Eliciting cries of “shame” from the audience, North Saanich district council removed a resident from its delegation list at Monday night’s meeting.
The move sparked speculation by some residents that the majority of the politicians were trying to muzzle opposing views on the ongoing housing debate.
Councillor Ted Daly, referring to a presentation by Springfield Harrison on a consultant’s exit survey on housing issues in the community, said he wanted the item removed from the agenda.
“I’m not interested in hearing this presentation,” he said. “Not one little bit.”
Daly said Harrison’s presentation was tantamount to the same opposition and complaint council has heard over the controversial housing strategy process since even before it began.
Mayor Alice Finall said one of council’s fundamental obligations is to hear from its citizens.
“They have a right to speak to council, to inform their decisions,” she said, and proceeded to overrule Daly’s motion to remove the speaker from the agenda.
Daly responded by seeking a motion to set aside Finall’s ruling and uphold his motion.
With comfortable support of the majority of councillors, Daly’s motion would pass, but not without considerable debate.
“We have had many critical comments of council and of staff in the past,” Finall told the News Review. “This was a complete abdication of council’s role and obligation.”
She said she wonders why the council majority had such strong opposition to the presentation and called the move a muzzling of the district’s citizens.
“It doesn’t matter if they’ve heard it before,” Finall continued. “But this information was new.”
Finall, like Harrison, has been opposed to much of the housing strategy process and subsequent changes to allow higher residential housing densities on more land within the municipality. Harrison’s presentation was of a critique of the housing consultant’s exit survey, done by a Dr. J. Brock Smith of the University of Victoria. The critique questioned the validity of most of the survey questions and warned against “making key administrative or policy decisions based on the results of this survey.”
Councillor Dunstan Browne called Harrison’s presentation subject irrelevant, as council has already reviewed and approved the housing strategy documents — including the survey.
“It’s irregular to allow a highly critical report to council,” Browne said, “without the author here to defend themselves.”
Coun. Craig Mearns added Harrison had told council about the critique last week, noting this has been a consistent message from the majority’s political opponents.
“I don’t want to give him my time,” Mearns said.
Coun. Elsie McMurphy, who has fallen in on the mayor’s side in this debate, called the decision not to hear from a resident a new low for this council. She wondered what might stop the majority from refusing to hear other people’s comments if they don’t agree with them.
“I can’t believe this would happen in this council, or in front of any other council in this province,” she said.
Browne, expressing frustration in his opponents’ desire to hear from both sides, invoked the rule of law.
“This is a disgrace if it goes ahead,” he said of the presentation. “Quite frankly, I don’t care what Mr. Harrison says.”
Speaking afterwards in the public participation period, residents expressed anger at the move. Some pointed out some of this debate could have happened weeks ago, had councillors not walked out of a council meeting while the consultant was present and answering questions about the housing survey. In fact, it was Brown and Coun. Conny McBride, part of the council majority, who walked out, forcing the meeting to end.
“I’m shocked at the motion,” said resident Noreen Campbell. “I can’t say any more than shame on you.”
“I’m concerned with what you are doing,” added resident Brian Taylor.
He said listening to the public’s concerns during the meeting forces council to read documents and simply acknowledge differences of opinion.
“To hear elected officials gag the community that elected them is absolutely appalling,” added resident Lydia Wingate.
“It’s a mockery of freedom of expression,” added Jack Thornburgh. “I don’t think the residents of North Saanich would look fondly on that.”
Harrison himself spoke up and said he was disappointed in council’s action and in its tone against him, personally.
“I feel we may be the only community in Canada with a limit on free speech,” he said.