COLUMN: The day the microphone was turned

A public hearing is a time to address council, not a time to speak to the audience

I remember the day when a microphone was turned.

It was a public hearing, held in the Summerland Secondary School gym in April, 2014. At issue was the municipality’s Urban Growth Plan.

The plan, also known as the land swap, was extremely controversial. Of all the council decisions I have covered here over the past two decades, this one was by far the most contentious.

The proposal was to remove from the Agricultural Land Reserve 80.34 hectares close to the core of the community and add 91.7 hectares in the Prairie Valley area.

Some believed the land exchange was needed for the community. Others were strongly opposed to the plan. A petition opposing the growth strategy had more than 3,000 signatures, 1,500 from Summerland residents.

The show of opposition was visible, with the Stop the Swap message displayed on signs and bumper stickers.

The hearing lasted more than three hours and during that time, most of the 39 speakers let council know their opposition to the plan.

Speakers lined up, approached the microphone, faced council and talked about why they thought the plan was a bad idea (or, in a few cases, why they thought it was a good idea.)

But then, roughly halfway through the presentations, one of the speakers turned the microphone to face the crowd.

I found this shift puzzling.

The land plan was not a matter for the public to decide. It was not a referendum item. Instead, it was in the hands of the mayor and four councillors. (Two councillors who owned land within the affected area had not participated in any of the discussions or votes, and were not present at any of the hearings on this plan.)

If the public couldn’t vote on this matter, why were speakers addressing the audience? Why not speak to the council members instead?

I have been remembering that public hearing because it has some similarities with an upcoming hearing in Summerland.

The hearing, on Feb. 5, will give Summerlanders the opportunity to speak out on the Banks Crescent development proposal.

That proposal, while smaller in scale than the land exchange, is equally controversial.

Once again, there is an organized movement in opposition. Signs have been displayed and a petition has been circulating for more than a year.

The petition has more than 3,000 names, with the vast majority from Summerlanders. The level of opposition is quite noticeable.

On the other side, more than 1,200 signed letters of support have been collected, and another 270 people have given support without signatures.

But the decision on the Banks Crescent proposal will not be made by the community. It will not go to a referendum. It will be up to the seven members of municipal council.

Since council will make the decision, it is important for speakers to face the council members, not the audience.

It is not about the number of people for or against this development.

In a statement on the public hearing, Linda Tynan, chief administrative officer for the community, said, “There is no requirement in the legislation that the elected officials must vote in accordance with the wishes of the majority of opinions expressed at the public hearing. Elected officials must hear everything and then make a decision.”

The decision will be made by the seven people who sit at the council table, not the thousands who have signed support letters or petition forms.

The challenge at this hearing will be to present strong, well-reasoned arguments for or against this development proposal.

John Arendt is the editor of the Summerland Review.

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