By Lyonel Doherty
A local water councillor says that a recent decision by Town council represents a “sad day” for Oliver.
Rick Machial made this comment on Monday after council relied on a legal opinion regarding the rules and responsibilities of water councillors.
The issue was originally an in-camera (behind closed doors) discussion by council on Monday afternoon, but Mayor Ron Hovanes publicly disclosed the matter during the regular meeting that evening.
The mayor said Oliver is one of two communities in BC with water councillors (the other community is Osoyoos).
He stated there were some questions about the roles and responsibilities of water councillors, who have been a part of council since 1990.
A recommendation was endorsed by council to take effect in the next term. This somewhat convoluted recommendation includes: when preparing the agenda, staff are to identify matters that are considered to be water issues and schedule those matters to be addressed at the beginning of the meeting. Water councillors will be given a draft agenda to determine what issues are water related. After these matters are discussed in council, the water councillors will excuse themselves from the table, at which point council will continue with the meeting.
Hovanes said the opinion they received from their solicitor went back to the order in council that created the two water councillor positions, which make it very clear what their roles and responsibilities are and when they should or shouldn’t be participating at the council table.
Chief Administrative Officer Cathy Cowan explained that water councillors make decisions on water issues only. But over the years they have sat through all matters of council and joined in on those discussions.
(However, they only vote on water matters.)
Council sought a legal opinion and decided to restrict water councillors to water issues only. Once those issues are dealt with, the councillors would be considered “like the public” and not sit at the table, Cowan said.
They could either go home or sit in the public gallery, she added.
Cowan noted that one of the Town’s strategic priorities is to ensure a good governance structure. So this decision reflects that.
According to Cowan, nobody has ever challenged the water councillors in their role.
“We’re just trying to make sure that our governance structure does not put our organization in a precarious position.”
But Machial said water councillors have always been encouraged to contribute to discussions, however, this decision by council goes in the opposite direction. He stated the decision puts a mechanism in place that ensures there will be no contribution to discussion.
Machial, who has been a water councillor for 28 years, said the decision will put more pressure on staff to ensure that there’s never any discussion without the water councillors present, especially during water budget talks.
“That has to be assured 100 per cent.”
Machial said any time there is discussion about any money taken out of the water fund, water councillors must be present.
He said he doesn’t know how council is going to police that when water councillors won’t be allowed to take part in many discussions.
“I think it’s a sad day for Oliver . . . it tells me that this council didn’t really want to hear the opinion of water councillors.”
Water councillor Andre Miller told the Chronicle that council’s decision bothered him.
“When I was handed the lawyers papers, it was a shock.”
Miller said they were not asked to attend any discussions on the matter before receiving the papers.
“This leads me to think that council had meetings that did not involve the water councillors. I am not in favour of this decision after 28 years of service.”
Apple grower David Machial, who’s running for water councillor, said he was surprised by the decision.
He stated there has never been an issue with water councillors having a negative influence on council during meetings.
“So why? You have a resource there. Why wouldn’t you use it?”
David said water councillors would definitely be a good resource for council on matters relating to farm practices.
“I find it (council’s decision) baffling.”
Osoyoos Mayor Sue McKortoff said their water councillors take part in water matters only; they only vote on water matters and do not take part in other discussions.
She noted the water councillors generally stay at the meeting until council has dealt with water-related matters.
“As far as I know, Osoyoos has always done things this way.”