Rob Sawatzky promised accountability during last fall’s election campaign, but now that he’s mayor, some residents may question that commitment.
He recently denied a request from a resident to present a 1,670-name petition opposed to Vernon council’s decision not to renew a service contract with Okanagan Landing volunteer firefighters.
“They are legal and labour issues and we are constrained by law on what we can say. The reason the laws are brought in is to protect the individuals involved,” said Sawatzky in his defense.
“We do not negotiate contracts via delegations or petitions.”
Under provincial legislation, there are three categories deemed to be in-camera or confidential: land, labour and legal.
However, on the surface, it doesn’t appear that council would break the rules simply by receiving a petition and listening to the presenter. If council doesn’t enter into a debate with the delegation, no private details have been disclosed.
It should also be pointed out that Sawatzky recently permitted a resident to make a pitch for purchasing a specific piece of property for park although land matters are in-camera.
Sawatzky’s decision regarding the Landing firefighters troubles Patrick Nicol, a veteran councillor.
“We’ve always accepted petitions. It’s freedom of thought,” said Nicol, who is pushing to have the petition ultimately presented by the resident.
“I understand where there are some suggestions about it being a contract, but previously, the very same issue had a lot of public discussions either way.”
In 2009, the council-of-the-day was presented with a staff recommendation to place unionized personnel in the volunteer Landing hall. The entire proposal — which could be considered legal and labour — was debated in the open, including at a raucous, standing-room only meeting at Wesbild Centre. Ultimately, the powers-that-be shot the plan down.
By not allowing a resident of the community to appear before their elected representatives, there may be the perception that the City of Vernon is not interested in being open and transparent.
And that would be unfortunate as Sawatzky and his colleagues have taken great strides to shed light on city hall operations through a core review. Sawatzky is also one of the architects of the looming resolution of Greater Vernon’s parks dispute and most of the horse-trading between the jurisdictions was done publicly.
In terms of the Landing firefighters’ contract, Sawatzky and three of his councillors raised their hands in favour of a new command structure. That is their right and one has to believe they did so with the community’s best interests at heart.
No one is asking council to break provincial legislation and disclose the details of private discussions. But a decision was made and the outcome of those discussions was released to the public.
Being elected to public office means you are accountable to those who put you there, and that means having to accept both praise and criticism.
If those council members who supported scrapping the Landing contract are confident in the route they took, they have no reason to hide.