No one is coming to save Harrison Hot Springs' politicians from themselves

The province says it won't step in to sort out political battles fracturing the valley's smallest municipality

Harrison Hot Springs council is undeniably broken, and nobody is coming to fix it.

Last week’s council meeting was the latest to go off the rails and be abandoned—this time sparked by a request that would have been quickly resolved by any other local group of politicians.

The running conflict between Mayor Ed Wood, his ally Coun. John Allen, and three long-time council members has regularly left the municipality’s politicians unable to make decisions, approve plans, or address problems across the community. A provincially-appointed advisor has already come and gone with no obvious improvements.

That has prompted some to wonder: If Harrison’s local government is unable to fix itself, can someone impose a solution? The answer is yes—but it’s probably not going to happen.

Out of order

The scene: A Harrison Hot Springs council meeting last week.

At a previous meeting, council had approved a development in the centre of the village.

Mayor Ed Wood calls for a re-vote, using his powers as mayor. He has the right to do so within 30 days of an original vote. But such a move is rare at municipal council meetings. After all, if a council votes one way, it’s usually unlikely that the members will change their mind so soon after the original decision. (That’s particularly the case on a council like that in Harrison, where there are two sides with little inclination to support the policies and ideas of the other.)

The motion to be voted on again is repeated by a staff member. Mayor Ed Wood opens the floor up for discussion. Coun. Allan Jackson points out that the members must simply re-vote. They don’t need to discuss it again.

Mayor Ed Wood turns to his ally, Coun. John Allen, before Jackson interjects again: “Quit playing games!”

Wood says Jackson is out of order. Jackson says Wood is out of order.

Allen then speaks for eight minutes about how he doesn’t like the proposal. Couns. Michie Vidal and Leo Facio quickly say they disagree. Wood speaks for two minutes about why he brought the motion back. Then Wood calls for a vote.

Then we see how quickly things go sideways in Harrison Hot Springs.

“Can I have the motion read again Mr. Mayor, thank you?” Coun. Michie Vidal asks. The request is not uncommon at council meetings in all jurisdictions particularly when there is a substantial gap between the motion being read and it being voted on. The question is typically asked so a councilor can make sure of what they’re voting “for” or “against.” (Since motions can be made to “deny” or to “approve” a proposal, an “in favour” vote can signal either approval or disapproval of the project, depending on the specific wording of the motion.)

Wood responds: “I’ve already called the question,”

Vidal: “Can I have the motion read again?”

Wood: “Councillor Vidal I’ve already called the question. All in favour?”

Vidal: “Are we talking about the original motion?”

Wood: “Councillor Vidal, you’re out of order please.”

Vidal: “I’m asking a question about whether we are voting on the original motion.”

Wood: “Councillor Vidal, you are out of order.”

Vidal: “I am not out of order. I am only asking a question…”

It continues from there. Within 30 seconds, Wood has declared that Vidal has been removed from the meeting. Vidal refuses to leave without being given a reason she has been ejected. Wood does not provide a reason. Coun. Leo Facio says something inaudible to the microphones that causes Wood to tell him he is out of order.

Members in the audience gallery start to make noise, prompting Wood to call for order. Coun. Allan Jackson tells Wood he needs to be in order, not the audience, and says the mayor “is acting like a little child” and asks him to grow up.

Wood threatens to remove Jackson from the meeting. Vidal is told again to leave, but she refuses to do so.

Something is said by members of the public to prompt Wood to order the viewing gallery be cleared and to declare the meeting finished.

It has taken just four minutes for the meeting to go off the rails and be abandoned.

Since the 2022 election nearly 18 months ago, Harrison Hot Springs’ local government has lost a swath of local administrators, and the discord has hampered its ability to make decisions and tackle problems large and small.

The basics of its situation—whereby a mayor lacks the support of the majority of their council—is not unique to Harrison. Such problems can result in contentious meetings, a disconnect between municipal policy and the goals of the elected mayor, and friction between the mayor and city staff who develop policies that might be accepted by the majority of council—but not the mayor.

Harrison’s dysfunction runs deeper because of the small size of the community and the municipal government, and the inability of council and the municipality to complete the simplest of tasks—like get through all the items on a meeting’s agenda.

And its serious and unique dysfunction has prompted some to question whether—and how—the provincial government should intervene.

In recent weeks, The Current has quizzed lawyers, municipal governance experts, the province, and locals on what, if anything, could be done by the province to take the reins of Harrison Hot Springs out of its politicians’ hands—and whether intervening is a good idea in the first place.

