Adrienne Tanner is a Vancouver journalist who writes about civic affairs
On June 1, the City of North Vancouver council had a meeting where various COVID-19-related strategies were approved at lightning speed, at least by Vancouver City council standards. North Van council okayed drinking alcohol in some public parks and plazas, approved an open-streets plan to increase room for bikes and pedestrians, and instructed staff to expedite restaurant patio approvals in key commercial areas. Final municipal funding was also approved for the Casano-Loutet bicycle and pedestrian bridge, which will cross Highway 1 and connect Lynn Valley to the rest of the city.
All this was accomplished in one 4 1/2-hour meeting. Councillor Tony Valente, a cycling advocate, was so thrilled with the results he created a #bestcouncilmeetingever hashtag on Twitter.
Contrast that with the interminable City of Vancouver meetings, where agenda items routinely get bumped to the following day, or even the next meeting, two weeks hence. It’s no one councillor’s fault. They all have a lot to say, even about issues that don’t fall within the city’s jurisdiction.
Take Tuesday’s protracted debate on the consumption of alcohol in Vancouver’s public parks and beaches, which dragged on for about two hours with amendments for picayune wording changes. This would have been fine if it were up to city council to make the decision; it’s worth getting a big decision like this right. But drinking in parks falls under park board jurisdiction. The item is on the June 8 park board agenda where it will be discussed, probably at length, by the appropriate people.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with city council proffering an opinion on important decisions by other levels of government. By raising the matter at council, Councillor Christine Boyle was making a point about social inequities highlighted by the pandemic. If you live in a home with a yard, you have a spot to enjoy a physically distanced beer with a friend outside where it’s safest. Ms. Boyle believes the 40 per cent of Vancouverites who live in apartments ought to be able to enjoy an outdoor drink together, too.
But to spend that much time dithering over a decision that was not theirs to make seems a waste of time, particularly now when the city is facing so many challenges. Consider the May 13 meeting when council ran out the clock on a debate on identifying streets where car traffic could be stopped or slowed to clear space for bikes and pedestrians. Council was close to a vote when they hit the 10 p.m. mandatory end-of-meeting deadline. A vote to extend the meeting failed and the matter got bumped ahead two weeks, leaving staff without clear direction on the plans.
Vancouver city council meetings have always been a slog, but with no party majority and no block voting, they’ve grown worse. Councillors seem to feel they must speak at length to every motion, hoping to sway others to their point of view. You could argue this is democracy at work, that the compromises struck during these laboured discussions will make for better decisions. Perhaps that is true. But they are not conducive to speed.
And speed is needed now to mitigate the monumental problems facing individuals and businesses struggling to survive in our shifting social, physical, and economic landscape. To his credit, Mayor Kennedy Stewart, recognizing the urgency, last week called a special council meeting to approve a patio plan for struggling restaurants.
But there seems no way to shorten meetings in general. The City of North Vancouver does not have a party system, Mr. Valente says. “And we are not all aligned politically.” He believes the key to his council’s achievements is agreeing early on to key principles to make North Vancouver “The Healthiest Small City in the World.” The priorities are to create a city for the people, a liveable city, a vibrant city, a connected city, and a prosperous city.
Would this work in Vancouver? I’m not convinced. The closer we get to the next election, the less we are seeing of the camaraderie that seemed to exist between the mayor and councillors from all parties. As they gear up to run again, I fear we’ll be in for even more finger pointing and grandstanding, which slow meetings to a crawl.
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