A complaint alleging there is too much secrecy in North Cowichan’s public consultation process into the future of its municipal forest reserve has led to an investigation by the provincial Office of the Ombudsperson.
The complaint was made by sixmountains.ca, a website dedicated to providing information about logging in North Cowichan’s 5,000-hectare municipal forest reserve. The site is run by Larry Pynn, a veteran environmental journalist and author who lives in Maple Bay.
Pynn said sixmountains.ca sought the investigation after the municipality and its consultant, Lees & Associates, refused to open up meetings of the citizens’ working group that is guiding public consultations on the future of the forest reserve.
He said members of the working group voted 58 per cent on July 6 to open up their meetings, but that was not deemed good enough.
Pynn said Lees & Associates and the municipality decided that almost 100 per cent unanimity would be required to “lift the veil of secrecy” at the meetings.
“The complaint by sixmountains.ca asserts that meetings of council are open to the public, as are meetings of the forestry advisory committee and the official community plan advisory committee, and that the citizens’ working group should be similarly open,” he said.
In an email to Pynn, Kate Morrison from the Office of the Ombudsperson, which is described as B.C.’s independent voice for fairness, said she has decided to investigate his complaint.
“Our investigation will focus on whether the Municipality of North Cowichan has followed an administratively fair process in establishing the working group, including procedures for open meetings of the working group,” Morrison said.
“The next step in our investigation is to seek the municipality’s response to this issue.”
North Cowichan Mayor Al Siebring said the Community Charter specifies what the municipality can and can’t do behind closed doors, and North Cowichan works hard to live up to the charter’s protocols.
“The Office of the Ombudsperson is free to look at it, but I’m confident they won’t find any breaches [of the Community Charter],” he said.
“We’ll wait for the Ombudsperson’s ruling before we’ll comment further.”
Many in the community had been demanding for some time to have more say in management plans for the municipal forest reserve, which is publicly owned land.
So in February, 2019, North Cowichan council endorsed just the completion of existing 2018 forestry contracts in the forest reserve until experts were tapped for their input and the public has been thoroughly consulted on what people want for the future of the forest reserve.
But in July, Icel Dobell, a member of the Where Do We Stand organization that is part of the working group, said the group appears to be just a “rubber stamp”, and the “deep, broad, transparent, inclusive, accountable, unbiased process we had expected has not transpired”.
She said there had been several times the working group has been given instructions not to put out materials to the public, and the group’s meetings are closed and the consulting firm and the municipality have refused to record them for the public.
“[Where Do We Stand] joined the working group in good faith to contribute to a transparent engagement process, but it is being kept secret,” Dobell said at the time.