It was a case of better late than never for a couple of Cortes delegations wanting to speak to the Strathcona Regional District board.
After being denied at the last meeting, both Cecil and Christine Robinson and the Southern Cortes Community Association (SCCA) were each allowed to appear before the board to express concerns about SRD governance for Area B, which is Cortes Island, as well as delays on matters such as a binding referendum on a proposed tax to fund hall operations.
The questions from Cortes contingent started after 14 people launched a legal petition against Area B Director Noba Anderson, citing conflict of interest, saying she had benefited from a GoFundMe campaign started to help her father after his cabin on a property on which they both lived burned down, and that several donors to the campaign had benefited through grants-in-aid from the SRD or working relationships. Lovena Harvey, who also owns part of the property, started the campaign and said she had to convince Anderson to let her set up the crowd-funding page.
The Robinsons spoke first at the Feb. 28 meeting, highlighting the many people who signed a petition about the issues affecting their island. They had first approached the board back in January but were told it was too late to get on the agenda.
“We are speaking for 320 constituents of Cortes Island whose names you see before you on the screen,” Christine Robinson said, adding they put together the presentation without input from Anderson, who has “remained at arm’s length” from the process.
They asked for the SRD to address its communications policy guidelines about how the directors communicate with each other and with the public, as well as for all directors to use their official regional email address for board businesses rather than personal email addresses. They also asked for all correspondence to be entered into the public record with people’s names – in effect to stop the “secret, off-record lobbying.”
The couple requested the board move forward on Cortes items which the board had put on hold since the launch of the court case against Anderson, as well as make available a private investigator’s report.
“We want the SRD board to understand the depth and the breadth of the dissatisfaction amongst Cortes constituents,” Cecil Robinson said.
He said they did acknowledge the chair’s response to questions from the public, but the couple still want answers for specific issues, such as a request for the SRD cover Anderson’s full legal costs.
Julian Ayers, president of the SCCA, spoke after the Robinsons and raised many of the same points, reminding the board that even more people – 10 times as many – signed a counter petition in response to the board’s recent moves as had written letters. He also spoke to the petition launched against Anderson in early January by the 14 people and suggested the board seemed to be responding to people that had not approached the SRD openly.
“We feel it is inappropriate to vote on information not in the public record,” he said.
Ayers outlined the history of the hall tax and the growing need for funds to cover core expenses, ever since groups such as community hall associations lost funding from provincial gaming grants in 2017. He also addressed suggestions by some that the hall tax was Anderson’s personal initiative.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said. “We believe she has been doing what she was elected to do – bring her constituency’s issues to the board.”
Instead, he said the area director simply wanted residents on Cortes to decide on the tax for themselves. He pointed out Anderson’s opponent in the 2018 election, George Sirk, had also signed the original SCCA petition to hold a referendum before he became a candidate and pledged to follow through on the outcome of last fall’s non-binding referendum. In that vote, supporters wishing to go to a binding referendum easily won 443-191.
He also reiterated the Robinsons’ call for the matters such as the hall tax referendum to be put back on the SRD agenda.
Both Ayers and the Robinsons received applause from some members of the public attending the meeting.
Prior to the legal action against Anderson, the SRD board had already delayed the binding referendum for both the hall tax and a tax to support First Responder service on Cortes back in November. Along with those moves, the board decided at a meeting on Jan. 24 to leave open positions on the Area B advisory planning commission until it had more information on legal questions.
The Robinsons and the SCCA had hoped to present their questions about these issues at the Feb. 5 meeting. As well, the SRD board received more than 30 letters. Having outlined more than 100 questions in a number of key areas, the SRD composed a four-page latter to be sent to Area B residents, though some of the issues they could not address for legal reasons. Board chair Michele Babchuk also appeared on public radio on Cortes Island to explain the SRD’s position.
“We hope the board will continue to work toward more transparency,” Ayers added.