Two letters from the Downtown Vernon Association’s board of directors brought onto Vernon council’s Monday agenda left one councillor fuming with the mayor over the move and taking aim at the association.
Coun. Scott Anderson was visibly upset that the original letter from the DVA asking to clarify statements made by Anderson and Coun. Kari Gares during a regular council meeting, and a subsequent letter that arrived a week later following a meeting between the two sides and suggesting things had been smoothed over, were brought into the public domain.
“It’s unfortunate that this letter was elevated to council in the way it was, frankly,” said Anderson.”I’m a great advocate of transparency in government but all of us here know that some things are best dealt with elsewhere. I feel compelled to bring this up because it’s in the public spotlight to answer it.”
At the regular meeting of council Jan. 7, discussions were held about one of the city’s Activate Safety Task Force recommendations in which, the DVA board said, Coun. Gares “expressed concerns about the executive of the DVA during the discussions.” The DVA board, in its Jan. 10 letter, quoted Gares: “Businesses aren’t really eager to to attend because they feel they just don’t have a voice and maybe that comes from the DVA and how the executive is managing the business relationship…”
The board also included an Anderson quote: “…has to meet with a representative of business and not through the DVA because that is another matter,” and expressed concerns to the city over the comments. The board met in-person the following week with Anderson, Gares and Couns. Dalvir Nahal and Brian Quiring.
The Jan. 7 council discussion is available on video on the City of Vernon website.
“Concerns numerous people have raised with the DVA – and I’m talking about a widespread issue – are three-fold,” said Anderson. “There are institutional concerns, marketing concerns and advocacy issues.”
Anderson said there’s an increased sense the DVA is a “closed shop that has its own agenda and isn’t really inclined to listen to the people.” He said there is a “sense of intimidation; a lot of stores don’t want to challenge the DVA on some of its direction.” In terms of marketing, Anderson said he’s been told by more than one business that there are “increased costs and a reduction in actual services,” though he declined to go into details.
The biggest issue, he said, is advocacy, and pointed to the opening of more beds at a building beside the Turning Points Collaborative Society’s shelter on 33rd Street in October.
“A letter came out two days after the (municipal) election saying, without any prior consultation, that they were opening a new shelter and in a shop that had very publicly changed from that location because of the existing shelter. That’s rubbing salt into the wound.
“Businesses feel like David against Goliath.”
Anderson said customers and businesses in Vernon are fed up with the “tone deaf response,” and “are looking for somebody to stand up for them.”
Gares said her comments in the board’s original letter had been taken out of context.
“You didn’t acknowledge what was stated before and after, and took a segment of that and I’m not sure what the narrative is,” said Gares. “To clarify my comments, it’s exactly what Scott said: businesses are angry. They’re frustrated.
“These are small mom-and-pop shops. Families working 10-, 12-, 14-hour days to make sure they have food on the table, and no one is advocating for their concerns and plights they are going through.”
Anderson suggested the DVA stop acting as an advocate altogether and concentrate on marketing.
“Then they don’t have to get on this, they don’t have to take sides and they don’t have to appear to be siding with service providers and justifying it by saying they’re businesses, too. Leave advocacy to the (Greater Vernon) chamber of commerce. That may be the way to go.”
Quiring, council’s rep to the DVA, and who owns and operates a business in the downtown core, said he hasn’t received any complaints, and said the matter is a council issue, not a DVA issue.
“The role of the DVA is to market downtown, get people downtown, encourage business in downtown,” said Quiring. “They run on a fairly tight budget. Although they can acknowledge problems, they can’t solve them. To think they’re going to do the work we should be doing is absolutely the wrong strategy.
“Council needs to deal with the problems in the downtown and let the DVA continue doing a good job of marketing downtown and tell whoever will listen that the downtown is a good place. That’s their job. Our job is to make sure the crap’s that going on gets fixed.”
Quiring agreed with Anderson that the matter should not have been on the regular agenda. Anderson said it “only hurts the DVA,” and said he “assumed it was the mayor who made the decision” to put the letters on the agenda.
Mayor Victor Cumming said the matter was already in the public realm.
“I’m not saying we should manage it differently, but once it’s open in the public realm, we’re in the open public realm, then we can manage it in an effective way,” said Cumming. “To have things half-in, half-out is not the long-term strategy or action that I see for this council. If it’s in the open, it’s in the open. That’s how we deal with these things. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t get messy.”
Three DVA staff members were in attendance at Monday’s meeting, but did not have the chance to respond to the comments made. Asked for a comment following the meeting, the DVA said they would be releasing a statement. As of press time Thursday, no statement has been given.
Council voted unanimously to invite the DVA to present at an upcoming meeting.