Opinion: Provincial order prompts CSRD to open meetings via webcast

At the end of the day, it wasn't the public petition or media requests, but a COVID-19-related ministerial order that prompted the CSRD board to webcast its meetings starting in August.

The Columbia Shuswap Regional District administration offices are located on the waterfront in Salmon Arm.

Residents of the Revelstoke area will be able to access regional government meetings via webcast for the first time, this following a B.C. government ministerial order requiring the Columbia-Shuswap Regional District (CSRD) to webcast their meetings, something the Revelstoke Mountaineer and a citizens’ group has lobbied for unsuccessfully in the past years.

In the end, it wasn’t calls from media, or a subsequent petition from residents of the CSRD asking for convenient access to the meetings, but a COVID-19 related provincial government order that ultimately made the CSRD decide to webcast its meetings.

Some background on our lobby for open government and transparency at the CSRD

The Columbia-Shuswap Regional District (CSRD) is a regional government body that oversees a broad swathe of land spanning from the Golden area into the Shuswap. In Revelstoke, the organization is most known for managing the landfill and recycling centre, one of several services it oversees across the region. Like local government, it oversees zoning and development decisions for lands outside of city limits, such as South Revelstoke, the Begbie Bench and communities like Trout Lake.

It also shares a number of services with the city. For example, the city’s Community Economic Development Director position is funded by both the city and the CSRD. The city also has numerous funding arrangements in place, such as for fire services or recreation services.

The CSRD board is made up of rural representatives for areas outside of municipal boundaries and of representatives for constituent municipalities. In the Revelstoke area, David Brooks-Hill is the CSRD Area B representative, and Mayor Gary Sulz is the representative for the City of Revelstoke.

Currently, the board doesn’t broadcast its meetings online and there is little coverage of political goings on at the board table. For example, a couple of years ago the board turned away the Revelstoke-area CSRD Area B representative’s push to reverse a new building permit bylaw in that electoral area.

David Brooks-Hill’s central election platform issue in 2018 was the new building permit and inspections system that was brought into law just before the last election. His election signage consisted of building permits with a big red circle and slash run through it. He argued that there was little to no consultation with residents about the new building permit system, and that it had been pushed through without many even knowing about it.

At the CSRD board table in Salmon Arm, which is only accessible by community members and journalists willing to drive often hundreds of kilometres to attend, he was rebuffed — elected representatives not from the Revelstoke area simply brushed him aside — because they could. Without public scrutiny of board discussion and decisions, individual representatives’ arguments and votes are comfortably shielded from the public.

Read background on that story here:

Petition to remove portion of CSRD Area B from building inspection service defeated

revelstokemountaineer.com pushes for transparency

In 2019, Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine and revelstokemountaineer.com petitioned the CSRD board, requesting that the board live-stream its meetings in order to increase transparency, promote democratic participation, and encourage public engagement.

The CSRD meets in Salmon Arm, but its geographic area includes communities as far away as Trout Lake, Golden and Revelstoke, meaning some residents have to travel hundreds of kilometres to attend a meeting. Few do. Would you want to drive over Eagle Pass in December to take in one or two business items relating to Revelstoke?

“It is not practical for media outlets to send reporters to a meeting for one or two agenda items that may be relevant to the communities they serve,” the Mountaineer wrote in our letter to the CSRD board. “In addition, the public would also be better served by the regional district if residents had direct access to what’s happening at the board table via a webcast. The technology that enables webcasting is now cheap and reliable and many local governments in B.C. are now taking advantage of this opportunity to increase engagement and transparency.”

However, the request was denied by the CSRD board after it received a staff report that presented many barriers. Read that report here.

The report, which noted many local governments in the CSRD are already live-streaming their meetings, said that webcasting would be expensive (it estimated $70,000–$100,000 for equipment), would be problematic due to data storage laws, would require extra staff resources, and that the CSRD had only received one request for live-streaming.

