Outreach Update – Recap on Jan. 14th City Council Meeting

by Tom Kertes (tomkertes@gmail.com)

The Prince Rupert City Council met on Jan. 14th with the city’s 5+ week boil water notice on the agenda. Acting Mayor Wade Niesh chaired the meeting. The meeting included a power point by the acting Mayor, an FAQ sheet provided by city staff, and a technical report by city staff. The acting Mayor spoke on the issue and staff answered some questions from Council members. Public comments were not on the agenda for this meeting, as they are usually scheduled only for the second meeting of the month. There was some discussion between Council members as well.

Substance of the Meeting

The FAQ sheet provided by city staff and the power point by the acting Mayor addressed many questions and provided an overview of events related to the boil water notice.

Here is a quick summary of the city’s report:

  • There are two water sources for the city. One lake is located at a higher elevation, making it less likely to become contaminated from natural sources. That lake has been the city’s primary water source for the past 40 or so years. As a temporary measure (as part of an infrastructure rebuild project – that includes rebuilding the dam, access room, supply lines, and other work), the city changed from the primary source to the secondary source (a couple of years ago).
  • The secondary source is at a lower elevation and is more susceptible to natural sources of potential contamination. The City says that a hot and dry summer, followed a storm this fall, caused the natural contamination that resulted in the need for a boil water notice. City staff say that the combination of these factors (use of the secondary source and weather conditions this summer and fall) are what led to the need for a boil water notice.
  • Working through regular monitoring procedures, Northern Health issued a boil water notice in December – once it was deemed required – and this was immediately communicated through the various communication channels of the city.

Remaining Questions from the Meeting – Priorities, Worst Cases

It is too bad that the first meeting after the issuance of a boil water notice did not include time for public comments and questions. That’s because the report and presentation left many questions unanswered, such as:

  1. Contingency plans – before? Was the City fully aware of increased risks to the clean water supply when it decided to switch from the primary to the secondary source (i.e. had this possibility been investigated at the outset of planning)? If yes, then were contingency plans put in place? Did these plans include provisions to ensure that clean water would remain accessible to vulnerable residents if needed?
  2. Priorities – clean water or something else? What priorities are driving the City’s rebuild of the dam? Is clean water the sole priority? Or is electricity generation a competing priority as well? Are there other priorities? Whose benefits are considered paramount in this planning process?
  3. Contingency plans – now? Now that we know of the elevated risks to our City’s clean water supply during the rebuild project, what measures will be put in place? Are contingency plans under development? Will access to clean water be provided to all those who need it – even if there is another boil water notice? How?
  4. Securing funds? What plans are in place if the City does not secure the $30 million in public funds from other levels of government? For how long will the City use the secondary source of water while this infrastructure rebuild is underway?

Concerns from the Meeting – Governance, Lack of Urgency

Transparency

As a volunteer (with no expertise in civil engineering or water works) I depend entirely on my city government and other government agencies to keep me informed of how public infrastructure projects are managed. I don’t pretend to be an expert, or in the know, about any of the technical aspects to the project.

That means that I need access to the city’s experts, and the best way to provide that is at a public forum. When city staff can respond to a range of questions and everyone can listen to the answers we can begin to understand together. I need to hear other people’s questions. I need time to hear back and forth discussions, to hear what is being left out of a report as much as what is being included. Given that clean water is one of the most essential services provided by government, when there is an emergency the city government should share what it knows with the community as a whole – in public, and for all to hear and see.

Transparency goes beyond sharing information at a public meeting. Access for journalists is just as important. I don’t know if City staff have been made available to local news reporters, beyond the communications officer, but we need reporters to have access to the entire process leading up to these kinds of decisions. What I do know is that information comes out in dribbles and it comes out in sound bites and talking points, not depth and detail. Again, as a citizen, I want to know that lots of thoughtful people – both in and out of government – have access to all the information. After all, these are public dollars at work for public benefits. The system only works when we can see inside all of its processes.

Tone

I left the meeting a bit confused and dazed, wondering if this what the City Council is always like. I understand that this Council has decided to only have public comments once a month and this was not the meeting for those comments. I wished that they had changed format, or just held a community forum on the issue (instead of a formal City Council meeting). But they didn’t and that’s something I can just disagree with for now. But I can’t the rudeness I witnessed by city officials – directed at concerned citizens who were in the midst of a 5+ week boil water advisory.

I felt like several of the counsellors where indifferent to civic engagement. We deserve better. Comments about “trolls” and “newcomers” are unnecessary – especially when this is the first and only public forum on an issue as important as access to clean water for 12,000 people. Hopefully the City’s tone will shift, with more emphasis on welcoming civic engagement and less on characterizing criticism of government policy as a problem.

Urgency

Beyond tone, my biggest concern from the meeting is what I see as a lack of urgency. I suspect that city officials already know that the water will get a pass in the days ahead. There have been several hints already – from both the mayor and city manager. And then, I suspect, they will hope that the problem (upset citizens) will go away. But that’s not the problem and this notice may only be a wake up call to a continual breakdown of the system, while we wait for the rebuild to get funded or for the City to put the system back together again.

The bigger problems are:

  • Problem of community engagement: Where is the kind of positive civic engagement that a community needs to thrive? How will the City do a better job at reaching out to all residents in times of emergency?
  • Problem of access to clean water – even if there is a boil water notice: How will we ensure that everyone has clean water – even if there is another boil water notice in the future?
  • Problem of unexpected rebuild delays – and/or next time: What measures can be put in place to avoid these problems from happening again – especially if the rebuild goes on for longer than hoped?

A boil water notice is a public infrastructure emergency. It is an urgent matter. When something we used to take for granted can’t be trusted on (like access to clean water for everyone) then trust needs to be rebuilt – urgently. But I did not sense any urgency from the Council as a whole.

Access to clean water is a human right. Our local economy – including home values and investment opportunities – depend on public infrastructure that works for everyone. The matter of clean water is urgent and I expect government to go out of its way to address all concerns when our water is at risk. A boil water notice for 5 plus weeks is an emergency – next time (and this time!) government should treat it as such. That’s how we keep the tap running – for everyone and for the long term.