2017 Nanaimo Politics, In Its Own Words

Early January 2017: The City begins rolling out an expensive, consultant-driven marketing campaign to sell the Events Centre to voters. Central to this is the claim that “Existing funds will cover the borrowed costs [$80M], creating no tax increase.” To date, the full cost of this marketing campaign has not been released.

January: The NoVote2017 Society is formed by local residents to oppose the Event Centre.

January 24: Council votes to build an Event Centre on waterfront land at 1 Port Drive, with a First Nations design. In an interview with the Victoria Times-Colonist, Councillor Jerry Hong calls it a “sexy project.” (A few weeks later, Council votes for a cheaper, non-First Nations design, but continues to use the earlier, more attractive design drawings in all marketing materials.)

February 3: On social media, Jerry Hong announces that property taxes will need to increase by an extra 0.2%, due to “unexpected” winter weather, to restore $200K that had been removed from the City’s Snow and Ice Clearing budget.

February 6: In a Council meeting Q&A, Jerry Hong states “There’s a lot of things we don’t need in Nanaimo. We don’t need a water treatment plant…we don’t need a waste treatment plant…”

February 6: Councillors Bestwick, Kipp, Hong and Yoachim vote to deny NoVote2017 the right to participate at the City’s Event Centre Information Sessions. Councillor Bestwick states, “I want the information that we’ve invested to have available [sic].” In response, NoVote2017 hands out literature outside each Information Session, and on March 2 holds a capacity-crowd “Citizens’ Forum” with Jordan Bateman of the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation. Bateman calls claims that the Event Centre will not need annual subsidies “arrogant or foolish.”

February 8: CAO Tracy Samra releases a Statement regarding “City staff’s involvement with the proposed events centre: referendum, open house events and feedback”, that claims “statements circulated within the public sphere of local community discussion, along with statements made during Council meetings, have called into question the integrity and professionalism of City staff.” The same day, Samra sends an email to City staff claiming that No supporters are guilty of “hatred, bigotry, homophobia and other outrageous statements.” It is leaked to the public by Councillor Gord Fuller within minutes, via social media.

February: Mark MacDonald, Yes For Nanaimo Event Centre Committee member, newspaper publisher, failed federal Conservative candidate, and City-contracted communications advisor, posts on the Yes website that: “The [Event Centre] numbers listed here are believable. [City CFO] Mr. Mema, who arrived with a stellar reputation, recognizes his reports and calculations must be above and beyond reproach, and accurate. Some naysayers seem to believe these calculations are an attempt at a “shell game” or attempt to deceive, which is not only inappropriate, but is an insult to the Director’s position and reputation.”

February 22: The City of Nanaimo finally releases an Event Centre “business plan”, after weeks of citizen demands for it to be made public. Numerous public questions about multiple unrealistic assumptions made in the plan are discounted by the Council majority.

Late February: The City of Nanaimo spends $320K for Rogers Hometown Hockey, which is “more than 23 times the average spent by the 14 communities which responded to NanaimoNewsNOW’s request for budget details.” This includes an exclusive, invite-only, taxpayer-funded, $25K barbeque for hockey VIPs. Multiple Council members claim Hometown Hockey has nothing to do with promoting the Event Centre, including Bill Bestwick, who states to the Victoria Times-Colonist: “I am optimistic of a positive [referendum] outcome. But this weekend [Rogers Hometown Hockey] isn’t a political event.”

February 26-27: Senior City staff order all Event Centre signage removed from Highway 19A, claiming it is on orders from the BC Ministry of Transportation. The BC MOT denies this when contacted by NoVote2017, and the City backs down.

February 28: Hours before a Nanaimo Chamber of Commerce-run Event Centre debate, the entire Yes Committee pulls out, citing alleged threats. The debate goes ahead peacefully with a NoVote2017 contingent, capacity crowd, and audience volunteers advocating for the Yes side.

