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B.C. village residents mull moving out amid council dysfunction

Some residents of Harrison Hot Springs say they're considering leaving the picturesque village because they're alarmed by the level of dysfunction in council, with chaotic meetings, a backlog of village business and rancour that has spread into the community.

Ongoing disputes between mayor and councillors have created growing rifts in community of 1,500

A road with a sign on the right that says Resort Municipality Harrison Hot Springs.

Known for its natural beauty, Harrison Hot Springs is a place for many to unwind in a spa, in Harrison Lake or the surrounding mountains.

But some residents say they're now considering leaving the picturesque village, around 100 kilometres east of Vancouver, because they're alarmed by the level of dysfunction from their elected officials.

Since the fall 2022 municipal election, Harrison's mayor and four councillors have been at odds, resulting in chaotic council meetings, a backlog of village business and rancour that has spread into the community.

"A lot of us are actually looking to move somewhere else because we're horrified," said Gabrielle Thornton, who has lived in the village with her husband Wolfgang for 11 years.

"This is husband against wife, neighbour against neighbour, friend against friend. It is crazy. The stress is unbelievable."

Thornton says the conflict at council over how to run meetings, development and density decisions, and protecting the village from the threat of wildfire has created factions in the community.

These opposing sides show up at council meetings, some urging on Mayor Ed Wood and his sole supporter, Coun. John Allen, while others clap and cheer for councillors Michie Vidal, Allan Jackson and Leo Facio, the former mayor.

WATCH | CBC News visits Harrison Hot Springs as council spars:

Mayor, councillors in popular, small B.C. community caught in quagmire of disagreement

23 hours ago

Duration 2:40

Since 2022, Harrison Hot Springs' mayor and four councillors have struggled to work together to govern the village, now some residents are considering moving away because of the dysfunction.

The village's troubles seemed to hit a new low on April 15, when Wood began a council meeting by saying, "today is a sad day for this village. In my opinion, there is a coup."

Wood, who campaigned on cleaning house in council, alleges that Facio, Jackson and Vidal gang up against him and Allen to prevent them from pushing ahead with any of their initiatives.

He also alleges the three opposition councillors are empowering the village's chief administrative officer (CAO), Tyson Koch, to organize council meetings, including the preparation of the agendas, rather than the mayor.

Wood declined interviews with CBC News, but said in a statement there is an "ongoing vendetta against myself as our duly elected mayor and the chief executive officer of the municipal corporation, I have effectively been unable to fulfill my statutory obligations as the leader."

Council dysfunction in B.C. is not unique to Harrison Hot Springs. Municipalities such as Kamloops, Quesnel and Lions Bay are all struggling with governance, controversy or conflict in council.

'Just get together and get things done'

In Harrison Hot Springs politics, allegations of bad behaviour, insults and even threats — physical or legal — seem as plentiful as the tourists that flock to the small village.

What's true or false, and where it all began is confusing. But residents like Larry Denisuk say they just want it to end.

He's lived in the village for 20 years and never seen council have as much trouble as this one. His advice is simple.

"Just get together and get things done. You know, there's a lot of people that are starting to move out of Harrison and I hate to say it, but I think it has a lot to do with council," he said on Monday before a council meeting.

The council does appear to have a path out of the quagmire. Last year, an advisor was appointed by the province to assess council's problems and make recommendations to address them.

Ron Poole made seven recommendations, with most revolving around changes that would make clear the role of village politicians and staff, and how to properly communicate with one another.

Since November though, council has struggled to adopt all the recommendations — and some are becoming wedges themselves.

Monday's council meeting, the latest since April 15, appeared to be going well until two of the recommendations — a chief administrative officer (CAO) covenant and an update to the village's code of conduct — came up.

Neither were passed and the conflict over them ended with Wood ordering Coun. Michie Vidal to leave the meeting, which she refused to do.

Before the meeting, Vidal expressed her desire to move forward on the municipal advisor's recommendations.

"I agree 100 per cent with them and it's about building that consensus," she said.

Meanwhile, Allen expressed concern over the CAO covenant, alleging it would transfer certain powers from Wood to Koch.

"If you don't have a head of the organization, it's like a ship without a rudder. I mean, there's three people on the bridge all giving different orders and the captain is locked in his cabin. It's not good," he said.

The CAO covenant was the sixth recommendation made by the municipal advisor Ron Poole.

Many municipalities and regional districts have them to ensure that governance "does not fuse with administration," Poole wrote in his final report.

"Staff are the experts hired, not elected, to handle the operational side," he added.

A CAO covenant in Harrison Hot Springs would mean Koch oversees and manages all staff.

Minister, MLA keep hands off

In a series of emails to CBC News, Wood said he wants the province to step in and essentially find a way to rule over who's wrong and who's right in the community.

But B.C.'s minister of municipal affairs and the area's MLA are taking a hands-off approach. They're encouraging the village to adopt the municipal advisor's recommendations and find a way forward on their own.

Kelli Paddon, MLA Chilliwack–Kent, said in a statement that she has heard from residents and "they are, rightfully, frustrated and upset.

"I, like many of my constituents, hope that the mayor and council can move forward with respect and professionalism in order to make important decisions for the community."

The next municipal elections are in October 2026.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chad Pawson is a CBC News reporter in Vancouver. Please contact him at chad.pawson@cbc.ca.

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Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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