Social distance.

Strange days continue.

Like many people, I am stuck in this strange, soul-defeating cycle of trying to avoid Social Media and the radio news broadcasts, but feeling compelled to always be checking in lest I miss something important, combined with a need to feel connected with my neighbours and friends. I am not someone who typically suffers with anxiety, but am starting to recognize signs of anxiety in my behavior. I can’t concentrate on work or other tasks that take more than 5 minutes, like writing a blog post.

We all need to step back in our boredom and find the separation from the hourly updates. Find space to do the things that let you escape. I’m going for a bike ride right after I finish this, or maybe ill dig in the Garden. Find your escape.

Of course, I am working in my “regular job” as best I can with the virtual desktop, and trying to keep up with events in New West. There are updates here, if you feel that compelling need to check in. We have made a Declaration of Local Emergency, which may free up some resources and gives our Emergency management structures some delegated authority that we hope they won’t have to exercise. Staff are constantly in touch with the Health Authority and senior governments to make sure recommended procedures and protocols are followed. Council will have a meeting on Monday afternoon to help make any policy decisions that need to be made, and to allocate any resources that need to be allocated.

I think it is important for folks to recognize we are all on new ground here. The City has a Pandemic Response Plan developed after the SARS crisis, but it has never been activated before, and staff have to learn its operational parts, and determine what is applicable to the current situation and what is not. There are subject matter experts at the Fraser Health Authority and the Centre for Disease Control whose advice we can lean on, and we share resources and knowledge with our cohort communities, but no-one on the City’s staff (or the staff of any City) are experts at this, and therefore everyone is exercising caution.

What makes a “crisis” different than regular times is the will to act. Local governments, for a variety of reasons, are often reluctant or slow to act for fear of unknown or possible negative consequences – Cities are risk-adverse by regulation and by culture. A crisis is a time when that needs to shift to a fear of not acting, and we will tolerate some unforeseen risk, be it financial or doing something wrong, because that risk is smaller and more ephemeral than the real current risk we can see around us. None of this changes the limits of how a City can act within its delegated authority.

This crisis is also a strange, long-lasting one, with implications up and down our economy that are still unknown. This is one of those times where the stark differences between a business and a government are relevant. Although there are some services we can (or have to) shut down, like fitness programming or the Library, there are many we simply cannot. The City needs police and fire protection. Building inspections and permitting need to operate to keep the community safe. Water needs to keep flowing and be tested, sewer garbage collection systems need to keep working. As pool, recreation programs, and community centres wind down, the City needs to address the needs of its employees, especially as program cancellations stretch into months.

There is another aspect of how Cities work that most don’t think of, and that is our general lack of liquidity. Because of the strict regulations around our financing, we do not generally have a lot of unrestricted cash lying around. Most of our Reserves are earmarked for specific purposes by law, and we cannot move that money round at will. We are required every year to run balanced budgets, and our ability to borrow money on the fly is limited. Do the math on our annual financial plan, and you can see that New West runs through about $16M a month, and half of our income arrives when property tax bills are paid – this time of the year we are at the lowest level of our cash reserves. We do not (to my understanding) have the legal authority to defer property tax payments, and if we did, it would not be long before we ran out of cash.

Of course, every homeowner in BC who is over the age of 55 or has a child under the age of 18 can receive a deferral for their property taxes from the BC Government for a remarkably low interest rate. If you qualify and are feeling financial stress this year at tax time, I recommend you take advantage of this offer. This does not address the issue with small business taxes, and I am not sure (we have not discussed at Council yet) what legal options we have available to us to assist there. I am hopeful that the senior levels of government that do enjoy significantly more budget liquidity than local governments will step in to help here, as I would love to see the millions who work in small businesses in communities across the country get prioritized over airlines and oil companies.

That said, we do have options and more flexibility in our utilities accounts, so there may be some options here to allow some deferrals. We are already following the lead of BC Hydro and doing this with electrical bills, but have (again) not discussed the rest of utilities at Council yet, but I suspect we will on Monday.

I have talked informally with some of my Council colleagues and the Mayor about the situation. With limited and mixed information and no formal meetings, we of course have not made any decisions. However, I can tell you everyone has expressed unprecedented concern, and are worried about what we can do. We know many of the more vulnerable members of our community simply don’t have the resilience or support network to feel secure right now. We know a lot of small businesses are closing, and many are worried about when, or even if, they will be able to reopen. We know people are worried and anxious. So are we. But our community is strong, we have shown great spirit in supporting each other in the past. Every one of us lives and shops and plays and shares in this community, we are all committed to doing what we can to support the community we love.

