Mayor and Council – Lack of Information on the Underpass Is Your Responsibility!

Embedded image permalink* Updated and re-posted  with even more rationale from council members. So far, everyone but Councillors Cannon and Kentel have sent in their positions on this.

I’m talking about the proposed Lease Agreement and the way the city wants to get approval from electors for the Ross Street underpass.

I have never favoured the Alternate Approval Process which allows a local government to proceed with a proposed action unless at least 10% of the electors state their opposition within  a prescribed period … unless there’s an important time-sensitive decision to be made  and there is open and transparent information for an informed opinion by the public.

City council and staff have failed in properly informing the public of their thinking on this long-standing issue and need to step up to the plate sooner than later, imo.

From what I’ve been able to garner so far,  Salmon Arm city council’s Nov. 25 2013 unanimous decision (page 17) to go down this route to fund the Lease Agreement as a precursor to constructing a Ross Street underpass meets neither of those two factors noted above. Yes, I do understand that there is a commitment by council for citizens to be able to actually vote in a future referendum on building the underpass itself.

Today’s Observer’s article Counter-petition effort underway to prevent lease deal (Labere: Dec 18 2013) refers to proponents of the underpass stating that the public isn’t getting “all the facts needed to make an informed decision.”  A little further on in the article, Mayor Cooper and Councillor Eliason are reported to be “concerned the public has not been properly informed about the lease, and what the city stands to gain.”

Hello? Whose responsibility is it to ensure that there is open, accessible and transparent information ? Hint: It’s the city and mayor and council and they should be taking the lead rather than implying that the bigger picture is being missed (more on that in  an upcoming post).

Here’s what I would have happen:

  1. For basic information for voters, have an easily-found link on the city website that explains the two methods by which local governments can seek approval from the electors. There is information on the city website but it’s not as clear as it should be. A quick search of other local governments turned out plenty of examples. See here for instance – a clear easily-found description of the process. This is a no-brainer.
  2. The city has information posted on the website but there is another more important no-brainer that is also missing: Post up a city link that addresses what is being asked for and why – not just the costs but a detailed rationale as well. List the benefits from the city’s perspective  and what to do if one supports or opposes the proposal. See here for a straight-forward example from Richmond BC.  Now, I don’t expect the city to host a debate over the pros and cons – there’s social media for that Smile – but at least have a clear and concise venue for the benefits that the city believes are important enough to trigger the alternate approval process.
  3. Finally, the politicos need to speak up and explain their positions rather than a few of them simply bemoaning the lack of “proper” information. Our local politicos are all decent and savvy people who want to make the correct decisions for our community. They recognize the differing perspectives and side-issues – and controversy – with the overall underpass proposal. On this one, the public needs to hear from them directly about their individual rationales for this lease funding measure.

To that extent, I’m offering the mayor and individual councillors the opportunity to explain their position. Why is this a good idea – details please? Why now?  Why not wait a year or lock up a short term less-costly overall lease as a bridging option until a full referendum on both the long-term leasing and prioritization of the underpass at next year’s city election?

Now that could help with being properly informed!

It’s a busy time of year for all of us and that’s perhaps the overall point. The timing of this amidst the lack of clear information is poor … and the politicos and city staff need to own and remedy that.

I’ll post up the politicos’ responses in the order that they come in.

Update: Responses from Mayor Cooper plus Councillors Chad Eliason, Alan Harrison, Ken Jamieson and now  Denise Reimer have been sent in. Thanks for the responses so far and hopefully we’ll hear from the other two council members as well.

Click on Continue Reading for the responses so far:

Mayor Nancy Cooper:

Thank you for your email.

Lachlan Labere, at our Salmon Arm Observer, interviewed me at length on this subject last week. Please read the Observer for my comments.

*

I believe the SA Observer did a good job reporting this so perhaps you could tell me exactly what additional details you feel were not included.  I could write up something and put it on my blog and send both the Observer and yourself the link.

* Note – Mayor Cooper sent in two responses. They are listed in the order received. Her second response was in response to my further request for her to comment directly. For the record, I also think that the Observer did a good job of reporting – that wasn’t my point at all in asking for an explanation of council’s positions.

