Be careful what you wish for

Be careful what you wish for If the city of Whitehorse and Community Services Minister Archie Lang have their way, the rather mysterious Official Community Plan (which is being released to the public in a series of sound bites) will be adopted under a d

If the city of Whitehorse and Community Services Minister Archie Lang have their way, the rather mysterious Official Community Plan (which is being released to the public in a series of sound bites) will be adopted under a damaged Yukon Municipal Act.

The minister has refused to deal with the municipal act in the wake of the recent BC Court of Appeal decision that swept away rights legislation placed in the act with much enthusiasm in 1998. He says he’s being “guided” by the court. It’s an untenable position, and all Yukon citizens should be concerned about the passive-aggressive stance taken by Lang.

The question before the BC court was whether Yukon legislators intended to exclude the Official Community Plan from the public votes section of the municipal act. There are three specific exemptions to public votes in the act. The Court of Appeal declared there was a fourth implicit one, that is, the Official Community Plan.

The former minister of Community Services, Dave Keenan, who brought in the act in 1998, recently said that’s wrong: the Official Community Plan was, in fact, intended to be subject to public votes. (Others who helped draft the act say the same thing.)

The public votes section was placed in the act as the counterbalance to the increased autonomy of municipal councils, and the removal of the Yukon government’s ministerial oversight over municipal government.

Keenan also pointed out something has to take the place of public votes for the OCP if that right is removed.

The Yukon legislature didn’t need the former minister to give it a good reason Ð although he has Ð to address the municipal act in front of the public and with the public.

The act still has the original three exemptions to the public votes section. The fourth exemption declared by the Court of Appeal is something we’re just supposed to know, it seems. What else is only implicit in the municipal act, or can be coloured as such?

Lang knows very well, from the results of the 2008 Yukon Municipal Act review, that there was strong public opposition to the proposal put forward by the Association of Yukon Communities to limit public votes beyond the original three exemptions. Results from the public consultations for the city of Whitehorse OCP reinforce that message from citizens.

Whitehorse city manager Dennis Shewfelt insists to city council and the public again and again that the Court of Appeal has affirmed council’s “paramountcy” in the municipal act. He should know better. His rather self-serving interpretation of the Yukon Municipal Act is a perversion of the act’s vision of an empowered council and citizenry, which enabled citizens to use the direct democracy tool of the public vote as a check on council’s decisions.

The original Municipal Act Review Committee acknowledged, when they presented their ambitious proposals back in 1998, that if the act didn’t allow for public votes “on any matter,” alternative methods of oversight should be put in place instead, such as an independent municipal board that the electorate could raise concerns with.

The Association of Yukon Communities, instrumental in bringing in the 1998 municipal act, and which once championed citizens’ empowerment within the act Ð they’d say anything back then, it seems, in order to break free from the Yukon government

Ð now says it doesn’t expect to discuss the act for awhile.

That’s a switch. As recently as September, Bev Buckway, president of Association of Yukon Communities, and mayor of Whitehorse, was eager to get going on discussions to make the tattered remnants of the public votes section even more useless.

But maybe someone clued her in that the virtually unchecked autonomy she’s now enjoying as mayor is only temporary, until integrity is restored to the municipal act.

“Be careful what you ask for,” was Shewfelt’s message to the AYC in 2008. Indeed. The act’s “permissive nature”Ð that city hall likes very much Ð should also be a thing of the past, if the act reverts to a more traditional model of governance, as the British Columbia Court of Appeal decision has “guided” the Yukon legislation toward.

It should go without saying that the city of Whitehorse Official Community Plan has to be suspended until the Yukon Municipal Act is rehabilitated so that it serves citizens again, and not just politicians and technocrats.

Otherwise, we might as well prepare to live with the results of a land-use plan that reflects the reality that decisions for our city are made by a handful of people, and they’re currently accountable to no one at all.

Marianne Darragh