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Vote and do something about it! Osoyoos British Columbia - a lesson in democratic failure?  

In the early democracy of ancient Athens, when a small group of bullies and their followers took power and violently oppressed the opposition, people discovered democracy is no guarantee against bullying and abuse. More importantly, people also discovered that the problem was not the bullies and followers. As Albert Einstein stated: “the world is a dangerous place to live in, not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.” 

Roughly, 2400 years later in Osoyoos BC, the action of a small group of people in concert with the Town Council, against the Chamber of Commerce, shows human behavior has not changed since Perikles' Athens.  The upcoming municipal election in November offers the people in British Columbia the opportunity to do something about abuse of democracy. Osoyoos can serve as an example.  

Not only had the Chamber of Commerce successfully operated the Town’s Visitor and Business Information Center on contract with the Town for many years, the Chamber also injected significant funding and the members volunteered time and effort to build the building on public land, where the Chamber and the Visitor Center shared space. The town shared the operational costs for the Visitor Center with the Chamber. The Visitor Center and subsequently the Chamber was given high marks by the provincial government and the Town Council in the annual performance reviews.   

The Chamber of Commerce offers a worldwide-recognized information portal to any community, something no other organization can do.  Altogether, the contract was favorable for the members and taxpayers of Osoyoos as well as members of the Chamber. 

The Chamber’s contract with the Town did not restrict the Chamber to meet its accountability to its members and business in the private sector, and its ability to address issues in government. Good government respected that the Chamber in order to function in its role in the economy must remain independent of government.

In Osoyoos the Chamber of Commerce is out of favor with the Council and the local administration.  

The reason is that the Chamber is addressing concerns surrounding the Town Hall’s contract and relationships with Osoyoos Business and Community Development Center Corporation; a semi-government, not-for-profit, privately controlled corporation, locally know as OBCDC and presently operating as Destination Osoyoos -DO.  

Since the earlier part of the nineties, the Town has had a private totally tax funded public partnership contract with the OBCDC Corporation to act as the Town’s economic development department.  The OBCDC Corp. is also facilitating significant tax transfers from provincial and federal governments such as Human Resource Canada and Industry Canada into the local economy.   The problem is, as a private society OBCDC is directly accountable only to itself and not to the members, taxpayers and voters of the community.  

The Chamber members and business are asking questions. The Town and the OBCDC Corporation refuse to publish information on the OBCDC DO corporations operations and finances and how the tax transfers are used. 

It is unclear if the use of tax by OBCDC meets recognized standards for government intervention in the economy and the Canadian constitution, and if the use of tax reduces disparities in opportunities according to the objectives stated in our constitution? The concern is that the transfers are actually increasing disparities in the community.  Are these tax transfers tilting the playing field for individuals and businesses in the local economy – to the benefit of those who are in favor with the Town Hall and OBCDC?  

Doing its job, the Chamber requested that the Town and the OBCDC Corporation disclose OBCDC’s financial statements and the purpose and outcome of past and present tax transfers into the local economy. 

The Chamber does not oppose Government intervention and tax transfers in the economy that a prudent analysis shows address economic, social and ecological issues in the community that the private sector is unable to solve.  That is government’s role. The Chamber’s concern is that the use of tax is solving what it was supposed to solve, not as occurred in the Fast Ferry hodgepodge. 

The Town’s position is that since the OBCDC is a closed private corporation, they will not disclose any information to the Chamber and the Community.  A Chamber of Commerce obviously has no problem with that since closed privately controlled corporations have no direct obligation to the members, taxpayers and voters in society unless required by law.   

The Chamber’s and member’s deep concern is semi-government corporation and societies as OBCDC: Should federal, provincial and local governments, including the Town Hall in Osoyoos be able to shelter accountability to society by transferring government power and tax over to private corporations such as OBCDC and others, with no direct accountability to society.  

The Chamber’s position is if the semi-government OBCDC Corporation in Osoyoos refuses to provide information of past and present tax transfer in to the local economy, it is government’s accountability to society and the taxpayer to produce the information. 