Councillor Chad Eliason:

The basics of my points are the same as I have always said:
We are talking about a lease, not a 9 million dollar bill to the city. Because the lease is longer than 5 years, we have to go to public for approval.

The lease includes the dedication of a essential piece of property needed for a potential future rail crossing at Ross St. It also provides a staging area for equipment and material as to minimize impact on downtown during construction.

I clarify that the eventual 9million was not going paid by the city alone, we would expect grants and support from FED/BC/CPR. We have received similar grants for other infrastructure projects including the 20/21st st underpass.

We were signing a lease to allow a future council to make the decision and that it is best to be prepared when an opportunity presented itself.

10 year lease balances between current and future tax payers while keeping a big window for the decision to be made by a future council and public.

Last but not least but this project could foster residential/commercial growth and econ development on the waterfront which is in line with smart growth principles. Less pipes, less roads and more tax revenue. This type of infill growth would help bolster a vibrant downtown core.

Thanks

Councillor Alan Harrison:

Thank you for asking. Here are my thoughts:

First a little background information that may be helpful:

A City must acquire the assent of voters in two situations. The first is when long term borrowing is needed for a capital project. Examples of this are the Water Treatment Plant, the City Hall Court House and Shaw Centre. The term of loans for long term borrowing are often well over five years.

Loans are considered short term where the repayment is less than 5 years. City’s may short term borrow to a maximum of $50 per capita, which in the case of Salmon Arm is about $850 000. Voter assent is not needed for short term borrowing.

The second case where the assent of the voters is needed, is when the City plans to enter into a lease that is longer than five years.

The assent of the voters can be obtained either through referendum or the alternative approval / counter petition method. (in the case of City Hall and the Water Treatment Plant, the alternative approval process was used, for Shaw Centre, referendum was used)

The present alternative approval process is necessary because the term of the proposed lease between WH Laird Holdings Ltd. And the City of Salmon Arm is for longer than 5 years.

The proposed lease is for 10 years, with an option for the City to renew for 5 additional years. The length of the lease is important, as it opens a window of up to 15 years for the City to start the construction of the underpass.

I see the lease as being favourable for the City. The key to the deal is not the lease of lots 8 and 9. The key for the City is the acquisition of the land necessary to build the underpass.

The previous owners of the property did not wish to sell the land. The piece of Lot One needed for the underpass was important for their business.

The new owner of the property has different plans. Mr. Laird has been a long standing supporter of the downtown. He recognizes that for downtowns to be viable and vibrant people must live in them. Downtown Salmon Arm has limited residential opportunity between the Highway and the Railroad Tracks. Opening up a safe and easy vehicular and pedestrian route from the Water Front to the downtown will undoubtably make residential (and commercial) development on the Water Front financially more viable.

When people ask me whether they should sign the counter petition, I say to them that if they never want to see an underpass build at Ross Street, then they should sign. However, if they believe an underpass will be needed sometime in the future, signing might not be a good idea.

Several members of Council (including myself) have gone on record to say that when the City is ready to construct the underpass, we would use the referendum method to gauge the support for the project from the voters (50% plus to pass). My opinion is that the earliest this might happen is the Municipal election of 2018.

The electors need to know what the cost to them would be. While the development cost fund, which developers must pay into when they develop on the Water Front, is approaching $700 000, there is no question that significant Federal and Provincial funds need to be secured prior to the project starting. This is going to take time and energy to secure.

In the meantime, the City has an opportunity to secure the land needed to build the underpass, whether that be 5 or 15 years from now. It is an opportunity I believe should not be passed up.

Councillor Ken Jamieson

Thanks, Tim, for the opportunity to share our thoughts on this important matter to Salmon Arm residents. I see that a couple of other councillors have already responded, and both have done a good job of explaining the overall process and both reveal some of their personal thoughts on the underpass and the march to deciding whether or not Salmon Arm should proceed.

