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FORT ST. JOHN, B.C. – Residents and members of the arts community packed council chambers Monday as the North Peace Cultural Society looked to address the controversy surrounding the Cultural Centre.

On June 15th, the City of Fort St. John released a statement saying it had informed the society it would assume management of the centre.

In the first face-to-face meeting since the city’s announcement, the society looked to address claims brought up by the city, including lack of programming, and pocketing gratuities.

“As you know, we don’t want to be here. We shouldn’t need to be here, but the circumstances over the past couple of months meant we had to be here in front of you,” said Nelson Stowe, vice-chair of the Society.

Stowe continued pointing out what has been publicized in the local media following letters sent out by the City.

“All the accusations about the society and the activities. As an organization, I believe we have a right to defend ourselves. The society feels like we have been treated unfairly and unjustly in the media with those public statements.”

Stowe was about to address the accusations when Mayor Lori Ackerman stopped him.

Ackerman told Stowe that there were only three letters submitted to council that were to be spoken about. The letters included the notice of the city’s decision, a response from Connie Sureus and CAO Milo MacDonald’s June 18th letter to Sureus.

“The presentation was to be provided to our staff, and it was three letters,” said Ackerman.

A letter that wasn’t included was penned by the mayor to Rosemary Landry, president of the Fort St. John Community Arts Council.

“That throws me a bit. Most of the things we said were addressed by your worship in public, and I believe there should be an opportunity for us to address those things,” said Stowe.

Sureus chimed in, asking for some time to address the accusations.

“We have a room full of people who have questions about some of the stuff too. So I think that may be your normal processes, but considering that we were never given an opportunity to present, even as an in-camera meeting, based on your decision, when we asked for that.”

“I think you have to afford us some latitude around being able to discuss some of this stuff because it’s a little easy to just suddenly say, Oh, well, that’s not what you’ve presented,” said Sureus, who was met with applause by council chamber guests.

Stowe continued with the presentation explaining how the Society was in bad financial shape in 2014. The result was a new board to support the Society and the centre while in recovery mode, and a cultural service agreement was signed with the city.

In the agreement, city staff and centre management would meet up every three months, and semi-annually the chair and vice-chair would meet with city executives to discuss operations.

“If there’s any further need to be discussed, they will be brought up those, those meetings. This went on for five years. Without any particular issues, some small things come up here and there. But that was the intent of those meetings,” said Stowe.

“Over the past five and a half years, what that building has delivered to this community on the shoestring budget is remarkable. It’s amazing. And that should be applauded in the community. It’s a success story.”

The Cultural Services Agreement between the two entities for management of the cultural centre ended in November 2020.

Stowe said discussions didn’t happen as early as expected due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In December, the Society board had received word that a five-year agreement was coming their way.

“Communication between Connie and staff was this looks good. Let’s get together to formalize this and put this to bed. That’s where we were in February. Early March, we were asked to have a meeting to sit down and look at the document, finally. We were notified that the mayor and the cao would be participating in that meeting.”

Stowe said everything went sideways as the mayor and cao didn’t see the value of the Society and had a different opinion on their performance.

“We were meeting the objectives of the taxpayer and of this city. We were doing our job. And I believe that there are other things at play here, but we won’t go there. ”

Sureus said mechanisms were put in place in the agreement “to monitor the health of the Cultural Society, deal with issues as they arose and work towards establishing reserve funds.”

A section of the agreement also stated the Society would need to issue a 12 months notice before terminating the agreement.

“That letter that your cao had sent on June 22nd…had the city actually followed the mechanisms put in place in the CSA, the issues raised in there were either dealt with previously, or they were if they were so concerning, they should have been dealt with under the events of default. ”

Sureus said that none of the claims made by CAO MacDonald in a letter addressed to Sureus is factual.

She says there were no discussions at the closed-door meeting between the two entities and that the decision was already made.

“There were no negotiations, negotiations thrown around. There were no negotiations. I’ve been in business for 30 years. I’ve done a lot of contracts. There were no negotiations. There was a goal, and that’s what you wanted,” said Stowe.

“Any questions from council? I’m shocked. I’m truly shocked. Yeah, you are our representatives, council.”

“Council has a policy not to make any decisions in front of delegation. If council wishes to move forward on anything that will be discussed later,” said Mayor Ackerman.

Council remained silent following the presentation, and it seems the city is moving forward with its decision to assume management of the cultural centre in September.

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