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North Cowichan won’t identify citizen who successfully sought forest consult extension

Decision goes against more-open policies of other Vancouver Island municipalities

It was a terse one-line announcement from North Cowichan.

The deadline for completing the on-line survey on the future of the Municipal Forest Reserve has been extended from Dec. 31 to Jan. 31.

But what the announcement failed to say is arguably more important — a back-story that raises concerns about the public’s right to know and the municipality’s lack of openness compared with other Vancouver Island municipalities.

At its Dec. 21 meeting, council considered a written request from an individual who said, in part, that December “is a month packed with folks working hard, and at the same time focused on family matters associated with Christmas Holiday period.”

It’s important to note that the survey has been widely publicized and takes only a few minutes to complete and anyone interested should already have done so.

The individual asked for a month-long extension to the on-line survey.

His name was redacted — blacked out so the public can’t see.

We can now identify the letter writer as retired professional forester Bryan Wallis, but as far as his letter to council is concerned his name remains hidden.

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Why the secrecy?

Municipal staff argue they are “statutorily obligated to protect” personal information under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

“This is why we redact the senders name and other personal information (such as email addresses) from a document prior to attaching the document to the agenda.”

I beg to differ.

Surely, when a person writes to council and that person’s letter forms part of the official agenda (and, moreover, council acts on a specific request from that person, as occurred in this case) that person’s name should be made public. It is also unfair for letter writers to think they can hide behind a cloak of anonymity to make disparaging and perhaps untrue comments about individuals, organizations, etc.

It made me wonder how other Vancouver Island municipalities handle this question.

Turns out that North Cowichan is the outlier.

City of Victoria: “Letter writers names are not redacted from correspondence to Mayor and Council or for correspondence that forms part of a council agenda record.”

Capital Regional District: “Any correspondence included in a published agenda will include the name of the person who penned the letter. All other personal information, such as addresses & phone numbers, is redacted.”

City of Nanaimo: “Yes, your name would be public.”

Town of Sidney: “When letters or emails are sent to Mayor and Council and put on an agenda, the writer’s name is included but their other personal information is redacted, including contact information and signatures.”

City of Duncan: “If it’s going on the Council agenda, then the person’s name would be public (but contact information would be redacted).”

You get the idea, but does North Cowichan municipal hall?

The municipality suggested I file a freedom-of-information request, a formal process that can take 30 business days or longer and unnecessarily tie up staff time.

I declined, arguing that the information should be openly available. I have written council to request an amendment to the Consent Agenda Policy.

Now, back to the Dec. 21 council meeting.

Councillor Tek Manhas moved to support Wallis’ request, and the rest of council went along with it. Note that no one on council has done more than Manhas to complain about the cost of the forest consultation and more to unnecessarily drag it out.

See: https://bit.ly/3hSxBOj

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Wallis and Manhas both favour continued logging of the forest reserve, which, according to the BC Forests Ministry, falls within the most at-risk forest type in BC, the coastal Douglas-fir forest.

Curiously, while the municipality was careful to protect Wallis’ identity — and Wallis himself did not take credit for it on-line — Manhas named him as the letter writer in a Facebook post not long after the council meeting.

“Thank you for suggesting the extension Bryan,” Manhas said.

Wallis later posted: "Personally, I don't care about my name being out there. I just thought it was a proposal that made sense."

Manhas also posted he had no prior communication with Wallis about his letter to council. "He suggested it by a letter to council as anyone else makes suggestions and I supported it as did all of council.”

Manhas also wrote: “I agree we should identify any letter on the agenda as public input. We should show the name and address of the writer as we do during public input period. I am going to pull your letter and recommendation from the consent agenda and move your motion at the next meeting."

The UBC Partnership Group has presented council with four potential scenarios — two logging, two conservation — for future management of the 5,000-hectare Municipal Forest Reserve. Carbon credits for leaving the forest standing figure prominently.

UBC estimates that carbon-credit revenue would exceed logging revenue by millions of dollars over 30 years in the Municipal Forest Reserve.

Read more about the on-line survey: https://bit.ly/3I1Rc9v

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— Larry Pynn, Dec. 28, 2022

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