March 4: During a radio interview on DubNetwork.ca, Bill Bestwick describes the hotel taxes and casino funds that the City plans on using to pay down Event Centre debt as “free money” and “literally not public money.”

March 6: The City Council Meeting Agenda includes correspondence from three pro-Event Centre groups (Vancouver Giants owner; Victoria Royals GM; London, ON, Tourism GM), who are not registered under the Local Elections Campaign Finance Act (LECFA), and likely in violation of it. Repeated requests to City staff and councillors over a multi-month period never reveal who added these letters to the Agenda.

March 10: Jerry Hong posts on his Facebook page “Oh Nanaimo, when will you grow up.”

March 11: With a total turnout of 35.3% of eligible voters, 80.3% of Nanaimoites reject the Event Centre. It is one of the most lopsided referendum results in the history of BC. In response, Jerry Hong states to CBC BC, regarding the Event Centre, “”I don’t think this is the end at all.”

March 12: University of Victoria political scientist Michael Prince states in various media reports, “The track record of this council being one that’s been fraught with debate, division and crisis since the election of almost three years ago, I think it just suggests to local residents that this is not the council and the staff they’re prepared to take such a leap of faith on…”

March 13: Gord Fuller states at the first post-referendum Council meeting “We now move on, not just with what the 36% who voted want us to do, but with what the 64% who didn’t vote want us to do.” Bill Bestwick states, “The majority has spoke, and the majority albeit chose opposite or alternative viewpoint of mine that I’ve had for probably 20 years [sic].” Despite having spent over $1M of taxpayer funds, no member of Council who voted in support of the Event Centre (Hong, Bestwick, Kipp, Fuller, Yoachim; on some votes, McKay) apologizes or states any regrets – apart from Jerry Hong publicly apologizing to a concert promoter he angered.

April 1: Tracy Samra changes the City’s Respectful Workplace policy so that complaints against her, formerly directed to the mayor, are now directed to her subordinate, the Director of Human Resources. In December, this is quietly reversed, after a “legal review.”

April 1: The BC Prosecution Service announces that a Special prosecutor has been appointed to assist in a police investigation involving Nanaimo Council. No details are released.

April 7: Councillor Wendy Pratt resigns amid rumours of an earlier incident involving her and Tracy Samra.

April 10: Council votes to keep the 2017 property tax increase at 1.5%. Mayor Bill McKay states that “if we believe that there will be no tax increase with $80M borrowing, then we should be able to figure out where to get $800K [without a tax increase].” In a Nanaimo News-Bulletin article, CFO Victor Mema responds, “well there must be money somewhere. That’s not correct.”

April 11: BC Liberal Community Minister Peter Fassbender states the province will not intervene in Nanaimo’s dysfunction, but “I hope…they can come to a place where this doesn’t continue because I don’t think it’s good for the community.”

Mid-May: Chief Sustainability Officer Kim Fowler, only hired in late 2016, is fired.

June 19: NoVote2017’s financial statement is made public. Total spent during the Event Centre campaign is $7,145, versus between $1-2 million by the City of Nanaimo.

July 8: In a byelection to replace Wendy Pratt, former RCMP officer Sheryl Armstrong defeats 12 other candidates by winning 49% of the vote.

July 20: The Goldner report, a third-party study into dysfunction and various allegations involving Nanaimo Council and staff launched in 2016, is provided to Council in-camera.

July 26: In the presence of staff and members of the public, Tracy Samra yells at Council, “You are all motherfuckers!”

Later on July 26: Tracy Samra issues a personal public statement that includes claims of a hostile work environment, states she is worried the Goldner report’s findings will not be made public, and leaks a 7-second video of Councillor Pratt swatting a cell phone out of Samra’s hand during a February 27, 2017 in-camera meeting. Samra immediately goes on leave, only returning to work on September 18.

Late July: An unknown party leaks the Goldner report to the Globe and Mail, which publishes a national story on August 2 based on the leak. It states, “the report stopped short of finding that bullying and harassment…had occurred, saying the behaviour that resulted in those allegations “is more aptly characterized as uncivil workplace conduct.”

