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On June 7, the town hall meeting in Penticton, BC, drew a crowd of 150, sending a clear message about the importance of public recreation services to South Okanagan residents. Mayor Dan Ashton heard that message loud and clear, with invited guest speakers and several audience members urging him to come clean on whether the centre and its services will be privatized when it reopens next year.

The centre was closed in March for a $23 million upgrade, leading to the layoff of 36 employees. The fact that the City refuses to extend CUPE member seniority rights beyond one year, when the centre is due to reopen, has been regarded as a sign that the City intends to privatize the operation.

The CUPE sponsored meeting began with remarks from a guest panel comprised of CUPE BC president Barry O’Neill, CUPE Research representative Blair Redlin and independent community activist Tina Martin.

The hollow promise of Public-Private Partnerships

Revisiting the theme of his 2008-09 provincial “Investing in Our Communities” tour, O’Neill warned local politicians not to succumb to the hollow promise of Public-Private Partnerships (P3), as they had already done with the costly and controversial South Okanagan Events Centre.

I get angry,” he said, “when I hear people talk about our future and the debt we’ll be leaving our children while in the same breath deciding to take a core service and sign a 30-year agreement, so that a young person will never have input on the issue of local infrastructure.”

Tina Martin recalled the petition campaign she led in the spring that called on the City not to employ a private company to run the new facility and to maintain the same high quality staff, service and programs. In April, she delivered 1,600 signatures to the Mayor’s office.

Time to get off the fence

Redlin drew loud applause when he refuted a remark by Mayor Ashton, quoted in yesterday’s edition of the Penticton Western News, which the City could not comment on the centre’s future because it was part of a collective bargaining issue. “It has nothing to do with collective bargaining,” said Redlin. “It is a public policy decision that the City needs to be up front about with the citizens of Penticton.”

Both Ashton and Councilor Garry Litke, who were thanked for attending the meeting along with Councilors Judy Sentes and John Vassilaki, nonetheless came under fire for refusing to confirm whether the community centre will be privatized.

Ashton, seen taking notes throughout the meeting, sought the public’s patience—and Martin’s in particular - while council considers all the issues. At one point, he read an email from his Blackberry to illustrate his willingness to sit down with CUPE 608 president Patti Finch.

The solution will occur at the table when the City and representatives of CUPE come to an agreement. If it’s changes that need to be made to seniority and contracting out, if that’s the problem, then the City is prepared to sit down with union representatives to resolve these issues.”

Finch, responding to Litke’s comment that the union had not yet signaled its willingness to meet, countered that the CUPE local had already approached council about a meeting.

Putting the ‘community’ back in ‘community centre’

During the question and answer session, several audience members raised concern about the level of training and qualification of privatized staff. A man nearing retirement after 27 years working for the City said that contracting out aquatic and lifeguard staff would lead to a loss of innovation, well-trained staff and affordable recreation for the public.

How are we going to be able to trust and who will be accountable if our community centre is privatized?” asked CUPE 523 President and CUPE staff representative Zoe Magnus.