Thursday, October 30, 2008

Premier's autism centre plan drawing hard questions

Gordon Campbell seemed to catch everyone by surprise with the announcement of a $20-million contribution to a privately planned autism centre with a vague mandate.
And not everyone involved with the issues is pleased, based on this e-mail to the province's auditor general.

TO: Office of the Auditor General of BC
FROM: Dawn Steele & Cyndi Gerlach, Moms on the Move
RE: Request for review of Premier's/Minister's role in committing $20 million in public funds for a private proposal to build an autism centre
DATE: October 29, 2008

Dear Sirs,

We are both parents of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and coordinators of Moms on the Move, a volunteer provincial network that has provided information, advocacy and support to BC families of individuals with autism and other special needs for over eight years. We are the largest such network in BC, linking over 1,000 families and community members.

We are writing to request that you investigate the role of the Premier's office in allocating $20 million in provincial funding and/or other public resources/property to a private proponent seeking to build an "autism centre;" and further, to review whether the Minister responsible for autism policy in BC has failed to ensure that public resources intended to serve children with autism are being allocated in a manner consistent with provincial autism policy and good governance practices with regard to procurement, accountability and public interest.

We were invited, along with other autism community groups leaders, to a meeting hosted by the project proponents, Wendy and Sergio Cocchia, at their downtown hotel on July 24. At that meeting, they informed us:
a.. They are parents of a child with autism but have no expertise or experience in delivering autism services or supports
b.. They are personally acquainted with the Premier and have been asking him for several years to provide public funding and/or property to help them build a provincial autism centre
c.. The Premier gave Sergio Cocchia a "heads-up" in advance that the February 2008 budget would include funding for their centre.
d.. The Premier invited Cocchia to meet him in February following the budget, committed $20 million in Provincial funds towards constructing a new building to house their centre and asked him to develop and submit a formal proposal by the fall.
e.. The Premier said the $20 million would have to be paid out by March 31, 2009, or it would be lost to "general revenues."
f.. In response to questions, the proponent said he was unaware of any needs assessment, formal RFP, advertisement or competitive process.
g.. The proponents established a foundation and intend to fundraise to construct a $34-million building, possibly at the SFU Campus on Burnaby Mountain.
h.. The purpose of the centre was not determined. Facilities could include space to deliver therapy, research and training; a sports centre, swimming pool and baseball diamond where children with autism could enjoy recreation "safely;" a coffee shop or perhaps a training spa/salon; videoconferencing, plus accommodations for out-of town families who might visit.
i.. Government would provide no new funds for any of the proposed activities; families would have to pay from existing resources or fundraise to cover all costs.
j.. Participants were invited to help decide what to do with this new centre, as a formal proposal had to be submitted this fall.
No government officials were present on July 24 to comment further or confirm this. There has still been no formal government announcement regarding this proposal, availability of new public funds and/or government's objectives, intentions or project parameters. The 2008 Throne Speech contains a single sentence referencing plans for a provincial residential centre for autism education and reseach. No details were provided in the provincial budget. The Service Plan of the Ministry for Children and Families, which has responsibility for out-of-school supports and treatment for children with autism, has no reference to this plan. Neither does the Ministry of Education, which has responsibility for K-12 special education, and which abandoned earlier plans from the 2007 Throne Speech to create a provincial model school for autism suggested by the same proponents following strong commnuity opposition. All we have are several comments quoted in response to media questions: 1) The MCFD Minister confirmed a "notional commitment" was made and 2) The Minister for Housing and Welfare said the funding would come from his budget.

$20 million is equivalent to half the annual MCF budget for autism, which funds early intervention therapy for some 5,000 children. The Province has no equivalent program to fund therapy for other developmental disabilities, like Down Syndrome. At the July 24 meeting, community leaders welcomed the prospect of new provincial funding, given the urgent need to enhance and expand treatment, but questioned the appropriateness of spending it all on a building, especially when other under-utilized community facilities (like public schools) could provide any needed space. The centralized delivery model is also inconsistent with provincial policy and families' preference to access services locally, and would offer little to the vast majority of families beyond the immediate vicinity. Participants also questioned the appropriateness of the Premier's personally handling this project outside normal channels and accountability systems.

Community feedback
Participants at the July 24 meeting proposed that our group, as the largest autism network in BC, be used to seek further community feedback. We created an informal Web survey and distributed the link to over 1,000 community members (parents, professionals and service providers), including the proponents. When preliminary feedback indicated overwhelming opposition, we immediately advised the Premier and proponents of concerns being expressed (all cited correspondence copied below).

