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General News · 2nd February 2020
Noba Anderson - Regional Dir.
Present Day Hornby Ratepayers & Its Cortes Ancestor

Join a public discussion about creating Cortes Community Council: Saturday, February 15, 3 pm, Manson’s Hall. Free Childcare

Meeting facilitated by Kristen Scholfield-Sweet and co-sponsored by Folk-U, Cortes’ emerging learning lab.

Find attached below the summary version of this long article that went into Cortes mail boxes on Friday.

I have yearned for a Cortes Community Council; something that pulls from the old ‘ratepayers association’ days and adds to it our best thinking about democratic structures. Let’s organize locally to build Community Council, to create a space to talk about what most matters in these rapidly changing times; a place to listen together. There is so much emerging right now on the Island. What is being called for is a different way or organizing ourselves; a way that is not about any one elected representative, person, party, or way of thinking. How can we create a new way of governing ourselves? How can we take old wisdom and re-weave it with new ways of knowing, thinking and acting, so that we can better prepare for our future challenges? I don’t have the answers, but together I know that we can bring a remarkable creation into being. What new version could arise?

I invite you to join in a community discussion to explore the possibility of creating local community council. What might it do? Who would it be? How would it be formed?

I wanted to learn about ratepayers associations so I visited Hornby to learn from their present day Residents’ & Ratepayers’ Assoc. and spoke with Bruce Ellingsen about Cortes’ historical equivalent.

The BC Regional District structure was created by the Provincial Government in the late 1960s, mostly as an instrument for local service delivery in rural areas. Cortes became an Electoral Area within the Comox Strathcona Regional District when it was established in 1967 and then, in 2008, transitioned to the new Strathcona Regional District. The Regional District model was set up primarily to collect property taxes and deliver services such as sewer, water, rural land-use planning, economic development and emergency preparedness. However, before Regional Districts existed, many rural areas organized themselves through the creation of a local society often known as a Ratepayers Association; an association representing property owners/tax (or rate) payers.

Hornby Island
Hornby is an interesting player for two reasons. First, it is the most comparable gulf island to Cortes. Like us, it’s two ferries away, has the same year-round population, counts tourism as a huge economic driver, has a similar settlement history and societal leaning, and boasts the same awesomely insane plethora of community organizations! Second, Hornby has a present-day working model of a Ratepayers Association. Although I believe that we can design a Community Council that better fits our needs, theirs is still working for them. Their Regional Director, Daniel Arbour, says that his job is simpler on Hornby because so much clear direction comes from the community through the Ratepayers! It adds weight and cohesion to what comes before the Regional District.

While rural Ratepayers Associations were fading from the BC governance landscape after the advent of the Regional District system, in 1979, Hornby Island renamed theirs to include ‘Residents’ in order to better represent the changing makeup of their community. Today’s Hornby Island Residents’ and Ratepayers’ Association (HIRRA) is still going strong. I have been told that if you ask a Hornby resident who doesn’t much follow local politics ‘What is Hornby’s local government?’ they may say that it’s HIRRA. www.hirra.ca

HIRRA is a BC non-profit society with a unique role in the administration of Hornby’s tax dollars. In partnership with the Comox Valley Regional District, volunteers on HIRRA committees manage and oversee the local delivery of the following Regional District services:
~ Community Recreation programs ~ Regional Parks and Trails
~ Comfort Stations (a.k.a. the Privy Council) ~ Community Hall
~ Fire Protection via Hornby Island Fire Rescue ~ Invasive Weed Control
~ Recycling and Waste Management including the Free Store
~ Boat Ramp

HIRRA also has three other committees that do not have tax funding. They are:
~ Cemetery maintenance and management ~ Fall Fair organization
~ Emergency Preparedness planning and education

HIRRA is also responsible for a public well, owns property and holds critical Crown Land leases that support the social and organizational hub of the Island. As far as I can tell, HIRRA is truly at the organizational heart of the island and works for the benefit of the whole community.

HIRRA extends free lifetime memberships to all Island property owners (regardless of their nationality or where they live) and all residents who have lived there for the last 6 months. At their Annual General Meeting the HIRRA membership elects a 4 person executive as well as some 60 people to sit on the committees noted above. They hold monthly public meetings where all their business is discussed openly. At these meetings they hear reports from their committees, other island committees, political representatives, etc. Climate change is also discussed at every meeting.

HIRRA meetings are conducted according to their Guide to the Etiquette of Meetings (see photo at the top of this article) which has dramatically improved meeting deliberations by focusing on issues rather than persons and showing respect for each person’s right to express their opinions.

HIRRA produced a booklet, ‘The Hornby Way’, which provides an overview of the spirit of local governance and ‘how things work’. Its basic premise is that they have a complex society in miniature which depends on all parts of that society cooperating with and supporting one another.

