LETTERS: Former Penticton councillor speaks on PHA decision

Former Penticton councillor Wes Hopkin gives his views on the court ruling with the PHA.

The Penticton Hospitality Associated recently made some  allegations regarding the actions of council and while I may no longer be a councillor, as the one on council who was most involved in this issue I feel compelled to respond.

First, it is important to understand that council was responsible for making the decision to petition the court on whether or not the agreement with the PHA was terminated. It was a decision that I supported, and if provided with the same information available to me at the time, it is a decision I would make again. The idea that somehow city staff manipulate council into making decisions is not only highly offensive to staff, but also to councillors whose job it is to exercise their judgement and discretion and direct the actions of the city. Yes we take input, but ultimately council decides.  It began with our then chief financial officer bringing to Council reports of his difficulty in obtaining monthly financial statements from the PHA transparent enough to ensure accountability of their spending. Those statements should be accessible via a freedom of information request and anyone who wishes to see the quality of the statements being provided can look for themselves. We tried several times to get them to improve the transparency of the statements to no real avail. We later learned that after more than a years worth of administering the hotel room tax, the PHA still had not appointed an auditor or set a fiscal year end date.

It also came to light that the PHA did not do any meaningful tourism marketing nor had they spent really any of the several hundred thousand dollars worth of HRT funds for at least the first six months they were administering the contract, a fact which was not disputed by the PHA.

See, the point of the HRT was to raise revenue to market the community, and the PHA simply failed to do that for quite some time.

We also heard from tourism stakeholders who were concerned with how the money was being spent and asked us to take action, including accommodation representatives from the Best Western, Ramada, Days Inn and even Barb Schneiderat from Tiki Shores who had been part of the PHA executive at one time.

Some even asked for us to unilaterally direct the money to Tourism Penticton, though instead we asked the court to rule on the legality of terminating the agreement. When tourism sector leaders, with a deep understanding of the issue, came to us with concerns I did not take them lightly.

We attended multiple mediation sessions with the PHA in order to try and resolve our disputes, but in council’s view they simply did not live up to their obligations. I was present for every session and while there was hope that we could come to an agreement after each one, ultimately there was insufficient follow through. During at least one session, representatives of the PHA recorded the discussions without our knowledge or consent.

Frankly, I am not sure I would have had a problem with them making a recording, but not telling the other party or asking for their permission is a pretty considerable breach of trust and I will let others judge the reasonableness of the PHA’s actions throughout this dispute.

Faced with these mounting concerns and actions on the part of the PHA, and after almost a year of working to resolve the dispute, council finally asked the court to rule on whether or not the city could terminate its agreement with the PHA because of what we believed to be fundamental breaches of the contract we had with them.

The court did not find the PHA’s action constituted a fundamental breach, and while it is worth noting that the court did say that the city’s request for financial information was reasonable and that one could be critical of the way the PHA has administered the funds, the only issue put to it was the issue of a fundamental breach.

The last thing I will say on this is that regardless of what some individuals may have said regarding the motives of council, having one industry-led, professional tourism marketing organization was always my goal throughout, a goal which I know was shared by all members of council.

At one point we had such a model. In the spring of 2012 we formed a new society called Tourism Penticton and Wine Country which represented the whole tourism community, but whose constitution ensured that hotels and motels would receive a majority of seats on the board of directors.

It also guaranteed that in order to approve using HRT funds a majority of those accommodation directors would have to agree in addition to gaining the approval of a majority of the whole board.

This was based on the successful model used by Tourism Kelowna. This was agreed to by the PHA in the spring of 2012, but for whatever reason the PHA chose not to meaningfully partner with Tourism Penticton.

I hope going forward this can be improved, as it is not simply hotels or motels that suffer when marketing is not done effectively, but all the other tourism businesses in our community who deserve a say in how tourism dollars are spent.

Wes Hopkin

Former Penticton councillor