We continued to run the survey over 7 weeks in August and September and a total of 531 responses were received. A summary of the full results is attached. Individual responses and detailed comments can be browsed directly at:
Key findings:
a.. Parents overwhelmingly prefer local delivery of autism treatment - the worst gaps are in rural areas, not Greater Vancouver
b.. Addressing gaps in funded services and supports for all ages is far more important for families than a new building/ provincial centre, which ranked last in a list of priorities
c.. 95% agreed there were better ways to spend government funds to serve children with autism in BC
d.. A majority think funding for new services should be shared with other disabilities
e.. A majority also had process concerns: 80% think the Minister should handle such inititiaves through normal channels; 96% would prefer a competitive process for soliciting proposals.
Attempts to share concerns
We have tried several times to share the detailed survey results and comments and/or to further engage with the proponents. They have dismissed these concerns in media comments, declined or failed to respond to our approaches and have not shared further information or offered further engagement since the July 24 meeting.

Sources involved in this project insist that MCF Minister Tom Christensen was not party to the Premier's initial discussions or commitment, and was not even aware of the plans until this summer. They claim all decisions are still being made by the Premier, and that he remains 100% committed to funding a new provincial autism centre, despite the lack of any clear purpose, and whether or not that's what the community wants or needs. This week, we were told: "The train has left the station" - the project is going ahead, although the proponents still can't decide what the centre could offer that the community actually wants, and the Minister has no say in this.

However, since the Premier's response to our initial approach referred us to Minister Christensen, on Sept. 19, we asked the Minister to meet with us to discuss the survey feedback and the Province's plans. On Oct. 23, the Minister responded, declining to meet. He said he "understood" community discussions were underway and suggested we participate, although we had told him that we tried without success to meet with the proponents. Our provincial network has not been informed of any other public discussions underway.

Given events to date, we are not confident that further efforts to engage with the proponents or government will lead to meaningful consideration of community concerns reflected in our survey. The process to date also raises grave questions of competence in the leadership of this project to assure its success. Further, we believe it is the duty of the Ministry responsible, not a private group, to conduct any necessary discussions, set parameters and respond to concerns about the spending of public dollars.

Governance concerns
The Premier's commitment to spend $20 million in provincial funds on a privately-held building to house a provincial autism centre represents a significant investment of public funds and a significant departure from current policy and models of autism service delivery. This could instead fund services and supports for an additional 2,500 children with special needs who are being denied/waitlisted for vital early intervention services, pay for vital treatment that many families have to cover privately, or go towards urgently-needed research, training, assessment, special education or adult services. The need for the Province to invest in such a centre was further challenged by the recent announcement that a competing private group plans to open their own provincial autism centre in Burnaby in January 2009, without any public funding.

There has been no formal announcement regarding government's plans, objectives or intentions and no government effort to engage with the community to ensure that new funds for autism are spent effectively and in accordance with government policy. The Minister responsible and the proponents won't acknowledge or discuss concerns, the Minister responsible seems to be abdicating responsibility, it's unclear who's in charge, most families are still in the dark and we're being told that it doesn't matter what anybody thinks because the Premier wants this project to go ahead regardless. The latest third-party reports we have are that the former Sunny Hill hospital site is now also on offer, and that the purpose of the proposed centre still remains undetermined.

We ask that you specifically investigate/review the following questions:
1) Who is in charge? To what extent is the Premier managing this project directly, instead of allowing the Minister responsible for autism policy to manage his portfolio through normal channels, and to what extent has this muddied accountability, created concern and confusion and invited possible mis-spending of public dollars?

2) Has the Province failed to act transparently by not providing clear, timely and appropriate information to the public and affected communities regarding its intentions and objectives with an initiative that represents a significant policy shift and spending equal to half the current autism budget?

3) Does the Ministry responsible have an obligation to hold, supervise or at least participate in public consultations on major publicly-funded initiatives to ensure these are undertaken in good faith, in an open, accessible and objective manner, especially when there is evidence of significant community opposition?

4) Did the Premier act appropriately when he failed to undertake any needs assessment before committing public funds in response to a private request by an associate for support of a private initiative outside the current policy framework?

5) Was the Premier acting in accordance with provincial procurement policy and/or good governance practice when he committed $20 million without testing the offered proposal against existing provincial autism policy, without requiring credentials consistent with the proposed project, without any public discussion and without any open, competitive bidding process?

6) Minister Rich Coleman has stated in the media that this autism project will be funded from his budget for welfare and social housing - is this correct and if so, is it inappropriate? Is he therefore the Minister responsible if it's his budget?

7) Has the Province negotiated with the City of Vancouver or another party to provide lands at the former Sunny Hill hospital site to the proponents for their project and if so, on what terms?
The patterns described here are worryingly similar to those that surrounded the inception of Community Living BC, which is now widely seen as a disastrous undertaking that has consumed enormous public resources without improving the lives of those it was created to serve. MOMS repeatedly raised similar warnings during the CLBC restructuring process and urged government to reconsider, but with no success. I hope that we could avoid repeating this through proactive intervention from your office to ensure that the $20 million available is spent effectively in the public interest.