I believe that a ten year lease agreement with Laird Holdings is better than a short term arrangement. Why? Because it slows the process to a pace where full discussion can happen and a final decision made, and it puts the City of Salmon Arm in a good position to plan for construction, or use the land for some other purpose beneficial to the community. I am not in favour of starting construction in the spring or any time soon. I am neither convinced the need is immediate, nor do I think the idea should be buried forever. Supporting, or not supporting, the lease agreement is important, but not as important as the actual decision to build another railway crossing. However, the two ideas can be considered separate or together. That is up to the individual resident. I tend to look at both as intricately connected; kind of like jumping into an unfamiliar swimming pool. Do I carefully wade in or do I climb the ladder so I can dive from the high board? Forty years ago I looked for the highest jump. Today, I am far more cautious. Especially since my grandchildren are with me.

An underpass in some form or another has been part of the local discourse for many years. On my first term as a councillor – then called alderman – during the late 1980s there were thoughts and early “plans” that began this whole process. It resurfaces occasionally, and every time, our town seems to find a way to divide itself once again. I will do my best to not identify “sides” but rather the ideas that come from the people involved. The thoughts and respectful opinions of an informed resident hold the greatest sway with me. And having said that, I am in full support of a community-wide referendum on the final say. This should be a one person – one vote exercise that determines the direction the council of the day would take. As Councillor Harrison has suggested, a vote in 5+ years is a better idea than one next November. This time frame allows for a full public discussion, a look at its potential economic value to people and businesses on both sides of the tracks, which of the two current crossings would close (because the CPR will insist), who should pay for it (those already on the north side? future developers? both?) , emergency vehicle access and safety concerns, and other factors germane to the whole idea. I do not want the discussion to be only about convenience and the 5 minute wait to cross the tracks. Drivers’ impatience should not be what decides this for us. There has to be more to this discussion than how quickly we can move people from one side of the tracks to another. But there might very well come a time when the wait is unacceptable if the stacking of vehicles clogs all roads leading to one or both of the current crossings.

All communities are presented with unique planning and development challenges. Few towns are geographically split as Salmon Arm is split. The TCH and CPR run almost parallel through the downtown and sandwich a major part of the business district, with both commercial and residential buildings hugging the dividing lines. Finding ways to safely and efficiently move vehicle and foot traffic around and through town is, in my view, one of Salmon Arm’s greatest challenges. Will an underpass make it better? Is leasing land for ten years – to accommodate possible future construction – good planning, or not? The two questions can be separate, or considered as one. Let us know what you think. Salmon Arm residents have a responsibility to stay informed and we have a responsibility to provide as much information as possible. Signing, or not signing the petition allows each of us to be part of the process. Either way, let us know what you think.

Councillor Denise Reimer:

Happy New Year!  Here is my response to your email request.

The current proposal is an opportunity for the city to purchase land, and lease two properties in order to start the planning process for construction of an underpass.  This project (the underpass) is recognized in the Official Community Plan and did come in as a high priority during the Strategic Planning Process.

I personally would only support going forward with the Ross Street Underpass project if it were to go to referendum first.  There is a large price tag attached to this project and I would want to first hear from the electorate as to whether they support spending this amount on any infrastructure project.  If we are going to borrow money in order to fund this project the total amount required to complete the project should be clearly defined prior to referendum.   The taxpayer should be prepared to pay  the whole amount if this is what is decided through referendum.  If there are other funding sources available and we are able to access them after referendum and before construction begins I would be in support of pursuing them.

I have had many people both for and against this project contact me.  My response to people is that if they do not ever want to see an underpass it is imperative that they go down to city hall and fill out the Elector Response Form.

I see the existing proposal( lease of 2 properties and purchase of land)  as a prudent use of taxpayer money.   Leasing of these properties does not mean that the city is bound to go ahead with the underpass.  The monies spent on the lease can be recovered by renting out the space should the electorate decide not to pursue the underpass based on referendum, and would still secure the land required for future discussions at a later date.

I believe that we can have a healthy democratic discussion regarding this issue and unite the community based on educating and informing citizens about the project prior to referendum.

Author: Tim Lavery

Aim High Salmon Arm It matters

14 thoughts on “Mayor and Council – Lack of Information on the Underpass Is Your Responsibility!”

