Trust votes for external review of governance and operations

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Islands Trust Council will establish an ad hoc steering committee to search for and oversee a consultant to carry out a governance and management review, but Salt Spring’s interests are so far not part of the package. 

A preliminary budget request of $75,000 is attached to the project, which is to examine what the Trust does well and what it could do better within its current legislated mandate.

As information attached to the motion raised by Saturna trustee Lee Middleton explains, “Healthy organizations look at themselves periodically through outside reviews to learn how to be better. Trustees voted to propose a review through the Auditor General for Local Government at a council meeting in September 2019. The office of Auditor General for Local Government no longer exists but the desire of trustees to arrive at a vision of the Trust by accessing objective data on present performance remains.”

The Trust’s entire executive committee, including chair Peter Luckham and vice chairs Sue Ellen Fast, Dan Rogers and Laura Patrick, opposed the motion, as did Patrick’s fellow Salt Spring trustee Peter Grove, who chairs the Trust’s finance committee. 

As Rogers explained, he is in favour of having an external review, but he felt the steering group proposal was problematic based on the “subjective” statements made therein, as well as the process by which the group formed. He noted Middleton had referenced some “necessary evils” while introducing the motion. 

“For me, the necessary evils in this are just too much for me too accept,” Rogers said. 

The proposal came out of a working group of eight trustees that came together independently of Trust Council endorsement, comprising Middleton, Paul Brent, David Critchley, Michael Kaile, Kees Langereis, Ben McConchie, Cameron Thorn and Steve Wright. That group with the addition of Deb Morrison then presented a request for a decision on the proposal as part of the December Trust Council meeting last week.

Several council members registered issues with the terms of reference for the steering committee set out in the proposal. These terms identify not just the areas of representation — such as northern islands, southern islands, Howe Sound islands and members at large — but appoint specific trustees to fill those spots. 

The resulting steering committee is heavy on male representation and also heavy on membership from the southern Gulf Islands. As constituted on Thursday, trustees from Saturna, North and South Pender islands accounted for five of the nine seats to be filled by trustees. (A 10th seat is reserved for Islands Trust CAO Russ Hotsenpiller.)

Patrick said she found the steering committee appointments problematic.

“It’s like if we were rolling out the COVID-19 vaccine in B.C. and left Dr. Bonnie Henry out of the picture,” Patrick said after the meeting. 

Middleton told the Driftwood that his group did not intend to skew the steering committee the way it did. In addition to the gender imbalance, he said they realized too late that Salt Spring is an important part of the project and representation from the island is crucial. In fact, his group was very much hoping to have Patrick involved and one of the southern Gulf Island reps has since offered to give up his seat in her place.

“That was a screw-up. It wasn’t intentional,” Middleton said. “We apologize to Salt Spring for being blind. We are seeking urgently to correct that.”

Middleton explained the group came together organically through trustees that live close together geographically meeting and having conversations. They approached raising the motion via a working group because of their experience at how difficult it is to carry any idea through the comments and amendments made by 26 council members at a quarterly council meeting. Referral to committees can also further transform an idea into an unrecognizable form, Middleton said.

All of that is one reason for the group’s approach, which focused first on including the people who supported having a review. It’s also just one example why some trustees would like an objective outsider to review how the Trust does its business. 

Middleton said because the Trust has been put into a defensive position in the past, there is a tendency to view any attempt at review as an attempt to dismantle the entire organization. However, he said there is no agenda beyond wanting to know if the Islands Trust is operating in the best way to achieve its goals, or if there are perhaps tools that other land trusts are using successfully to balance ecological protection with human occupation.

“It’s not a review in opposition to a problem. We really hope to learn a lot, and then it will be up to a future Trust Council to determine if there’s a course of action,” Middleton said.

Patrick said she opposed the motion mainly because of its timing. Trust Council is in the midst of updating its policy statement to focus on issues of reconciliation and climate change — a project that’s been underway for two years already and has incorporated a major public feedback campaign.

“If we’re going to spend money, let’s spend money to finish the policy statement. Let’s finish this and then look at if we are best structured to achieve that,” Patrick said.

Like others, Grove agreed that reviewing operations is healthy, but added, “I don’t think this is the time or the place.”

He noted the Trust’s governance structure is defined and regulated in the Islands Trust Act and the Local Government Act, so any major changes would need to take place through the B.C. Legislature. That leaves only changes to management possible, in his opinion.

“The Islands Trust recently hired a very accomplished CAO. He has done a great deal for this organization and I think he will continue to do so,” Grove said. 

Grove also feels that $75,000 will be insufficient for the consultant and the project could likely cost twice that amount. As it stands, the amount represents one per cent of the Trust’s projected budget for 2021 and would mean in increase in property taxes.

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