Top stories of 2015

It's a challenge to choose the top news stories of the year. Do you agree with our choices, or did we leave out a story?

The Nanaimo News Bulletin presents its top stories of 2015.

Our region continued to make national headlines in 2015 as councillors in Lantzville struggled to get along.

The resignations of four councillors and three staff members was one of the top stories of 2015 picked by the News Bulletin’s newsroom.

The national headlines didn’t stop at Lantzville’s border, however, as Nanaimo RCMP raided marijuana dispensaries just a few weeks after a new federal Liberal government was elected on the promise to legalize pot.

The election also made our top five list. We couldn’t help but include the ongoing saga of Colliery Dam Park or the emotion surrounding school closures.

It took us awhile to agree on these stories as tops for the year from the 104 issues we published in 2015. Please tell us what you think – did you agree with our choices, or did we leave out a story with a bigger impact on the city than those highlighted here? Please e-mail editor@nanaimobulletin.com or leave a comment on our website at www.nanaimobulletin.com.

In Thursday’s issue, we’ll take another look at the issues in 2015 and highlight five stories that we’ll be following into the new year.

Decision made on dam spillway

At least one battle in a fight that has lasted more than three years between the provincial and municipal governments and citizens groups is coming to a conclusion.

The morning of Sept. 15, city bylaws officers and RCMP members moved in to evict protesters from Colliery Dam Park.

City councillors Jim Kipp and Gord Fuller were among protesters fined and evicted from the park for obstructing work progress. Some had chained themselves to trees in the path of an auxiliary spillway.

The ongoing Colliery Dam Park dispute started in 2012 when the province announced that the municipal dams must be upgraded to meet seismic and extreme weather events.

The city alternated between solutions, from removal of the structures to removal and construction of replacements and an auxiliary spillway. Community groups, specifically the Colliery Dam Park Preservation Society, headed by Jeff Solomon, took up the fight against the city and province.

Three years and nearly $3 million in engineering studies, geotechnical testing and legal fees racked up in wrangling over whether to tear out the dams, mitigate the possible threat of dam collapse or do nothing, the city found itself facing an order from the province to move forward on the spillway, estimated at $2.8 million to $5.5 million, or face consequences under the provincial Water Act that could include revoking water licences needed to keep the dams intact, fines of up to $1 million a day and possibly holding individual representatives of the city  personally liable.

The city is constructing an auxiliary spillway for the lower dam and must come up with a plan for the park’s middle dam.

For a timeline with links to stories about Colliery dam, please visit http://bit.ly/1myTKyP.

Cedar secondary re-opened

Just like the title of the 1976 Led Zeppelin movie, the song remained the same for Nanaimo school district in 2015.

Trustees lamented lack of funding from B.C.’s Ministry of Education and there were school closure announcements and accompanying acrimony.

However, while closures were prevalent later in the year, it was the re-opening of Cedar high school that made headlines earlier.

A 2013 decision by a previous board to shutter Cedar Community Secondary, and convert it to an elementary school, was met with resistance and even legal action, although a B.C. Supreme Court judge dismissed the case brought by Snuneymuxw First Nation in 2014. Trustees voted to re-open the school last April. The district also undertook a facilities plan review, with a number of staff recommendations put forth.

The closure of Rutherford Elementary School by June 2017, the closure of either Woodbank Primary or North Cedar Intermediate in June, with student bodies combined under one roof in September. Woodlands Secondary School, which was on the chopping block in previous plans, faced closure in June.

The district held public consultation and some groups advocated against closure.

Parents from Rutherford argued residential development construction in North Nanaimo and the increased population would mean higher enrolment, as low numbers were cited as one reason for closure.

The closure is conditional on ministry funding for a new wing at Frank J. Ney Elementary to accommodate some of the displaced students. No money for the new wing, no closure, said Steve Rae, board chairman.

The closures of Woodlands and Woodbank were also approved. A June 2015 recommendation to close Departure Bay Eco School was taken off the table.

Lantzville residents elect four new councillors after resignations

Lantzville was steeped in political turmoil in the spring of 2015, leading four councillors and three staff members to walk off the job.

The exodus garnered not only local scrutiny, but was also the subject of national media attention. Concerns started to rise after Lantzville’s chief administrative officer Twyla Graff, resigned after nine years of working with the district. Her departure coincided with a memo to council signed by all five of the district’s managers citing concerns about the decorum and tone of council meetings. However, Graff never commented on her reasons for resigning.

Shortly after, Lantzville’s director of finance Jedha Holmes and community planner Lisa Bhopalsingh resigned. At the time council was looking to hire a consultant to improve relations.

