Stories to watch in the new year

Here's a look at some stories, people, and things to watch this year, in no particular order:

Post Canada Winter Games second-thoughts: This ugly thing may well wait to rear its head in 2016 but it's coming - the only question is the volume and the viciousness of what will be said.

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So far, the naysayers have been hushed by the hubbub surrounding the sporting event but the potholes are too large and too prevalent in this city for them to stay silent forever on a projected $15 million price tab for the Games. Proponents will point out many of those dollars were matched by both the provincial and federal government as well as the private sector but past that they'll be forced to cite vaguer benefits such as hoped-for millions spent by visitors to the city during the games, investment possibilities, marketing buzz and "legacies."

The Roman satirist Juvenal wrote scathingly of the power of "bread and circuses." It remains to be seen if the biggest circus this city has ever seen will be enough the satisfy those who hunger for better roads and sewers.

Susan Scott: There are other councillors to watch. Garth Frizzell made like Emile Zola and singlehandedly framed the mayoral race with a letter on leadership that said twice as much between the lines. Newcomer Jillian Merrick is only a few union dollars short of being a latter-day Jefferson Smith.

But the most interesting is Scott, who could play a couple of classical roles in Lyn Hall's first term as mayor as a little of bit of Cassandra, a little bit of the ghost at the feast. The wife of Charles Scott, one of the organizers behind Hall rival Don Zurowski's bid for the mayor's chair, Scott, with Albert Koehler, is one of the two councillors who did not receive an endorsement from the North Central Labour Council of B.C. and the resulting tacit blessing from organized labour. While it would be a bit much to cast her as Brian Skakun meets Rand Paul, she could form a natural right-leaning Official Opposition with Koehler that could provide a few (welcome) notes of discord.

Beth James: A little of the previous item and the majority of this one were culled from an editorial by managing editor Neil Godbout. The editorial pointed out that, bar the aforementioned Games, the fate of city manager Beth James could be Mayor Lyn Hall and council's primary dilemma in their first year.

James' position is vulnerable because she is a powerful symbol of outgoing Mayor Shari Green's troubled reign. While she was the unanimous choice of council, James was the perfect medium for Green's message of grim-faced, hold-the-line conservatism, touting several years as a high-level bureaucrat in the B.C. Liberal government and a private-sector stint as a management consultant. She also grabbed the horns of Green's much-maligned, much-questioned core services review and, when she took the job in May 2013, effectively re-wrote and overhauled, with the help of city staff, an effort based on a previous $350,000 KPMG report

As such, firing James would be an extremely bold signal early in Hall's administration that it was a new day at Patricia Boulevard and that Green's time as mayor would be effectively cast into the dustbin of history, to borrow from Trotsky. It's unlikely for a number of reasons: burning boats doesn't jibe with Hall's consensus-seeking style; James' contract carries a substantial severance package; moreover, axing a city manager with legitimate credentials as a fiscal hawk may not sit well with residents already apprehensive over this council`s strong pro-union flavour.

Hall and council will exert pressure one way or another but James herself may decide if she departs and when. Will she stick it out for the remainder of her contract? Will she seek a renewal?

Her predecessor Derek Bates announced his resignation around eight months after Shari Green beat Dan Rogers for the mayor`s seat and left outright a month and a half before he originally intended, in Oct. 2012. It will be interesting to see how James` calendar plays out in 2015.

The Lakeland/Babine coroner`s inquest: Despite repeated calls for an independent inquiry into the 2012 explosions at Burns Lake's Babine Forest Products and Prince George's Lakeland Mills, the B.C. Liberal government, including Shirley Bond, the minister responsible for WorkSafeBC and the MLA for Prince George-Valemount, has insisted a coroner's inquest will be sufficient to determine the whys and wherefores of two of the most signficant workplace accidents to take place in this province in the last decade.

This March at the Prince George courthouse that insistence will be put to the test - and it's doubtful the government's position will bear the weight of scrutiny.

Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe has been handed the task of not only sifting through details of the two explosions but also satisfying the families of four dead sawmill workers - Glenn Roche, Alan Little, Robert Luggi, and Carl Charlie - as well as workers who were injured in the blasts and their families. So far they have not been well-served by the agencies charged to protect their interests - WorkSafeBC investigations into the accidents were roundly criticized and resulted in no charges being approved by Crown counsel.

One of Lapointe's sternest tests will be whether or not her work sheds any light on WSBC's role in the accidents, particularly as it relates to Lakeland. What happened during a WSBC inspection that was triggered by an employee's fears of excessive wood dust - now widely attributed as a major factor in both accidents - that cleared the mill two months before the blast ? Why, according to the B.C. Criminal Justice Branch, was WSBC still largely mystified over the dangers of wood dust in March 2012 when Lakeland's managers sought guidance for help avoiding a Babine-type blast?

However the most crucial question may fall outside of Lapointe's purview, since it relates to the investigation after the incident: why didn't WSBC ascertain what Lakeland's higher-ups knew of the dangers at the Prince George mill before April 2012?

Regardless, it will probably be moot. The government will no doubt ignore or pay a modest amount of lip service to the inquest's recommendations, citing its own internal reforms of WSBC and mill safety in general. The only question will be how families, workers and the NDP react to what is likely to be yet another disappointment in this troubling saga of these two doomed mills.

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