West Kelowna residents were certainly mislead by the previous Council about their backroom dealings for a new city hall. Throughout the election, voters were told that no deal had yet been done and there was plenty of time for public input. In an interview on Dec. 2nd with the Westside Weekly, Findlater said, ““One of the hot topics during the campaign was the location of a new city hall or civic centre, and if it ought to be built at all. . . . If council accepts the staff recommendation the concept will go out for extensive public consultation. We may change our minds after we hear the report.”
Before the ink is dry on their formal inauguration to Council, it is plain that Findlater and his complicit councillors mislead the public on what they intended to do, and what council now has done. During the recent municipal election, Findlater and council incumbents refused to discuss the “city centre project’ (their promotional phrase for “new municipal office space”, saying that it was not sufficiently advanced to be brought to the electorate. In fact Findlater and the 2013 council, which includes councillors Zanon, Winsby, Opus, and De Jong, along with 2 former councillors who were not returned to office, have already finalized a deal for a new town hall on Elliott Rd. This deal can only be stopped by the public referendum they are forced to hold under the B.C. Municipal Act when they borrow money – millions of it – for this palace for politicians. Only new councillors Neis and Ensign were not part of this deception.
Why did Findlater and his followers believe this deception was necessary? Were they concerned that contentious debate about the new town hall might threaten their re-election? Findlater acknowledged in his Westside Weekly interview that there was definitely some skepticism about the rationale for borrowing several millions of dollars so that West Kelowna staff and council could have shiny new offices at rents that private businesses cannot afford to pay. Does Findlater consider an “after the fact” referendum to be “extensive public consultation”? Why else did Findlater and incumbent councillors keep these back room dealings secret? It appears that having new offices is worth being elected under misleading pretenses.
It may be the only way to have a real debate over a new town hall is to force council to hold a public referendum. Perhaps voters would even be treated to a full disclosure of the consulting reports that council has refused to share with the public. Of course, under the Municipal Act, Findlater could dodge the referendum by using the Alternative Process. Under this process, the new building deal would go ahead unless at least 10% of the public petitioned to force a referendum on borrowing the money for the project. But the ever-cagey Findlater is betting that public apathy will work in his favour on this one.
But wouldn’t it be sweet justice to see Findlater’s deceit turned into Findlater’s Folly? There are many more urgent capital projects in West Kelowna than new municipal offices – a reliable power grid, urgently needed water system upgrades, several hundred kilometers of open drainage ditches, street lights & sidewalks, poor traffic flow, just to name a few. And the public may not be too pleased that the municipal government chooses to spend taxpayer dollars on office space that is 25 to 30% higher than market rent in Westbank.
Did Findlater and followers pull one over on the electorate? The only way the public will get its say is to insist on a referendum. Sadly, it cannot look to Findlater and followers for due process and full disclosure.