Council reps all leave regional district meeting over pending water rate lawsuit

Campbell River and SRD facing litigation from Area D residents over water rate hikes

At 4 p.m. Wednesday, after 3.5 hours, the Strathcona Regional District board meeting imploded.

At issue was a pending court case between some residents of Area D, south of Campbell River, and both the City of Campbell River and the SRD itself, over the legality of the recent water rate hike for the residents in the north part of the electoral area, which receives its water from the city.

RELATED STORY: Strathcona Regional District hikes water rates for rural area

The Campbell River city council members who sit on the SRD board recused themselves from the meeting, with some citing conflict of interest as the city is part of the pending suit: Michele Babchuk, who chairs the SRD board, Andy Adams, Charlie Cornfield, Larry Samson and Ron Kerr. Even on this matter, there was disagreement between Cornfield and Babchuk, with Cornfield suggesting he was not in conflict but leaving because of the pending litigation.

“I will recuse myself but not from a conflict of interest,” he said. “The matter that is about to be discussed is a matter of litigation…. I would be contrary to the interests of fair and impartial voting for both the SRD and the City of Campbell River.”

The exodus of the city council representatives seemed to leave the rest of the board caught off-guard. Gold River director Brad Unger, who serves as vice-chair, took over the meeting, although it promptly ended. It had to end, the reason being the board no longer had a quorum. Remaining directors had questions about whether they could even vote to adjourn the meeting without quorum.

The board is made up of 13 members, including the five Campbell River city representatives. With Zeballos representative Julie Colborne absent from the meeting, that should have left the minimum seven directors to continue discussion on this final agenda item, which was to have been discussed earlier in the meeting but was moved to the end of the agenda.

When Unger sat down to chair what was left of the meeting, only six members were left. At some point in the meeting, Area D Director Brenda Leigh stepped out but left her tablet and other items behind at her spot around the board table. Afterward, she was in the lobby outside the meeting.

The fact the pending litigation was on the public meeting agenda at all comes as a bit of a surprise, as legal matters are one of the main items typically handled during in-camera discussions.

The July 18 agenda package included a 196-page document, which contained a brief staff report outlining the pending litigation, along with the petition from lawyers at Ramsay Lampman Rhodes representing Area D resident Robert Benoit in the case against both the SRD and the City of Campbell River. Benoit and others have been raising money to go to court.

The case, filed in the Nanaimo registry on July 3, outlines a number of issues, notably the arrangement for the city to provide bulk water for Area D. It will be heard in B.C. Supreme Court in Nanaimo during the first week of August.

The document also includes an affadavit from Leigh in which she reiterates her opposition to the recent water rate bylaw that effectively double rates from 2017 for residents in the north part of Area D.

As to why she left the meeting, Leigh gave a brief statement to the Mirror by email on Thursday.

“The item related to pending litigation is before the courts. I believe that discussing pending litigation in public is inappropriate,” she said. “I have faith that our judicial system will make a fair and objective decision, and I look forward to the outcome of this case.”