News Bulletin’s stories of the year for 2017

Ten topics we feel made an impact on Nanaimo readers

News Bulletin staff scanned 12 months of headlines and selected 10 stories of the year for 2017. File photos and City of Nanaimo image

News Bulletin staff scanned 12 months of headlines and selected 10 stories of the year for 2017. File photos and City of Nanaimo image

News Bulletin staff scanned 12 months of headlines and selected 10 stories of the year for 2017, stories we felt made an impact on readers for a variety of reasons.

As part of our year-in-review coverage, we’ll also count down our most-clicked news, sports and arts and entertainment stories. Click here for the most-read arts stories of 2017; click here for the most-read sports stories. The most-read news stories will be listed in our Jan. 9 issue.

We’ll also count down the Top 10 Beefs of the Year on our website on Jan. 4.

Here are the stories of the year for 2017:

Downtown event centre rejected in referendum

The multiplex referendum ended with a resounding ‘no.’

The Nanaimo electorate voted against a sports and entertainment centre in a referendum in March, with 80 per cent opposed.

The subject of constructing a sports and event centre on City of Nanaimo-owned land at 1 Port Drive came to the forefront in the early part of 2017.

The referendum question asked taxpayers to “authorize council to borrow a sum not exceeding $80 million, repayable over a period of no more than 20 years, for the development and construction of an event centre that will include an ice arena and other related entertainment, cultural and recreation facilities.”

The debt service was anticipated at $5.4 million a year over 20 years and had a financing system that city officials said wouldn’t lead to a property tax hike, nor program or service cuts.

There were discussions with the Western Hockey League and the city spent money on feasibility studies and budgeted $130,000 for the referendum.

The ‘yes’ side said the facility would bring the WHL and high-profile musical acts could consider stopping in Nanaimo. The ‘no’ side said there wasn’t adequate consultation.

On referendum day March 11, 80.3 per cent voiced dissent, with voter turnout of about 37 per cent.

Mayor Bill McKay said he wasn’t surprised by the result.

“I expected that based on the conversations I’ve had with members in the community. I didn’t expect it was going to be this high,” McKay told the News Bulletin. “They’ve made their position very clear on this particular project at this time.”

Tali Campbell, spokesman for a group in favour of the arena, said he was surprised.

“Obviously it’s not the way that our team had hoped…” he said. “We now know Nanaimo is not in favour of the plan, the place, location, the spending amount, whatever it might be, so our job now is to hopefully … find a plan that’s going to better Nanaimo that everyone wants to see.”

Community sought solutions to overdose crisis

A day after Christmas in 2016, an unsanctioned safe-consumption site unexpectedly popped up in the parking lot at Nanaimo’s city hall.

It was a move led by Coun. Gord Fuller and it caught people’s attention. It also resulted in change.

By the end of 2016, it was no secret that Nanaimo had been dealing with a drug overdose crisis. With more than 20 people having died in the 11 months prior according to the Vancouver Island Health Authority, it was those grim statistics that led concerned citizens to establish the unsanctioned site.

“There are just too many people dying. Four years ago if you had asked me about a safe-injection site, I would not have advocated for it. But with fentanyl and now carfentanil in the works, things are just getting worse and worse,” Fuller told the News Bulletin at the time.

The injection site forced the closure of city buildings due to safety concerns. It also sparked VIHA to issue a statement expressing its intention to have a safe consumption site up and running as soon as possible.

VIHA in partnership with the Canada Mental Health Association and the provincial government opened Nanaimo’s first sanctioned safe consumption at 437 Wesley St. the last week of January. But the story doesn’t end there.

The current sanctioned consumption site is considered a temporary location as long-term supervised consumption site requires an exemption under the federal controlled drugs and substances act.

Island Health began collecting public feedback on its plan and location for a permanent supervised consumption services as part of an application process to Health Canada. Then in May, city council voted against a rezoning application that would have allowed the Wesley site to officially become permanent. Old City Quarter business owners and neighbourhood associations were among those who voiced concerned about the Wesley Street location becoming a permanent site.

Dr. Paul Hasselback, Island Health’s medical health officer for Central Vancouver Island, told the News Bulletin in October that the health authority tried to find other locations but hadn’t been able to come up with alternatives and that plans were underway to file another re-zoning application for the Wesley site to become permanent.

