By Annalee Grant
Newly appointed Minister for Community, Sport and Cultural Development Bill Bennett is defending his impartiality after NDP MLA Norm Macdonald called into question his history with the Jumbo Glacier Resort.
As reported in May, the province amended the mountain resort municipality legislation, opening the door for a request from Glacier Resorts Ltd., the company applying to construct the Jumbo Glacier Resort. At the time, Bennett said the changes were being done to make room for the controversial resort after its master development plan was approved in March.
“It’s a fairly straightforward issue now,” he said. “The only question that’s left now is what form of governance will this resort take and one of the options is for the mountain resort municipality to be created. At this stage the processing of this is technical – not political.”
Macdonald, MLA for Columbia River-Revelstoke in which the Jumbo Valley sits, said Bennett’s new cabinet position is the ministry responsible for whether a project is given the green light for resort municipality status.
“Bill Bennett is now responsible for a piece of controversial legislation that was passed last spring which made a flawed piece of legislation on the creation of resort municipalities even worse,” Macdonald said.
Resort municipality status would allow a municipality to be created in an area where there are no residents. The ministry would then appoint a three-person council that would sit for three years to represent the interests of the resort. An election for a five member council would be held after a three year term or if the population reached a “critical mass.”
Bennett said resort municipality status is not a simple yes or no answer and there was no room in the legal channels it must follow for his personal opinion.
“There’s no formal application,” he said. “You express an interest. Glacier Resorts Ltd. has expressed an interest in having a resort municipality but we have not made any decisions. If everything lines up and it’s appropriate, that would be one of the options the minister would have.”
Further, Bennett said the status can not be approved by the minister alone, but is created by the cabinet.
“There’s no opportunity for ministers to make some sort of personal decision that they’re going to create a mountain resort municipality just because they want to,” Bennett said, adding that consultations with local First Nations are ongoing. “It all has to be in conformance with the legislation. It all has to be done in conformance with the legal obligations to First Nations.”
Macdonald disagrees, saying Bennett was in the legislature when the motion passed, and should be aware that he now holds the keys to the resort municipality status.
“They’re able to create a resort municipality that can be created by the minister alone,” Macdonald said. “In this case now it would be Bill Bennett, who has made it absolutely clear that he supports the idea of imposing land use decisions on people in the Columbia Valley.
“If there’s any suggestion by Bill Bennett that it’s more difficult or more rigorous than that, that’s just not the case and it’s legislation he voted for.”
Macdonald is concerned about the appointed council and the lack of guidelines for creating the three-person panel to represent the resort.
“There were no guidelines as to who the individuals would be other than presumably those the minister wanted,” he said. “They would sit as a council the same way that the City of Kimberley sits.”
Back in February, Bennett traveled to France at his own expense to meet with potential investors in the Jumbo Glacier Resort. Along with him were Grant Costello and Jill Bodkin of Glacier Resorts Ltd.
Bennett said he has not talked to the proponents for months, and is unaware if funding has been obtained for the project or not.
“My role as an MLA was to see that due process was followed and that government was fair,” he said. “I’m not a developer. I’m not getting involved in the development of the resort, that’s up to the proponent. My support is of the process – the legal process that’s in place for all projects.”
Macdonald said the France trip sent the wrong message at the time, and granting resort municipality status would provide rights to a group of business people.
“The history that Bill Bennett has with this project is long and deep and he has invested an extraordinary amount of political capital to move the project ahead in a way that I think most would wonder why he would be involved as heavily as he is,” he said.
“If the government’s intention is to benefit a small group of individuals that are friendly to them by giving them additional rights, I would say that is extraordinarily irresponsible and it must not happen. The legislation itself is just incredibly weak.”
The appointed council is another concern for Macdonald, who said they could sit indefinitely if no permanent community was built up around the resort.
“There is no timeframe for when elections would take place and no criteria. So it can go on as an appointed board ad infinitum,” he said, predicting there would never be a permanent population at the Jumbo Resort.
Bennett said appointed councils have happened several times to create new municipalities, and points to Sparwood and Tumbler Ridge as examples.
“They are often created by starting with an appointed council which oversees the development of the community until such time as there are electors living full time in the community to elect a mayor and council,” he said. “Mr. Macdonald does not seem to know the history of his own province.”
During the debate of Bill 41, which included the amendment to the Local Government Act on resort municipalities, Macdonald said Bennett raised his concerns about an appointed council.
“Bill Bennett himself said it’s a problem in the debate,” he said. “It’s just so clearly inconsistent with democratic principles.”
Macdonald said he has asked the province to explain who would pay for expenses related to the appointed council. Bennett said he has no concerns about hiring the right people for the job.
“If the province proceeds with a mountain resort municipality, a small council will be appointed of well-respected local people to oversee the initial development of the resort community. A Chief Administrative Officer will be hired and paid for by the province,” Bennett said. “I have no concerns about finding a few well respected, experienced, honest people in the Columbia Valley to form the appointed council.
“It is sad that Mr Macdonald fails to have the confidence that such people can be identified in his riding.”
Bennett said he had not yet come across the Jumbo file in his new ministerial position, however the issue had been brought up briefly as he met with ministry staff in orientation last week.