By ROY WOOD
Members of Oliver council returned Friday from a week in Vancouver at the annual Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM) convention, featuring opportunities to lobby provincial ministers, delve into the details of municipal governance and network with civic politicians from around the province.
Oliver’s delegation – Mayor Ron Hovanes, Councillors Petra Veintimilla, Larry Schwartzenberger and Maureen Doerr and chief administrative officer Cathy Cowan – spent about $13,000 of the town’s money for the week. They think it was well worth it.
The centrepieces of the weeklong talkfest are the audiences that individual communities have with individual cabinet ministers.
“It’s important that we’re at the table,” Hovanes said in a recent interview. “Even those 15 – or 20 – minute meetings with the ministers. Often times they’re only the start or only a piece of the pie of trying to get funding support for our community.”
The mayor added: “If you don’t show up at the table, they’re just going to assume that everything’s fine with you.”
Oliver had three main issues to discuss: funding for the $10-million repair to the irrigation canal system; assuring 24-7 emergency room access at the South Okanagan General Hospital (SOGH); and increased staff for the RCMP detachment that now is required to respond to cases at the new provincial jail.
Veintimilla said the meeting with Health Minister Adrian Dix, which included Osoyoos Mayor Sue McKortoff, was positive.
“We were just basically there to reiterate that 24-hour emergency care is imperative,” she said. The delegation pointed out that the SOGH catchment area includes about 20,000 people and in the summer considerably higher with tourism and special events.
Veintimilla was happy that the minister said he has full confidence in the decision-making capacity of Interior Health, which recently supported a proposal from local doctors encouraging an ER payment plan for doctors at SOGH that is similar to the one at Penticton Regional Hospital. Lower pay in Oliver is seen as one of the barriers to retaining doctors in the community.
On the irrigation canal front, the town succeeded in moving forward a proposal to encourage the federal government to change water-funding criteria to include agricultural irrigation projects. The motion was passed unanimously by delegates and will go to the province with the hope it will encourage Ottawa in that direction.
Schwartzenberger said in an interview the Oliver delegates spoke with Transport Minister Claire Trevena and Agriculture Minister Lana Popham, urging them to lobby their federal counterparts on the issue.
The Oliver contingent was encouraged by the response from Solicitor General Mike Farnworth and RCMP deputy commissioner Brenda Butterworth around hoped-for increases in the size of the local detachment.
Hovanes reiterated to them the need for additional officers now that files are being forwarded by the corrections branch regarding incidents at the Okanagan Correctional Centre. He said Butterworth has approved the business case “now it’s up to the ministry.”
As for disappointments, Schwartzenberger said he had hoped for some enlightenment on looming changes to the rules surrounding the sale of medical marijuana.
“The province announced they were going to start a dialogue with citizens regarding distribution models, age limits and all that kind of stuff,” he said. “This is happening in 10 months. I was hoping we’d get a little more clarity … (But) I guess we’ll just have to wait.”
The Vancouver get-together was the first for the NDP government of Premier John Horgan after 16 years of Liberal government. Veintimilla said she found the new group of ministers refreshingly relaxed. “I would say that things seemed a little less formal. (There was) a little less ceremony around everything. Just maybe a little more casual, which is nice.”
Schwartzenberger said that while the ministers are new, “They all seemed to have had their homework done and they recognized the issues.”
“You never get an immediate answer to your asks, but they all seemed very understanding and Cathy Cowan was with us at all the meetings and she will follow up with ministers’ staffs and try to move the issues forward.”
Asked about the costs for the week, Cowan said the final expense are not in yet, but based on last year’s numbers the total cost will be in the area of $13,000 for registration, airfares, hotels and means.
As for whether the town gets value for the money, Boundary-Similkameen MLA and former Oliver mayor Linda Larson is enthusiastically on the yes side.
“Municipalities need to build relationships with the current government and the best way to do that is to go to the UBCM and get your 15 minutes of fame in front of them so they get to know your community and your issues. It’s valuable from that perspective.
“Being there is important,” Larson added. “That 15 minutes may be the only (time) you ever make contact with that minister … After that you’re dealing mostly with staff. … This way you can always say you met with the minister and the minister said he would look into it and you can do your follow-ups.”
Aside from meeting with ministers, the delegation attended seminars and discussion groups on a variety of topics related to municipal government.
Veintimilla said a forum for mid-sized communities was particularly useful. One of the issues, she said, was physician retention. “(We discussed) some of the strategies and some of the programs they’ve used to attract and retain doctors (We might) can take them right away if they worked well. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel everywhere.”
She described the week as very valuable. “To be surrounded by like-minded people, to be able to learn from each other. Hear the great things that are happening and the struggles that are happening. To me it was very beneficial.”
Editor’s note – Councillor Doerr also attended the UBCM this year but could not be contacted by the reporter