The new council in the Municipality of North Cowichan will be sworn in on Nov. 7, and the seven-member body faces numerous challenges during the next four years.
Tackling them will be the responsibility of North Cowichan’s new mayor Al Siebring, who brings almost 10 years of experience at the table as a councillor; as well as returning incumbent councillors Rob Douglas and Kate Marsh and newbies Christopher Justice, Tek Manhas, Rosalie Sawrie and Debra Toporowski.
The new council covers a wide range of the political spectrum, but Siebring, who is a past president of the BC Conservative Party, doesn’t see that as an impediment for the group to work together and govern well.
“We have six very bright and passionate councillors and I’ve been meeting with each of them to determine what committees and external liaison position that I will appoint them to,” Siebring said.
“We may be different politically, but we need trust and good faith at the table. As I said during the campaign, no one on council wants to make North Cowichan a worse place to be and will do what they can to make it better. There may be differing opinions but we’re all there for the right reasons. Providing good governance through respectful dialogue is incumbent on all of us.”
Broadening the community’s input into council’s decision making was a common theme in Siebring’s campaign, and he said he intends to explore the possibilities.
He said local governments are typically the most accessible types of governance.
“Except for real estate, staff and legal issues which are considered private, all the municipality’s business is done in public, and meetings are open to the public,” Siebring said.
“The real challenge is receiving input from the vast middle section of the municipality. On my speed dial, I have phone numbers from people considered green and the pro development ‘let’s get it done’ people which are the loudest voices at the two ends of the spectrum, but the trouble is in trying to gauge what the average citizen thinks and wants. The only time they tend to provide input is when they are really angry about decisions that council has made.”
Siebring said he is considering setting up public meetings in coffee shops and other venues in which he, and possibly a number of councillors at a time, would make themselves available for informal chats in which people can talk about any issues that concern them.
He said input is also important from community and neighbourhood groups, but these groups should not be under any illusion that they have any veto power over development plans or other issues being considered by council.
“It’s council which makes these decisions,” Siebring said.
Siebring said it’s ultimately up to council as a whole to determine which issues it will consider priority items when their term begins, but a high priority for him to is to continue the municipality’s ongoing efforts to improve relations with the local First Nations.
“I think we’ve done a good job of raising the cultural awareness and sensitivity between North Cowichan and the First Nations and we need to continue to build on that,” he said.
“Improving relations with First Nations benefits our respective communities. I recently had lunch with (Cowichan Tribes) Chief William Seymour in which we talked about ways to facilitate our moving forward together.”
Siebring said he also intends to begin a regulatory review of North Cowichan’s bylaws to determine which of them are obsolete and need to be struck from the books.
As for dealing with the ongoing affordable housing crisis, Siebring said he wants to look at what regulatory obstacles there are in the municipality that may be hindering construction of affordable housing in North Cowichan.
“We have taken some steps, like opening up secondary suites in a number of areas, and some rental apartment buildings are now under construction; some of the first since the 1980s in the municipality,” he said.
“I supported the land grants that we gave to allow affordable housing projects on Sherman Road and Chemainus. As well, the (CVRD’s) referendum on affordable housing passed and I have no intention of refighting that.”
In regards to the opioid crisis and its impacts on North Cowichan, Siebring said that the issue has “many tentacles” that also involve senior levels of government.
He said there are concerns at the municipal level, with one being the amount of time and resources it takes from local police, which are funded by the municipality.
“When responding to situations involving people with mental health and addiction issues, the law says the police can’t walk away from them until the hospital takes custody of them, which could take up to two or three hours, all of which we pay for,” Siebring said.
“That’s really an element of social work so the question is, how do we change this paradigm. We do have a program in which social workers ride along with the RCMP once a week to help share the load, so we should look at more of these types of programs. In Kelowna, there’s a drug store that pays 10 cents for every returned needle as an incentive to clean up discarded needles, but it has yet to be determined if any local businesses would be prepared to step up and do that.”
Siebring also said he intends to try and restructure some of the municipality’s many committees to make them more efficient and effective.
He said he’d like to see fewer committees that meet more often.
“For example, the agriculture committee meets four times a year, and it’s sometimes hard to get the agriculture people there for the spring and fall meetings because they are usually out in the fields,” he said.
“A good plan would be to expand the community planning advisory committee with representatives from the agricultural committee, and have CPAC meet once a month instead of quarterly.”