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August 10, 2011

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Sooke Council shortens private sewage deal

SOOKE—The District Council has voted to extend its contract with a private sewage company for five years instead of 21 years. The decision came at a District Council meeting Monday night despite calls for a review of wastewater services that would consider more economical and transparent options.

The Council originally tried to give Edmonton-based EPCOR a 21-year “sweetheart deal,” but failed to get enough public support once the details were made public. The current contract with EPCOR was set to expire at the end of September.

Sooke activist Don Brown.Sooke activist Don Brown.District staff offered four possibilities including the five year deal, a two-year extension of services with EPCOR, looking into in-house public services or holding a referendum on the issue.  Council opted for the five-year extension without offering to examine the benefits of public service. District staff did say they would build an opting-out clause into the agreement in case the new Council to be elected in November decides there are better options for the community than staying with EPCOR. 

At the Monday Council meeting, Sooke Water Watch and other groups including CUPE had a few choice words for Council including “public,” “transparent” and “local.” 

Council ignored a proposal made by Sooke resident Don Brown to set up a steering committee and use local consultants to look into all the options including a community co-op run sewage system or a municipal in-house system. Brown called for a nine-month extension of the current EPCOR contract to give the consultants enough time to look into other options. “At the end of the day,” said Brown, “independent evaluation would give the community a clear choice on the best option.”

CUPE 374 spokesperson Trevor Davies pulled no punches in describing the downside of working with private corporations to provide public services. “Corporations are required to maximize profits whenever possible. The social values of this community will come second - no matter what.” CUPE 374 represents Sooke municipal workers.

“In Sooke, Council has tried to use the alternate approval process to sign the longest term contract a municipality is legally allowed to sign. I do not expect a revolution of thought of council, Davies said, “what I hope for is the evolution of an idea that is rooted in almost every community:  the best services for the public, is by the public so take the opportunity to build Sooke, not sell it off.”

Sooke Water Watch spokesperson Dan MacBeth.Sooke Water Watch spokesperson Dan MacBeth.Sooke Water Watch coordinator Dan MacBeth and Keep It Public coordinator Gilles Larose pointed to other jurisdictions dealing with sewage issues, including the fight for public sewage treatment in Victoria’s  Capital Regional District. “That battle lasted four and half years and at the end it was crystal clear that the people of Victoria want public, accountable, transparent running of a public service,” said Larose.

The majority of councilors and Mayor Janet Evans all said they had really wanted the 21-year deal.  Evans suggested that the only way to get money from the province was to go private. “We got $11 million from the province because we with partnered with EPCOR,” she explained. “I would like to go to the polls and let the people decide – but I’m afraid of what could happen.”

Councilor Maja Tait said they support a long-term deal with a private company “because we believe in progress.” She added that “We understand CUPE’s concerns, - we contract out everything – we can’t even fill a pothole without contracting out.” 

Councilor Ron Dumont went as far as to say that EPCOR is great because if anything goes wrong “we have the backup of the whole empire of EPCOR to make it right.”

Councilor Herb Haldane was the lone dissenting voice on council against the immediate five-year extension. Haldane said he would support a referendum on the issue adding “I don’t believe the system was checked out enough and I don’t agree that it was transparent enough.” Haldane said “the next Council should have a say in this – that would be more democratic.”

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