The question, suddenly, is not whether City council will support the Ajax mine, but whether it will take a position at all.
The neutrality option reared its head this week as Coun. Donovan Cavers put forward a motion to ask KGHM boss Herbert Wirth for a meeting.
The motion went through, unanimously, but only after some uncomfortable discussion about when the meeting should be, how the request should be worded, and the how to do so in a neutral-sounding manner.
Which has brought to the surface the matter of whether council has the appetite for taking a stand, ever.
Coun. Arjun Singh says he’s of “two minds” on that. On the one hand, there’s the view that this is a big deal and council should show leadership by expressing an opinion.
On the other hand, it’s very divisive, and council has no authority to accept or reject the mine, so stay out of it.
From her comments at the meeting, Marg Spina appears to be strongly in favour of staying inside the box on this one as well.
Then there’s Nancy Bepple, who excuses herself every time the word “Ajax” comes up. She does so, she says, because she owns $5,000 worth of Abacus shares and because her partner is on the board of a company that has sub-surface exploration rights within the Ajax footprint.
The latter isn’t technically a conflict but some people might perceive it as one. When it comes to conflicts of interest for politicians, perception is as important as reality.
“I could sell my shares but I’m not getting rid of my partner,” she says.
Other than Cavers, who has been on record against the mine since before he was elected, Tina Lange is the only other council member who seems anxious to get the Ajax discussion on the table.
“If this mine goes ahead, it’s the biggest impact of anything we’ll see in our lifetime,” she told council. “Each of us will have a different opinion on what’s best for this community and there won’t be a neutral stand taken on this, if we’re to be the leaders we’re expected to be in taking care of the city.”
Lange is right. It’s a question of leadership. How can council claim leadership but avoid taking a stand on the most controversial issue facing Kamloops in years? Though City Hall has no power over Ajax, its views would strongly influence the federal and provincial decision makers.
Yet, as Singh says, how does council judge what the majority wants?
One answer is that council must take a stand based on principle — simply put, is Ajax good for Kamloops or not? Another option lies in the truth that every good politician knows — there are times to lead, and times to lead by following.
Water meters have divided Kamloopsians for decades. Back in 2001, the public was so divided over water meters it was impossible to read, so the council of the day put it to a referendum (though last term’s council ignored that result and approved them anyway).
The difference between water meters and Ajax is that meters are a taxation issue with measurable consequences while Ajax has much to do with less tangible things like aesthetics.
But maybe Ajax is big enough, divisive enough, that council should find a way to ask people what they want.