September 01, 2016 - 9:00 PM
"I THINK I DID THEM A FAVOUR"
VERNON - The director of an Okanagan festival society is questioning the provincial government’s decision-making process after a proposed amphitheatre in Vernon was kiboshed by the local MLA before all the facts were in.
The controversial Kalamalka Bowl project proposed for construction at Okanagan College’s Vernon campus was shot down by Vernon-Monashee MLA Eric Foster in June of this year, putting to bed roughly five years of work by the non-profit Okanagan Summer Festival Society.
And while the society had a Memorandum of Understanding with the college to pursue the concept and eventually apply to the Ministry of Advanced Education for approval of the lease agreement, a freedom of information request by iNFOnews.ca shows the application process was cut off before it even got started.
The society’s managing director Diane Bond says her group planned to have environmental studies and acoustical engineering tests completed before an application was ever sent to the ministry, but those efforts came to an abrupt halt with Foster’s announcement on June 1.
“Mr. Foster intervened in the process we had been told to anticipate and that we were in good faith working towards fulfilling the requirements of,” Bond says.
The society signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Okanagan College to develop the idea, which included coming up with funding, conducting community consultation, and providing engineering and environmental studies. When that was all done, it was the college’s responsibility to forward a full application with all the supporting documents to the Ministry of Advanced Education for consideration of the long-term lease agreement, Bond says.
“That’s what never happened,” Bond says.
Documents obtained through a freedom of information request by iNFOnews.ca show the provincial government never received an application for the amphitheatre before MLA Foster announced the project would not be going ahead.
A June 18 email between Ministry of Advanced Education staff states that Okanagan College had not approached the ministry to discuss the potential lease therefore, “there was no reason for (the ministry) to step in.”
In Bond’s opinion, the fact they never got the chance to submit a full application to the ministry shows the overall process was short-circuited.
“If you pull the plug on something before the file is assembled, then what it means is… you really don’t know whether on the merits if it’s a good project or not,” Bond says.
Our access to information request showed letters sent to the ministry from local residents, Coldstream Council and the North Okanagan Naturalists’ Club opposing the amphitheatre, and those sentiments are why Foster says he stepped in and halted the project.
“There was literally no support from the community for this,” Foster says.
He says he made his feelings, and the feelings of local residents, clear to the Ministry of Advanced Education that this project should not go ahead, and the ministry agreed. Local residents were concerned about noise, parking, traffic congestion and environmental degradation.
Our freedom of information request didn’t reveal any communication between Foster and the Ministry of Advanced Education, and a specific request for his correspondence on the matter was declined because MLAs fall outside the scope of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.
Foster says there are no emails between himself and the ministry because he spoke to Minister Andrew Wilkinson about it in person.
“When we’re sitting in Victoria I see him every single day,” Foster says.
Having heard his concerns, Foster says the ministry gave him the final say.
“They left the decision to me because it was a local decision,” he says.
While he understands the decision was upsetting to the society, he says it saved them a lot of undue time and money on costly studies.
“I said to them, look, you’re going to spend a whole bunch of money, I don’t see the municipality or the community changing their minds. Before you do that, I’m just going to tell you this is not going forward,” Foster says. “I think I did them a favour.”
He says the situation is an example of a good idea in the wrong location, one that would have degraded the quality of life for residents living near the campus.
“The decision was made based on what the community wanted — simple,” he says. “That’s my job.”
For her part, Bond says the society always expected to have the opportunity to do their homework and show the Ministry of Advanced Education how they would deal with noise, parking and environmental concerns, but they never got the chance.
“If the minister decides to delegate the decision (to the MLA) the minister decides to delegate the decision, but they still didn’t look at the whole picture. They listened to a special interest group and they caved,” she says.
When contacted by iNFOnews.ca, the Ministry of Advanced Education said Minister Andrew Wilkinson was not available for an interview about the amphitheatre. This statement was provided in writing in response to our inquiry: “Due to overwhelming opposition from the community including residents and the local municipality, the project did not proceed.” Attempts to get answers to additional questions, such as the typical process for third parties applying to lease college land and the role of local MLAs in that process, were ignored.
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