Missing teen found murdered

As 2017 draws to a close, RCMP investigators have been unable to close the book on one of Nanaimo’s most prominent missing person stories, one chapter of which ended tragically in May.

Makayla Chang turned 16 on March 1, just two weeks before the last time a friend saw her and just three weeks before she was reported missing to police on March 22.

As weeks went by following her disappearance with no sign of Chang, pleas from the Nanaimo RCMP for the public’s assistance to locate her turned into an extensive investigation to find the girl as friends and relatives added their voices of hope for Chang’s return and held vigils.

Police searches drew media attention as RCMP investigators combed through a home at 609 Bruce Ave. where Steven Bacon, a 53-year-old man Chang had become friends with, resided. According to Nanaimo RCMP, Bacon spoke freely with investigators. To date police have never identified anyone as a person of interest in the case or named a single suspect.

Searches of properties on Bruce Avenue and at Colliery Dam Park brought no reports of evidence to Chang’s whereabouts found.

On May 18, Nanaimo RCMP announced they believed they had found Chang’s body. Cpl. Tammy Douglas, RCMP Island District spokeswoman, confirmed the case was being treated as a homicide investigation being led by the Nanaimo serious crime unit. Because it was an ongoing investigation, RCMP would not provide further information.

Chang’s family and friends said their final goodbyes to the teen at her funeral June 7.

Chang’s father Kerry Chang has more than once vented his frustration over the pace of the investigation, but to date Nanaimo RCMP have announced no further developments in the case and the circumstances of her death remain a mystery.

Councillor’s alleged assault led to First Nations flag’s return

The resignation of one person on a nine-member city council was part of a sequence of events that made news all year long.

Wendy Pratt’s resignation came following allegations of a physical assault, documented on a YouTube video, and led to a byelection, a consultant’s report, citizens’ petitions, and, indirectly, to the removal of the Snuneymuxw flag from city hall.

Pratt quit at the beginning of April. She had been on leave following a February incident, caught on video, in which she appeared to knock a cellphone out of the hand of someone – presumably city chief administrative officer Tracy Samra – who was recording a meeting. Samra filed a complaint of physical assault, saying in a press release that she did so “so there would be a mechanism for this to stop and to get Mayor [Bill] McKay to stop targeting me.”

Consultant Roslyn Goldner subsequently prepared a report, which was presented to councillors July 26 but never publicly released. Samra suggested releasing the report would hamper efforts to move forward constructively.

In August, a citizens’ petition called for councillors to sign a code of conduct, and days later, a second petition was started calling for the mayor’s resignation, and an apology for the workplace violence allegedly experienced by Samra. McKay made no such apology, and his refusal to do so resulted in Snuneymuxw First Nation leaders asking for their flag to be taken down from Nanaimo City Hall as a response to a denial of violence against a First Nations woman.

City councillors wrote a letter expressing regret for the deterioration of the relationship with the CAO.

Sheryl Armstrong won a July byelection for Pratt’s vacated council seat.

City council byelection wasn’t even close

On July 8, Sheryl Armstrong handily beat out a field of 12 other candidates to become Nanaimo’s newest city councillor.

The former RCMP sergeant captured 3,611 out of 7,390, or 49 per cent, of the votes cast in the byelection to succeed Wendy Pratt. The runner-up, 24-year-old political consultant Sacia Burton, received 858 votes. Voter turnout was 11 per cent, according to chief election officer Sheila Gurrie.

Armstrong said she wasn’t expecting to win by such a large margin and her first priority was to get in tune with city governance. She said she had a lot to learn and some important items with which to familiarize herself.

“There’s the Colliery dams,” Armstrong said following her win. “I need to get myself up to speed on all of that, so I understand what’s going on … I’d like to work on affordable housing especially for those … that are struggling right now because of the rising prices of homes and rent, so that’s going to be an issue I’d like to look at seriously.”

Despite a lack of city council experience, Armstrong said skills she learned in her time with the RCMP will be beneficial.

“I think one of the things is I’ve worked with different levels of government,” she said. “I understand how government works because although [RCMP] is separate from it, we watch government.”

She added that she has experience “just working with people.”

“You work with different people from every background of life as an RCMP officer,” she said. “So you learn a lot from that as well.”

Mayor Bill McKay said Armstrong did a “great job” in her campaign.

