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BC MLAs consider Olympic village financing bill

B.C. MLAs today gathered for a rare Saturday sitting of the legislature to make an amendment to the Vancouver Charter to allow the city to borrow and lend money to complete the Olympic Athletes' Village.

Community Development minister Blair Lekstrom introduced Bill 47, the Vancouver Charter Amendment Act, 2009, which is slightly longer than a page, to allow the city to "incur liabilities, including by contracting debts by borrowing or otherwise" and to "provide financial assistance, including by lending money" to finance the Southeast False Creek development.

Under the Charter, the city needs approval from voters any time it wants to borrow money it can't repay within the same fiscal year, with exceptions for infrastructure such as sewers and waterlines.

The city reportedly seeks authority to borrow up to $800 million to refinance the entire athletes' village development, which it is contracted to hand over to the Olympic committee this fall. The amendment introduced today does not set an upper limit for the amount the city can borrow to complete the project.

Government house leader Mike de Jong speaking in the house cited recent letters from Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson and NDP opposition leader Carole James to premier Gordon Campbell to argue the speaker should make an exception to the usual rules of debate and allow the bill to pass in one day.

NDP deputy house leader Adrian Dix argued that the bill requires scrutiny and should follow the normal rules, whcih would require three days. "This is where the public oversight happens, in the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia."

On his way into the house, Premier Gordon Campbell defended the push to speed the legislation through. “It will get full scrutiny,” he said. “There will be ample opportunity for the opposition to scrutinize the bill.”

The province does not have money on the line, he added, and the legislation is what the city asked for. “There is a very limited amount of time for the city to arrange for the agreements they think they need to make sure they can complete this city neighbourhood in a timely fashion.”

While most Olympic venues have been delivered on time, Campbell said there is real worry about the athletes' village. “I am concerned about it,” he said. “I have confidence the city is going to deliver this. I have confidence the village is going to be there . . . I think we have to give them the tools to do the job.”

None of this should be a surprise, as Vaughn Palmer pointed out in a column in today's Vancouver Sun. Notes to the city's publicly available financial statements spelled out the risk some eight months ago.

Speaker Bill Barisoff said he would consider the arguments, then nearly two hours later he ruled debate can go ahead today. "In my view this occasion is clearly one of urgency," he said.

Lekstrom gave the bill second reading, then James rose to debate it. "The NDP intends to support Bill 47," she said. "Unlike the government we don't believe that support comes at the price of scrutiny."

MLAs are in the Legislature today because of a lack of scrutiny, she said. With an election set for May 12, she said voters will be watching how the Olympics are managed. "They're tired of a government that won't come clean on Olympic spending."

Speaking with reporters in a Legislature hallway, James said the provincial government is ultimately responsible for Olympic spending and the NDP will do what it can to make sure there's a full debate before today's Bill gets passed. “We're going to be here for awhile. We're going to do everything we can to make sure these questions get asked."

UPDATE: As of 11:50 p.m., the debate continued with NDP MLA Harry Bains following Nicholas Simons who followed Spencer Herbert, each talking about the Bill, the difficulty in discovering the true cost of the Olympics, the "arrogance" of the Liberal government and the number of other emergencies such as child poverty that go unaddressed. On the Liberal side of the house, Gordon Hogg read copies of China Business, Barry Penner did paper work and checked his blackberry and Iain Black finished reading a novel. With all NDP members expected to use their allotted time, the second reading debate was likely to continue through the night.

UPDATE: The Vancouver Charter Amendment Act, 2009, passed and received royal assent. All was done by 8:30 a.m. Sunday morning, some 20.5 hours after the bill was introduced.

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Reach him here.

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