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UBC professor Art Bomke says local residents are trying to mobilize to take control. (Ben Nelms for the globe and mail)
UBC professor Art Bomke says local residents are trying to mobilize to take control. (Ben Nelms for the globe and mail)

Infighting at Hillcrest centre prompts Vancouver parks board to step in Add to ...

One of the city’s highest-profile community centres has become so bogged down by infighting and political battles that the city’s park board has had to step in and pay for some of its traditional popular activities – such as the annual Easter egg party – because of the gridlock.

The centre’s board of directors are fighting each other in court.

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And residents are starting to complain that leadership of the Hillcrest Riley Park Community Centre Association has been hijacked by people with a political agenda who are spending a big chunk of the association’s million-dollar reserves on legal fees to fight the Vision Vancouver park board.

“It’s all anti-democratic. The board has been taken over by a small group and their interest is in litigation, not programming,” said Art Bomke, a University of B.C. professor emeritus who is a long-time member. He said a number of residents are organizing to try to challenge the board’s activities.

Hillcrest, a former 2010 Olympics venue visited by 1.6 million people annually, has been front and centre the past year in a battle with the Vancouver park board, along with five other centres, to prevent the board from imposing a more centralized membership and money-sharing system.

The park board, linked politically to the Vision Vancouver city council, has come under harsh criticism, accused of trying to push around well-meaning groups of volunteers.

But the association’s directors – many of them with affiliations to the city’s other major civic party, the Non-Partisan Association – are now fighting each other after agreeing unanimously to fight the park board.

They spent the day at B.C. Supreme Court on Monday, after one group said they’d been kicked off the board illegally and accusing other directors of violating the B.C. Societies Act on numerous fronts.

Along with all that, there were allegations in court filings and during the proceedings Monday that local residents’ association membership fees have appeared on their credit-card statements as charges to a charity headed by board president Jesse Johl – a one-time NPA candidate and current organizer of an obscure party called Vancouver First – and that the board approved a $250,000 contract for outside services, even though board members were told there was no contract for them to view.

Mr. Bomke, who has lived in the midtown Riley Park area for 40 years, said the community-centre associations have always been somewhat vulnerable to being dominated by a small group of people who have their own ideas about how to run things.

But the current situation, which includes $300,000 in legal fees spent recently, is unprecedented and highlights some systemic problems.

“This centre takes in $800,000 a year. It’s sitting on $1-million. It really calls into question whether an association with this kind of income can function with a part-time volunteer board.”

Even the judge hearing whether to force a postponement to the centre’s annual general meeting, scheduled for this Friday, was mystified by the intense, and intensely complicated, fight.

“This reminds me of what [former U.S. president] Woodrow Wilson once said about a battle at Princeton University: ‘The reasons why the politics of the academy are so vicious is because there’s so little at stake,’ ” said Justice Anthony Saunders, who had been called in from New Westminster for the case.

Mr. Bomke said some local residents are trying to mobilize to get information and control. That had been made extremely difficult by the decision of the current board (now reduced to only five, from 12, after a number of directors were either voted off by the others or quit) to hold an annual general meeting this Thursday with little notice.

The battling board directors, led by former NPA candidate Ken Charko on the side of those who had been kicked off or left, and Mr. Johl’s group reached a settlement late Monday that deferred the annual general meeting and provided for an agreement about reasonable bylaws.

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