August 1: In an interview with CTV, Gord Fuller states, “I really don’t know what you’re talking about with all this squabbling. There’s been some stuff that’s happened.” In the same news story, Bill Bestwick comments, “I don’t believe this is unique to Nanaimo.”

August: Tracy Samra’s cousin in Ottawa starts an online petition calling on Nanaimo Council “to address the violence against an Indigenous woman in the workplace”, and makes claims of “ongoing violence in the workplace” and “physical assaults.” There is no indication what “ongoing violence” or multiple “assaults” are being referred to, beyond the phone being slapped out of Samra’s hand on February 27. The vast majority of signatories are not from Nanaimo, but the petition gains widespread media coverage.

August 7: The new BC NDP government’s Municipal Affairs Minister Selina Robinson states the province will still not intervene in Nanaimo’s dysfunction, but, “The responsible conduct of local elected officials is expected from all.”

September 11: Manager of Bylaw Services Rod Davidson fired.

September 15: Snuneymuxw First Nation removes their flag from Nanaimo City Hall over allegations of “violence experienced by Tracy Samra.”

September 15: District of Sechelt sues Victor Mema for almost $10K, for charges incurred on his corporate credit card while employed by them, stating in their claim that “These amounts [$9985] bear no possible relation to district business and constitute personal expenditures of the defendant which must be repaid to the district.” Asked about the lawsuit, Tracy Samra states, “Mr. Mema has proven to be an exceptional CFO.”

September 19: The City issues a news release titled “Statement of Apology to CAO from Nanaimo City Council.” Councillor Bill Yoachim publicly apologizes to Samra on behalf of the City. There is no mention of potential liability to the taxpayer.

September 20: Director of Communications Philip Cooper fired.

Overnight on September 29: A popular City video on the Waterfront Walkway, with thousands of views on social media, is quietly removed from all City platforms, after Tracy Samra states in an email to Council that the local resident, community activist and Walkway supporter who is widely interviewed in the video has violated the City’s Respectful Workplace policy (which does not apply to residents) and is an “opponent of council”. Repeated written requests for Samra to apologize for these allegations are met with silence.

Early October: The City of Nanaimo signs a sole-source contract in excess of $75K for “management coaching”. It is quickly revealed in local media that this violates interprovincial trade law. The City quietly cancels the sole-source contract.

October: The BC Office of the Information Commissioner confirms that they are investigating two separate leaks of confidential information from Nanaimo City Hall: the Goldner Report and a letter drafted in 2016 by Mayor Bill McKay discussing councillors. No further details are provided.

October 5: It is announced that the city’s third “corporate restructuring” in 15 months is now complete. Firings recommence within weeks.

October 16: Tracy Samra shuts down citizens’ right to freely ask questions at Council meetings, now only allowing questions vetted by staff to be asked. Councillor Brennan questions the need for this, but Samra states that she does not need Council approval to implement this change to the City’s procedural bylaw. Councillors Fuller and Kipp express support for Samra. Dermod Travis, Executive Director of non-profit political watchdog IntegrityBC, calls the move “irregular and inappropriate.”

October 24: The BC Prosecution Service announces that the Special prosecutor appointed on April 1 “has concluded his work with no charges laid.” He had been investigating allegations against Mayor McKay and former Councillor Pratt.

October 30: The 2017 Core Services Review Annual Update shows that only 15% of recommendations have been completed, versus the over 70% projected to be completed by this date. It is unclear if there have been any savings to date from the $250K review, which in 2016 had estimated a minimum of $4M in savings would be found.

Early November: Tracy Samra changes course, ordering staff to leave Council Chambers entirely during Question Period, citing “toxic” questions from the public. However, City HR Manager John Van Horne admits there have been zero staff complaints regarding public behavior at Council meetings.

November 12: Journalist Dominic Jones uncovers that the CAO and CFO’s 2016 expenses were 500% and 650% respectively larger than their predecessors’ 2015 expenses.

