Colliery dams most difficult decision of 2015

Nanaimo Mayor Bill McKay reflects back on the highlights and challenges of 2015, and looks ahead to the priorities of the coming year.

Making a decision on the Colliery dams was the most difficult decision of the 2015 and one of council’s achievements, according to Mayor Bill McKay, who now wants to see “real investment” in the park.

McKay sat down with the News Bulletin in the last days of 2015 to talk about the highlights and challenges of his first year as the city mayor, from a new water treatment plant to a decision to build an auxiliary spillway and need for third-party intervention among councillors.

McKay said as of now there will never be a boil water advisory in Nanaimo. The state-of-the-art, $71-million water treatment plant and filtration system went online this December and he calls it an important initiative.

He ranks Colliery dams as the most difficult decision for Nanaimo city council, as well as an achievement.

The province required the city to remediate the middle and lower dams because of potential safety hazards, but for months council could not agree on the fix, with calls for further consultation and reviews. By April, the City of Nanaimo was slapped with a formal order from the B.C. Comptroller of Water Rights with deadlines to do the work. At the 11th hour council agreed on remediation for the lower dam.

It was difficult decision for McKay who said the expectation was he’d fight the province and there were people who felt betrayed by his vote to move ahead with remediation, but he changed his outlook based on new information. The dams issue wasn’t fun, but that there’s now forward progress on an auxiliary spillway is an achievement, he said.

“After three years of debate, we finally broke through the barrier and while some people believe we might have been forced to make a decision, we made a decision and now we are going to get it done and we will be able to put that controversy and this very divisive conservation behind us so we can get on with other things.”

The mayor now wants to see investment into Colliery Dam Park, like with picnic tables and park benches. He also wants to ensure landscaping around the new spillway includes fast-growing native species so “in another 30 years from now, nobody will remember this big fight we had over that.”

Council itself is working with a facilitator with the Integrity group, hired last June to help the politicians get along. Council still has heavy lifting to do, according to McKay, who says it’s “sad” because the group is so diverse and talented with much to bring to the table. He wishes they could do it in a more respectful manner, and calls third-party intervention key.

Work with the Integrity Group was put on hold while an independent investigation was done into a complaint of bullying and harassment at city hall, which is ongoing. McKay, however, expects facilitation to resume in 2016.

The year also marked a change in city managers. Ted Swabey resigned and interim CAO Tracy Samra was hired. She announced this December a plan to save money by downsizing the senior leadership team, including the elimination of remaining general manager positions, as well as a zero per cent tax increase for the provisional budget.

McKay said he is concerned the decision seemed to be made to fit a budget rather than accomplish the work and there may not be enough human resources to complete tasks required by council in a timely manner. But time will tell.

Looking ahead, McKay said the priorities for the upcoming year will be completing core review and setting a new strategic plan.

“Hopefully we’ll have the intestinal fortitude to make the decisions that we need to make to achieve our goals,” he said.

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