So all that to say, there are better sources for info than my blog, and you should go there if you need info. City-wise, go to the City’s website for local updates. The Provincial Government website will have updates, and will the Centre for Disease Control. Don’t panic, be informed, but watch your sources, because there is a lot of bad info on Social Media right now.

We will be holding a Council Meeting on Monday, when I will be expecting some updates from staff and a challenging conversation about what this means to our 2020 budget process. There will not be public delegations at the meeting, so though it will be a public meeting with limited public seating (to respect Social Distancing protocols), we are highly recommending people stay home and watch the live stream.

Other than that, take care of each other folks, and think about how you can help others while keeping yourself safe. There are people in our community who cannot stay at home, who don’t have access to supports they may need, for whom this disruption is life-threatening. Every one of us on our own journey through this, so be kind.

Disruption

So there is a lot of news right now, and only one news story. I have never seen anything like it, and I lived in the United States during 9/11. That was a sudden shock that changed things, this Pandemic is more like a slow-moving tsunami with bigger waves on the horizon. The news keeps coming, and every day another upending of our assumptions about the place and time in which we live. It can feel overwhelming. But then you go to the store to buy, say, gardening tools (like I did today), and you realize life is going on. Germinating my tomato seeds in mid-march means fresh veggies in July. I don’t know what July looks like, but I am betting we are going to want fresh tomatoes.

I have a few blog posts for this spring break from Council reports. During a bit of downtime this weekend, I worked a bit on them, but I kept coming back to The Only Story, because right now it seems that blogs on Regional Growth Strategies and comparisons of local property taxes seems secondary, and will likely be dated by the time another week of current events unfold.

Like most of you, I am adapting things in my personal life. Nothing I do in my “real” job is life-critical, in the sense that no-one lives or dies depending on my getting things done (well, technically, I reduce the long-term risk of exposure to some cancer-causing agents by the general public, so statistically fewer people will die, but that’s a long way off). However, my employer needs to keep providing some level of service  and supporting business continuity. So I have been provided with a laptop and a cell phone and I spent some time this week getting my virtual desktop to work, I’ll be working from home for the most part except for the few times I absolutely need to get to the office.

As for my other gigs, most committee meetings can be delayed or phoned in. I’m really disappointed that the great program we put together for the Lower Mainland LGA Conference is not likely to see the light of day, as it is starting to look like we will still be under some form of Social Distancing recommendation in May. Of course, this disappointment pales in comparison to what hundreds of events like this being cancelled means to the people who work in events, catering, hotels, entertainment, arts, etc. etc. and you realize we are in deep here as an economy. This is a time to find out how resilient our society really is.

I know we are up to the task of pulling together here locally, as we do have some really strong social service organizations and both formal and informal networks in the community. Watching the New West Twittersphere share and lament and laugh together (especially the #NewWestGoesViral hashtag) gives me hope as I see people separated by space pulling together. But I worry about how we can pull together nationally after so much of the necessary social structure has been dismantled by a couple of decades of austerity. Our health systems are strained on a good day, food and financial security is so uneven across the country and even within communities. How robust a response can we mount to this extra strain? So far, responses at all levels have sounded reasoned and rapid, but the shit is still accelerating towards the fan. The feds are promising a serious spend here, and I hope those funds get to the precariously-employed, precariously-housed, and recently-laid-off first. If we give $25 billion to airlines and Tim Hortons, I’m gonna be pissed.

With most events in the City shut down, no Council meeting for two weeks and all other meetings postponed, Council life is simplified. I have no idea when we are going to activate “normal” public Council meetings again with the current restrictions, but we do have a regulatory requirement to (if nothing else) get a Budget Bylaw passed in the next month, so there will be some form of meeting. Right now the Mayor and senior staff have coordinated three ad-hoc working groups within City Hall to coordinate City resources and address three identified priority areas: protecting vulnerable populations, identifying and supporting isolated seniors, and business continuity.