Please contact us if you have any questions (Tel 604 874-1416). We would be happy to meet with you to discuss this further, at your convenience.


Dawn Steele & Cyndi Gerlach
Moms on the Move

Election tactics in Saanich-Gulf Islands should get close look

Some odd — even worrying — things happened in the Saanich-Gulf Island’s riding successfully held by Conservative cabinet minister Gary Lunn.
One election dirty trick involved phone fraud and seemed both unethical and illegal. The RCMP response, which suggested election fraud allegations just aren’t a priority, was disturbing.
And while there is no evidence of wrongdoing, it appears third-party advertisers played a disproportionate role in the riding.
If nothing else, the events raise questions about the effectiveness of current laws and enforcement efforts.
First, some background. Lunn, natural resources minister in the last government, faced a tough fight for re-election. He won with 37 per cent of the vote in 2006, in part thanks to a three-way opposition vote split.
The Liberals nominated Briony Penn, a high-profile, respected environmentalist. She hoped to appeal to Green voters. Mid-campaign, NDP candidate Julian West withdrew from the race after a creepy past incident of public nudity resurfaced. (That’s fuelled some conspiracy talk on the political blogs, with no apparent foundation.)
West withdrew too late to have his name taken off the ballot, but Penn’s prospects were still helped by the departure. The NDP riding association wrote to all party members saying West was not a candidate and the party wasn’t endorsing anyone.
But in the days before the election, residents were flooded with taped phone messages urging them to vote for West. People who had caller ID saw the call was coming from the phone of NDP riding association president Bill Graham.
Except that was not true. Whoever made the calls used “spoofing” software to make it appear as if the calls were coming from Graham’s number.
The scam didn’t likely affect the outcome. Lunn had 2,625 more votes than Penn. West received 3,667 votes, but they certainly can’t all be attributed to the calls. Some people always vote NDP; others might have chosen to cast their ballots to ensure the party gets the $1.95 per vote in annual public financing.
But the scam certainly could have changed the outcome under slightly different circumstances.
Elections Canada refuses to confirm or deny investigations. Telus says it can’t do anything. The RCMP maintains no laws were broken.
But lawyers disagree. It’s a Criminal Code offence to knowingly provide false information over the phone or to fraudulently impersonate another.
That’s not the only odd development in the riding.
Third-party advertisers are allowed to participate in Canadian election campaigns, subject to spending limits. The aim is to allow interested groups or individuals to join the debate, while setting limits to make sure the rich can’t buy elections. People who favour or oppose a carbon tax, for example, can make sure the issue is front and centre or support sympathetic candidates.
Andrew MacLeod, of the consistently interesting, took a close look at third-party spending in Saanich-Gulf Islands.
In the 308 ridings across Canada, 59 third-party groups registered with Elections Canada. Five registered in Saanich-Gulf Islands using the same address — a law firm that includes Bruce Hallsor, a Lunn supporter.
Hallsor says the groups recognized his expertise in electoral law. But he is vice-president of the Conservative riding association and co-chaired the Conservative B.C. campaign in 2006. (Hallsor is also a strong proponent of electoral reform and a champion of Scouting — literally, a Boy Scout in the often scrappy world of politics.)
Four of the five, MacLeod found, also had the same financial agent: The Citizens Against Higher Taxes, the Dean Park Advocacy Association, the Economic Advisory Council of Saanich and the Saanich Peninsula Citizens Council.
Each third-party participant is limited to spending $3,666 in any riding. Candidates, this time, were limited to $92,000. And it’s illegal for third-party participants to split into multiple subsets to avoid spending limits.
The spending filings for Saanich-Gulf Islands will be watched closely. If Lunn spent to the limit, and several third-party groups with a common address spent heavily to support him, expect some tough questions.
Footnote: The Lunn campaign had its own complaints. He was a high-profile target as a potentially vulnerable B.C. Conservative. The Dogwood Initiative registered as a third party participant and worked hard - but unsuccessfully - to defeat Lunn based on his support for increasing tanker traffic in B.C. coastal waters. The campaign said the group misrepresented his position.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Sunday, October 26, 2008

James gets TV time too

A few eyebrows were raised when Gordon Campbell used the provincial legislative TV channel to broadcast his speech on the economy. The channel had been used to bring the proceedings in the legislature to cable subscribers around the province. It hadn't been seen as a communications vehicle for the governing party.
And, it looks it isn't. Carole James has successfully argued she deserves the chance to talk about the economy on the legislative channel. (A good decision by Speaker Bill Barisoff, once he allowed the premier's TV speech.)
Stay tuned.


For Immediate Release
October 26, 2008


VICTORIA -- NDP Leader Carole James will deliver a televised statement on the economy on Monday, October 27 at 6:15 PM.

The statement will air on Hansard television.

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