Integrity and the referendum ploy

A recent letter to Richmond council from Musqueam Chief Ernie Campbell says a lot. For this post, it is most relevant that it says (1) that the Musqueam never stopped intending to develop the Garden City lands and (2) that they “were forced to accept the offer” from Richmond to buy the property.

In other words, Chief Campbell comes very close to saying that the Musqueam accepted the offer under duress. The near-duress seems to have consisted of the City of Richmond showing it would not proceed further toward the dense development that would have netted the Musqueam a lot more money from their beneficial interest in the property.

That could have very significant legal implications, but beyond mentioning that reality I’ll leave the legal aspects to the lawyers. Instead, I’m thinking about the ethical aspect or, to put it another way, the moral aspect as determined by our innate sense of right and wrong. And, by the way, I see that as different from a sense of what one might be able to get away with.

A key factor is the way in which the City of Richmond had showed it could not proceed further toward the development that the Musqueam anticipated. The background is that B.C.’s Agricultural Land Commission, in agreement with the community, had rejected two applications to exclude the property from the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR).  The Musqueam and Canada Lands Company, which had been involved along with the City in the two applications, had no chance of succeeding in another application without City support. The City withheld that support (rightly, I thought), presumably recognizing that the commission would never allow the lands to be taken out of the ALR (likely true, I thought).

Since the Garden City Lands was, from a developer viewpoint, stuck in the ALR, the City was able to purchase the property for only $59.17 million, a small fraction of its non-ALR value of perhaps $400 million (with the possible value being much higher than that, depending on the kind of non-ALR zoning).

Now, if I can believe what I read, at least a couple of council members implicitly have a plan for getting the property out of the ALR after the City completes the purchase. That appears to be the case because their published comments indicate they are suggesting the property be used for things like skating rinks and swimming pools even though they’re also saying that the property (while in the ALR) can’t be used for anything beyond growing cranberries and maybe blueberries.

The major means-to-their-end they’re trumpeting is a referendum. Probably they envision a ballot question like “Should the Garden City Lands be used for park uses, rather than limited to growing cranberries?” Even with a misleading question like that, most people wouldn’t be fooled, but let’s assume (for the sake of continuing this blog post) that Richmondites are as gullible as those council members must think we are. Armed with the result, the City would then launch another ALR exclusion application. It would be harder to succeed than the councillors realize, but that’s beside the point. The point is related to basic right and wrong.

Chief Campbell isn’t gullible either, and he might come up with a question like this:

If a referendum was the magic means to get the property out of the ALR, why did the City not hold a referendum along with the municipal elections in mid-November of 2008?

Personally I’m not saying that a referendum was/is a good idea or a magic means to accomplish anything, but holding one at that time would have been relatively simple, and in theory it could have resulted in the development-enabling agreement being extended. Possibly (if the commission would actually be swayed by a referendum), the property would eventually have been excluded from the ALR for the development and the Musqueam would have got many more millions.

Furthermore, if the councillors who are now enthralled with a referendum were not smitten until after mid-November 2008, it could still have been held later in a way that still gave the Musqueam and Canada Lands Company the chance to go ahead with their development plans and make the anticipated fortune.

Even after the sale is completed, that could happen. If the couple of councillors are hell-bent on a referendum, the ballot question should at least be honest. It would be something like this:

Should the Garden City lands remain green in the Agricultural Land Reserve for agricultural, ecological, and open-land park uses for community wellness, rather than be used largely for dense development.

If most people say NO, the consequence should be that the chief and his partners can reverse the sale, proceed with their development plans, and make bushels of additional millions of dollars.

Naturally, I think most people would say YES to the ballot question and keep the lands green. But what matters as much as that result itself is that the result would happen in a way that is the right thing to do.

I know of course that Richmond’s elected council members should look out for the interests of their own citizens first. However, even if Richmond could legally get away with it, pulling a fast one on the Musqueam would not be looking out for us, since it would compromise our integrity. As a prerequisite for any course of action, council should first be looking out for the City’s integrity. Since the City is its citizens, that is the integrity of all of us who live in Richmond.

Disclaimer 1: In this post, a basic reality is that the Musqueam have a beneficial interest in the property unless the sale has been completed by the time you read the post. Any concerns about how that came about are another topic (if worth discussing at all) and are therefore not relevant here.

Disclaimer 2: I can’t be certain about what councillors are intending, and my deep wish is that no one is intending anything that the citizens of Richmond would or should be ashamed of. I’ve simply tried to express an unfortunate possibility in a way that reduces the chance of it evolving into a probability or worse.

Disclaimer 3: This post is woefully incomplete. As I wrote it, I realized that the only way to keep it to a readable size (about a thousand words) was to stay quite focussed on (a) particular Musqueam concerns and (b) particular intents that are seemingly implicit in the referendum ploy, viewed together from (c) a form of ethical perspective.

Disclaimer 4: This post and others could sometimes be inconsistent (or at least made to look inconsistent) with other coalition writing. This blog alone has close to a hundred thousand words expressing an evolving understanding of an evolving issue. In that context, we stay surprisingly consistent, and that’s going to have to do.

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