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Secrecy undermines public consultation into the Municipal Forest Reserve

Transparency: "We encourage a high level of disclosure regarding the process and results, as well as clear communication regarding how those results are used.” (Source: Lees and Associates winning contract bid.)

The Secrecy Train came to town June 10, with a virtual stop in the Municipality of North Cowichan.

The 16-member citizens’ Working Group guiding the public consultation process into management of the 5,000-hectare Municipal Forest Reserve held its second meeting, this time using the on-line conference platform, Zoom.

I consider the process secret because unlike meetings of Council, Forestry Advisory Committee and Official Community Plan volunteer committee meetings, the Working Group operates strictly behind closed doors — even as the Municipality and Lees and Associates consultants profess to be conducting an open and transparent engagement.

Working Group meetings are also not live-streamed, and there are no posted verbatim recordings of proceedings. Moreover, group members are under strict orders from the Municipality and Lees not to share information with the public.

I know there are good people on the Working Group.

But in a vacuum of information, how can the public be assured of a fair balance, especially since the membership continues to evolve?

I also wonder whether the Working Group is being asked to produce recommendations too quickly and with insufficient information.

Let’s hope we don’t miss a golden opportunity for a more progressive solution — one that could protect logging revenues as well as BC’s most endangered landscape, the coastal Douglas-fir biogeoclimatic zone.

Remember, the University of B.C. has informed the Municipality that carbon credits represent a way to safeguard our trees while earning income: “You can generate (carbon) revenues that are similar in range to what you’re generating from timber harvesting in this kind of approach.”

The culture of secrecy in North Cowichan doesn’t end with the Working Group.

In the midst of a public review of the forest reserve you’d think that the 2019 forestry report would contain highly relevant information — and would be released to the public at the earlier convenience.

Not so, it turns out. The Municipality told me that the report is considered a draft until the Forestry Advisory Committee looks at it, then council.

That’s unreasonable, given that the report is basically a bunch of statistics on amounts of timber cut, revenues, costs etc. Nothing confidential there.

I filed a freedom-of-information request.

Alyssa Meiner, Information Management Officer for the Municipality, responded that because the report is in “draft” form there are “currently no responsive record (final report) we are able to provide at this time.”

So I submitted a second FOI request for the “draft” report. Meiner replied that it could be 30 to 60 days before the report is released.

And so the game goes — and the public’s right to know suffers.

With these two, I have now filed six FOI requests with the Municipality.

Documents from the first request provided insight into Chief Administrative Officer Ted Swabey’s personal bias for continued logging in the reserve.

Next came the release of the minutes of the first Working Group meeting on March 11, 2020, then a tentative list of stakeholders to be interviewed by Lees.

Finally, a request to see the winning bid from Lees for the consultation contract with the Municipality is still under consideration.

Note that many journalists go their entire careers and never file one FOI request.

Change must come from the top. I look to the Mayor and Council to establish a much-needed culture of openness at municipal hall.

Until then, don’t expect an “all aboard” announcement as the Secrecy Train leaves the station. The current passenger list — as evidenced by the closed Working Group — is a short and exclusive one.

— Larry Pynn, June 16, 2020


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