Ditch drainage uprising in Kent

Former chair won't sit on appointed drainage committee, will continue to contribute to discussions

Some Agassiz farmers are refusing to take roles in an appointed drainage committee, following a heated debate in council chambers on Monday night.

They say they don’t agree with the new terms of reference for the Agassiz-Harrison Mills Drainage Committee. That committee has been chaired by Andy Bodnar for the past several years, and has been a part of the District of Kent’s political framework since 1922. Bodnar spoke out against the changes to how the committee is appointed, during a question and answer period following the February 13 regular council meeting.

“Why change anything?” he asked Mayor John Van Laerhoven.

“I guess we’re interested in seeing if we can make it work better,” the mayor replied. But the discussion soon became argumentative, with Bodner turning to the audience to call an impromptu meeting for the following day with last year’s committee members, and the mayor becoming visibly rattled by the confrontation.

Bodnar, along with others who commented later during the Q&A session, claimed that none of them were notified of impending changes to the terms of reference. Bodnar also said he wasn’t consulted about a change in who would be chairing the AHMDC. The new chair is newly-elected Councillor Duane Post, who is also a District farmer and the past vice-chair of the standing committee. His position as the committee’s new chair was appointed by the mayor. The Community Charter states that the chair must be appointed by the mayor.

The rest of the committee for 2012 was formed from a list of suggestions provided by Bodnar, according to District council minutes. That list was drawn up following the AHMDC’s December 15 meeting, however, being an election year council is only now dealing with the committees (which includes the Kent Agricultural Advisory Committee).

Bodnar voiced concerns that the committee would no longer be independent of council.

“Agriculture people are very independent people. And this is a kick in the head to the agricultural people in Agassiz,” he said.

“Did you consider discussing this (change) with your committees?” Bodnar asked Van Laerhoven. “Did you ask anyone on this committee if he would like his name to stand as appointed? … You didn’t even have the decency to tell me, as chair, that you were going to change something.”

When Van Laerhoven and CAO Wallace Mah insisted that all members of the committee had been contacted and invited to a February 7, 2012 meeting to discuss the committee’s future, many of the farmers in the audience called out that they hadn’t been contacted.

However, the District of Kent has provided The Observer with a copy of an email that was sent to the committee members on the morning of February 1, 2012. It invited nominees and committee members to a February 7 committee of the whole meeting at Kent Municipal Hall, and was sent by District staff.

An internal memo also lists the members that were contacted by email, as well as by phone, all on February 1, by a staff member.

There is no doubt that the terms of reference have changed, however. The upcoming changes were discussed briefly at a previous council meeting, and the new terms were on the agenda for the February 7 committee meeting of the whole.

A memorandum from Mah to Kent council, dated February 14, further explains the changes. It states in the Community Charter that the chair must be appointed by the Mayor. It also states that members of committees must be appointed by the mayor. That was something that was already happening, but wasn’t in the previous terms of reference, Mah told The Observer.

Files from July 2010 and December 2010 show that “council ratified the Mayor’s appointments to the AHMDC.” Chair in both cases was Andy Bodnar, and vice-chair was Duane Post.

While Andy Bodnar stated he will not take part in the committee now that appointments are written into the terms of reference, a committee of the whole meeting was held on Tuesday this week. That meeting, at the District office, was held shortly after a meeting was held at Bodnar’s residence to dissolve the previous committee.

Several committee members attended the committee of the whole meeting, but not Bodnar.

When contacted Thursday by The Observer, Bodnar said the issue is with how the changes were made.

“I’m not really thrilled with the appointments, period,” he said. “But the big thing with me is the way they did it.”

He said that although he still will contribute to discussion, and provide feedback, he feels the committee is being changed from what it was originally meant to be.

“They want to go with three (members) from the general tax base, which is totally away from what the committee was originally designed to be,” he said. “It’s been around since 1922 … and typicially it was the acreage levy payers that looked after it, and orignally the Hammersley prairie farmers.”

It’s low lying farms, like Bodnar’s and Ted Westlin’s, that are most affected by flooding, a common occurrence that they say has gotten worse since hand cleaning was started in many areas of Kent.

“Someone in Agassiz isn’t going to appreciate the problem as much as we do, or see it as a problem as we do,” he said.

He’s not walking away from the discussion, though.

“I’ll still participate,” he said. “But I won’t be a member. The meetings are open to the public.”

Now, the District will set out to contact all the members again to finalize which of them wish to continue with their appointments. If not enough people agree with the terms, the District says they may decide to advertise for new members. Alternatively, Mah said council may wish to reduce the size of the committee, or dissolve it entirely.

Van Laerhoven said it’s time for the committee “to move forward in a positive way.”

“Council is looking to be accountable to the taxpayer,” he said. With a council member as chair of the committee, information can travel between committee and council faster, and be acted on more efficiently. In the past, it could take months for a draft of the committee’s minutes to be passed onto council for approval.

The Drainage Committee is an important one in the District, Van Laerhoven said, acting solely as an advisory committee. Its main focus in the past several years has been on attempting to get ditches maintained in a timely manner throughout the District. This is often a contentious issue, involving many arms of government, including the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Lands, Forests and Natural Resources.

Many of the ditches aren’t getting cleaned well enough, farmers claim, to allow for proper drainage.

Van Laerhoven said council and staff are just as frustrated with the amount of red tape it now takes to get a ditch cleaned.

“We are as frustrated as the people in the ditching area are,” he said. “But we have to work within the regulations.”

And while it may seem like an issue only farmers need to worry about, Van Laerhoven said all residents should be aware of the issues with ditch maintenance.

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