Yet, before relations could be improved, four councillors left in succession. Lantzville lost Rod Negrave, Jennifer Millbank, David Scott and Graham Savage in a span of two months. Councillors cited reasons like internal conflict, ignored procedres and dysfunction as reasons for departing.

Just six months after residents elected their council, citizens were faced with a three-person council and a byelection on the horizon.

In June, the remaining council members decided to seek help from the Labour Relations Board of B.C. to address internal challenges and move ahead on a more positive note for community members. But the board suggested the district hire an outside consultant.

In the August byelection, thirty-seven per cent of the electorate voted. Residents elected Bob Colclough, Mark Swain, Will Wyn Geselbracht and Dot Neary. They took their seats Aug. 31.

The new council decided to hire a consultant as part of its overall strategic planning, focusing on governance.

Malcolmson picked as MP

It was the longest federal election in more than a century, and the events of those 11 weeks made it one of Nanaimo’s news stories of the year.

It ended in a majority government for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Liberals, while in the Nanaimo-Ladysmith riding, Sheila Malcolmson of the New Democratic Party became member of Parliament.

Nanaimoites knew long before the writ dropped that their federal representation would be changing. Conservative-turned-independent James Lunney, the Nanaimo-Alberni MP, and Jean Crowder, the NDP MP for Nanaimo-Cowichan, had both announced previously that they wouldn’t be seeking re-election. Furthermore, restructured electoral boundaries meant that the entire city would now fall inside a new Nanaimo-Ladysmith riding.

The local field of candidates was comprised of four newcomers to federal politics – Malcolmson, Tim Tessier of the Liberals, Mark MacDonald of the Conservatives and Paul Manly of the Green Party.

But it was the federal party leaders who were the early newsmakers in the campaign, as both Elizabeth May of the Greens and Tom Mulcair of the NDP stopped in Nanaimo within the first two weeks.

While past election results in the region suggested the NDP and Conservatives would be the frontrunners, one Insights West poll in late August found the Greens running second on Vancouver Island. A week later May was back in Nanaimo, drawing 1,000 supporters to a rally at Beban Park.

Malcolmson responded, saying her campaign team’s polling suggested it was the Conservatives running second in the city, not the Greens.

About the same time, MacDonald invigorated his local campaign, promising $14 million for foot-passenger ferry funding.

The final week of the campaign brought Mulcair back to the city for a rally at the conference centre that attracted 750 people, many waving orange ‘Stop Harper’ signs. May also returned to Nanaimo to bash the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

By that point, the Liberals’s national momentum was irreversible, with polls starting to suggest they would form government. Early on election night, those predictions were vehemently confirmed by Canadian voters.

The enthusiasm at the NDP party at Beban Park was tempered by the party’s election losses across the country, but Malcolmson comfortably won Nanaimo-Ladysmith by 6,500 votes. Tessier rode his party’s popularity to a surprise runner-up finish, MacDonald was third and Manly finished fourth.

“The people of Nanaimo-Ladysmith have spoken tonight and they have rejected the politics of fear and division and replaced that with a vision of hope and optimism,” Malcolmson said. “You voted for a better, more inclusive Canada and I will stand with you and work for you for those values every day.”

RCMP raids pot shops

Nanaimo’s medical marijuana dispensaries went from operating in legal limbo to fighting to continue to operate at all, becoming one of the top stories of the year.

Pot shop employees were shocked this month as the Nanaimo RCMP followed through on a notice of enforcement, raiding three medical marijuana dispensaries and making arrests.

Dispensaries cropped up across the city this year, and were openly selling medical marijuana despite storefronts being considered illegal by the federal government. The City of Nanaimo wasn’t issuing business licences to the shops, but neither was it handing out tickets, and police hadn’t previously shut any down although there was concern about the origin of marijuana being sold and testing being done.

In November, Nanaimo RCMP put 11 dispensaries on notice that they had seven days to stop selling marijuana and its derivatives or face enforcement. The move mobilized the new Nanaimo Cannabis Coalition, which appealed to civic politicians to stand with “thousands” of medical marijuana users to ask the RCMP for a cooling-off period while the newly elected Liberal government decides how it will legalize marijuana. It also reached out to provincial and federal political representatives like Nanaimo-Ladysmith MP Sheila Malcolmson.

Close to three weeks later, police raided Trees Dispensary Nanaimo, Phoenix Pain Management Society and Nature’s Source Society. A press release claimed the RCMP had received several public complaints about illegal marijuana storefronts. Some, it said, were actively soliciting business by having sales people stand outside or waving signs.

There’s been no known RCMP action on remaining Nanaimo dispensaries, but storefronts raided in early December have re-opened and there are calls for local government to regulate. Nanaimo city council agreed to have staff members look into licensing regulation options for medical marijuana dispensaries with a report expected early January.

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