Numbers don't add up with written submissions for the George public hearing.
An investigation has revealed serious problems and irregularities with the written submissions for the George Hotel Public Hearing process. The problems have affected submissions both in support of the George and opposed to it.
Attempts to clarify matters with the Town have failed.
Submissions were missing, numbers don’t add up, and the official record has changed. The litany of problems included ill-defined deadlines, no clear rules, and arbitrary decisions. The monitoring of different email addresses was inconsistent, and there were scanning problems. Based on these written submissions from citizens, Council approved the George Hotel and Residences OCP Amendment Bylaw and the George Hotel and Residences Zoning Amendment Bylaw at the Council meeting of October 6, 2015. At the Public Hearing on October 1, about 40 per cent of the oral submissions were in favour of the George. An unscientific poll in the Coast Reporter showed approximately the same results. Yet according to the Town, about 70 per cent of the written submissions for the Public Hearing were in support of the George.
The investigation shows irregularities with submissions on both sides.
Four citizens have discovered their submissions were either missing or not counted when they inquired. There is no way of knowing if and how many other submissions have not been included in the total tally.
The questions are clear but with the answers the Town has provided, the story is very confusing indeed. Our apologies for a convoluted account. It provides all details, though, for readers willing to follow the serpentine path. One thing is clear: no local government should base an important decision on such a flawed process.
Numbers don’t add up
On Oct 16, Margot Grant received a phone call from a concerned citizen checking the online list of written submissions on the Town’s CivicWeb. Had Grant made a submission? Yes. At the George information meeting in Elphinstone gym on September 24, Grant had filled in a comment sheet with the Town’s logo. It stated: “Your comments will be compiled and submitted for Council’s consideration in advance of the Public Hearing.” After checking with corporate officer Selina Williams that it was indeed possible to hand in such a comment sheet as a written submission to the Public Hearing, Grant deposited hers through the slot into a cardboard box. However, the citizen caller informed her that her submission was not on the online list, the official record of the submissions. Grant emailed Selina Williams. “What happened?” “Your completed comment form, and the other 42 provided at the Public Information Meeting, were distributed to Council prior to the Public Hearing,” Williams replied. “Was my submission included in the total tally?” Grant asked. She did not get a clear answer.
However, Director of Planning Andre Boel wrote in the staff report of the Public Hearing Process:
“The 43 comment sheets received at the [information] meeting were forwarded to Council ahead of the Public Hearing. An analysis of the comment sheets resulted in the following highlights: eighteen comment sheets indicated support for the project. Eleven comment sheets indicated opposition to the project.”18 + 11 = 29. The report to Council continues: “Approximately 575 persons submitted around 573 submissions (some submissions covered several family members). “Approximately 400 people (70%) expressed their support to the proposed bylaws. Approximately 165 people (29%) expressed their opposition to the proposed bylaws. Approximately 10 people (1%) took a neutral position on the proposed changes.” So a total of 573 submissions: 400 pro, 165 against, 10 neutral.
But the minutes of the Public Hearing show different numbers.
A total of 501 submissions: 376 pro, 118 against and 7 neutral. “Mayor Rowe asked the Corporate Officer if there were any written submissions,” the minutes read. “The Corporate Officer stated that the agenda produced on September 28 contained submissions from 172 members of the public. In addition Council was provided with submissions from an additional 316 individuals received after the publication of the agenda. 13 individuals have provided written submissions this evening which will be provided to Council following the Public Hearing. In total we have received submissions from 501 individuals. Of those submissions, 376 provided comments in support of the adoption, 118 opposed, and 7 provided neutral feedback.”
Even with the additional 13 received at the Public Hearing, these numbers do not add up with the ones in Boel’s report.
And were the 43 comment sheets included in the numbers? In an email to Gibsons resident Laura Houle, Williams wrote that these sheets were provided separately because “they were written comments to the Public Information Meeting, not the Public Hearing.” The 43 sheets from the Information Meeting were not included in the online list mentioned by the concerned citizen.
New online list
Houle had saved a copy of the original online list of written submissions on her hard drive. It was called "2015-10-01 - The George PH - Correspondence received post agenda and before 4-30pm.pdf”. On October 26, she noticed the file had changed. It was now called "2015-09-01 - The George PH - Correspondence received post Agenda Distribution.pdf”.
So, three weeks after Council approved the bylaw amendments, the official records had changed.
One email from Mary Jean Brown received on October 1 at 4:52 pm was deleted and three submissions, from Deborah Geoffrion, Andrea Goldsmith and Joann Hetherington, were added. To each of these three, Williams added the comment: “Submission received at Public Hearing but omitted from original file for consideration.” And the 43 comment sheets from the Information Meeting were added. Surprisingly, another 14 comment sheets from the September 24 Information Meeting also showed up in the new electronic file. As Williams explained in an email to Houle: “Not to confuse things but you will see a few submissions to the Public Hearing as well. This is because they were received here at Town Hall after the Information Meeting and therefore were considered a submission to the Public Hearing.” Why were 14 comment sheets treated as submissions while 43 other comment sheets were not?
