Moderate members of Nanaimo city council have been working desperately behind the scenes to move the city’s business forward following the dramatic events involving controversial city manager Tracy Samra.
But the fragile initiative to forge a detente between the two feuding council factions is being threatened by hardliners who seem determined to continue the conflict that has wracked the city since early 2015.
Monday’s council meeting will likely reveal to residents whether the more moderate members on each side can put the city on an even keel into the next election, or if the debilitating internal strife that has pushed council to the brink will continue.
The city’s business community, which has effectively withdrawn support from council for the past 18 months, is watching keenly from the sidelines.
The outcome on Monday could see a wide range of business stakeholders come together as early as Thursday to talk about the economic path forward.
Meanwhile, confusion over Ms. Samra’s employment status with the city is complicating matters.
She has not formally resigned her position at the city even though News Nanaimo has learned that she accepted a new position with the shíshálh Nation in Sechelt on Tuesday night.
The Nation announced her appointment in a news release that included a quote from Ms. Samra on Wednesday.
On Wednesday night, police arrested Ms. Samra for allegedly uttering threats earlier in the day against certain council members, former staff and this reporter (see disclosure below).
She was released on conditions that effectively prevent her from going to work at the city or attending council meetings until at least her scheduled court date March 27.
However, since no resignation has been tendered, city officials are effectively stymied from taking any action that could trigger a constructive dismissal claim from Ms. Samra. At stake is a payout of at least $205,000, a year’s pay.
The delicate situation over Ms. Samra’s status is one reason that mayor Bill McKay has not made any meaningful public statements all week on the dramatic events at City Hall.
His lack of visibility and responsiveness to questions has attracted heavy fire from critics on social media who have called into question his leadership at a time of rampant uncertainty for the city.
In comments to News Nanaimo, Mr. McKay conceded that there appears to be a leadership vacuum, but insisted that it was not the case behind the scenes.
He said he would have liked to be more open and visible but in the interests of the city he is heeding legal advice and focusing his attention on supporting city staff.
Bestwick holds power
However, while the mayor is the council figurehead, the real power rests with majority leader Bill Bestwick, who since 2015 has set council’s agenda with a five-man majority that originally appointed Ms. Samra.
Mr. Bestwick has been silent on the drama taking place at the city. He is understood to be on his annual vacation at his condo in Hawaii, but staying in touch by phone and email.
Observers say it is hard to know how Mr. Bestwick will decide to move now that Ms. Samra is out of the picture.
He could keep his majority together or decide to break it and join in an uneasy coalition to bring stability rather than strife to the city.
The other four men in his majority are evenly split between less hardline Jerry Hong and Bill Yoachim, and diehards Jim Kipp and Gord Fuller, who are staunch Samra loyalists and blame the mayor and councillor Diane Brennan for council’s troubles.
If Mr. Bestwick chooses a moderate path, Mr. Yoachim and Mr. Hong will likely follow, allowing for a broad middle of seven to form, with councillors Brennan, Sheryl Armstrong, Ian Thorpe and the mayor.
That would leave Mr. Kipp, a long-time council ally of Mr. Bestwick, and Mr. Fuller on the fringes.
When this was suggested to Mr. Kipp today, he responded with a tirade via email (see “Kipp on being a moderate” below).
However, personal animosity rather than policy differences is the barrier to a moderate middle forming, say insiders.
Mr. Bestwick harbours a deep-seated resentment towards Mr. McKay and Ms. Brennan and may find it impossible to be part of any broad coalition of centrists.
With just nine months left in the term, any moderate coalition will need to focus on fundamentals, such as installing an interim city manager as caretaker until the new council can chose a permanent replacement, insiders say.
It may also mean that disruptive initiatives like the proposed second core services review will need to be sacrificed, which may not be acceptable to Mr. Hong.
Whatever happens at Monday’s meeting, it is now clear that Ms. Samra has exited the scene and the next nine months will determine whether voters are willing to give any of the incumbents a second chance in October’s election.
All members of council were approached for input on this article, only Mr. McKay, Ms. Brennan, Ms. Armstrong and Mr. Kipp responded.
Disclosure: News Nanaimo is unable to obtain comment from Ms. Samra because she is currently prohibited from contacting this reporter directly or through a third-party under the terms of an arrest release undertaking. This reporter did not request these conditions. News Nanaimo’s position is that the release conditions violate press freedoms and Ms. Samra’s right of reply.
Kipp on being a moderate
This is the unedited text of councillor Kipp’s email to News Nanaimo today:
“Moderation or Status quo = out of sync ballooning wage benefits, CSR pg 61 and $250 Million shortfall in asset RMR coming in 5 election cycles! That’s moderation
Empty schools, empty buildings, concurrent illness and drug culture rot, toxic environments both human and natural, fear based poverty and racism by the pasty white tiki torch gang to the south and you think you know the real problem!
Yes there are causal links to the mess of power drunken dumb-mock-crazy, you just ether can not see the linkage or chose not to accept.
Instead sadly you think municipal politics is a career. Sadly it is for spoon fed moderate politicians and the bureaucrats that feed them and off of them. Scroll back to my first two lines for facts on the symbiotic relationship of petty power and a financially unsustainable race to high payouts and failed assets!
As for a praying? how about for the children of abuse? Mental health and addiction? or for a waterless cape town?”