Mission mayor says mistakes were made

Mayor James Atebe was on the defensive at public hearing Monday as Mission residents questioned the findings of the Public Safety Inspection Team (PSIT) property file review.

Under scrutiny were 70 homeowners who were levied fees but did not pay.

The $115,000 review, which included $78,000 in fee reversals, found there was insufficient evidence to prove that 15 of those homeowners previously fined met the “evidentiary test identified” under the Controlled Substance Bylaw to be marijuana grow operations.

Rick Goos, one of the 15 who had his $5,200 fee overturned, said the violation of his individual rights for the interest of public safety wasn’t justified.

He asked the mayor how many grow-op related fires there were in Mission last year. When Atebe said he didn’t know, Goos then asked how many fires were started by Christmas lights.

“So my question to council, is Christmas next?”

Another resident whose property has been declared a controlled substance property said, “I don’t feel like I’ve had my day in court. I don’t feel like I’ve been able to offer witnesses and evidence to defend myself in this matter.”

Atebe acknowledged mistakes have been made, both apologizing to homeowners and asking district staff to draft a letter to homeowners explaining the need for PSIT and an apology. He also said he would write an open letter to the community personally.

Coun. Jenny Stevens’ motion to review the criteria used to investigate properties suspected of being grow-ops passed unanimously, adding an apology to the innocent “is a debt we’ve owed for five months.”

She said the 15 properties whose fees were reversed received individual communication, and it’s only fair similar action would be taken for the rest.

“We’ve never publicly exonerated them,” she said.

But Coun. Mike Scudder said just because PSIT did not designate a home a controlled substance property “does not mean there was a total absence of any kind or innocence was established.”

He added one of the false rumours being spread is that residences were inspected without any evidence.

Coun. Paul Horn said a review of the criteria and an apology are in keeping with previous council recognition that people need to maintain their dignity throughout the process.

He said a PSIT probe should have been done after the first year, but Mission will continue to strive for a balance in community safety issues.

“Houses that house growops instead of families are not building our community,” he said.

The PSIT review head, deputy chief administrative officers Paul Gipps, said the district has to communicate better with the public, adding they have to be more accurate in their ability to predict potential grow-ops. One of the key issues identified in the March report was a need to have a communications specialist with PSIT when they visit homes.

There were 499 properties inspected as possible grow-ops between April 2008 when PSIT began and the end of 2010 when the program was put on indefinite deferral, with 216 homes (43 per cent) found not to be a “controlled substance property.”

At the program’s inception, the district expected 85 per cent of properties would be assessed fees, which would cover the operating costs. But only 71 per cent of properties were levied fees in 2008; 61 per cent in 2009, and just 49 per cent in 2010.

Mission was charging $4,900 for the inspection with a $300 administration fee, and $250 for additional remediation inspections.

The report also looked at fees in surrounding municipalities. Abbotsford, which charges $3,500 with a $1,000 followup and $1,000 refundable security deposit, is currently under review. Langley charges between $5,000 and $7,000; Chilliwack charges up to $3,650 including re-inspection; Surrey is $3,600; and Port Coquitlam charges $6,500.

The bylaw triggering a PSIT inspection is based on electricity consumption of 93 kilowatt hours per day — three times the normal usage — in 70 per cent of the cases. RCMP investigations account for the remainder.

District staff will now explore the possibility of reviewing the 187 cases in which homeowners paid fees, and prepare a report to council for July.