The fate of a proposed housing forum remains uncertain, with Coun. Nathalie Chambers raising questions about the process leading up to it, and by doing so, accusing some of her colleagues of secrecy.
“This item [the housing forum] was not a resolution by council,” said Chambers. “It was an initiative formed outside of council. It was not in the public eye. We did not debate it. I did not approve the housing forum.”
Chambers made these comments, as council debated a request for $10,000 to $12,000 towards the forum. The forum in question was an event tentatively scheduled for May 4 that “would bring together community and industry expertise to identify challenges to increasing housing availability and housing affordability in Saanich, and opportunities to address them.” Its timing, however, remains uncertain, because council referred the matter to its next meeting on May 6 — two days after the scheduled forum — because staff told council that they lacked time to secure a facilitator under Saanich’s procurement policy.
This development concluded an occasionally heated debate over an item, whose immediate significance lies in sparking council’s most public row so far after months of mostly harmonious work.
According to background material concerning the forum, Mayor Fred Haynes, as well as Couns. Susan Brice, Rebecca Mersereau, and Zac de Vries have been in “discussion with several stakeholders” in the local housing industry in recent months about holding a housing-related forum, which they “anticipate” would be the first of many such events.
Haynes said later that the focus of this initial forum was to be rental and market-based housing. He also said that the working group emerged informally after the election, because its members had identified housing as a priority.
Chambers though questioned why planning for this forum initially sidestepped First Nations, other councillors including herself, and staff. “It feels to me this process has run afoul of good governance, and what I have been learning in my training,” she said.
She also wondered how forum organizers chose the invitation-only list of participants, and wondered why the group initially wanted to hire local planner Mark Holland as a facilitator for a “nominal” but unidentified cost when Saanich has in-house expertise. Bypassing staff and hiring outside help is not the best use of financial resources, she said.
“Who felt they could hire anyone without the consent of council and bring this to council?” she asked. “Maybe this is all within the lines, but this is not the kind of governance I aspire to. It’s not the optics I as a councillor want to be associated with.”
Members of council not part of the group behind the forum, however, defended it.
“I’m a little bit concerned by the tone of some of my colleagues tonight, that there has been nefarious behaviour conducted by members of council,” said Coun. Colin Plant.
Plant acknowledged the “level of discomfort” that some councillors might have about approving funding for a project without having full knowledge of it. Supporters of the forum could have avoided this situation with prior consultation, Plant said. He, however, does not have any “ill feelings” towards them.
“To colleagues, who have ill feelings, I don’t think, it is fair,” he said. “Any member of council can work together on any initiative and bring it forward,” he said. Yes, some aspects of the forum still require clarification, he said. “But I do appreciate that four members of council were willing to make a recommendation to council. They haven’t gone off and done something secretive or sneaky or clandestine at all. It has unfortunately been perceived that way by some members of council.”
Coun. Karen Harper said that she generally supports the type of approach leading up to the forum. Smaller groups represent “very efficient ways” to start off. “They are not the way that you finish processes, but they are the way to start processes,” she said. She also questioned Chambers’ argument that the forum favours developers. The forum represents a “first step” not designed to make decisions but gather ideas, and the list of invitees includes more than just developers but also homeless advocates.