“There are also potential ramifications from video being taken out of context or used to deliberately embarrass a Director or staff member,” wrote IT manager Brad Payne in his report.

Citizen gathers petition to increase public engagement

Petition asks CSRD to webcast meetings to increase engagement

Last year, a Columbia Shuswap Regional District (CSRD) resident started an online petition asking for the CSRD Board to either livestream or video record its monthly board meetings.

Maria Otting began asking the CSRD about either live streaming or recording meetings last fall. She says the catalyst was the board’s decision to introduce building services permits in Electoral Area D, where she lives.

“We didn’t even know it was happening,” said Otting.

In October 2019, Otting received an email response from a CSRD staff member stating the board had denied a previous request to record its meetings, but that staff had been instructed to keep track of any such requests. With no success, Otting decided to create an online petition at change.org.

See the change.org petition via this link.

Otting said the petition wasn’t intended to cause controversy, but rather is meant to highlight the desire for CSRD residents to have a way to stay better informed about what’s happening in the district.

“The public wants to have a voice. We want to be involved and participate. Even if [the meetings] are just recorded and posted on the site the next day. We have the technology to do that,” she said.

The CSRD’s monthly board meetings are held in Salmon Arm on a Thursday during working hours. This makes it challenging for CSRD residents from six electoral areas and four municipalities to attend the meetings.

“With time and distance constraints, the technology of live-streaming or recording meetings provides an opportunity for constituents to feel engaged and up-to-date on board discussions and upcoming items on the agenda in their communities,” stated the online petition.

Otting administers a Facebook group called CSRD Residents — The People’s Voice. The tone of the page is in alignment with her statements: the group and its discussions are often positive and helpful, the work of residents simply interested in how their government works, residents just wanting more access to what’s happening with the organization they fund with their tax dollars.

Provincial decision on Mount Begbie protection plan highlights transparency issue

Update: Province rejects Mount Begbie protection plan request

News of the provincial government’s rejection of a request by the City of Revelstoke via the CSRD for a protection plan for Mount Begbie didn’t circulate widely in the community for over two weeks until it was published in a news brief in Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine on July 10. The rejection was discussed at the CSRD board’s June 18 meeting, but there was no effort by the CSRD communications department that we’re aware of to circulate the news. Like all government communications departments everywhere, the usual focus is on ‘good’ news and other information.

(In their defence, the CSRD communications department has modernized its online documentation system, and it is fairly easy to use. However, it’s the lack of access to political discussion that is the key issue, something that shouldn’t be left up to communications staff; politicians should be ready to answer for their decisions to residents, particularly portions of meetings that are, by law, public meetings.)

In the end, the provincial government had to force the CSRD to open up

A June 26, 2020 ministerial order, which came during the COVID-19 era when many local government meetings had to be restricted due to health precautions.

The order requires the CSRD to take steps to open up their political decision-making body to residents and voters by recording meetings, utilizing live-streaming technologies and archived videos of meetings.

In contrast to the staff report on revelstokemountaineer.com’s request for video access to CSRD board meetings, where staff told the board it would cost $70,000 to $100,000 for equipment, the new report says all they need is a Zoom account at a cost of $40 per month. The CSRD already operates a remote video meeting system and cameras that it uses to hold virtual meetings, but it has also denied revelstokemountaineer.com’s request to have access to those meetings. (The report does say there is another system that will allow for better indexing of video meetings at a cost of $10,000 per year.)

The CSRD is planning to webcast its meetings on a six-month trial basis.

On July 23, the CSRD sent out a media release mentioning the meetings will be accessible via webcast. The CSRD press release that didn’t mention past requests for transparency. Although the staff report on video meetings noted revelstokemountaineer.com, Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine, the citizens’ petition, the media release makes it sound like it’s just another initiative the CSRD is taking on.

We reached out for comment to Mayor Gary Sulz, who originally opposed the revelstokemountaineer.com request for access last year. “In this time of COVID and the inability to open the CSRD boardroom to full capacity having meetings live-streamed is an appropriate measure,” he said. “This will give the CSRD residents a chance to see their board in action.”