Neither the notice in the paper nor the video differentiated between emails and submissions on paper.
However, Williams wrote to Houle: “The Public Notice was specific that email submissions must be received by 4:30 to be considered. So no, we did not provide email submissions to Council that were received after 4:30 pm.” “In order to consider input to a public hearing, Council members must have access to the input prior to the close of the Public Hearing,” Williams explained to Houle. “Emails received after 4:30 are not available to Council or the public at the Hearing and therefore cannot be considered. This is the standard for all public hearings in the Province of BC, not unique to Gibsons.”
But Williams did make an exception to the cut-off time of 4:30 pm for emails.
Suzanne Senger spoke at the Hearing and afterwards approached Williams. She told Williams that she had emailed the written submission for the Gibsons Alliance of Business and Community (GABC) at 5:36 pm. Senger asked Williams if the GABC submission would be included as part of the public record. Williams verified that it would be, and it was.
Sarama had emailed his submission exactly two minutes later, at 5:38 pm. When he arrived at the Hearing, he asked Williams if she had received it.
“Sometime between 6:10 pm and 6:25 pm, you and I had a conversation at the public hearing venue,” he later wrote in an email to Williams. “I asked you specifically whether you had received my written submission that I had just sent to you a few minutes earlier, via email. You immediately took out your phone, checked your email account, and said, ‘Yes, there it is, I've got it’, or words very close to that exact meaning. I thanked you.” He understood from this discussion that because Williams “received” his email, she would include it as a written submission.
Three weeks later, Williams told Sarama that his email was received too late to be included.
“Hi Sarama; I thought you understood from my previous emails that your submission was received too late to be provided to Council.” When he spoke with Williams at the Hearing, Sarama had a paper copy of his detailed, illustrated 18-page submission in his hand. Had he known his email would not be accepted, he told Houle later, he would have given this hard copy to Williams. As it turned out, his submission was not included in the total tally.
Why did Williams agree to include Senger’s emailed submission but not Sarama’s? Williams explained: “The Local Government Act which governs Public Hearings is silent on the deadline to receive written submissions before the public hearing because determining that cut-off depends on several factors that change for each public hearing: the time of day the hearing is held, the number of submissions anticipated, etc. “The LGA leaves that determination to the public body who is in the best position to know the amount of time required between the stated deadline and the start of the public hearing,” she wrote.
The Union of BC Municipalities has clearly stated that when the Local Government Act is “silent,” the rules of natural justice and procedural fairness apply. Allowing some emails but prohibiting others violates the rule of fairness.
Was 4:30 pm on the day of the Public Hearing the cut-off time for just emails, or all written submissions? There was some confusion. “You are welcome to make a submission in writing at the Public Hearing on Thursday, October 1, 2015 at 7 pm,” the comment sheets at the Information Meeting on September 24 said. According to Williams, there was another rule: “The 4:30 deadline for written submissions on the date of the Public Hearing applies to all written submissions (snail-mailed, hand delivered, e-mail),” she wrote in an email to Houle. Kim Tournat, Constituency Assistant for MLA Nicholas Simons and Gibsons resident, had a different experience. “At the Public Hearing, a gentleman stood at the door of the gym and took written submissions from me and at least 2 or 3 other people behind me. He said he was going to submit them. I don’t know if my submission is in the records.”
“All written submissions received since September 1, 2015 and received prior to October 1st, 4:30 or received at the Public Hearing have been compiled and provided to Council as part of the Public Hearing process,” Boel on his part wrote in his report to Council on October 6.
But there is a problem:
In the report, Boel mentions 54 submissions received during the Hearing. As mentioned above, Williams had told mayor Rowe that 13 individuals had provided written submissions during the Hearing. Were these submissions, whatever their number, from the 90 people who spoke at the Hearing or from others as well? It is not clear. “These 54 submissions included written submissions received at the Public Hearing. In addition there were 90 individuals who spoke at the Hearing,” Williams wrote to Houle. Deborah Geoffrion handed a paper copy of her spoken submission to Williams at the hearing but when she checked the first version of the electronic files on CivicWeb, it was not included. “I handed you a copy of this email right after I spoke at the hearing, before the hearing closed to ensure it be included as part of the public record but I can not find it online,” Geoffrion wrote to Williams. Williams said it was an error made during scanning, citing two other submissions that were also missed.
So emails could have been missed. And they were.
It is unknown if submissions—and how many—(email or otherwise) from other people have not shown up in the records or were not counted. We will never know.
The process with the written submissions for the bylaw amendments and the rezoning for the George was deeply flawed. No governing body should base policy on this degree of inaccuracy.
Unpleasant as it is, the only solution is to ask the public for written submissions again. A truly sound process will take money, time and effort. And clear rules that are adhered to. Gibsons deserves no less.