North Saanich councillors walk out of meeting

Calling a line of questioning "an inquisition", three councillors left a discussion on a new housing report, effectively ending the meeting.

Three District councillors in North Saanich got up and walked out of a meeting Aug. 19, citing the “inquisition-like” line of questioning of another councillor, effectively ending the session. It’s another strange turn for a council sharply divided over the future of housing growth in the community.

Councillors Craig Means, Conny McBride and Dunstan Browne left municipal hall after Coun. Elsie McMurphy began asking questions of the consultant who prepared a report on the state of housing and potential density growth in the District. McMurphy asked if the consultant, Ed Grifone of CTQ Consultants of Kelowa, had been contacted during the consultation process by any of the three councillors listed, as well as Coun. Ted Daly, who was not at Monday night’s meeting.

McMurphy, who later said she submitted a Freedom of Information request, said she did so to obtain details about councillor contact with Grifone. She added she wasn’t sure if the report had been compromised as a result of that contact but the sudden departure of the three councillors raised more questions.

“I didn’t really think (councillors contacting Grifone) was of any consequence – until now,” McMurphy said, adding the information she obtained shows councillors have had contact with the consultant at various times during the process.

For their part, the three councillors who left the meeting admitted they have had contact with Grifone — although they say it was innocent in nature, simply asking for a time to expect his report.

“I phoned him a couple of times,” said Mearns, adding it wasn’t anything important. “I’m not sure about anyone else.”

Mearns had asked staff approximately two months ago to collect all of the correspondence during the consultation process, between councillors and municipal staff and the consultant – and to have it made public. McMurphy said her FOI request was for information even before the start of the consultation process, but after CTQ had been hired. For her part, she said she never made contact with Grifone outside of the consultation process. She added she was even asked to leave a meeting with him to which she wasn’t expressly invited.

“I’m not aware of any influence in the process,” Mearns said, adding he thinks the whole line of questioning on Aug. 19 was a strategy between McMurphy and Mayor Alice Finall to discredit the consultant’s report.

Finall, McMurphy and Coun. Celia Stock have continually been at odds with the majority of council on the housing issue.

“We’ve never had this happen,” said Finall. “I have never seen this happen before. I’m disappointed because this issue is so important to the community.”

Finall said McMurphy had every right to ask her questions, which included asking if Grifone had ever met with a councillor in a private situation.

McMurphy, during the meeting, asked Grifone if he recalled a conference call with Daly. For his part, Grifone said he did not and would not comment further when approached by the Peninsula News Review. McBride later told the News Review that Daly did call Grifone, but it was done at municipal hall with a staff member attending. She said she also emailed him, asking only for a time to expect the report (McBride emailed her correspondence on this to the News Review after the meeting).

At one point of the meeting, Means warned “if this is going to be an inquisition, I’m leaving.” After Finall defended McMurphy’s line of questioning, the three walked out to mixed applause, cat-calls and even one call for the councillors to resign. Without enough councillors sitting at the table, Finall was forced to end the meeting.

“They were making a mockery of the whole situation,” said Browne. “We have a consultant and we got a comprehensive report and the purpose tonight was to ask questions about it — not for this to turn into a witch hunt.”

Browne admitted he too had called Grifone, again only to inquire about timelines. He indicated there seems to have be influence alleged from all sides. He called McMurphy’s questions inappropriate and one of his reasons for walking out.

“This is an intention to discredit Grifone’s report,” said McBride, “and to discredit Councillor Daly.”

She and the other two who left the meeting said they are willing to stand up to criticisms they left council without dealing with other District business – including accepting Grifone’s report which would have allowed his to be paid to balance of his contract. Browne added there’s plenty of time to deal with other municipal matters that were on the evening’s agenda.

Finall said no matter the positions taken, ending the meeting will significantly slow down the District’s planned changes to its housing policy.

Council will give the matter another try at a scheduled September 9 meeting, set up to specifically debate the housing report and to allow public input. All of council is expected to be at that meeting.

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