Why it matters

Regional governments cover large geographic areas, making it challenging for many residents to attend meetings. The result is few ever do, leaving the organization to drift along without democratic feedback or scrutiny. The default power centre becomes staff who run the organization, and board members who are afforded the luxury of making decisions behind de facto closed doors. The result can be a cozy arrangement for everyone involved.

Last year, the CSRD CAO, Charles Hamilton, pulled down a $195,809 annual salary, and billed taxpayers for $7,515 in expenses. Board chairperson Rhona Martin received $56,692 in salary and billed taxpayers for $19,673 in expenses.

These 2019 salary and expense statements for CSRD politicians are required by law to be included in the organization’s statement of financial information. Image: CSRD document

The expense claims by six of the CSRD directors topped $10,000 — real money that comes out of both CSRD Area B residents and City of Revelstoke residents’ pockets. (The funding arrangements are complex, but yes, the CSRD is a regional government that is  in part funded by City of Revelstoke taxpayers.)

What is the impact of travel requirements on these budgets, not to mention greenhouse gas emissions? What is the impact on representation when rural directors who don’t live nearby Salmon Arm need to book off an entire day to attend a meeting?

In a response to our questions, a CSRD rep said the general travel budget for usual meetings is $37,000, and the budget for Electoral Area meetings is $15,000. The CSRD does not track costs by meeting type, just per director.

From the CSRD’s statement of financial information, here are CSRD board of directors salaries and expenses, which include travel costs, such as hotels and fuel, which is $0.59 per kilometre.

Revelstokemountaineer.com has been following up with the CSRD for details on the expenses; our intent is to point out how costly the travel can be to taxpayers. For background, through an request via the CSRD’s freedom of information process, we got a list of all staff and elected members’ expenses. We’re still parsing through the document.

Have a look at the list of expenses staff and elected representatives filed with the CSRD for yourself here.

Democracy needs connection

Without an ability to see what’s happening at CSRD meetings, it makes it difficult to get transparent answers when thing go wrong, like this story about environmental protection problems at the Revelstoke landfill.

Revelstoke landfill in trouble with B.C.’s environmental protection division

Lack of access to decision-makers also erodes connection with democratic processes, making the CSRD and its inner workings largely a black box for residents in the Revelstoke area.

The issue with a lack of regional government transparency is happening across the province, with a few particular organizations standing out. Have a look at this blistering column from long-serving Kamloops This Week editor Chris Foulds, in which he calls the Thompson-Nicola Regional District (TNRD) a “fiefdom” whose tactics would elicit “admiration from Kim Jong-un’s cabinet.” Or this story from Jessica Wallace at Kamloops This Week about a more than $500,000 payout to a departing CAO, a fact that had to be pried out of the regional district by persistent journalists. The job of covering these regional government organizations is not glamorous; not having open access to meetings and decisions by elected officials makes it a pain in the butt, too. Efforts to dodge clear requests for transparency do not help the situation.

Finally, hats off to CSRD Area B representative David Brooks-Hill. He was the only board member to support our initial request for CSRD meetings to be webcast, which came after board dismissed him and his building permits mandate from voters. The board’s views and reasons were safely hidden from public scrutiny by enabling staff who resisted opening their meetings to the public and the media at every step — the $70,000—$100,000 price tag designed to scare board members was questionable when it was first published and now is even more so now — but simply couldn’t sidestep a provincial government order. Hopefully, this will be the first page of a new chapter where the CSRD listens to, engages with, and heeds the democratic direction of residents and voters in the greater Revelstoke area.

At revelstokemountaineer.com we are looking forward to watching CSRD board meetings starting in August. We have submitted a new request to the board for a question period to be added to the agenda, and we look forward to hearing directly on Zoom from elected representatives about why they do or why they don’t support this new request for a basic democratic provision that is now cheap and easy to implement due to advances in technology that enable government to better connect and serve its residents.