Patti Bacchus: B.C. Liberals' land-sales scheme was worse than you know

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      An upside to the B.C. Liberal government firing my colleagues and me in 2016—for refusing to pass a Vancouver School Board (VSB) budget with deep cuts to teaching jobs and programs—was a big drop in my blood pressure, from borderline high down to optimal, within weeks of leaving office.

      It wasn’t the school-trustee job itself that made my blood boil, it was dealing with the former B.C. Liberal government. Getting fired halfway through a four-year term may turn out to add years to my life.

      Alas, a news story this week triggered me all over again, and I could feel the pressure building in my arteries as I read details about the B.C. Liberals’ program to sell off public lands. Not surprisingly, those lands often ended up in the hands of the Liberals’ developer donors, who made massive profits from them. You mad yet? Well, wait, it gets worse.

      In her recent Vancouver Sun series on the government’s sale of more than $1 billion worth of public land, reporter Lori Culbert has been doing the kind of digging too few journalists do anymore. It takes time and work to sift through documents and connect dots, but it’s important that the public learns about what governments do with public assets and why they do it—especially when it comes to the B.C. Liberals.

      The story stinks to high heaven, but it really needed telling. Kudos to Culbert and the Sun for doing it.

      According to Culbert’s series, the former B.C. Liberal government sold 164 “surplus” properties since 2013 under a program called the Release of Assets for Economic Generation, or RAEG. The sales included health centres, public-school sites, agricultural lands, and other properties deemed surplus by government.

      Well, the joke was on us, fellow taxpayers, and we should all be enRAGEd at both RAEG, which was a selloff of our collective assets, and at the lousy return we got for our land that we’ll never get back again.

      It’s also a personal issue for me. One of the reasons I ran to be a school trustee was to resist the B.C. Liberals’ attack on public education and its push for increased privatization. Throughout my eight years in office, from 2008 to 2016, the pressure from government to close schools and sell VSB lands was relentless and, at times, nasty. Really nasty.

      When we, as school trustees, advocated for better operating funding to support students, the government’s response was to tell us to close schools and sell lands. When we refused and called them out for underfunding public education, they spent hundreds of thousands of dollars hiring “special advisors”, including teams from the accounting firm EY, to write expensive reports telling us what any 12-year-old could: if you sell prime city real estate you get money. Duh.

      Selling VSB property is a foolhardy and shortsighted idea. Vancouver isn’t some dying mill town with a dwindling population. It’s a growing, vibrant city that will increase in population and density. Public lands will be increasingly precious, particularly large, intact sites. They will also become scarce and unaffordable. If we don’t hang on to the ones we have, they’ll be gone forever. Especially if they’re sold to private developers.

      Charlie Smith

      Pressure to sell the Kingsgate Mall site

      In the summer of 2016, when the VSB was facing another round of crushing budget cuts due to a lack of funding from the province, former Education Minister Mike Bernier proposed the VSB sell its Kingsgate Mall site to partially cover the shortfall. Kingsgate was the location of the former Mount Pleasant elementary school until the early 1970s and has been owned by the VSB since the late 1880s.

      The site is leased to the Beedie Development group for 99 years. Beedie owns and operates the legendary mall that sits on the land. In exchange for the use of the property, Beedie pays the VSB annual lease payments, which the VSB usually uses to supplement its operating budget. The lease is about halfway through the 99-year term.

      Bernier proposed that if we couldn’t get the Kingsgate sale through that school year, the VSB could sell government a $6-million share of the property and we could use that money to help balance our operating budget.

      Never mind that the province’s own School Act says you can’t use proceeds from land sales to fund operating budgets; Bernier said that didn’t matter. He seemed to really want us to move on that sale, and to heck with the law.

      Bernier would go on to fire us a few months later for not complying with the School Act requirement to submit a balanced budget by the end of the school year. Sometimes the rules matter and sometimes they don’t, if you’re a B.C. Liberal.

      Here’s the thing. In her series, Culbert notes Beedie donated $668,000 to the Liberals between 2005 and 2018. It’s not the only time Beedie’s name appears in Culbert’s series on the Liberals’ sale of public lands. She also reported on a $29-million sale of four provincially owned lots beside the new Moody Centre SkyTrain centre to a company that listed former Kwikwetlem First Nation chief Ron Giesbrecht as its director, without a competitive bidding process. But that’s not the end of it.

      “On the very same day each lot was purchased, the director of the numbered company was changed from Giesbrecht to developer Ryan Beedie,” Culbert wrote in the Sun

      Liberals were furious when VSB wouldn’t sell Kingsgate, and they retaliated

      Bernier was livid when we refused to sell Kingsgate, and especially when we pointed out that selling capital assets to pay operating costs is a shortsighted and foolhardy move, especially in a real-estate market like Vancouver's.