Provincial power

As the creator of all of British Columbia’s municipalities, the province has ultimate power over the governance structures of all those cities and towns. But that power is severely limited by practical and political concerns.

First, British Columbia’s existing rules do not actually give its Minister of Municipal Affairs the right to fire Harrison’s mayor or council. This is in contrast to Alberta, where the Municipal Affairs Minister fired the mayor of Chestermere and three councillors and installed an administrator after the revelation of financial irregularities at the municipality.

BC’s minister also can’t unilaterally dissolve Harrison Hot Springs, nor can it forcibly amalgamate the village with the neighbouring District of Kent.

That doesn’t mean the province can’t take those actions, though. The NDP could introduce a new bill or amendment to an existing bill in the legislature. Such legislation could broadly increase the minister’s power to match their counterpart in Alberta. Or it could be specific to Harrison Hot Springs: imagine a Fix Harrison Act. If a majority of the legislature votes for the act, it would then become the law of the land.

But any such legislation would, at the very least, prompt debate and scrutiny on political and academic levels—and likely subject to a legal challenge. Because the biggest question is not necessarily about what the province could do, but what it should doi in the context of Canadian democracy.

Those questions transcend both Harrison Hot Springs and political ideology.

Firing Harrison’s council would be a signal—and set a precedent—that the power of residents to elect their municipal government is limited and subject to the whims of the province of the day.

That won’t sit well with many. Even if today’s government believes that they are justified in doing so in the case of Harrison Hot Springs, they may worry that using the power once will allow a future government to use it again—potentially with less discretion or to exert their political will over obstinate local politicians.

The province, of course, already intervenes in municipal decisions fairly regularly. Over the last year, they have done so explicitly by forcing local land use rules upon cities and towns and, in Surrey, by ruling on that city’s proposed transition to a municipal police force. It also frequently intervenes informally through funding decisions for local projects.

But firing local politicians is a step beyond that, and one that the province seems unwilling to take in the case of Harrison Hot Springs.

The Current asked the Ministry of Municipal Affairs whether it has considered direct action in Harrison.

A spokesperson provided a statement that didn’t directly answer the question, but which did say: “Local governments are autonomous, independent and democratically elected.”

The spokesperson noted that council had requested, and the minister had provided, an advisor to help improve governance in the village. That advisor’s work came to an end in November after he recommended “additional training for council and updates to key bylaws and policies, including adopting a code of conduct to support effective governance.”

The spokesperson said that “implementing these changes will take time, patience, and a commitment from council and the community. The ministry is in regular contact with the Village of Harrison Hot Springs, and will continue to be available to provide guidance and facilitate additional support going forward.”

The Current also asked MLA Kelli Paddon, who represents Harrison, for an interview. A representative forwarded a statement that was almost identical to the Ministry’s response.

“I have heard and understand how frustrating this is for community members and how this difficult situation is affecting people,” she said. Like the Ministry, Paddon said it is up to the members of council and the mayor to implement the recommendations from the special advisor.

“I know the Ministry is keeping in close contact with the Village to help provide guidance or provide additional support going forward if that's what's needed or requested, and I know we're all hoping that things can improve so that important work can be done for the community."

It has been clear for months, however, that the province’s appointment of a municipal advisor has utterly failed. In November, Allen and Wood voted against Poole’s recommendations, saying he should have investigated the use of closed-door in camera meetings by their opponents.

Although council officially adopted the advisor’s recommendations, the split decision suggested there was little prospect that the two sides would work together on the basics of governance. Events since confirms the advisor has had no positive effect. Just a month after he delivered his remarks, another council meeting ended when two councillors chose to walk out.

A neighbour’s view

We also asked Kent mayor Sylvia Pranger about Harrison’s impact on her community, and what she thought of the idea that Harrison should be amalgamated with Kent, which has about three times the population and one-hundredth the political drama.

The two communities share a joint emergency services co-ordinator but otherwise have few other governmental links.

“I wish them well and I wish they could get on with the business of running the municipality,” Pranger said. “It’s not for me to interfere or have an opion on it.”

Pranger laughed when asked about potential amalgamation between the two governments.

“I get that question often,” she said. “I’m happy with the District of Kent’s residents and my council. I’m happy the way we are right now and I don’t want to comment on that.”

Told Kent’s council is more boring than her neighbouring politicians’ meetings, Pranger said: “We’re so boring that it’s wonderful. I like being boring.”

