Past Comfor board member concerned

Past Comfor Management Services Ltd. director Murray LaBrash says he is concerned about recent events at the community owned corporation.

Past Comfor Management Services Ltd. (CMSL) director Murray LaBrash said to Lakes District News that he is concerned about the recent events at the community owned corporation.

He said he is appalled at how past CMSL general manager Dawn Stronstad and CMSL executive assistant Michael Riis-Christianson have been treated.

As reported in the Lakes District News edition of June 27, 2012, both employees were unexpectedly let go by the CMSL board, who later cited company restructuring as the reason.

“They need to calm down. I am really disturbed about what is going on. They have terminated two very hard working and dedicated employees. It is such a waste and I am appalled at how they were treated. I have seen people get mistreated before, but this is beyond everything … no decent person would act like that with employee dismissals,” he said, adding that he feels that Stronstad was an excellent manager.

LaBrash said he is also angry that the CMSL board is not being accountable to the public regarding the changes.

“There is dead silence …. nothing is being explained. I think [CMSL president] Quentin Beach and his people [board members] don’t have a clue what is going on,” he said.

LaBrash said some proof of this is Beach not knowing that Stronstad’s time spent working with the Lakes Outdoor Recreation Society (LORS) was in-kind work donated to the society by the Burns Lake Community Forest. “Dawn is not a member of LORS. The community forest has been doing this same thing for years with LORS,” he said.

As reported in the Lakes District News edition of July 7, 2012, Beach was quoted as saying, “Dawn [Stronstad] is a member of LORS, so she was helping them of her own accord.”

CMSL president Beach said, “The board of CMSL believes it is being accountable to the public regarding the recent changes. These changes were not undertaken lightly. They came after a lot of deliberation and discussion. The board began the process of restructuring the organization to become both more accountable to the public, more responsive to that mandate, and fiscally sustainable for the long term. It is our objective to set the community forest on a path that will define the next 10 years of its business operations. The community forest is a public asset that is of great value to this community and we want to ensure it remains so, in the future.”

He said the CMSL board understands that the organization needs to have more flexibility to address the very complicated timber supply and log market issues facing the organization. “The board has decided to streamline the organization to become more responsive to this reality,” Beach added.

LaBrash said over the years $3 million has been donated to local groups and charities by CMSL and the Burns Lake Community Forest and he said he is concerned about future donations.

“Now it seems the Village of Burns Lake have control of the community forest so they will be able to put dollars where they see fit. We used to have a weighting system for working out funding eligibility, some applications were necessary and some were a little frivolous … but where are any of these groups going to get their funding from now?”

LaBrash used the Village of Burns Lake’s current fuel mitigation project as an example of funds going from the community forest to village projects.

“The village sends a letter of request for funding to the board … some of them of course are councillors for the village … arms length? The village is supposed to operate at arms length and I don’t think that’s being done.”

On page 39 of the July 17, 2012, Village of Burns Lake agenda is a letter to the Village of Burns Lake from CMSL president and village Coun. Beach providing written confirmation that, following an in-camera meeting, CMSL will be providing $22,560 from the CMSL priority one account to the village for fuel mitigation work to be completed this year.

Beach said, “Donations that flow from the profits that the community forest earns, will continue to be made in the future. The board currently defers decisions regarding community support applications to an evaluation committee consisting of a CMSL board member, staff and representatives from the public after setting a budget for the period.”

He said this process will continue to be used until the board has completed the strategic planning process that may redefine how these requests are addressed. “If any changes are contemplated and undertaken, there will be clear communication to the public regarding how application for support may be made along with the criterion used to determine eligibility,” he added.

Beach said the board recently approved the application of the local paintball group to occupy a parcel of Burns Lake Community Forest land so that they can setup a permanent competitive paintball facility. “Additionally, the board recently approved to continue providing support for the logger’s sports event at the  fall fair and providing maps for community groups it has sponsored in the past. Long-term commitments will continue to be supported at this time.” Beach said.

With regard to the fuel mitigation funding Beach said, “CMSL was one participant in this project, along with Hampton Affiliates and the Village of Burns Lake. Due to the nature of the funding criteria that was accessed for this project, the money had to flow via the village. Also, since the tragic explosion at Babine Forest Products, the CMSL board has been committed to creating jobs wherever possible so affected employees had an opportunity for employment.”

He said the board approved the fuel mitigation funding as a community service and also to leverage considerable funding for the benefit of the community. “The Village of Burns Lake did not benefit directly from this donation but was able to leverage this money into a project funded by other agencies. The total value of this project was in excess of $150,000 in fuel mitigation work to be completed around the community. The cash strapped taxpayers of the village contributed minimally to the funding of the project but get to reap the benefits of being surrounded by safer forest stands that are at less risk to wildfire. This project employed local people during tough economic times as is a net benefit to the community. The contributions that CMSL and Hampton made helped make this project a reality,” Beach added.