  1. Thanks Tim, my sentiments exactly. The onus for providing adequate information regarding the proposed underpass is on city council and staff. There should be a detailed concept plan explaining the reasons for the perceived need, conceptual designs showing how the downtown will be altered and affected, complete with supporting documentation including funding in order for Salmon Arm residents to properly assess the proposal and make an informed decision. Better yet, perhaps this whole proposal should be included in the next civic election ballot as a referendum item.

  2. Chad Eliason is making the case that the majority of funding would come from provincial and other tax based resources. In other words “other tax payers money”. Is this the best solution? Would these ‘other’ tax payers want to provide a very expensive under pass to a small amount of residents and a smaller amount of businesses so they wouldn’t have a maximum 5 minute wait -10 percent of the time? Has an overpass been studied? What about the $40,000.00 dollar studies we have already had on this proposal that were paid by Salmon Arm tax payers? Have we seen them? We would like to have a far more important $80,000.00 study done on the lake and flood protection but the penny pinching council persistently table this while accusing us of being “uninformed”? My question is: “what or who is driving the council’s single minded obsession with an underpass?”

  3. As a long time resident in Heronview on Harbourfront Drive I long for the clean-up and sale of the lots still available for development.
    Now that we no longer have long waits at the railway crossing I can see no possible use for a Ross Street underpass to service so few taxpayers. Already there is often a lack of parking on that side of the tracks so an expensive underpass encouraging yet more vehicular traffic is counter intuitive.
    For tourists a pedestrian overpass at either crossing could conceivably attract them to the lakefront giving them a vantage point of our beautiful lake.
    I can think of several more meaningful projects worthy of attention.

    1. You are absolutely correct Colleen. Heronview was already built on what had been wetlands and a farmer’s fields when I returned to live in Salmon Arm from Alberta twenty- one years ago.
      I remember seeing cows defecating in the lake thirty eight years ago on my first visit here. Times have changed and more of us now realize how important the health of the lake is to our own health. In hindsight the wetlands should have been protected from cows and buildings.

  4. I believe that an underpass is not at all a necessity. If safety is an issue with concern about trains across the crossings, why not add a third level crossing further to the west (in the area of the Greyhound depot) and ensure that no trains are stopped over all 3 crossings at any time.

  5. Talking with another Business owner today being delivered on Dec23 a notice of changes and advising to come to city hall to view details as is being dealt with on Jan 13th poor timing again : ( This whole timing issue over Christmas and ability to sign petition stinks . The statement that its the number one priority shows how out of touch with the voters they are .With the numbers starting to file in to sign and other locations helping those gain access over the Holidays ,The district should extend the date as well. They say there planning has been misunderstood they can have there message out there longer. In future if they truly wanted a proper feedback maybe IMPORTANT issues shouldn`t be shuffled in to the Holiday mix and publicised better .Just my 2 cents Anymore Council member posts coming?

    1. Invites out to all 7 What you see is what you get… at least so far. Thanks to fthose who have contributed their perspectives. More posts and I’m sure questions after Xmas. Thanks again for your ‘toon Martin.

  6. The councillors have verbalized the talking point of how to establish governing via the alternative to democracy. A referendum this fall costs zero dollars and embraces the democratic process.
    I urge those who haven’t signed the petition apposing the alternative to democracy to do so before Friday.

    1. Nada so far but if you see them perhaps a reminder might help. On the whole, Councillors Cannon and Kentel have rarely taken the opportunity to share their thoughts here on Aim High. I do appreciate (and benefit from) the thoughtful responses from the other Councillors. That takes both time and effort to be responsive to fairly straight forward questions. As a comparative, all of the major candidates in the last provincial election answered a series of questions sent in by Aim High’s readers.

  7. Well played City and Council of Salmon arm Timing over the Holiday and District offices being closed . I believe you will be in for a rude awakening when you go for the referendum . As a whole this stunk right from the get go .Who is really wanting this to happen behind the scenes : ( Based on Actual voter turn outs at Election this number is more than enough for you to consider you don’t have the backing .But wait you already knew that ,time to clean house at Elections.

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