Council mum on public garden lease
Representatives from the Penticton Urban Agriculture Association didn’t find out Monday whether or not they were successful in their bid to get Penticton city council to renew their lease.
That’s because council decided to take discussion of the lease behind closed doors, which is where council turned down the renewal on Feb. 17, the first time it came before council. And because that decision was made in camera, the association was never told why they were turned down.
“Transparency and accountability are important to this council,” said Penticton Mayor Garry Litke while talking about another matter before council.
But lack of communication seemed to be more the order of the day, as two councillors openly admitted they were not fully informed about the association’s activities before make their decision in February. Under a temporary use permit, the association leases a portion of an empty lot at the corner of Ellis and Nanaimo, where they teach people about how to grow food in the city and conduct other educational programs.
That was laid out in a letter to city staff, which also outlined plans for continuing to grow their operations.
And as a byproduct, the association has been able to contribute several hundred pounds of food to the food bank and the Soupateria.
It turns out council had concerns about clutter in the association’s end of the lot — the rest is used as a parking lot — and whether the group should be weeding the entire lot, or just the northern end, where their Centre for Urban Agriculture is located.
“I didn’t realize what great work your group was doing in the community,” admitted Coun. Helena Konanz, addressing association president Kathryn McCourt and past president Eva Durance, who were making a presentation to council. “I thought your group was aware that council was concerned about what was happening aesthetically.”
“We’ve had no written or verbal communications there was any problems,” said Durance, noting that though the rest of the lot isn’t included in the temporary use permit, their association had gone to the effort of xeriscaping around signs on the opposite side of the lot from their compound to help control noxious weeds.
McCourt said the group has worked on the project for three years and it is an ongoing process to continue building their operation, which is entirely done with volunteer labour and limited funds.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day, and they had slave labour,” said McCourt. “It would be a great pity if all the volunteer effort and donations and involvement were to be wasted.”
Coun. John Vassilaki, who visited the garden area to discuss the operation with Durance, also admitted he hadn’t been fully informed at the February in camera meeting.
“There was a misconception around the table from some of the councillors that this was going to be a community garden and not an urban teaching garden, because there is a huge difference between the two as I found out. I had no idea,” said Vassilaki.
Litke said that council had received the association’s letter, but had no explanation for why council members still seemed uninformed about the group’s activities.
“It was in our hands. Some may have (read the letter) and some may have forgotten,” said Litke, who tried to explain why they were taking the discussion in camera again.
“Because the lease was originally approved in camera, the recommendation was that we need to go back into camera to change the resolution that was made,” said Litke.
“We can’t come out into public and change a decision that was made in camera.”
Corporate officer Dana Schmidt confirmed that council could choose to make the discussion public, but added that it might end up involving an evaluation or a negotiation.
“Sometimes you are halfway through the conversation before you realize there might be a problem, so that is why it is done in camera,” said Coun. Katie Robinson.