When 20 per cent of the electorate signed a petition to say they were against a 21-year deal with EPCOR, Sooke’s sewer operations and management provider, the die was cast.
Concerned residents and taxpayers felt the deal was too long and they wanted to see an open tendering process. They also wanted the district to consider an in-house operation of the sewage treatment plant.
At the District of Sooke council meeting on Monday, Aug. 8, council voted to negotiate a five-year operating and maintenance (O &M) agreement with the current provider, EPCOR. The only councillor not in favour was Councillor Herb Haldane.
None of the comments made by the public had any impact on the consequent decision.
Trevor Davis, from the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), stated that the ability to secure monopoly agreements were a “goldmine” for companies and municipalities should be taking action to regain control of public services. He hoped for the evolution of the idea — service to the public by the public.
Don Brown said that “we are in a time in history where the community needs to come together and work cooperatively.”
He proposed an objective evaluation of the agreement with EPCOR and to take the time to move out of the social/political arena and to set up an evaluation process using professionals in the community, with input from all parties.
Dave and Carol Mallett both praised EPCOR and the 21-year agreement. Dave Mallet said that 80 per cent of the electorate did not have a say on the Alternate Approval Process ballot.
“It’s unfair that those who vote do not pay, they should not have a say,” said Dave Mallet.
It was council that decided that this was the manner in which they would proceed.
Others questioned the accuracy of the AAP and the costs of a public works department. A few asked for a referendum.
District CAO Evan Parliament opened up the council discussion, prior to the vote, by stating that time was of the essence as the current contract expires on September 30, 2011.
Council had four options to consider. The first was a referendum in the upcoming municipal election to garner the opinion of the electorate on the question regarding entering into a 21-year wastewater agreement. The cost was estimated to be $40,000.
Mayor Janet Evans said she was concerned with voter apathy. She also said that the majority of the $40,000 would go to public engagement expense.
Option two was to enter into a two-year O&M agreement with an automatic one-year renewal up to five years with a cost of $225,559.31 for the remainder of 2011. (Annual cost $906,237.24).
The third option, which council chose, was to enter into a five-year agreement with the operating fees for 2012-2015 to be finalized.
Option four would have seen the district look at an in-house operation. This would have meant hiring an independent consultant to perform a comprehensive public sector comparator, at a cost of approx. $40,000.
Councillor David Bennett read a prepared statement where he said there was a concerted effort “to discredit the research, the consultation, the community networking, the media releases, the availability of all the information for public consumption and consideration, on the part of district staff, and the informed decision-making of the majority of council.”
Coun. Sheila Beech said there were false statements being made, which was “disappointing.” She said the “water group” people were “playing political games.”
She asked Gail Hall who was sitting in the gallery, whether the petitions had been scanned.
Coun. Maja Tait said she supported the option of a referendum as well as a five-year agreement. She said she believed in progress and that future councils should consider a municipal services department.
Coun. Herb Haldane said he didn’t think the system (sewer) was checked properly and he was entitled to disagree with the rest of council as it was a free country. He said he thought a referendum would prove once and for all what the taxpayers wanted.
Coun. Ron Dumont didn’t think the district could operate the sewer treatment plant themselves.
“We have the back up of the whole empire of EPCOR… a 21-year plan was our best effort. He said he supported the five-year agreement.
Mayor Janet Evans said “our system is award-winning,” and in the case of a previous referendum
Sooke was five years behind because of the failure of the road referendum. She said Sooke didn’t even have the capacity of operate its own road maintenance. She declared her support for option three, the five-year agreement with EPCOR.
Wendal Milne, one of the organizers working to stop the proposed 21-year deal with EPCOR and the district said he was “disappointed.” He said he would have preferred a two-year deal.
“It was a democratic process and it puts it to be for awhile. It’s better than a 21-year deal, at least the democratic process was followed.”
As to the comments that misinformation was spread about prior to the tally of the AAP ballots, Milne stated, “we only used documents supplied by the District of Sooke, It was solely their documents and if they were erroneous they came from their own documents.”