Council protocol questioned

Questions raised at last week's Port McNeill Council meeting.

PORT McNEILL—Council approved second and third readings of proposed bylaws for the Town’s five-year financial plan and its tax rate structure during its regular meeting Monday night.

But before the meeting was over, one councillor expressed concern over the the budget bylaw process and a member of the public asked Mayor Gerry Furney to explain the protocol for both council meetings and personal letters written as a town representative.

Bylaw 643-2013, establishing a five-year financial plan, and Bylaw 644-2013, setting tax rates for the coming fiscal year that include increases to residential, industrial and business rates, were approved on first reading during council’s last meeting, Apr. 22.

Only one member of the public — former councillor Shelley Downey — attended and spoke during the public hearing that preceded the Apr. 22 meeting. But her inquiry raised questions about how the budget was arrived at before being presented to the public.

“It kind of raised some flags for me,” Gwen Alsop said Monday following the second and third readings. “If Shelly Downey is concerned about something, about private meetings that possibly should be public, (I wonder) what is the protocol for that?”

Mayor Furney replied councillors may meet at any time to discuss any subject they wish, while noting that meetings concerning any bylaw change must be held in public. At the time of the original public hearing, he noted the budget was arrived at through consultation with treasurer Albert Sweet and council members.

“Anything to do with changing the rules we have to live by, the bylaws we have to have on record, has to be done in public meeting,” Furney said. “But we can discuss anything we want to outside a public meeting in the general interest of Port McNeill and the North Island and the industries we work with.”

Furney found himself defending those industries again when Alsop challenged him on a pair of letters he submitted to the Gazette and other political bodies in B.C. — one supporting the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline and another related to the upcoming May 14 provincial election.

“I understand you have your own opinion on these matters,” Alsop said. “But should you be putting forth these letters as the Mayor of Port McNeill? Is this what the council believes; is this your point of view, too?”

Coun. Shirley Ackland pointed out the letters were signed by Furney, noting that his 40-plus year tenure as mayor makes it “hard to separate Gerry from Mayor of Port McNeill.”

But when Alsop pressed the question of protocol, Furney was moved to defend himself.

“I’m elected as mayor of Port McNeill by the public of Port McNeill,” he said. “I will stand up and be counted on behalf of the people who live and work here. I’m sorry, but that’s the way I stand, and the way I feel about things, and I will continue to be that way until the end of my term.”

Before Alsop spoke at the end of the meeting, coun. Gaby Wickstrom expressed her own concerns immediately prior to approval of second and third readings of the bylaws.

“One reason I continually ask for more open and transparent meetings is so the public can see how we make our decisions regarding spending of tax dollars,” she said. “I want them to hear the discussions of what we’re able to do and what we’re not able to do, and to hear how we have aging infrastructure and what steps we want to take to replace and repair that infrastructure.

“When we have meetings informally, in my opinion, we’re not as transparent as we should be, according to section 90 of the community charter, and I would respectfully ask that in the future we strive to meet more openly, especially where the budget talks are concerned.”

Because council’s next meeting date falls on the May long weekend, a special meeting for final approval of the five-year financial plan and of the 2013 tax rate bylaw was set for Wednesday evening, after the Gazette went to press.