Multiple managers at city hall were involved in or aware of a decision to dump chicken manure on a homeless camp on Gladys Avenue on June 4, internal documents show.
Though city manager George Murray ultimately took the heat for the decision, assuming responsibility and declining to name any city staff involved, emails and documents obtained by The News through a freedom of information request implicate staff from several departments.
The site, on Gladys Avenue across from the Salvation Army facility, had been the topic of emails between city staff, discussing ways to deal with the gathering of the city’s homeless there. The ideas included removing brush cover, cutting down the large cedar at that site – sometimes known as the Happy Tree – or placing concrete rubble in the area.
A June 3 email from the city’s urban forester Eric Fong – the subject of the email being “spreading chicken manure…” – to James Arden, acting director of parks services, states that after meeting with manager of bylaw enforcement Gordon Ferguson, bylaw enforcement officer Dwayne Fitzgerald, and roads and sanitation manager Tony Schmidbauer, “the agreement is to spread the chicken manure around the tree to deter homeless encampments being set up under it. We just need your approval to go ahead.” The email states that bylaw and roads staff, as well as police, would be present when the manure would be dumped at around 10:30 a.m. on June 4.
Arden gave his approval, and wrote that they could give it a try to “assist with the other agencies and this ongoing issue.”
Murray told The News on Wednesday that the emails do not clearly indicate how the decision was made, and implicating Arden as the final decision-maker would be “an erroneous conclusion.”
Murray said that although Arden approved the pick-up of the manure, which is used by the parks department as fertilizer, the decision to use it to deter the homeless was ultimately the decision of “the team of staff working at the Gladys Avenue site,” said Murray, who added that the area does not fall under the parks department.
Arden later wrote to Murray on June 4 at around 1 p.m., saying that “I followed up with my team and the Salvation Army staff were talked to by bylaw as to our plan with the fertilizer and were in agreement.”
Murray wrote to Arden stating, “this is quite often what happens in our business. Groups are 100% behind us ….. right until it turns to shit (rather than manure).”
A message from Deb Lowell, public relations officer for the Salvation Army, to Mayor Bruce Banman on June 5, stated that at the meeting to discuss solutions for the Gladys site, the only mention of manure had been at the very end. Lowell stated that Ferguson said city staff were considering putting manure on the site. She adds that Ferguson said they had spread “chicken fertilizer” once in the past but it had washed away in the rain. Lowell writes “it was at that point that I asked (Ferguson) to consider the health implications… and additionally the issue of dignity. He did not respond to either.”
Ferguson has since left his position at the city.
Murray said he cannot comment on the reasons for Ferguson’s departure or whether it is related to the decision to dump the manure.
The Salvation Army BC Division sent out a news release on Wednesday, July 24, stating that they do “not endorse, support or promote the recent dispersing of chicken manure at a known gathering site for the local homeless community.”
The release states that Abbotsford’s city manager has taken full responsibility for the recent event and “The Salvation Army is committed to working with the City and the local police unit to determine the best course of action… to avoid instances like such in the future.”
Though the emails from city staff indicate Abbotsford Police were present, Const. Ian MacDonald said that police were not in support of the dumping of manure. He said a police sergeant went to the site, expecting a meeting and a site examination, and “to his surprise, the crews were there dumping manure.” The sergeant expressed his displeasure with the act and left, MacDonald said.
Following the media coverage on the manure incident, Arden received an email from city staffer Shawn Gurney on June 6, stating that he was sorry to hear about the fallout of the event and that “this… was agreed to by both Roads and By-laws, who are primarily responsible for this area. Just doesn’t seem right that you should be burdened with the blame for someone else’s area of responsibility.”
Arden responded: “I know, but it has become something else in the eyes of the beholder! I own the decision and (Murray) is owning it for the entire City team.”
At around noon on June 5, Murray’s executive co-ordinator sent an email to all city councillors on behalf of Murray, asking them not to take any phone calls or interviews from the media in regards to the incident, as Murray and staff would be dealing with them directly.
Coun. Henry Braun responded to the email, saying he had been contacted already and that while he understood the request, if the media got hold of a councillor, “we can’t just say, no comment… that is simply running away from an issue that we have a responsibility to address, uncomfortable as that may be.” He added that once the facts were known, he would like to know how to respond if the media contacted him regarding the issue.
On June 6, Murray updated council, saying that under the advice of Katherine Jeffcoatt, communications officer for the city, they would not be making any “on-air” statements, as “they will only lead to exacerbating the problem we are facing.”
Murray went on to say that staff would be responding to phone calls and emails regarding the incident.
Murray told The News that councillors are free to speak for themselves, but as most councillors were unaware of the chicken manure incident when the story broke in the media, he advised them to wait until they could be notified to the details of what had occurred.
Two days after the manure was dumped, city crews were dispatched to clean it up.
The homeless occupants of the original site moved their camp a few dozen metres west on Gladys, where they remain.