I don’t know what this is going to look like, and Council is currently looking to schedule an emergency meeting so we can clarify changes in work plans and deal with resourcing requests if needed I think staff need a bit more time to get their feet under them and find out what we can and should be doing before bringing those suggestions to Council, and fortunately, the City has a Pandemic Response Plan that is being activated. If you are hankering for updates on what the City is doing, best not come to bloggers like me though, and especially not Facebook posts from randos (there is a *lot* of bad info out there, unfortunately), the City website will have updates on a regular basis.

This is not going to be over soon, folks. For those of us fortunate enough to have never lived through a society-disrupting war, I don’t think we can really imagine what months of shifting our economy and our behavior is going to look like. All we know now is that it is no longer business as usual, not for some time anyway. In the meantime, do the things our Public Health professionals are telling us. Keep some distance, wash your hands. But you don’t need to be within 6 feet to be actively looking out for your neighbours and your friends. Many of them are going to be in tough mental states and/or facing some real economic stress. Be the kindness that helps them get through the day, and receive the kindness others offer. Take care.

This Happened (v.5)

Yikes, too much going on since last time I reported out on my Council-adjacent activities, so I’ll keep this short. One paragraph each (scroll down to see if I keep that promise, kinda curious if I do myself…)

I am on the Lower Mainland LGA executive, and we had an executive meeting to move some business along, which was mostly about making some fundamental program decisions about the 2020 conference we are planning for the beginning of May. It looks like a great program, so if you are a Local Government elected type reading this (and who else would?) make sure you register!

I gave opening greetings as “Acting Mayor” at the 2020 Innovation Expo at Anvil Centre. This annual event is part of the Intelligent New West program, where we bring people working in tech and innovation in the private sector together with people from the public sector to talk about how the two can work together to build capacity and promote investment in science and engineering. One of New West’s innovative businesses – Landcor – was a major sponsor of the event this year, and the event was really well attended.

Last weekend, the City of New West also hosted the semi-annual Council of Councils meeting, where local elected types from accross Metro Vancouver get together to get an update on what Metro Vancouver is up to. I guess I should write a blog post about separately!

On the same day, a few of us from Council attended the annual Royal New Westminster Regiment Mess Dinner, which is an event I have never actually had the honour of attending before. I was lucky to be seated with some members involved in the Cadet programs, and it was great to hear about the work they do, and the role they play in the community.

I am now serving as Chair of two new Council advisory committees: Facilities, Infrastructure, and Public Realm Advisory Committee (“FIPRAC”) and the Sustainable Transportation Advisory Committee (“STAC”), and both had their opening meeting in the last two weeks. It occurs to me now that I need to write another blog post about this, and how we are envisioning our new advisory committees being more effective and efficient.

For reasons too complicated to get into here, I was able to tour the OceanWise laboratory at the Pacific Science Enterprise Centre, which is what we are now calling the old DFO laboratories in West Vancouver. I was there to learn about some of the work OceanWise is doing to better understand microplastic pollution in our marine environment. This is an emerging area of science, as the impacts of residual clothing fibres, tire dust, paint chips, and other microscopic plastic particles are not well understood, even as we are now recognizing they have become ubiquitous in our oceans, air and sediments, and are becoming more common in marine micro- and mega-fauna. We may be some distance from knowing if we have any policy levers to do anything about this, but the foundational science is being done to at least allow us a better understanding of the problem.

I am also the Chair of the Community Energy Association, a not-for-profit agency that helps communities across BC (and increasingly adjacent parts of Yukon and Alberta) set and achieve energy and greenhouse gas emission reduction goals. We had a meeting last week where we approved a 2020 budget and set some priorities for special initiatives for the year ahead (including a new website, so enjoy this one while it lasts!).

I had a brief telephone interview with CKNW’s Jill Bennett on the morning of February 29th to talk about Council’s plans to undertake a master planning exercise for the 22nd Street Station area. It is interesting that a mention of reducing auto-dependency, even as a long-term plan in light of a Climate Emergency, triggers a strong reaction for people. Even as we continue to have a regional vision of less car dependency, the idea that we can create an area attractive to people who choose to not be car-reliant, even in a small underdeveloped area around a 30-year-old SkyTrain station, is treated with the level of incredulity expected if we were planning a moon base.

I was able to attend the small vigil/gathering at Hyack Square last weekend to show support for the Wet’suwet’en people and express hopes for respectful dialogue and a peaceful resolution for the current dispute. It was nice to see some local engaged residents come out, and I had some great conversations with people. Although there has been some positive news coming out of Victoria and Smithers as the two sides work towards resolution, the discussion on that day was mostly around how unhealthy and divisive the conversation was in the social and traditional media on this topic. Having a gathering of people support a more respectful model of discourse left me feeling more positive about our community. Thanks to the organizers for this!

