PORT McNEILL—It may not have been unanimous, but SD85’s Board of Education reached a solution to the heretofore intractable issue of trustee distribution during a special session last week.
In a move away from the current system, wherein trustees run for a specific seat, the Board voted to implement a zonal system. The north zone, comprised of Port Hardy, the Tri-band First Nations and the current western zone will have three seats after the next election. The south zone is divided in two, with two seats for Port McNeill/Woss and two for the remaining areas including Alert Bay, the ‘Namgis First Nation, Port Alice and the eastern zone.
The Board was tasked with re-examining the distribution of its seats, the current designations no longer reflective of population. But after a series of public consultations and discussions during regular board meetings no consensus on how, or indeed whether, the boundary lines should be redrawn.
The issue was divisive, with the relatively urban centres of Port Hardy and Port McNeill seeking a truer reflection of proportional representation and additional seats while the more rural communities counselled against centralization and reduction of the rural voice.
With the process for changing boundaries a lengthy one, requiring ministerial review and approval, the Board called a special session on the issue last week. A decision was sought to meet a June deadline which should see the changes approved in time for the next trustee election in 2014.
After a back-and-forth discussion, Trustee Eric Hunter’s motion to maintain the status quo was voted down.
Port Alice Trustee Carol Prescott presented a letter from the Village of Port Alice which opposed giving three seats to Port Hardy and two to Port McNeill, reasoning that the remaining two seats did not give adequate coverage for other municipalities.
The Village argued for incorporating the western zone into Port Hardy with Port McNeill taking the vacated seat.
Port Hardy Trustee Jeff Field spoke against this proposal, pointing out that the town was underrepresented as is, and incorporating other communities exacerbated the discrepancy.
Trustee Werner Manke then tabled a motion based around the proposed option 1 which was voted down, prompting Chair Leightan Wishart to comment, “We’re never going to get this done, are we?”
Superintendent Scott Benwell took the opportunity to address the Board, saying that as CEO of the corporate entity that is SD85 he felt the time had come for him to weigh in.
He reminded the Board that, while he understood the loyalties that trustees felt to their communities, any decision should be guided by the fundamental principle of one person, one vote.
Trustee Prescott rebuked this argument, asking why, if this was to be the guiding principle, did the Board hold community consultations. “Why did we waste that money? We could have just went, ‘Here’s the numbers,'” she said.
Wishart said that the hope had been for a clear consensus on a way forward, something that did not materialize in the series of meetings.
Wishart then relinquished the chair to Field and put forward a motion. “This thing has gotten way out of hand,” he told the trustees. “I didn’t think it would take anything like this long.”
He suggested a straightforward north/south divide with elections-at-large in each zone. He argued that this was the fairest solution, coupling the democratic principle with the best opportunity for smaller communities to gain representation. He pointed out that with a strategic voting campaign by the rural communities the possibility existed that Port McNeill could find itself without representation.
Hunter asked for a recess to consider the motion, a sign that a potential end to the deadlock was on the horizon.
The Board reconvened and discussed the motion, Hunter arguing against, pointing out that the public were not in favour of elections-at-large. Prescott echoed his sentiment, saying that Port Alice were strongly opposed to any reconfiguration that could leave the Village unrepresented.
Manke asked for the amendment that the south zone be split to give two seats to Port McNeill and two trustees to the other communities, an amendment that the majority backed.
Wishart’s amended motion was then brought forward and passed with Hunter and Prescott opposed.
“I know this has been an extremely difficult, emotional time,” Wishart said. “As Eric Hunter said, this Board has worked very well together. I hope that this continues.”