So Harrison Hot Springs’ own politicians will have to fix the mess they have created if the village is to get a functional government in the next two years.

But developments this week show just how deep-seated animosity and suspicion is between the two sides.

On Monday, Mayor Ed Wood put forward a motion to dissolve council and request a trustee from the province. It was defeated by his opponents on council. (It’s not clear whether a municipal council has the power to dissolve itself—but not the municipal organization itself. It does have the ability to submit requests to the province.)

As with all clashes at the Harrison council table, one’s interpretation of Wood’s motion and the votes against it depends on which side one is aligned with.

Both Wood and Allen and their opponents have endeavoured to look like the adults at the council table and firmly believe the other side is being either unreasonable, nefarious, or incompetent in their use of their powers. But mutual suspicion means that each side sees seemingly innocuous or public-minded actions by their opponents—be it asking a question about a motion, accepting recommendations from an advisor, or requesting an independent trustee to take over—as plots to increase their control over the municipality. And each side sees opposition to their own well-meaning actions as evidence that the opposite side is up to no good.

Normally, the voters would sort out who has the upper hand and who needs to back down and bide their time. But each side seems to think they can win a political war and neither has been willing to concede ground.

Facio, Vidal and Jackson carry a clear majority of council votes. For any vote to pass, at least one must agree with Wood and Allen. And the councils they previously were part of operated in a reasonably competent manner.

At the same time, the 2022 election—in which Wood and Allen (who then ran for mayor) combined to take more than 60% of the mayoral vote—suggested there was widespread discontent about the way Harrison had been run by Facio (who had been the mayor) and his supporters.

During the election, Wood questioned whether Harrison was growing too fast and he also suggested the municipality should be governed in a more transparent manner. His victory endorsed that vision. Last year’s by-election, in which Allen beat out four other candidates after vocally throwing his support behind Wood, could be interpreted as another indication that the public favoured the mayor. (Though Allen’s opponents could claim he received barely one-third of the total number of ballots cast.)

The stalemate creates emotions that are significantly heightened by the presence of social media and a community that is intensely engaged in local politics.

Harrison Hot Spring regularly and consistently registers the largest turnout in municipal elections of any Fraser Valley municipality. When 48% of eligible residents cast votes in 2022, that turnout was both a significant decline from the 59% who voted four years prior, but also far above the provincial average of 29%.

The median age in Harrison Hot Springs is 57, and its demographics mean that its residents are deeply involved in municipal affairs, relatively knowledgeable and have relatively plentiful time on their hands. (Research has shown older folks are far more likely to vote in municipal elections than younger residents.)

That makes the community’s political atmosphere particularly stressful and unpleasant.

And it’s one reason why only five people ran for four council seats in 2022, according to Gerry Palmer. Palmer had a council seat but declined to run, in part he said because of constant criticism and attacks online.

“Social media in Harrison is very rabid,” he said. “After a while you get tired of being called crooked, corrupt, those sorts of things. You just think ‘I don’t need this. There’s so many other things I can do with my time.’”

Palmer, who says he is friends with two current councillors, said Allen is partly to blame. He pointed to a Facebook group on which, just last week, Allen called his opponents “saboteurs, mutineers, or rebels,” and suggested the creation of a petition to get the province to ban them from holding office. Last year his opponents asked lawyers to draft a letter to try to stop Allen from posting on the Facebook page. Such Facebook community groups are incredibly popular in Harrison Hot Springs and several have vastly more members than there are residents of the village..

“In Harrison, you don’t want to put yourself into a meat-grinder unless you’re just a keyboard warrior or you’re into confrontation,” Palmer said.

The dark side of Harrison politics has long been visible online. But the increasingly angry tone of real-life politics is also prompting worries that the political clashes will manifest themselves in real-world, physical animosity.

Earlier this month, police officers were reportedly called to the village hall. And last week, Allen, amid yelling from audience members at the last council meeting, expressed worry that he would be able to get to his car safely.

One resident who has generally supported Wood said he’s worried that the anger and conflict in the community will lead to violence. He said that same fear has led him—and others—to watch council meetings online rather than in person.

At the moment there is little prospect of things improving unless politicians on both sides agree that an urgent political resolution is needed. They could resign, en masse, and trigger a council-wide by-election. But failing that, Harrison Hot Springs may be stuck with their current council—and its council and mayor may be stuck with one another—for two more years.

We’re taking the rare step of pre-emptively locking the comments section on this story.

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- Tyler, Joti, and Grace.