There was also a successful fundraiser event thrown last weekend by the Rotary Club of New Westminster that brought a couple of hundred people to the Royal City Centre atrium to have a some snacks and taste craft beer from around the region as an excuse to raise money for two great organizations in the City, I’s on the Street and KidSport.

Finally, the Royal City Curling Club is winding its season down over March, and Team DeGobbi went into the playoffs in 12th seed, and won our first game against the #5 seed but then lost our second game to the 14th seed, so we have the long row to hoe if we plan to go deep in the playoffs. If you are wondering where I am Tuesdays and Thursday evenings…

Resolutions

Monday’s meeting (which I rambled on about here) was also one where several resolutions were passed. All were timely, some because of current events, some because the deadline for submission to the Lower Mainland Local Government Association is approaching. Endorsement by this area association improves the odds that the resolution will make the floor and be endorsed by the Union of BC Municipalities.

Resolutions are one way that Local Governments raise issues not strictly within our jurisdiction but still relevant to our community, and formally call upon senior governments to take actions that we don’t have the power to take. These types of resolutions are typically directed at senior governments and are a pretty standard practice in local governments across BC and Canada.

You can read the full text of the resolutions at the end of our Agenda here, so for the purpose of this blog, I’m going to skip over the “whereas” statements that create the context for them, and pare them down to the specific call, then add a few of my comments after. All of the following resolutions were supported by Council:

National Pharmacare Program Councillor Nakagawa

BE IT RESOLVED THAT the City of New Westminster write a letter calling on the Federal Government to work with the provinces and territories to develop and implement a Universal Public National Pharmacare program as a top priority; and

THAT this letter be forwarded to all BC municipalities asking to write expressing their support for a National Pharmacare Program.

THAT the following resolution be submitted to FCM:

THAT the Federation of Canadian Municipalities calls on the Federal Government to work with the provinces and territories to develop and implement a Universal Public National Pharmacare program as a top priority.

The time for national Pharmacare is now. It was actually a few decades ago, when most modern social democracies included pharamcare as part of their national healthcare systems, but hindsight is as powerful as prescription glasses. It has been said that Canada’s is the least socialized of all socialized healthcare systems in the industrialized world, as so many parts of health care considered primary in progressive nations (pharmacare, dental care, vision care, etc) are not part of our “universal” care.

Four of the 5 Parties in the House of Commons, representing 67% of the seats, have publicly supported publicly funded Phamacare, it really comes down to whether the party with the plurality is going to follow through this time, or continue to pull a Lucy with the football.


Declaration of Solidarity with Wet’suwet’en Councillor Nakagawa

BE IT RESOLVED THAT the City of New Westminster calls on the Governments of British Columbia and Canada to suspend permits authorizing construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline and commence good-faith consultation with the Wet’suwet’en People;

AND BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED THAT the City of New Westminster calls on the Governments of British Columbia and Canada to end any attempt at forced removal of Wet’suwet’en People from their traditional territories and refrain from any use of coercive force against Wet’suwet’en People seeking to prevent the construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline through non-violent methods.

This resolution seems to have garnered more attention than the others, including the usual Facebook calls for Council to “stay in its own lane” and “stop wasting time”. These appeared to mostly come from people who, by reading their comments, I assume did not read the resolution.

I’ve been slow to enter the on-line fray about the ongoing protests launched by the arrest of land defenders in the Wet’suwe’ten territory. I am not even sure how to talk about this without centering myself in the conversation, and as the conversation is not lacking in middle aged white guys from urban areas with a hot take, I’m not I add value to the discourse.

Since the road directly in front of my office was occupied for a few hours last week, I was able to watch the orderly challenging of all that is disorderly in one of the busiest car/pedestrian/transit intersections in Vancouver. I spent a bit of time in that crowd after work, and tried my best to listen and to reflect on what this disruption means, and how its impact compares to the strong feelings I had coming out the Climate Strike last September. But ultimately, I don’t think my feelings or ideas are what this is about. This is about whether the words of reconciliation, so easily invoked by those in power, have meaning when the boots (and pipes) hit the ground.

