Public shut out of Working Group meetings ‘to avoid potential disruption and increase productivity,’ minutes reveal

It took a freedom-of-information request to North Cowichan, but sixmountains.ca has finally obtained the official minutes of the first meeting of the citizens’ Working Group that is helping to guide public consultation on the Municipal Forest Reserve.

 

The minutes of the three-hour meeting on March 11 reveal that the Working Group — with nudging from consultant Lees and Associates— decided that their meetings shall be conducted in private.

 

That is plain wrong. 

 

Regular council meetings are open to the public. So are meetings of the Forestry Advisory Committee. So why should the Working Group be so secretive? 

 

According to the minutes, Lees and Associates “recommended that meetings remain private to avoid potential disruption and increase productivity” but that it looked to members of the Working Group for their opinion.

 

“Many members agreed that a closed meeting would encourage productivity (particularly at the first few meetings), while other members voiced concern that public should be allowed to sit in and not directly participate in the discussion.”

 

Ultimately, the decision was to shut the public out. “The group decided to keep the meetings private for now and revisit the issue after a few meetings.”

 

On the issue of photos being taken at the meetings, the minutes read: “No consensus was reached on the subject but general agreement that ‘wide shots’ of the group at work would be good documentation.”

 

The minutes also state: “Concern was raised that if working group members names are published, then media will contact individual members.”

 

It’s unfortunate that the terms of reference for anyone applying to the Working Group did not state up front that meetings shall be conducted in public. 

 

The Municipality did, in fact, release the names: Bruce Coates, Dan Williams, Roger Wiles, Sharon Horsburgh, Marilyn Palmer, Robert Fullerton, Paul Tataryn, Margaret Symon, Rhonda Hittinger, Rick Martinson, Deb Wright, Larry MacIntosh, Sally Leigh-Spencer, Michael Petereit and Susan Derby.

 

Palmer, who represents the Quamichan Lake Neighbourhood Association, told sixmountains.ca that she supports the meetings being open: “I view transparency as fundamental to public engagement.”

 

 

The minutes can now be viewed at https://bit.ly/2R58pDH.

 

The Working Group is not the only part of the public consultation being conducted behind closed doors. Select stakeholders are also being interviewed — but their names remain secret.

 

The minutes note that Erik Lees “mentioned that of the six or so interviews to date, none of the participants had been asked or given their permission to publish the interview. 

 

“A summary of the stakeholder interviews will be published in the final Interim and Long-Term Forest Managements Plans.”

 

On March 18, North Cowichan announced that the public consultation process into future management of the 5,000-hectare Municipal Forest Reserve — also known as the Six Mountains — has been suspended due to the coronavirus outbreak.

 

The municipality stated: “Public engagement, including engagement on the future of Municipal Forest Reserve and the Official Community Plan, will be paused for 90 days.

 

“Staff and Council will re-evaluate resuming engagement before the end of the 90-day period if it can proceed in a safe, fulsome, and inclusive way.”

 

— Larry Pynn April 5, 2020

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