By Alison Taylor
The municipality admitted this week it misread the community’s concerns about entering into a public/private partnership for its sewage treatment plant upgrades.
In a report released Monday, municipal staff outlined some of the lessons learned in the process, which spanned two years, cost $1.3 million, generated more than 1,800 signatures from community members during the Alternate Approval Process, and ultimately saw the current council reverse a previous council’s decision to pursue a P3.
“I think the message (to the community) is that council was very concerned about the process,” said Mayor Ken Melamed after Monday evening’s council meeting. “We were not happy internally and acknowledged that there are lessons to be learned and our interest is never to repeat that process again.”
That’s good news to Pina Belperio, who sits on the national board of directors for the Council of Canadians, a group pivotal in rallying opposition to the P3.
“I knew they had the lessons learned (session) and I wasn’t expecting to actually hear about it but I’m happy that they did come clean with it and it’s a great start,” she said.
The five key points detailed in the report are:
• a communication plan should have been initiated much earlier in the process and carried on throughout the debate, beyond the normal council meetings;
• because this was a significant project that bridged two council terms, consideration should have been given to holding an information sharing session with the previous council who approved the P3 and the candidates who were running for office;
• a RMOW survey shows a public preference for referendums on controversial issues in order to exercise their right to vote;
• the community strongly values environmental protection services and believes the public sector must retain full control of all water systems, and;
• the municipality misread the importance of this issue to the public.
“You learn by making mistakes,” said the mayor. “Making mistakes has less power if you don’t talk about them and acknowledge what they are.”
Councillor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden, one of the P3’s most outspoken critics, called for the lessons learned session last year.
One of the lessons learned to consider in the future, she said this week, is to ensure that the value engineering process is transparent and done by someone with no particular bias.
“The process wasn’t transparent,” she said. “It just wasn’t.”
Belperio agrees but she said the process is a two-way street. Not only does council have a responsibility to be open, the community must also get informed.
“I hope that council continues to be more transparent with their decisions but I also think it’s up to the community to also get involved,” she said.
Under new provincial legislation, Whistler, like other B.C. municipalities, will have to evaluate the benefits of pubic-private partnerships in the future when considering projects that involve at least $20 million of provincial funds.
When asked what that could be, the mayor said possibly sewer projects, road projects and potentially water.
Now that the P3 sewage plant has been abandoned, the municipality is using information collected in that process towards the multi-million dollar upgrades using the traditional design-bid-build approach.