Friday, July 24, 2009

Rewarding Volunteers

What powers ACE communities and other active, creative and engaged communities? A commitment to society drives them, and the depth of their volunteer ethic fuels them. Empty the tank of volunteer support and the commitment to community comes to a gradual halt.
This is not an earth-shaking pronouncement. Most of our political leaders proclaim the importance of community volunteers. Yet they often deliver the level of that support needed to protect the legitimate interests of community volunteers.
A recent tragedy in Golden, British Columbia involving search and rescue volunteers has sharply focused the attention of Alberta volunteer groups. In this case, a husband and wife who were skiing at a resort in Golden ignored clearly-posted out-of-bounds signs and went missing. The couple was lost for over a week, and the wife died of exposure. As a result of that tragedy, her husband is suing the Mounties, the ski resort and the Golden and District search and rescue team for failing to conduct a proper search.
Liability insurance is of vital importance to the volunteer community. Existing liability insurance policies protect the Mounties and the ski resort operators and staff. There was liability insurance protection for volunteers in the Golden, B.C. Search and Rescue team. However, Golden Search and Rescue would have lost liability coverage if they were on a search without being called in by authorities. Now, they are being sued because authorities didn’t call them out. It’s all a wee bit crazy-making.
In Alberta, Search and Rescue Alberta president Monica Ahlstrom says that of Alberta’s 40 search and rescue teams, as many as 15 have no liability insurance. Bill 49, introduced this spring in the Alberta Legislature, promises extended “good faith” liability coverage for firefighters and fire departments protecting them from lawsuits arising from their professional duties. Yet there is presently no plan to include Search and Rescue volunteers in the proposed legislation.
Another issue emerging from the Golden tragedy concerns individuals who choose to ignore clear warning signs, meet with disaster, and then launch lawsuits. This has implications for every community hall or sports facility in Alberta, and any volunteer organization delivering public service.
Should volunteers performing community work in good faith expect a basic liability protection consistent with fire crews? Should community volunteers expect legislation ensuring that those choosing to ignore clear and adequate warnings are liable for the consequences of those choices?
Perhaps it’s time that volunteers tested the depth of the reservoir of “good faith” coverage trumpeted by our politicians. How could they test that “good faith”? Alberta’s volunteer community could- and should– ask for a “Volunteer Bill of Rights and Responsibilities” that clearly outlines the terms of volunteer service, including risk mitigation. That would go a long way towards “filling the tank” of the volunteer spirit.

Development Decisions

It’s not easy to be an elected municipal leader in Alberta, particularly when it comes to making land-use decisions. Our boom and bust economy and the reluctance of past provincial governments to take long-term planning seriously have created an environment where some municipalities choose short-term growth over long-term sustainability.
How does a municipality balance long-term environmental protection with the benefits of substantial gains in tax assessment that can come from increased development? What would you do if you were that municipal leader?
When you’re a County Councillor, things are rarely straightforward, and these applications are no different. Please join me in the Council Chambers at Buttercup County, Alberta, where you are one of five County Councilors.
Council has received development applications from a couple of prominent companies proposing very large residential developments at beautiful Reelbig Lake, located at the far end of your County. Reelbig Lake is a prime recreation site, with residential, summer residential and commercial development. The development will bring in a substantial increase in assessments that will help stabilize the mill rate for your predominantly rural, agriculture-based County. All ratepayers would benefit from potentially large gains in County assessment.
There are also risks. One of North America’s leading water quality experts is on record predicting that Reelbig Lake’s water quality will suffer if these developments proceed. The expert says that there will be disturbing cumulative impacts resulting from the proposed developments. He says that Reelbig Lake will become eutrophic. Swimming will be impossible and desirable species of fish will die, and science will be unable to reverse the condition. As a Councillor with some knowledge of human nature, you know that folks will not be too keen to rent paddleboats or go fishing if that prediction comes true. If the expert is right, future property values around the lake will take a serious hit. Given the public alert already given concerning the risks to Lake water quality, there could be future lawsuits from property owners angry about the erosion of their property values.
Is this even the right time to make this decision? The provincial government is in the final stages of implementing a Land Use Strategy, which will provide a comprehensive planning process including cumulative environmental impacts as part of the approval process. Some concerned Reelbig Lake residents insist that Council table these developments to the Land Use Strategy process. The developers are pushing hard for a speedy approval of their applications. They say that the economic activity generated by the approval, combined with the assessment gains, will make this a big winner for Buttercup County.
So there you are, members of Council. I’m your County Reeve, Harry Handshake, and the way I see it, we have three options: (1) Approve the development applications in spite of the concerns (2) Reject the applications because of the concerns (3) Slow down the process and refer it to the Land Use Strategy for assessment. I’m opening the floor for discussion. What should Buttercup County Council do? Who wants to go first?