The Hornby Island Community Vision Statements, a project of the Community Economic Enhancement Corporation, constitute an articulation of the “ideal Hornby Island in the year 2020”. Its Vision states: “Hornby Islanders intimately understand this island’s natural cycles, its community and its needs. We will continue to find ways to bring as much decision-making power as possible into the hands of the community.” The section on governance states:

“In the year 2020, Hornby Island community members support, value and actively participate in an innovative model of autonomous governance. This new structure is responsive to the community, encourages and facilitates egalitarian participation and is based on the principles of consensus building and cooperative conflict resolution.
This kind of governance structure will:
• Be reflective of our diverse population
• Retain local taxes to meet local needs, wherever possible
• Have in place clear conflict resolution mechanisms to resolve community disagreements on policy, neighbourhood, political and land-use issues
• Maximize local decision-making on local issues
• Co-operate with off-island agencies and resources
• Facilitate inclusive and wide-spread participation in decision-making
• Encourage community groups to meet regularly to create a network/forum for discussion, celebration and decision-making.”

Although there is much worth learning from Hornby, it falls short in a few big ways. Notably, the regular attendees at HIRRA meetings are the same few dedicated elders who keep showing up, but do not represent the changing diversity of the Island. Also, its primary focus is on delivering Regional District services to the community, which is by its very nature a stable, yet not particularly dynamic, space. I understand that the edgy innovation on Hornby Island comes from other organizations.

Cortes Island
Cortes too used to have a Ratepayers Association, so I went to learn about HIRRA’s ancestor to the north. During the 1900s, Cortes Island Ratepayers Association dealt directly with the Provincial Government on issues affecting the Island. The Ratepayer was an important part of the Island’s political functioning until it folded some fifteen years after the formation of the Regional District.

I spoke with Bruce Ellingsen, an elder and lifetime Island resident, who was on the Cortes Ratepayers Association executive in its last years - late 1970s and early 1980s. “Things were simpler then” Bruce began. “Anyone was welcome to attend and speak on issues affecting the Island but, when it came to voting on matters that involved taxation, only property owners were allowed to vote, one per property and it was usually men.”

“The Ratepayers Executive was elected yearly at the Society’s Annual General Meeting. Everything was done on a volunteer basis and there was no core funding. Other meetings were held at other times as issues arose.” In response to my queries about the dynamics of public meetings, he said “The meetings were reasonably respectful although, at times, there were some fairly ‘hotly debated issues’ that required the use of the gavel!”

Bruce recounted some of the issues that were dealt with by the Ratepayers for Cortes Island:
• negotiations with the Province to bring in BC Hydro service,
• negotiations for the provision of ferry service,
• development of Subdivision and Land Use bylaws,
• development of the original Official Community Plan,
• getting an exemption from pasteurizing for Hazel and Ken Hansen to continue selling raw milk.

“It worked well until the early 1980’s” Bruce recalled, “when Raven Lumber [Raven was a private land forest company that owned a lot of land on Cortes in the ‘80s] took advantage of new density-averaging regulations to subdivide their South Point Road property in a way that ignored the Rural 10 Acre development provisions in our Community Plan. The Ratepayers took the developer and the Regional District (who supported the developer) to court to contest the issue, raising the necessary funds on Cortes. We won that case and the appeal case a year later, only to then have the Provincial Cabinet pass a law that said the developer did not have to comply with the Community Plan! That took the wind out of the Ratepayers sails and it quietly folded shortly thereafter.”

In closing, I asked Bruce to reflect on the overall value of the Ratepayers as we contemplate creating a new Cortes Council. “It provided a space where local issues could be fully discussed, a forum to speak to issues that mattered. The Ratepayers worked issues through to a consensus before sending them on to the Regional District or wherever. We didn’t leave it to outsiders to determine what happened on Cortes!"

Where to from Here?
We need a renewed space for our community to hear its own voice. Listening beyond ourselves must become a way of life. A community that stops listening gets sick, and we have some community health matters which need our attention.

Our current formal governance model is a very different approach from the Ratepayers days of community discussion and consensus building. We have a regional district system that, by its very nature regardless of the people involved, leaves decisions off-island with a group of people that know little about our community. This is not Cortes Community Council.

However appropriate the Ratepayers were in their day, providing a space for community discussion, we can’t go back. These were the days mostly before the ferry, BC Hydro, phones and of course the internet. This was before the huge abundance of community organizations that have created so many more spaces in which to discuss community matters, and indeed pulled our collective attention and volunteer hours in so many directions. Although all these groups provide a quilt-work of great local discussion, action and representation, this grass-roots layer of local governance has little internal unity or coherence yet. In its current form, it is not Cortes Community Council.

So... what to do?... Do you too sense a piece missing in our local community governance fabric? In this time of chaos and change, we know that we cannot fix our present-day problems with the same thinking that got us into them. How can we take old wisdom and re-weave it with new way of knowing, thinking and acting, so that we can better prepare for our future challenges? I don’t have the answers, but together I know that we can bring a remarkable creation into being. What new version could arise? I imagine a group of you who dedicate yourselves, perhaps for a year, to learning from other models, consulting our community, and recommending a form and function for a Cortes Community Council. Come imagine together! Ask the hard questions. Offer valuable critique. Bring your ideas. And above all, bring your love for this remarkable place.

See you at 3:00 pm on February 15th, in Manson’s Hall Pioneer Room. Free childcare provided in the main hall.

Warmly, Noba Anderson
Regional Director, Cortes Island
nandersonsrd.ca, 250-935-0320