As New Westminster engages in relationship-building with local First Nations, I think it is valuable for us, as a Council to have conversations about what these events mean in the bigger context, both here in New West and with a wider community. We need to be open to understand the relationship between the colonization that was our modern community’s founding and the ongoing colonization of unceded territory in British Columbia. Like pharmacare (above) and transportation (below), this resolution is not “outside our lane”, but the exact appropriate process in our empowering legislation for us to communicate our desires to the other orders of Government.

I thanked Councillor Nakagawa for a well-written and nuanced resolution (which, again, seems to have been missed by most Facebook commenters). It calls for good-faith consultation with the entire Wet’suwe’ten community and for an end to violence and forced removal. Those latter tools are the ones Canada has traditionally used – and often later apologized for using – when Indigenous people have tried to protect their lands, commonly following bad-faith consultation. This pattern needs to stop. The resolution is not about natural gas or benefits agreements or about traditional vs. elected leadership; it is about fostering a new form of respect for Indigenous people in light of UNDRIP. I am for respectful dialogue and against violence, so I am proud to support this resolution.


#AllOnBoardCampaign Councillor Johnstone

BE IT RESOLVED THAT the provincial government work to make transit access more equitable by supporting free public transit across BC for youth under 19 years of age; and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED THAT the provincial government support a sliding scale monthly pass system based on income; and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED THAT BC Transit and TransLink proactively end the practice of fare evasion ticketing of minors, and introduce community service and restorative justice options for adults as an alternative to fare evasion tickets.

Similar resolutions were sent to UBCM last year from several communities, in support of this ongoing regional campaign being led by anti-poverty groups and including labour groups, business groups and other stakeholders, but they were not considered due to being bumped by a similar-sounding but quite different resolution around increasing Transportation Assistance for Low-Income Individuals. So we have updated the language to better address existing Provincial policy statements, and are trying again.


Clean vehicle incentives Councillor Johnstone

BE IT RESOLVED THAT: the provincial government expand the Clean Energy Vehicle program to include financial incentives for the purchase of electric assist cycles in scale with the incentives provided for the purchase of electric automobiles.

E-assist cycles are a growing market, and bridge the gap to cycling accessibility for many people. As a regular cycle commuter, I see the increase in numbers of people using e-assist bicycles to extend their cycling commute, and to get them past barriers like the hills of New Westminster. It is especially noticeable that users of e-assist bikes fit a different demographic than your typically hardy cycling commuter, and are generally older and include more women. My octogenarian mother in law has an e-assist trike that she now uses for more and more of her daily trips because the hills she used to be able to ride up are now accessible to her again. The e-assist allows people to carry groceries and other needs on the bike. It really is a game-changer

The big impact of e-assist technology is not making people on bikes faster (they are speed regulated), but in getting people out of cars. Replacing some portion of car trips for people who find cycling a barrier. As such, there is no public policy or community benefit to electric cars that is not also achieved through the use of e-assist cycles, and as such, subsidies given by government to people fortunate enough to be able to afford a $50,000 car should be extended to people purchasing $1,500 e-assist cycles.


School Bus Safety Councillor Johnstone

BE IT RESOLVED THAT UBCM call upon the BC Ministry of Education and the BC Ministry of Public Safety to mandate that all buses transporting students in British Columbia be equipped with seat belts that meet Transport-Canada regulatory standards and institute programs to assure those belts are used safely.

A similar resolution went to UBCM last year after a resident of Queensborough raised this issue to Council, however it was not considered by the membership at UBCM due to timing. In the year since, Transport Canada has developed new guidelines and is piloting a school bus seatbelt safety project. This resolution is still relevant in the modified form as it asks the relevant departments of the Provincial Government to follow up on the initiative launched by Transport Canada.

This Happened (v3)

I think I found the right title for my “community” posts, because this is really just a run-down of things that happened that I happened to be near as opposed to things that happened because of me or things I made happen, though some of those may happen to slip in. Passive voice -me is not what it is all about! Since this is the third in my recent resurgence of this topic, I’m starting at v3. Don’t @ me.

Events this last week had a distinct volunteer-and-community-builder feel.

The annual Civic Dinner is an event where we ask the many volunteers to City committees, task forces, commissions and other roles to come together and break bread. It is a fun night (see above), and one previously known for sometimes too long but nonetheless sincere thank-you speeches from all the councillors. A few years ago when this started to verge towards hours of speeches, the shift was made to councillors recording a short video. This makes it easier for everyone to sit through, but also gives us more time as councillors to circulate during dinner and thank folks personally. It also afforded people one last opportunity to laugh at the beard.

