Colwood Coun. Judith Cullington

Colwood Coun. Judith Cullington

Colwood seeks independent review of solar project

Public concerns have convinced City of Colwood councilors to request an independent review of the Solar Colwood program.

Public concerns have convinced Colwood councillors to request an independent review of the Solar Colwood program.

At a council meeting on March 26, councilors voted in favour of a recommendation from a strategic and financial planning committee calling for a review of the program.

That recommendation emerged from a series of questions presented to the City by a group of concerned citizens.

Jim Belfry, one of the authors of the questions and a citizen member of the financial committee, said the review is a step towards accountability and reassurance that the program is worthwhile of the City’s time and money.

In total, the projected budget for the program includes $31,400 from the City in HST and $393,000 in in-kind staff time.

“I’m satisfied that council has addressed the major concerns that were raised by the citizen group,” Belfry said, “and (will) come up with a plan that will put more scrutiny on the project.”

Colwood staff have been directed to look at options for an independent review, including the possibility of a review by the provincial government’s auditor general for local government.

Coun. Teresa Harvey said she supports the review because of inconsistent reporting and out of a desire to put the public at ease. The review should look at the program from the City’s agreement with Natural Resources Canada forward, she added.

“I think an independent review, particularly because it’s a new program, is the responsible thing for council to do,” Harvey said. “The reporting for the program seems to be inconsistent and the numbers seem to change. Community members can’t seem to get answers to basic questions.”

Coun. Judith Cullington, who has spearheaded the Solar Colwood program, agreed that a review is a good idea, for the main purpose of helping the public find confidence in the initiative.

“I’m very comfortable because there have been ongoing audits of this program since the beginning,” Cullington said. “What I’m trying to do is lay these fears to rest. … I think for many people perhaps it will set their minds at rest.”

Natural Resources Canada (NRCan), which is providing $3.9 million toward the program, has an onsite audit planned for the program starting this month.

This audit will include a risk assessment. Management of the program is the City’s responsibility, according to an NRCan spokesperson, but the agency has received all requested information.

“To date, NRCan has no concerns with Colwood’s management of our contribution funds,” wrote the spokesperson in an email.

Council also agreed to treat Solar Colwood as an “extraordinary” budget item for the 2012 budget.

Though it does not qualify as a supplementary request, the committee, and now council, believes that the program needs special attention beyond a core budget item. This will give the public more of an opportunity to have its say.

The only recommendation voted down by council was one asking for a freeze on the program until the review had been completed. Harvey voted in favour of a freeze but found no other support.

Belfry said that if council makes a decision to allow a citizen’s audit, both he and fellow Colwood resident George Mess would be willing to do it.

Staff will come to council with options at its next meeting on Tuesday, April 10.