By doing its job of addressing issues important to its members and business in the private sector, the Chamber in Osoyoos become a nuisance for the government in the Town Hall in Osoyoos and for the OBCDC DO Corporation. 

Astonishingly, rather than solving the underlying problem that causes the nuisance, the local government and OBCDC hatched the fantastic idea of a virtual merge between the Chamber and the OBCDC Corporation.  The Town transferred the Town’s contract with the Chamber to the OBCDC Corp., including taking over the Chamber’s building, thereafter having the Chamber reporting to the OBCDC Corporation. Without prior negotiation with the Chamber, and through hiring of a consultant to produce a report to fit the purpose, and a bizarre decision process in the Town Hall, the plan was adopted by the Town Council.   

The Town administration, Council, OBCDC and the consultants are well aware that a Chamber of Commerce can never fulfill its role if it is a part of government -- real or perceived.  The Chamber’s Board had no other alternative than to reject and oppose the Town’s decision, since the Town refused to discuss any alternatives.  As Wellington stated before Waterloo: “the statement is made and position taken. Only the battle remains.” 

The Town’s response and invasion was fierce. Instead of finding solution, and still without a cost-benefit analysis showing any benefit for the community and without a counter petition process providing the community a say in the decision, the Town Council arbitrary terminated their contract with the Chamber for operating the Osoyoos Visitor and Business Information Center. They evicted the Chamber from the Chamber’s building, and turned the Chamber’s property and the Visitor Center over to the Osoyoos Business and Development Corporation. Furthermore - still without any prudent analysis - the Town Council granted a one million dollar contract to the OBCDC DO Corporation. Ultimately Mayor and Council have accountability to the voters. 

It does raise the question about the quality of the analysis and decision process in the Town Hall, and the quality of the advice the administrator and the Law Firm gave the Town Council.  The taxpayer is paying both, and expects them the Council to act in the best interest of the community and not what may be in the best interest of individual and private corporations.  BC Court of appeal recently told another municipality Maple Ridge that such government behavior is not acceptable. It is reasonable to believe the Court will tell Osoyoos the same, and ultimately it is the voters that decide what kind of community they want.   

It is different methods and brutality than in Perikles'  Athens. Nobody is executed, but the same fundament human behavior exists.  In Osoyoos those who addressed the problems were out of favour.  The Chamber was forced to move to a makeshift office and sue the Town for damages, and the Chamber manager is losing her job.  It may be entirely coincidental that the OBCDC Corporation is hiring a relative of a member of the local social and political establishment to manage the Visitor Information Centre.  For no other good reason as it seem, earlier a Town Councilor with the civic courage to ask questions about OBCDC, was ousted from Council.  

Conspicuously, by ignoring the issues and bolstering the positive, the local paper in Osoyoos is sure not to be out of favour in the Town Hall and OBCDC.  Unfortunately, that will continue as long the voters in Osoyoos and other communities across the country continue to accept the plague in our society, political patronage driven tax transfers that fail to meet recognized economic standards and our constitution – transfers that increase disparities in opportunities and erode democracy.

 When the Chamber asked the MLA and Cabinet Minister in the riding for provincial government intervention, the Chamber was advised that government does what it wants.   Perhaps in the upcoming municipal election the voters in Osoyoos will remind their MLA that “government only does what it wants” until the voters decide otherwise, as the voters told the previous provincial government.          

These are the same issues the federal Auditor General adamantly addresses but is unable to do much about as long the members, taxpayers and voters of the community   don’t do anything about it.  Symptomatically it is the same disease that recently forced the federal solicitor general to resign.  The solicitor general  – of all - that shows the depth of the problem, where will he become Ambassador?  

Why is the community in Osoyoos and the rest of the country accepting this kind of behavior and waste in government, while fundamental problems in the economy remain unsolved and healthcare, education and support to those in need of society’s support is cut? It does not need to be that way. 

In good democratic order the municipal election on November 16, 2002, offers the members, taxpayers and the voters in Osoyoos and the rest of BC the opportunity - ‘to do something about it’.

OISD September 2002