Rob Shaw: Penticton is finally doing right by a woman whose home was auctioned off - but still doesn't think it did anything wrong.
It sounded like such a heartwarming turn of events: The City of Penticton changing its mind after a scathing Ombudsperson’s report and agreeing to compensate a vulnerable woman whose home it had auctioned off to cover a small tax debt she could have paid if she’d just been offered a bit of help.
That’s how it looked anyway this week when Ombudsperson Jay Chalke announced Penticton would pay the woman, named Ms. Wilson, $140,922 in compensation. His report found the city was unfair to her by auctioning her $420,000 home in 2017 for a paltry $150,000 to cover an unpaid property tax bill of $10,083.
The 60-year-old was vulnerable, suffered lifelong health issues, and had given her sister power of attorney over her affairs, but was steamrolled by the city into an auction through a process Chalke said was full of errors, tragic and could have been prevented with some basic communication.
“I am very pleased that city council has accepted our recommendation that Ms. Wilson receive
compensation,” Chalke said in a statement. “This outcome clearly demonstrates that it’s never too late to do the right thing.”
Unfortunately, that’s not quite the whole story.
It turns out, the city still doesn’t think it did anything wrong.
During a special council meeting on Dec. 14, the mayor, counsellors and staff took turns slamming the Ombudpserson for mishandling his report, claiming they were muzzled from telling a side of the story that would have vindicated them, and then doubling down on how the tax sale was not only legally correct but entirely justified.
The true villain, they said again and again, was the BC government, for putting into law a tax auction process that the city felt it couldn’t control.
“Telling somebody that you are sorry doesn’t mean you admitting you did anything wrong to them,” said Mayor John Vassilaki, who was not mayor during the 2015-2017 period the auction occurred.
“We didn’t punch her in the face, we didn’t do anything like that, we just apologized for what happened. It wasn’t our fault. It was the provincial government that guides municipalities on what to do.”
Vassilaki read a kind of backhanded apology to Ms. Wilson into the record that called it “an unfortunate set of circumstances that occurred as a result of provincial legislation.”
“There is however another side of this story,” the mayor then added. “And council is disappointed in the Ombudsperson’s conduct at his report. The ombudsperson has legislative powers that prevent the city from releasing its side of the story.”
Penticton staff tried mightily to put a good spin on the situation, saying that early in the process a staffer had in fact once called Ms. Wilson about her overdue taxes.
The unwell woman, whose sister was legally handling her affairs, told the staffer: Don’t call me again.
“Aware that further communication could be perceived as harassment the city respected her direct instructions,” said Angela Campbell, city finance manager.
It’s not clear if Ms. Wilson even understood what the city was telling her. Chalke said Penticton made so many errors when listing the tax years, amounts, deadlines and laws in their letters to the woman that the entire process was unfair and confusing to her. He said the city should have tried the health authority or Public Guardian and Trustee to check if the woman was able to competently manage her affairs before taking the most serious action it could against the biggest financial asset of her life, her home.
Amidst the denials and half-apologies, it was clear watching Penticton council that the only reason it was paying Ms. Wilson anything – really only 50 per cent of the equity she lost – was due to the fact the story had made headlines nationally and Penticton’s reputation was at stake.
“We just want to put this behind us,” said the mayor, who admitted he’d heard an earful from angry voters.
The compensation vote passed five to one along the same grounds.
“Today we’re making an apology for doing the right thing, but obviously the result of that process is not great,” said Coun. Frank Regehr, who admitted it was a “black eye on the city.”
“Yes the city did do everything legally correct,” added Coun. James Miller. “But sometimes legally and morally are two different things. I think for Ms. Wilson getting behind $10,000, (the auction) was a horrible penalty to pay.”
The whole story “doesn’t really do a lot to enhance Penticton’s reputation as a welcoming place,” he said.
Coun. Campbell Watt voted against the payment, saying he couldn’t justify spending money that could be used to help other taxpayers.
“It’s not the taxpayer’s fault,” he said. “I don’t think council was wrong, I think the process was wrong.”
The city cannot go around asking every person who owes money “what their mental capacity is,” he added.
Mayor Vassilaki did at one point hit a compassionate note in describing Ms. Wilson, who since losing her home to the city auction is now living alone in a care facility.
“If I didn’t bring forward the motion I wouldn’t be able to live with myself,” he said.
“Those places are not cheap to live in. She needs that funding for the next 20 years she may be alive.”
It’s not clear if Penticton’s payment ends the matter.
Ms. Wilson likely has a whopper of a lawsuit her family could file on her behalf.
Chalke noted in his report that the BC Supreme Court once overturned a different city’s tax auction because one date in one of that city’s documents was off by a single day. Penticton, he noted, committed errors in the majority of the 15 pieces of correspondence it sent to Ms. Wilson over several years.
But for now though, Ms. Wilson will be getting a bit of her money back in the form of a cheque just before Christmas.
Consider it a Christmas miracle if you want.
But it’s more accurately the case of a Grinch of a city hall that is only reluctantly making things right because it got caught out publicly, while still continuing to insist it did nothing wrong at all.
Rob Shaw has spent more than 13 years covering BC politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for The Orca. He is the co-author of the national best-selling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.