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Councillor solicits support for co-treatment option

Political science professor says there is nothing wrong with being an advocate

A City of Powell River elected official solicited support for co-treatment before council voted on a treatment option.

Councillor Dave Formosa sent out an email asking people to send a letter to mayor and council in support of co-treatment. He also telephoned some people who had signed a petition opposing co-treatment.

City of Powell River council approved a phased consolidated treatment option as the preferred choice for liquid waste management, subject to a long list of conditions, at a special council meeting on June 27. The option combines joint treatment, a proposal to treat the city’s sewage at Catalyst Paper Corporation’s Powell River mill, with a stand-alone consolidated plant to be built sometime in the future.

Formosa said he sent the email because he is concerned about rising taxes and he knew there was support in the community for co-treatment, even though opinions collected through the city’s public consultation process overwhelmingly opposed that option. “I am truly concerned about the taxes,” he said. “Here we have an opportunity to deflect a $20-million expenditure that we can use for something else.”

Formosa’s email explained that borrowing for capital projects, including the south harbour, Wharf at Westview, drinking water system upgrade and the athletic track, equate into an eight per cent tax increase in 2012. “I think people need to know,” he said. “I let certain people know who I thought were in favour of co-treatment. They were losing their voice and maybe they wanted an opportunity to voice that they do support it. That’s why I did that.”

Powell River Water Watch Coalition presented a petition to city council with over 1,000 signatures opposing co-treatment. The organization has posted a message on its website that states: “We would like to advise petition signers that we have discovered that a city councillor is using the petition to contact people in order to change their opinion on the sewage treatment issue.  It was absolutely not our intention that the petition be used by a councillor as a call list. Because the petition was presented at a public council meeting, this does not breach privacy rules; however, WWC feels it is unethical.”

Formosa said he decided to phone people who signed the petition in order to ask them what it is about co-treatment that they disagree with. He said they might have a position “that I may not have been thinking of that will affect me and my vote.”

People seemed quite happy to hear from him, Formosa said, and they talked about the issues with him. “I didn’t call to win my case,” he said. “I truly wanted to know what they were thinking.”

Patrick Smith, a professor of political science at Simon Fraser University, said there is nothing inherently wrong with a councillor being an advocate for something. “It’s not the first time, and it won’t be the last time, that such things occur,” he said.

Any good democrat would say that “we should have bigger ears than mouths and that we should listen to all points of view and be prepared to be convinced otherwise,” Smith said. “But the reverse of that is not that someone shouldn’t have an opinion.”

Most legislators tend to prefer what Edmund Burke said in the 1800s, Smith added. “The representative should prefer the interest of his or her constituents to his own, but he also owes those same constituents his good conscience and his honest opinion.”

As well, Smith pointed out, local government elections are taking place this November. “One of the interesting things about the idea of preferring not your own opinion, but the opinion of your constituents, is that that tends to be higher just coming up to an election,” he said. “Somebody stepping out in a way that is quite contrary to local interests, you would think would be fairly sensitive to the possibility of paying a political price.”

Also, Smith said telephoning people who signed a petition is not unethical. “It’s perhaps a little unusual,” he said. “But, in a sense, he did what they asked him to do in some way, which was to confront the alternative point of view.”