cowichan steams full-bore ahead on its climate agenda, public input appears to be a point of contention.
As another council meeting went underway, Mayor Rob Douglas of North Cowichan decided to go off-script from the Mayor’s report, delivering a speech that left many residents feeling uneasy.
“I would like to take a little bit of a different approach with the mayor’s report this evening. During our recent council committee meetings, there has been a significant amount of discussion around this table about North Cowichan and plans regarding climate change” – Mayor Rob Douglas.
The Mayor opened the October 18th meeting with a prepared speech. The speech was delivered after a previous council meeting where Mayor Douglas stopped the public input to gain control of a resident speaking to the Climate Action & Energy Plan (CAEP).
“I’d like to start with the climate action and energy Plan. This initial Climate Action Energy Plan was developed with over 400 residents participating” The mayor explains, “The updated Climate Action Energy Plan outlines almost 40 actions grouped under seven categories to reduce emissions by 80% by 2050”
The Climate Action Energy Plan (CAEP) has been the subject of passionate public debate, as the plan is funded by a 0.5% tax implemented in North Cowichan. From community feedback, most residents have no idea they were paying into this fund. At the time of writing this article that fund had grown to nearly $700,000.
The present North Cowichan council appears to have a singular point of interest, the climate. From road use, industrial zones, committee appointments, homes, and local businesses, the CAEP appears to be the overarching policy which drives all of North Cowichan.
With the CAEP becoming the guidebook for local policy and governance, many residents have taken interest in local politics to better understand these policies which are affecting their homes, businesses, and families. This is encouraged by some council members, others not so much.
North Cowichan follows a standards of conduct policy, a list of varied expectations for our local elected officials. The mayors report, a nearly 10 minute lashing, appears to violate multiple conditions within this policy.
Most notably North Cowichan’s commitments to promoting public confidence, respecting diverse perspectives and interests, holding primary duty to the public, as well as facing challenges of the day.
“I just don’t understand where this is coming from. It feels like I’ve been completely gutted from the inside-out.” – Local resident who lives on Herd Rd.
After the 2022 municipal election the community of North Cowichan voiced several concerns regarding the lack of engagement. With a population of nearly 35,000 residents, it’s an area of concern when only 8,546 participated in voting. As a result of the abysmal turn out, the mayor was elected with just 3,503 votes. The 6 council members found their place at the table with as many as 4,361 for Councillor Mike Caljouw, and as few as 3,142 for Councillor Chris Istace.
While most residents see these numbers as something to build upon, others would perhaps prefer if municipal politics remained as a ‘boys-club’ for North Cowichan’s elite.
Several policy statements within North Cowichan suggest the duty of officials is not only to give room for public input, but also require them to consider the viewpoints and act with fairness and impartiality.
Mayor Rob Douglas spent approximately 10 minutes delivering his message, the theme clear for anyone with opposing views, your viewpoint isn’t wanted at this council.
“The majority of us here are committed to continuing North Cowichan climate change efforts over the course of our term, and we’re clear on that when we ran for office.”
“If your goal for us is to totally abandon these initiatives I would suggest your best option is to try to elect a different council in the next election.”
“For any members of Council that have a different view on the matter, I would suggest bringing forward a notice of motion to repeal or revise our climate action Energy Plan.”
As the Mayor concluded his speech the room was noticeably quiet. The usual banter and discussion of topics fell to the deafening silence. No resident, nor councillor looked to the room or one another. Everyone sat with their heads down to digest the message delivered to the community.
We had the opportunity to speak with a resident and obtained his views on the meeting –
“I’m new to the table, I really don’t even know where to start. I work 2 jobs, we struggle to pay our bills, trust me when I say the last thing I want, is to be at some government meeting all night.” Our local Herd Rd resident explains.
“After that speech by the Mayor, I guess I shouldn’t bother. My input, thoughts, needs, whatever don’t matter at all. The Mayor just told everyone if you have grief with the current policies wait 3 years and vote differently. Alright, but what to do in the meantime?”
Smaller municipalities are trying to determine what their role is on the national or global stage. As communities strive to increase voter turnout, what impact will the Mayor’s speech have on community engagement?
Does the message from Mayor Douglas promote community engagement, diverse views, and opinions? Is this speech encouraging or discouraging?
Perhaps just as importantly, does the viewpoint align with North Cowichan standards of conduct policy:
Policy Statement 1.3 (d): Valuing the role of diverse perspectives and debate in decision making.
Policy Statement 1.2 (d): listening to and considering the opinions and needs of the community in all decision making and allowing for respectful discourse and feedback.
Policy Statement 3.2: District Council Members and Committee Members are expected to act with accountability by listening to and considering the opinions and needs of the community in all decision making and allowing for respectful discourse and feedback.
Policy Statement 2.3: Council Members and Committee Members must avoid conduct that is an abuse of power or otherwise amounts to improper discrimination, intimidation, harassment, or verbal abuse of others.
Is there a conflict in interest? Mayor Douglas informed the public their diverse perspective is not majority in this elected council, so not welcomed? Council won’t consider your different views or seek to understand them?
For some, this message resonates as; participation in local government is discouraged, especially if it’s diverse. How will this increase voter turnout, how does this encourage all community members to have their needs represented on council?