Romancing the harbour

By Leslie Campbell, March 2013

Who does Victoria’s harbour authority answer to?

I wasn’t alone in deciding to spend my Valentines’ evening in a windowless hotel conference room. About 100 other people showed up for the 5:30 pm public meeting of the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority. The woman signing us in ran out of agenda materials just as I arrived; she said she had only prepared for the usual 30 guests. 

What had stirred so much interest was the GVHA’s refusal to accept the City of Victoria’s nominee for a board position. But beneath that concern lay Victorians’ passion for their harbour and for democratic governance.

Speaker after speaker decried the “affront to democracy,” the lack of transparency, and disrespect of the community evident in the board’s rejection of Councillor Shellie Gudgeon. Janis Ringuette argued that the board had violated the public trust and that the City of Victoria should, by rights, have not one but four delegates on the board—and should move to expropriate the lands if that wasn’t granted. Lesley Ewing said, “The issue is governance; this organization is in crisis. You have absolutely lost the confidence of the people you purport to serve.” Ray Zimmerman, to loud applause, stated, “If this board has the right to reject an individual from the City of Victoria, I would suggest this board no longer has the right to exist.” Past board member Jim Allard described the board as “extremely secretive” and said the way it operates is “absolutely bizarre.” Over and over again it was pointed out that it was wrong for an unelected board to deny an elected body and founding member the right to appoint whomever it wanted.

“But it’s not just about Shellie Gudgeon,” said one fellow. He had that right. Gudgeon’s rejection was just the proverbial last straw for many who had been watching the GVHA’s evolution over the years. That included downtown business people who questioned the competition from GVHA enterprises, to James Bay residents who feel their concerns about emissions and noise from float planes and cruise ships have gone unheeded.

Brian Gilbert, after slamming the board for putting business interests before community, confided to the crowd he felt bad about dragging his wife to the meeting on Valentine’s Day—then added proudly, “but she said ‘democracy first!’” My sentiments exactly. And so far, Valentines evening seemed pretty darn exciting.

The Greater Victoria Harbour Authority is a not-for-profit corporation, rather than a true port authority. It was formed in 2002 after decades of community agitation and efforts to wrestle control of properties around the harbour away from the feds and into more local hands. Motivation for the change centred on the lack of vision and the “jurisdictional melee” that existed with much of the land and water managed by different levels of government, which had left properties in serious states of decline. People in the community wanted to maintain a working harbour and the jobs that came with it; develop opportunities for tourism; involve the Songhees and Esquimalt peoples; and ensure that parts of the waterfront were publicly accessible.

It took persistence, work and collaboration, but eventually the federal government agreed to transfer four parcels of land to a community board involving the founding members—the Provincial Capital Commission, Esquimalt Nation, Songhees Nation, the City of Victoria, the Township of Esquimalt, and the Victoria/Esquimalt Harbour Society. That board was given ownership of Ogden Point Terminals and the breakwater, Fisherman’s Wharf, the causeway to Ship Point, and the Wharf Street docks. 

Over ensuing years, many upgrades have been made to these properties, and other properties have been brought under GVHA control (most recently the CPR Steamship Terminal). Tourism has been facilitated through everything from the polishing up of harbour properties, to the development of festivals, and cruise-ship amenities. 

The cruise-ship industry brings in over 50 percent of GVHA’s $7 million annual revenues. Surplus revenues are re-invested in properties. It’s run like a business, overseen by 14 board members each paid $4000 per year ($10,000 for the chair) and $400 per meeting.

No one can argue that many improvements have been made and that the organization has been effective on a number of fronts.

Yet complaints about the Harbour Authority’s governance are not new. In 2005, after the GVHA increased the number of directors from non-founding bodies, Geoff Young told Victoria Council—prophetically, given recent events—“While the Board is not yet completely self-perpetuating, this change further dilutes the responsiveness of the GVHA to the local governments and other appointing bodies…It was intended to be open and accountable to the community organizations who appoint directors, but if it continues on its present course local citizens may end up with no more influence over the harbour than when it was run by distant federal bureaucrats.”

Young described the then-new “unified board” model as requiring board members to speak with one voice—which in turn requires that board meetings be private to ensure any contrary opinions expressed at meetings are not aired publicly. The GVHA’s original bylaws, in contrast, noted Young, “generally require that all issues save legal, land and personnel issues be discussed in public (although in practice already the majority of discussion in GVHA meetings is in camera).” Young argued this type of board structure might work for Crown corporations or health authorities, where an elected government is ultimately accountable, but not for the GVHA, which reports to neither government or, as a private corporation would, shareholders. 

Unfortunately, the harbour authority seems to have taken another step in the wrong direction. In 2011, it changed its governing rules: Where it once had to accept appointees from its founding members, now it accepts nominations from them. These are evaluated by the board and can be rejected. And that’s why the board thought it could refuse the City’s candidate.

They must have felt chastened, however, because following an in camera meeting the day after the Valentines Day lashing, the GVHA issued a press release stating it would accept the nomination of Councillor Gudgeon.

We can thank the “Shellie Gudgeon affair” for drawing attention to the GVHA and its way of operating. The philosophical divisions are now laid clear, as are some questions. Should public harbour lands be managed by an unelected, unified, secretive “expert” board? If not, how can Victorians realize a more inclusive, holistic, democratic approach to managing the harbour that is so central to their identities and activities?

Leslie Campbell congratulates Victoria City Council for standing firmly behind Councillor Gudgeon. And wishes her good luck in her new role. Expectations are rather high!