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Comment: Public interest abandoned by harbour board

The arrogance demonstrated by the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority board in refusing to seat the Victoria representative, Coun. Shellie Gudgeon, shows how far the authority has deviated from its founding vision.

The arrogance demonstrated by the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority board in refusing to seat the Victoria representative, Coun. Shellie Gudgeon, shows how far the authority has deviated from its founding vision.

How did this “local” group veer so far from public scrutiny, and even from socially acceptable good corporate accountability?

The GVHA was born out of a desire for local business and the community to have control of the harbour, to have more than a voice — to have responsive, ethical, local and accountable governance.

The vision of local control of Esquimalt and Victoria harbours disappeared before the GVHA was even registered as a society. Rather than a public-oriented body with a mandate over Esquimalt and Victoria harbours, the focus became the control of only Victoria’s harbour. The evolving governance structure minimized resident and City of Victoria participation while entrenching Esquimalt, the Capital Regional District and the Provincial Capital Commission regional interests, along with industry interests.

In 2005, Geoff Young sounded the alarm about the GVHA governance structure, identifying the absence of either public body or private sector checks and balances within GVHA.

Last week, during the two-hour debate, Victoria council member Young, who served as an alternate director on the GVHA board during a previous term on city council, referred to the harbour board as “self-perpetuating.”

GVHA board membership has five components: public-interest appointees, First Nations appointees, harbour-user representatives, other business interests (Tourism Victoria, Chamber of Commerce), and up to four directors chosen by the board based on expertise.

Observers have seen the rules and definitions shift to circumvent the intentions of GVHA’s founding memorandum of understanding and pre-2011 bylaws, including the appointment of public representatives and renewal in its governing board. The erosion has taken several steps.

By 2006, members could serve one-, two- or three-year terms and were eligible for one reappointment. This limit provided wiggle room for board members to shift from one category to a new appointment. In 2008, this was broadened to permit a member to serve for more than six consecutive years. The changes of 2011 allow for three terms of up to three years each, or nine years on the board with opportunity to serve for more than nine years with the approval of two-third of board members. In February 2006, the current chairman, Bill Wellburn, was welcomed to the board.

Through creeping bylaw changes, the GVHA has stripped the City of Victoria, Township of Esquimalt and Capital Regional District of the power to appoint directors, to the more passive role of “nominating” individuals who may be appointed by the board “at its sole discretion.”

The role of the City of Victoria representative is not to provide expertise on cruise-ship movements or the marine industry. Rather, the city appointee exists to safeguard the public interest. Even private-sector organizations recognize the value of having diverse skills and experiences on their boards.

Other changes further diminished public scrutiny. The 2002 memorandum of understanding prescribed monthly public meetings. These monthly meetings became bi-monthly, six per year. Last year, the meetings were reduced to quarterly meetings, four per year.

Two findings of the GVHA Reputational Survey, commissioned by the harbour board (Malatest report, January 2011), speak to the organization’s performance. Findings suggested GVHA clients are happier with its performance than other stakeholders and the community. Said the report: “Maintaining the Victoria Harbour as a working harbour achieved the highest rating among the four goals identified, while acting in the best interests of the Victoria Harbour received the lowest rating.”

It is time to end the pretense that the GVHA is an authority. The inclusion of the word “authority” in its name provides the society with undue influence and credibility. Although the GVHA owns what used to be public lands, it does not meet the criteria for port authorities under the Canada Marine Act (including requirements for direct appointments from public bodies and independence of directors from marine-industrial users). Transport Canada recently confirmed that Victoria Harbour seabed would not be divested. This non-divestiture has been known to GVHA for years. Since GVHA is not, and will not be, an authority, it is time to correct the misperception. The board should alter the organization’s name to remove the word “authority.”

Although Victoria does not have a harbour authority, it does have a port authority — Transport Canada.

Finally, the City of Victoria must be resolute in the protection and representation of the public interest. As a democratically elected body, Victoria city council cannot let itself become subservient to the harbour board. It must demand that the GVHA accept the unanimously selected city council appointee.

The City of Victoria must not capitulate; it must not betray the public interest.


Marg Gardiner is president of the James Bay Neighbourhood Association.