Friday, January 08, 2010

Johnson Street Bridge - Council Created a Perfect Storm of Opposition

The counter petition process was successful as it was signed by more than 15% of the eligible voters. The people of JohnsonStreetBridge.org managed to get more voters in Victoria to sign the counter petition than voted for anyone elected to the current council. The council had to either put the borrowing bylaw to referendum within 80 days or drop it. In their wisdom, the council dropped the borrowing bylaw - there is no way the public would have voted for the borrowing bylaw.

Council is choosing to take a couple of steps back and examine more information about what can be done for a crossing at that location. It now that the council can show it is chastened by events and reduce the tension and anger they have created.

The troubles with the bridge have been brought onto the council by itself, effectively the city council created a perfect storm of opposition through their actions.

  • The council rushed the process to try an apply for funding that was not designed to be used for the bridge.
  • The council did not properly debate the options for the bridge.
  • The council did not slow down the process and properly consult with the public once it was clear there would be no federal stimulus money for the bridge.
  • The council did not seek to gather proper design and budgetary information to move forward with the project.
  • The council moved forward with a borrowing bylaw and did not take it to a referendum. This is a break with normal procedure for local government in BC. The Alternative Approval Process is designed to only be used when there is a clear and strong community support for the borrowing.
The current situation council finds itself in is one they should have anticipated given their how far they strayed from the normal actions by a local government.

Applying for the federal stimulus money for the bridge project was a huge mistake at the start of the process. There are numerous pots of money out there for local governments to access money for capital projects so using one that was not appropriate was a misuse of time and money of city resources. The project was by no definition "shovel ready" and was clearly not going to be completed in the timeframe of the funding.

Trying to get a brand new large project ready for the federal stimulus money meant that the council moved forward faster than they should have. They made the decision to replace the bridge without consulting with the public. Effective consultation is a legal requirement with First Nations and is rapidly moving in that direction with respect to the general public. The speed of the decision also meant that the council was deciding to move forward with the project without a design for the bridge or budget for the bridge - how can you have a budget for the bridge if you do not have a design in place.

This early and pointless haste in the council decision making process starting pushing the buttons of the public. The council could not and did not justify the decisions they made so quickly without public input.

When the answer for the federal stimulus funding was no, why did the council not go back and do the process properly? There was no urgency any longer leaving enough time to develop a full design and cost it out. There was also time to consult with the public about replacement or refurbishment.

Not properly exploring the options and costs of refurbishment of the bridge left a large number people in the city without the understanding of why it could not be done. Council should have been aware by the summer that there was a large constituency of people wanting to retain the bridge. Without more information to know what it would cost to refurbish the bridge, details on the state of the bridge, and what a refurbished bridge would look like, the council was setting the stage for people to see some sort of conspiracy by the city. It was clear there were people that cared about retaining the bridge, not bringing them well into the loop created an angry opposition.

It worries me that council was willing to move forward with the project by borrowing the money when they had not yet figured out what the actual cost of the bridge would be. Council also wanted to borrow the money before knowing how much anyone would charge to build the bridge that had not yet been designed. This sort of fiscal imprudence scares the bejesus out of me. It also surprises me given what I know of the majority of the council that they went forward with this.

I can understand why Lynn Hunter does not like referendums, they are not normally used by the senior levels of government in Canada and they tend to be very problematic with complex issues. With local government long term borrowing by referendum is the norm. Legally there is a strong case to be made that since local governments have no legal standing, they need the active consent of the public to bind the citizens over the long term.

Local government borrowing referendums are also not complex issues. The project is a clearly defined one and the money needed is also clearly defined. It is the right time and place for a referendum. The attacks y Lynn Hunter on referendums is directly opposite to the democratic tradition and practices of local government. Her comments may be heart felt by her, but they are a disturbing change in attitude for someone at the municipal level.

Lynn Hunter was not alone in making the decision to use the Alternative Approval Process instead of going to a referendum, she simply was honest in stating her views.

In the end the way the council went about the bridge replacement project put enough noses out of joint to make it possible to mobilize such a large portion of the public to sign the counter petition and be a body of people angry at council.

Can the council ride out this storm? Much depends on how they now engage with the public. If the council comes forward with humility and admits they badly mismanaged the process I would expect they will be able to recover. If they simply use the time now to justify a decision they made that was badly done, then they are going to have a very uncomfortable time between now and November 2011. Yesterday I heard some people on council express contrition for the process they went through, but I also heard others thinking they had done nothing wrong.

Borrowing for the bridge will have to go referendum. If the council does not shape up they will cause people to vote against the borrowing just to spite the council. If that borrowing referendum were to fail the city would have a hard time going forward with the bridge project in any different manner without public consent. If they did try, there is a very strong case for the public to seek an injunction against any work on the bridge without public consent. There is a danger would could end up with an impasse and have nothing happen with the bridge for years. We could even end up with bridge that is closed and no longer in use.
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