      How foolhardy? The Kingsgate site was assessed at $79 million at that time, and today it’s assessed at almost double that: $148 million. That’s a $69 million difference, and it’s still in the public’s hands instead of a private developer. You’re welcome.

      If we’d succumbed to the pressure to sell, we’d have had to sell it encumbered by the lease, which would have made it worth a lot less than it otherwise would be. Unless, of course, we sold it to Beedie, who knew we couldn’t get market value for it because of the lease. It could have been a great deal for the Beedie Group but a terrible one for the VSB, and for you and me.

      Is selling the public’s land good “stewardship”?

      Bernier angrily—and ironically—accused the VSB of putting a “misplaced focus on political tactics rather than responsible stewardship” for refusing to sell the site, and he called a news conference to announce he was ordering a “forensic audit” of the VSB in the summer of 2016, implying some kind of nefarious goings on.

      The “audit” team he appointed was led by a former B.C. Liberal deputy minister, Peter Milburn, assisted by a staff from accounting firm EY. They sifted through confidential VSB documents and the trustees’ email accounts (which VSB senior managers gave them access to with neither our consent nor our knowledge), presumably trying to find something to discredit or smear us with.

      They desperately needed something to justify firing us, as we were getting overwhelming public support for rejecting the budget cuts and the Liberals were heading into an election. They didn’t find any wrongdoing, despite all the effort—and that was a problem.

      They tried to find inappropriate trustee expenses and came up with zilch. The VSB superintendent at the time told me the Milburn team was particularly interested in my expenses, and that they couldn’t believe I didn’t submit expense claims. (I didn’t: the only time I ever claimed expenses was for registration at B.C. School Trustees’ Association events, and we withdrew from that organization in 2014. I paid all other expenses myself, including my parking at the VSB.)

      “Responsible stewardship” became a theme in the “audit” (it was not actually an audit or anything resembling one) reports and reviews that Bernier ordered and paid for with Ministry of Education funds.

      I didn’t run for school board to sell off the public’s assets—and deny future generations of students access to schools in their neighbourhoods—just because the Liberals wanted us to. Stewardship is a long game, and we played it well at the VSB, unlike the Liberals.

      When the expensive forensic-audit team came up emptyhanded, along came surprise allegations of bullying and a toxic work place, and the entire senior management team went on paid “leave” without so much as a phone call to the board chair.

      I heard the bullying allegations for the first time when a Global TV reporter called me on a Friday afternoon, saying Keith Baldrey had obtained a leaked document alleging a toxic work environment at the VSB. Baldrey was on the news that night, calling the allegations “very, very serious”.

      They were not.

      Leaked documents and other nasty tactics

      Nothing says nasty B.C. Liberal tactics more than a leaked document to Global TV on a Friday afternoon. That document—which was a letter written by the then-president of the B.C. School Superintendents’ Association—triggered a lengthy investigation, with anonymous witnesses saying the VSB’s highest-paid managers were subjected to such atrocities as trustee eye-rolling, sighing, tweeting and texting during long meetings, and motions to compare VSB enrollment projections with City of Vancouver community plans.

      I could write a book (and probably will) about the damage all that did to relationships and governance at the VSB and how that harm is still affecting the district today.

      A former B.C. Liberal MLA once told me their government considered such collateral damage as mere “breakage” that didn’t concern them at all. I have no doubt about that. So much breakage.

      I bore the brunt of a lot of it, but I have no regrets. If we’d caved to pressure, like so many other school boards did, Culbert’s list would have been longer, and precious public VSB land would be owned by private developers.

      It seems the only things the Liberals cared about “stewarding” were their donors and their own hold on power. They didn’t seem to care about the long-term consequences of their reckless and ruthless ways.

      Not surprisingly, the provincial NDP is out this week making hay of Culbert’s stories, noting that B.C. Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson was responsible for the land-sale program when he served as Minister of Citizens’ Services in 2013 and 2014. Wilkinson definitely needs to be held accountable for his own role, along with his party’s record.

      It still makes my blood boil to think of all the damage they did, especially at the VSB, along with how the public got fleeced on these land deals while the Liberals’ wealthy donors cashed in. I’m glad we stood up to it, and I wish others had done the same.

      Don’t forget all this next time we go to the polls—whether it’s a provincial election or for school-board trustees (vote for ones with the courage to take a stand). I sure won’t. Meanwhile, deep breaths. I need to get my blood pressure back down, and you probably do too.

      I’m heading off for a summer break and I’ll be back here with more columns in September. I’ll be weighing in on Twitter during the summer. Follow me @pattibacchus. Have a good one.

      Patti Bacchus is the Georgia Straight K-12 education columnist. She was chair of the Vancouver school board from 2008 to 2014.