Opinion

OPINION: Behind the curtain at Chilliwack city hall

Chilliwack city hall - File
Chilliwack city hall
— image credit: File

It’s been said that a little bit of information can be a dangerous thing.

One need only to peruse social media to see how a nugget of truth can, intentionally or unintentionally, be spun into something false or even serve as the root of a conspiracy theory.

What goes on at Chilliwack city hall? How are the decisions made to spend our tax dollars? I’ve been watching for eight years now and I’ll confess that at times I’m not entirely sure.

I invite the public to attend a meeting and sit in the empty public gallery. Read a full city council agenda available online. You will learn, if not a lot, at least a little.

There is a municipal election in four months and while it may seem early to talk about the subject, some people have been talking about it for more than a year.

From spending millions of taxpayer dollars to buy real estate in the downtown core to demolishing the Paramount Theatre to rezoning a property to allow for a hazardous waste facility on the banks of the Fraser River, decisions in recent months have rankled many who pay attention.

Young local businessman and outdoor recreation enthusiast Sam Waddington has been watching city hall closely ever since the Paramount decision.

Last week he announced his bid for city council on Nov. 15. One of his concerns is that it appears decisions made at city hall are done behind closed doors. When you watch a city council meeting, nuanced staff reports are rarely discussed and, more often than not, Mayor Sharon Gaetz and the six city councillors around the table, say little or nothing and move on.

(This isn’t a new point on my part. I wrote something similar in March after council had zero discussion about, among other things, spending $190,000 for welcome-to-Chilliwack signs.)

One thing Waddington made clear, and I should to, is that it is not that decisions are indeed being made behind closed doors. It’s just that it looks that way. Whether it is the perception or the reality, it’s important.

For Waddington, the Paramount public consultation felt like a charade. The Paramount was always going to be torn down and no one at city hall was listening to the opposition.

Or maybe it just felt that way.

As for actual (legal) due process being followed, city hall will be in BC Supreme Court just two months before the election defending itself against claims the municipality failed to adhere to its legal obligations when it rezoned a Cannor Road property for Aevitas Inc. to build a hazardous waste recycling plant. Local resident Glen Thompson, backed by the Outdoor Recreation Council of BC has filed a legal challenge over the city’s process. Among other things, nowhere in the city’s public notice did it say the site would be used for hazardous waste, including PCBs and mercury.

But beyond such legally dicey decisions, there are dozens of items that, I believe, city council would do well to talk a little bit more about.

Tell us why you think the things you vote in favour of are good uses of taxpayer dollars or good policy decisions. Ask a question at a public meeting, even one you know the answer to, so that staff can explain things.

This happens, but not enough. And there is a danger that this type of meeting behaviour can seem patronizing. Gaetz can, at times, sound like a schoolmarm as she explains things to councillors. But better that than the opposite, which is silence.

More explanation, inquiry and debate would be in the best interests of democracy but it would also be in the best interests of the mayor and councillors themselves.

Some of those currently elected to office may find, come November, that the little bits of information the public see, hear and read about will prove dangerous indeed.

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