November 16: Tracy Samra sends an email to all City staff accusing someone of leaking “personal information” to “third parties.”

December 2: In response to widespread criticism posted on the City’s Facebook page of a seemingly highly partisan “budget” video released starring Tracy Samra, the City begins to delete comments critical of the video. Later in the day, it effectively shuts off the comments function on the City’s Facebook account, and removes commenting from the City’s Instagram account. On December 4, the City’s “E-Town Hall-Budget Process” proceeds, but with social media commenting largely disabled.

December 4: Jim Kipp states in a Council meeting, “A few old people get run over in the neighbourhood, it doesn’t bother me as much as a couple of kids getting run over.” Public response is scathing, and he gives a qualified apology two weeks later.

December 6: Blaine Gurrie, CUPE union local President, sends an email to members stating, “The members in the SARC building and other places around the City have had enough of the terminations, the chaos and the blame leveled at staff regularly from council and the CAO.” Almost 500 City employees who are CUPE members boycott the City Christmas party the next day. Gord Fuller’s public response is “If anybody on staff has an issue with anything, they should be contacting us directly…But at this point, I’ve heard nothing”, a statement which contravenes Samra’s longstanding orders to Council that all communications with staff must be through her.

December 6: Journalist Dominic Jones publishes that “the City of Nanaimo hired a specialized law firm to target critics for potential legal action [as early as November 1]…McConchie Law Corporation specializes in suing people for defamatory statements and having content removed from the Internet.”

December 8: In response to widespread criticism of the CAO and CFO’s expenses, the City issues a news release stating “Her [Samra’s] annual hospitality expenses are consistently lower than other City CAOs and GMs.” Within minutes on social media, a quick crowd-sourced breakdown of major BC municipalities indicates that Samra’s 2016 expenses were in fact 2nd highest out of the 12 cities with records readily available.

December 8: In response to the staff boycott of the Christmas lunch, the City issues a news release stating that city senior management have met with CUPE leaders to discuss union complaints. CUPE quickly refutes this claim, and indicates no such meeting had taken place.

December 11: In response to widespread criticism that free speech is being muzzled, the City of Nanaimo issues a news release stating “The City intends to remain vigilant…alerting Nanaimo residents to misleading or inaccurate information about the operations of the administration…We are particularly concerned about deliberate falsehoods, distortion, or half-truths…” The release also claims that some messages have been reported to the RCMP.

December: Sanitation manager Charlotte Davis is fired, and then reinstated 3 weeks later.

December 15: A year after spending $60K to upgrade the audiovisual equipment in the boardroom at the City’s Service and Resource Centre, it is discovered that Finance and Audit Committee meetings, held in that boardroom, are no longer being filmed. When asked, no Councillor is aware the filming had been ceased 3 months prior.

December 18: Council votes to increase 2018 residential garbage tax 24%, water tax 7.5%, sewer tax 5%, property tax 2.7%. (Bank of Canada 2018 estimated rate of inflation is 1.7%.) On December 21, the City admits the 2018 residential garbage tax increase will be 40%, and a 43% increase for commercial rates, but later analysis shows the increase will actually be 66%.

December 20: Tracy Samra finally admits to the News-Bulletin that a “culture of fear” exists at city hall, and she will be instituting a change management program for her staff. She does not indicate if she will be taking the program.

December 27: Council announces via news release that they have discontinued a vexatious 2016 civil suit against Mayor McKay, just days before the suit would have expired with no action. In a Canadian Press interview, Gord Fuller finally admits “we’ve spent way too much on lawyers,” but the City does not reveal how much that amount was in 2017.

To date: Final costs for the failed Event Centre have still not been released, but are estimated to be at least $1M, and possibly as much as $2M.

To date: The Goldner Report has not been released to the public.

To date: The City has not released the CAO and CFO’s corporate credit card statements under the Freedom of Information Act.

To date: The City has not released the cost to taxpayers of staff firings.