“She came across very articulate, very confident of herself, in addition to which she’s not afraid to say ‘I don’t know the answer to your question,’” he said after the vote.

Armstrong has since served a stint as acting mayor and has been chosen an alternate to the Regional District of Nanaimo board of directors.

City began automating solid waste collection

Residents in Central Nanaimo saw the city’s $7.9-million automated system in action this year as the municipality hit start on its new service –and the fees to go along with it.

The Sort Toss Roll program launched for select households in October, marking the first phase of a transition from manual to automated waste pick up.

It was the culmination of two years of decision-making, which began in 2015 when city staff first pitched the idea of automation to address a system that was taxed by employee injuries and downtime with the fleet. It was proposed as a $6.8-million system that would see the city’s 10 trucks swapped out for eight new ones and 90,000 wheeled bins.

Employees would operate a joystick to pick up garbage instead of heaving it into the truck themselves and residents would get a trio of new carts, which were anticipated to be larger, more heavy duty and user-friendly than bins without wheels.

The city purchased two trucks as part of a council decision to automate one-third of the city’s garbage collection, but those were put in park in 2016, five months before the service was set to start, so politicians could consider results of a core services review.

In April of 2017, council announced a closed-door decision to move ahead with automation, standardized bins and in-house recycling, which would begin for a third of the city this fall and expand to the rest of the city in 2018.

It was anticipated to cost $7.5 million, reflecting more large trucks than the original proposal. Costs have since increased.

The city launched a public awareness campaign and also had a naming contest that led to its two trucks being introduced as Trash-O-Saurus Rex and Mommy.

With the system entirely funded by user fees, rates have also gone up. On July 1, rates went up from $102.75 to $118. This month, council approved a user fee of $165 for 2018, which represents an increase of 40 per cent compared to what people paid in total in 2017.

B.C. government changed, but local MLAs were all re-elected

While the 2017 B.C. provincial election in May saw drama and upheaval at the legislature in Victoria, it was a little tamer in the Harbour City.

Christy Clark and the B.C. Liberal Party lost their status as the governing party and the B.C. Green and NDP parties formed a coalition, leading to a new premier in John Horgan, but the faces of riding representatives in the Nanaimo area remained unchanged.

Long-time NDP MLA Leonard Krog regained power in the Nanaimo riding, taking 12,746 votes, while Paris Gaudet, Liberal candidate received 8,912 votes.

“This community has fought the fight for social and economic justices for well over 100 years and it is profoundly satisfying for me to be able to carry on that fight,” Krog said at the time.

A familiar face also retained his seat in the Nanaimo-North Cowichan riding, as B.C. NDPer Doug Routley took 12,275 votes, while B.C. Liberal candidate Alana DeLong received 7,380.

“It’s really inspiring to see that our message resonates with people,” said Routley on election night. “I think the ideas of equality and social justice, these are not worn out ideas, they’re underused ideas. It’s up to us to pioneer that and to keep fighting for these values that brought us all here together.”

And while orange was the operative colour to the south, the B.C. Liberals saw incumbent Parksville-Qualicum MLA Michelle Stilwell retain her seat, taking 14,468 votes, followed by B.C. NDP’s Sue Powell with 9,189 votes.

“Knowing that the people have chosen to re-elect me after four years, that I’ve done a good job and they want me to continue to do the work as their MLA and be their voice and that’s such an honour and privilege for me,” Stilwell said.

Nanaimo Clippers hockey team was saved, then sold

The Nanaimo Clippers aren’t going anywhere, but they were on thin ice for a while.

The team faced the prospect of relocation for a few weeks this spring, but community efforts bought the team some time, and the B.C. Hockey League club now has new, secure ownership.

The club’s continued existence first came into question during the multiplex referendum, which would have brought major junior hockey to Nanaimo. The multiplex idea was overwhelmingly rejected by voters, but later that month, the Clippers ownership group led by Ken Wagner announced it had found an out-of-town buyer for the club and gave the community a deadline to find local ownership instead. A Clippers hockey society was formed with community members pitching in to try to demonstrate that a community-owned team was a possibility.

Fundraising efforts were falling short this fall, but in the end it didn’t matter, as Vancouver lawyer Wes Mussio and his wife Penny bought the majority of the team in November.

