Six former Penticton mayors with 23 years’ combined experience in the city’s top job are unanimous in their opposition to a private developer’s plan to build water slides in Skaha Lake Park.
“The official community plan for Skaha Lake Park has had a long tradition of being open to all citizens without restrictions, and therefore has always had the public’s best interests at heart,” said Dorothy Tinning, who presided over council from 1986 to 1990 when her surname was Whittaker.
“Any drastic change to the accessibility of public green space at Skaha Lake Park should be decided by referendum.”
After not seeking re-election, Jake Kimberley took over, and he served in the position from 1990 to 1996 and 2005 to 2008, and has twice spoken at recent rallies against the city’s deal with Trio Marine Group to redevelop the Skaha Lake Marina and build water slides.
“I’m not opposed to development — I think my record will show that. But I am opposed to (building in) what has taken eight councils over the years to create, and that is Skaha Park,” he told the crowd at the July 20 gathering in front of City Hall.
At a second rally on Aug. 4, he outlined how the public could go about forcing a referendum, the requirement for which he believes hinges on whether or not the lease of park space constitutes disposition of land. He claims it does because a 29-year lease will effectively block public access to that portion of the park to all but paying customers.
The long-term plan for the park was a key focus of councils led Kimberley and his successor, Beth Campbell, who wore the chain of office from 1996 to 1999.
“When previous councils were in the planning stages of a parkland precinct for Skaha Lake, it went through extensive, extensive public consultation. It was a well thought through, nothing spontaneous,” Campbell said.
“It took us a lot of time and we spent a lot of taxpayer dollars to acquire assets that could be incorporated into the Skaha Lake Park precinct.”
Campbell, who owns the Best Western Inn just blocks from Skaha Lake, said the current council isn’t giving enough recognition to that public process nor the wishes of the community.
“We’ve certianly had our contentious isues, but I think when these types of things happen, council needs to evaluate what their role is, and I believe the role of a council is to be the humble servant of the people who elected them.”
Of all the former mayors, Mike Pearce, who served from 1999 to 2002, is perhaps the most qualified to weigh in on development in parks in the face of public opposition.
During his term, he pushed for a hotel development in Okanagan Lake Park. The matter eventually landed in court and led to a 2002
referendum that formally dedicated Penticton’s parks.
The current council claims water slides are a public amenity and therefore don’t require a referendum. Be that as it may, Pearce believes public support is still essential for any park development.
“From my own experience it’s hard to carry forward public policy in Penticton when you have so many people opposed,” he said, a nod to the referendum that showed 91 per cent of voters were in favour of parks dedication.
And while Pearce supports the idea of water slides, he believes they’d be better placed somewhere other than Skaha Lake Park.
“I think there is a need for more public tourism facilities; you do not need a water slide there, however. There are better places for it where it could help redevelop another area of the city. You don’t take a Mona Lisa and put a James Miller editorial over it,” he said.
David Perry, whose successful mayoral campaign in 2002 included attacks on Pearce for supporting development in parks, has since found some common ground with his one-time political foe.
Perry believes the public hearing for the water slides in a venue larger than council chambers and that elected officials should have worked harder to drum up support before proceeding.
“Public hearings are the hallmark of the democratic process. They are the primary way that council communicates major plans to the public and gets their buy-in. They are not to be feared nor avoided,” he wrote in a letter to the Herald.
“To say that one is elected to make decisions and that it supersedes the public hearing process is clearly wrong and one of the main reasons that council is in this difficult position today.”
Perry, who was bested by Kimberley in the 2005 poll, has also expressed concern about the fate of memorial trees in the park, including one that belongs to his family.
News that Trio Marine Group has plans to remove or relocate those trees, a splash park and other green space came as a surprise to Garry Litke, whose 14-month term as mayor expired when he declined to stand for re-election in 2014.
He was involved in negotiations with Trio Marine Group and said the focus during his term was on upgrading the marina and building a restaurant, while the water slides were seen as “pie in the sky.”
“Maybe if everything goes well we could entertain something like a water slide somewhere, maybe on the parking lot,” Litke said in an Aug. 4 interview when he summed up his council’s talks with Trio.
“Certainly nobody ever talked about getting rid of the splash park (and) nobody ever talked about taking out trees. Nobody ever mentioned anything about that.”
He urged the current council to call a referendum on the water slides to help repair divides in the community and between electedofficials and the public.
“There’s no communication going on — council is not listening to the people. And the number of people is only going to get bigger until somebody pays attention,” Litke said.
The two other living former Penticton mayors, Al Kenyon and Dan Ashton, declined comment.
According to a local historian, the opposition to the water slides expressed by the former mayors and the general public is unprecedented in Penticton.
“There has never been the backlash in the form of protests on the steps of City Hall as large and vociferous as that which is currently happening,” said Randy Manuel, also a former city councillor.
“Yes, there have been protests in the past, where several dozen may have gathered, but never the size we now see. Never has there been a demand for recall.”