The District of Sooke 2016 Annual Report was presented to Council at the June 26 Regular Council meeting. An annual report must be presented to the public by June 30 of every year.
Sooke resident and longtime Council watchdog Gail Hall was not impressed.
Embedding it into a regular meeting is “one more failure of this Council,” she told the elected officials at the Public Input portion of the Regular meeting for this item. Historically, she noted, Annual Reports were presented as a standalone item at a separate meeting. It used to be an opportunity for the Council to showcase their year-in-review, and for the public to meet and speak with staff and elected officials about the document.
She added that 2016 was the worst year she has ever sat through in her many years of sitting through Council.
Last year, Mrs. Hall received a letter from the District accusing her of bullying staff (see Freedom of speech in Sooke must be constructive) and was the target of staged staff walkout (see Criticism is confused with defamation and harassment).
“I don’t see excellence anywhere in this room, this year,” said Mrs. Hall.
She slammed Council for eliminating of all committees in 2016.
“You’ve stripped the public of their right to learn and their right to provide input,” Mrs. Hall said, going on to say that committee work informs many on the inner workings of Council, possibly priming the next set of election candidates. That’s a tap that has run dry.
Mrs. Hall was equally unimpressed with their website “improvements.”
You’ve changed the district website and now you can’t find anything there anymore, she said. You’re supposed to make it possible for those of us who pay taxes to take part, and not being able to find the information is another roadblock.
“You’re taking away the ability of the average person to participate in what’s happening.”
On the Community Amenity Contribution Policy, Mrs. Hall noted that the public used to have an opportunity to speak to this, and now consultation is done exclusively with the individual developer(s).
According to Mrs. Hall, there were also factual errors in the report. Sooke River park, for example, is not a park, it’s in the ALR. The report also references the two town-centre parking lots; but, only one is in town, and the other one is at Government Wharf.
Many of the claims of success aren’t much to brag about, she berated Council.
Mrs. Hall still has concerns about the finances, including many purchasing approvals and CAO pay while on leave. Staff replied that the budgets are already approved, so the expenditures that come out of the budget do not have to go back to council unless it’s over $25,000.
Mrs. Hall disagreed.
“Some of these expenditures just astound me,” she said, adding that the public has the right to know about these expenditures. Hall brought up past purchases that were not initially approved, and then only approved retroactively. This meant that those initial expenditures were not legal when the money was spent.
Staff reminded her that just the high-level bylaw is what needs to stay the same, not the details.
Mrs. Hall made the point that if large expenditures are made, that they should be made transparently, with eyes of the public on it.
The only elected official who responded to Mrs. Hall’s summary was the Mayor, Maja Tait.
“It was a year of change,” said the mayor, adding there have been a lot of changes and acknowledging that communications could have been handled better.
Late 2015 saw the mayor leaving on maternity leave and the hiring of the CAO. Early 2016 saw a number of senior staffing changes. There were also changes to meeting format, eliminating the Public Input sections from the Committee of the Whole and limiting Public Input to only items already presented on the agenda. All committees were also folded in 2016.
However, the mayor did feel that Sooke is looking more attractive. She thanked staff and council for moving things forward in 2016, and appreciated the collegial friendships that have developed over their term.
Unimpressed with what she perceives to be excluding the public from almost all District consultations, Mrs. Hall (along with a few other regular watchdogs) has largely stopped attending Council meetings earlier this year. Regular Council meeting attendees (those who stay to the bitter end) are now whittled down to media and one or (on a good day) two regulars.