More change came within weeks, as head coach and general manager Mike Vandekamp was fired and replaced by Darren Naylor.

City management saw restructuring, comings and goings

Ongoing corporate restructuring continued to overhaul the city’s upper management throughout 2017. Departmental shuffles and firings repeatedly adjusted the mix at city hall.

From January 2015 to May 2016, 15 non-unionized employees, including managers, left the city’s employment. Of those, nine retired and six resigned. From July 2016 until mid September of 2017, another 15 non-unionized staff, including 13 managers, were gone; six retired.

The city’s director of human resources John Van Horne confirmed in June that chief sustainability officer Kim Fowler was no longer with the city, and that three managers had left in the first six months of the year.

In September, Rod Davidson’s position as manager of bylaw, regulation and security was eliminated as part of what was referred to by the city as a corporate structural realignment. Davidson worked with the city for almost five years, first as its parking manager before moving into the bylaws manager position.

In late September it was revealed that Philip Cooper, hired as the city’s first communication director in 2012, was no longer employed with the city. Van Horne confirmed Cooper was gone, but gave no reason why other than to say the “realignment would be communicated in early October when all the pieces are in place.”

Brad McRae, chief operations officer, who had headed the engineering and public works, was repurposed to oversee the public safety unit that covers police, fire, emergency management and bylaw enforcement.

In early October, Tracy Samra, Nanaimo’s chief administration officer, said the city’s corporate restructuring was complete. The announcement was presented to city council with a new flow chart of the city’s revamped corporate structure. But it wasn’t long before some of the pieces in that restructuring plan were moved.

Charlotte Davis, manager of sanitation and public works, who was overseeing the implementation of the roll out of Nanaimo’s new automated garbage trucks and the Sort Toss Roll program, was fired Dec. 1. Nanaimo mayor Bill McKay, when asked about the firing, said he couldn’t comment on the reasons for the termination, nor had council been given any reasons for the firing and it wasn’t council’s place to be involved in staffing.

Bill Sims, manager of water resources, has since had director of engineering and public works added to his job title.

Davis is back on the job after her termination was reviewed and she was reinstated less than three weeks after she was fired.

McRae is on leave and Cooper is now a communications officer for the city of Penticton.

IHealth medical record system saw pushback

Nanaimo doctors continued to raise flags about IHealth in 2017, making Island Health’s electronic record-keeping system one of the top news stories of the year.

IHealth has been under the microscope since it first launched at Nanaimo Regional General Hospital and Dufferin Place last year.

The system is intended to go into other Island hospitals, with a vision by the health authority to eventually see one health record for every patient. As of June 30, a provincial budget update showed the system has cost $72 million and it’s anticipated to total $100 million.

Concerns were first raised with IHealth last year, when doctors expressed non-confidence and health care providers signed a petition that requested IHealth be suspended while issues with it were addressed.

Medical staff concerns were centred then on how the system slowed the pace of treatment in critical areas, like the hospital’s emergency room and intensive care unit, and resulted in missing or misplaced orders.

The health authority continued to use IHealth but took steps to address staff fatigue and boost staff trust, and later agreed with the B.C. Ministry of Health to a third-party review. The results supported keeping the system in place, but offered 26 recommendations for improvement.

In February, 75 per cent of Nanaimo Medical Staff Association members voted that suspension of the order management process – a key part of IHealth – was needed so it could be redesigned.

Association president Dr. David Forrest previously said despite a lot of work by Island Health there hadn’t been substantial change and safety concerns and efficiency issues identified early after the system was launched still existed.

Island Health agreed to put the order management process on hold but reversed its decision in April, stating that the order system was fundamentally interwoven with other key parts of IHealth and suspending it would significantly impact those functions and jeopardize benefits realized by patients.

A group of internal medicine specialists returned to writing paper orders, feeling they could no longer support the electronic system, and one doctor was suspended.

Come November, a report was released on workplace culture at Nanaimo Regional General Hospital and it said the situation was not sustainable and will lead to self destruction, though it could be fixed. Nanaimo Medical Staff Association vice-president Dr. Dave Coupland, on how the culture came to be, said it was insidious and has been growing for a long time but he saw IHealth as being the straw that broke the camel’s back.

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix has launched an independent review of IHealth. It has not been released but was expected to be completed this fall.

-files from John McKinley, Black Press