LaBrash said he is also concerned that the current board is inexperienced with forestry matters.

As an example, he said when he was a board member there was discussion about the community forest investing in the Burns Lake Specialty Woods finger jointing operation with Burns Lake Native Development Corporation.

“They wanted $5 million for start up funds …. a director on the board did background checking and it came up to not touch the deal, which has proven to be a wise decision. If the current CMSL board gets involved in some sort of deal that goes sideways, the community forest will be in real trouble and taxpayers will pay for it through increased taxes. It is quite clear that the Village of Burns Lake is running CMSL … there is no doubt about that in my mind,” LaBrash said.

Beach responded, “The role of the board is to set policy and to ensure management implements that policy. The current board has decided to use a team of consultants to assist in the management of the business activities of Burns Lake Community Forest  in the short term. On this team is an RPF with a great deal of experience with forestry planning and small license management. It is the board’s job to provide direction and the management team’s job to complete the actions and manage the businesses.”

He said that various members of the current board have a great deal of experience with forestry and logging. “There are others that are well versed in board/management dynamics and others with experience in business. We have a well-rounded group that will help us make good decisions for the Community Forest,” he said.

LaBrash said he thinks the village is preparing to hand over the community forest tenure to Hampton Affiliates to ensure the Babine Forest Products mill is rebuilt.

“The community forest is not set up to be handed over to a business …. to Hampton Affiliates …. this is my gut feeling about what is going to happen  …. I’m really concerned.”

LaBrash explained that if this happened the community would lose control of CMSL, there would be no board to make decisions and no community input in operations.

“This is a community forest …. not Quentin Beach’s forest.”

He said Mayor Luke Strimbold mentioned supporting the rebuild of a new mill with support from the community forest during the special committee on timber supply meeting held in Burns Lake recently.

During the meeting Mayor Strimbold said, “We believe that the community forest is a strong entity in our community and that it can manage the forest effectively and support the rebuild of Babine Forest Products. We support legislative changes that eliminate all provincial constraints on the community forest, which will then be managed by the community forest management plan that is in place.”

However Beach said this is not the case.

“While all options are on the table for the review process, it is not part of the current plans to hand over control of the Burns Lake Community Forest’s tenure to Hampton Affiliates,” he said.

Beach said CMSL supports the Babine Forest Products rebuild and the provincial government’s review of timber supply issues. “We all would love to see a rebuild of the Babine Forest Products sawmill … that being said, CMSL has not negotiated any form of agreement with Hampton Affiliates regarding the management of the community forest’s tenure. The community forest has always been committed to local employment and will continue to support local contractors and production facilities. We believe that a vibrant local log market is important and essential for the economic health of the region,” beach added.

LaBrash said he is also annoyed at Beach constantly referring to himself as a volunteer politician, or a volunteer at CMSL.

“The CMSL board of directors are one of the few community forest boards in B.C. who do get paid. I know what volunteer means and it certainly doesn’t mean you get paid … it’s very strange.”

During the special committee on timber supply Beach, who was representing himself as a councillor for the Village of Burns Lake, when referring to CMSL said, “That’s my other volunteer job, president of the community forest.”

“I would like to see a volunteer board,” LaBrash said, adding that he thinks past Village of Burns Lake Mayor Bernice Magee set up the ‘new structure of the board’ by enlisting councillors and herself.

“It was only supposed to be temporary, yet councillors are still there. I want to see the community forest maintained for the people of the Lakes District …. it was not to be for the Village of Burns Lake, but that is basically what is happening.”

Paul Jean, past Mayor of Burns Lake also expressed his concerns to Lakes District News.

Jean said, “The Village of Burns Lake was never supposed to be hands on with the community forest … it was not set up that way and First Nations were in agreement of that.”

Beach responded, “The Village of Burns Lake councilors on the CMSL board make up a minority of the board membership. The board is composed of nine people; three of the board members are representatives of First Nations signatories to the Burns Lake Community Forest license agreements, additionally there are also three First Nation alternate directors. Two Village of Burns Lake councilors make up the next cohort. The final board member is a member of the general public.”

Beach said the composition of the board is subject to review, as per the strategic planning process that is currently underway. “The long-term plan will be to reduce the Village of Burns Lake councillor component to a single representative. It should be noted that this is the first time in CMSL’s history that the Board has consisted of at least 50 per cent First Nations,” Beach added.

Jean said, “I am concerned that the president of CMSL [Beach], who is a local forest industry contractor, seems to have his own self motivated agenda.”

“It’s a real can of worms and someone should dig into it,” he added.

Bernice Magee was also contacted for comment, but did not respond before press time.