Port Alberni city councillors, members of the public, RCMP officers and concerned agencies took a “multi-pronged” approach to a number of problems that have been plaguing the city for the past few months during a committee of the whole meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 19.
Council chambers was overflowing on Tuesday as people stepped forward to offer complaints, compliments and potential solutions to the recent increase in theft of property, violent crime, substandard housing and people living at risk.
RCMP: ‘Status quo isn’t good’
Port Alberni RCMP Inspector Brian Hunter said the large showing at council chambers was important.
“It means that we care,” he said on Tuesday. “The status quo isn’t good.”
Hunter took the opportunity on Tuesday to defend RCMP from comments he has seen and heard, especially a comment from Councillor Jack McLeman on the radio, that the police are not doing their job.
He explained that a healthy police department has 30 to 40 percent proactive time. “Ours is currently tracking at less than 10 percent,” he said.
Members are spending too much time responding to calls, prioritizing those calls, and working on those files, which gives them less time to perform surveillence on chronic offenders, initiate drug investigations and foot patrols, among other things. Many files aren’t getting touched because members simply don’t have time to to get to them.
He explained that the term “chronic offenders” refers to a small percentage of criminals doing the majority of the crime. Although Port Alberni has hundreds of “repeat offenders,” only 26 chronic offenders have been identified in town.
“We’re not going to stop doing our job,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that those comments come out in public that the police aren’t doing their job. But I’m going to respond in public.”
He defended the detachment as “the most dedicated RCMP detachment” that he has ever worked with.
He added that the Port Alberni RCMP has the highest per capita cost for policing in BC, but also the most under-resourced. Hunter explained that this means that the percentage of calls per service member is very high.
“We’re not going to arrest our way out of this,” he said on Tuesday.
Businesses owners frustrated
A number of business owners expressed their frustration to council on Tuesday, relating stories of questionable visitors, increased shoplifting and a decreased customer base.
Charlene Patterson is the owner-operator at Char’s Landing, a licenced performance venue and hostel on Argyle Street that stays open until midnight. Patterson said she experienced foot traffic this summer that frightened her, as well as some of her guests.
“I don’t feel safe in my own home now,” she said. “We do have a problem, and it’s getting worse and worse.”
Shawn Standley, co-owner of Full of Beans Play Cafe on Argyle Street, said he is in the process of joining the Citizen Watch program and encouraged others to do the same.
“What it’s going to take is that—every citizen walking down the street, saying this will not be tolerated,” he said. “Make it uncomfortable for the individuals that are engaged in this activity to do what they do.”
Kevin Wright, owner of Steampunk Cafe and innovator behind the SPROUT small business program, said that most of the “decay” in the uptown corridor comes from unemployment, and suggested that Port Alberni start building the community around small business.
“There are 100 empty buildings in town,” he pointed out.
Janine Dame (from Cloud City Apparel), Rebecca Standley (from Full of Beans) and Chris Washington (from Flandangles) all advocated for their area of business, but expressed frustration with the recent problems they have experienced.
“I think this is a multi-pronged issue that we are not going to have one solution [for] here tonight,” said Washington. “For those of us who have businesses on Third Avenue right now, our issues are immediate. If I have to wait [a year, two years] my business will be out of business, and I’ll be homeless.”
Bread of Life ‘part of solution’
David Whitworth, the vice president of the Bread of Life, emphasized that the Bread of Life is part of the solution, not part of the problem.
The Bread of Life is a soup kitchen that provides meals to those who are unable to cook, but also provides health services and provides a place for people to get off the street. Whitworth said he’s read the criticism on social media that because the Bread of Life serves people on the low-income spectrum, that it is creating problems for the uptown area.
“We don’t attract vagrants from out of town,” said Whitworth on Tuesday. “We serve 30,000 meals a year and the vast majority of the people who eat those meals are from Port Alberni and live in Port Alberni.”
Whitworth proposed a few solutions for the problems the city is facing. He said council could lead in coordinating the service providers around town.
“This is a good example tonight,” he pointed out.
He also suggested moving the community policing office—which moved in 2009 from Third Avenue to Harbour Quay because of budgetary issues—to the former thrift store beside the Bread of Life to make it more visible. His suggestion was met by a round of applause.
Finally, he said that bylaw enforcement should be proactive, instead of reactive.
“We need the city to be proactive and not wait for a complaint,” he said.
Social development needed
Ron Jorgenson, a counsellor and member of the city’s social planning commission, proposed a social development commission that would provide a long-term, coordinated solution to the social issues in the community—not just the economic ones.
“I hear the concerns that people are bringing forward with respect to businesses and the impact on businesses,” he said. “What I want to propose to council is that you take a long-term view of this.”
He envisions the commission as an umbrella organization that guides the efforts of volunteers, has an opportunity to develop a five- to 10-year social development plan to make incremental changes in the community, and becomes a way to coordinate different agencies so the city can identify gaps in the need for service and make responses or develop new agencies.
The commission, he said, will have the ability to take issues to the provincial or federal level, and it has the potential to provide a long-lasting legacy that survives councils and does not have to reinvent issues.
The point of the commission is that it would take the ideas that are coming out of the room during Tuesday’s committee of the whole and bring them together into a plan of action that has duration.
“The real question is how do we move forward from this?” said Jorgenson on Tuesday. “Who’s going to take on the identification of these issues and then pursue the acquisition of supports and action that come forward from this?”
Port Alberni Mayor Mike Ruttan said city council will consider holding a second meeting on the issue of crime once council reconvenes in the new year. Decisions are not typically made at committee of the whole meetings; issues that are discussed at committee meetings are usually brought forward to regular countil meetings.