I had to run out right as the video started (my curling team awaited!) but I tried to circulate before and connect with everyone. If you served on a committee with me (or any committee for that matter), and I missed you, apologies, but know I really do appreciate the hours of work and valuable advise the volunteers in that room provide to staff and Council. And many of you I will see again as the new committee season starts now!

On Friday, there was the opening of the new temporary exhibit at the New Westminster Museum, “An Ocean of Peace”. This exhibit celebrates 100 years of Sikh community building in New Westminster, mostly around the Gurdwara Sahib Sukh Sagar on Wood Street. This exhibit was assembled by collecting the stories and artifacts of people who live in our community – not only the leaders and founders, but the everyday people who have for several generations made New Westminster and the surrounding areas home. The opening was incredibly well attended, with generous food provided by the Gurdwara. It is worth while heading down to the museum in the next couple of months to the temporary exhibit space and learn a little more about the history (and current life!) of New Westminster.

Saturday was the annual Festival of Volunteers at Royal City Centre, brought to you by New Westminster Volunteer Connections. This small event attracts a lot of not-for-profit organizations to set up booths and let people know what volunteer opportunities exist in the City ,and generally promotes the good works of local non-government agencies. I had great chats with my friends from HUB (who have a revitalized and active local New Westminster group). Pride New West, the New West Hospice Society, the Arts Council, and many other groups that keep the social and advocacy life buzzing in New West.

Thursday there was a well attended social put on by the New Westminster Chamber of Commerce, hosted by Fraserside Community Services. The Chamber is really stepping up their “making connections” program in the community, and it was great to see an event hosted at Fraserside. They have been working for more than 40 years in New Westminster to help people with barriers to community integration and employment achieve a fuller life, with job placement, housing support, counselling, and more. Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Judy Darcy was there as well to talk briefly about the challenges of her portfolio, and the work ahead, and a brief profile of the many, many programs Fraserside provides from their CEO Lynda Edmonds (who was smiling every second, except when I took this picture!)

Finally, I attended my first meeting with the Glenbrook North Residents Association as their “council Liaison”. It happened to be their AGM, so I got to watch the cut and thrust of RA elections. We also talked a bit about how the RA wants this new “Council Liaison” role to work, and I answered a few questions about the Canada Games Pool, the recycling Centre and (of course) traffic. The GNRA seems to have a strong, engaged executive base, and I encourage folks between Avenues 6 and 10, and Streets 6 and McBride to join them at a meeting (it’s Free!) and learn more about what is happening in your neighbourhood.

Community, Jan 24, 2020

OK, so maybe I already missed the mark on my soft promise of weekly updates on my council-related community activities, but let’s call them almost-weekly, and if we can keep ahead of fortnightly (although I love the term), and we can call this a success. It is going to depend on how many things I have going on, and how much time I have to write about them. Whish will result in this strange curve, because eventually I get to busy to write about them at all. And how much time I spend trying to use MSPaint to draw curves of phenomenon in my life:

Since my last of these community updates, we ran into snowpocalypse or snowmageddon or whatever, so a few events were cancelled. Most notably, I made it to the Queensborough Residents’ Association meeting just as the power outage caused a cancellation, and the New West Collective (a peer-to-peer support and networking group for local small businesses) wisely chose to delay their quarterly-or-so gathering until proper spring weather arrives.

Many may not know I am a member of the board of the Lower Mainland Local Government Association, which is an area association representing 33 local governments (municipalities and regional districts) from Hope to Vancouver to Pemberton. We had an executive meeting last week which was spent mostly on organizing our AGM and convention in Whistler. It looks like a great program is shaping up, and I look forward to reporting out on it in May.

We held the last meeting of the Intelligent City Advisory Committee last Friday. This committee operated for about a decade, and provided some valuable guidance to Council and staff on the Intelligent New West initiative. As Council re-organized the committee structures in 2019, this was one whose role was re-evaluated, as INW is now operational, the City has a Strategic Plan for INW and there are staff responsible for all three “pillars” of INW. The “council advisory” role under INW will now be part of the Economic Development and Advisory Committee’s mandate, but there are aspect of the INW program that will also fall under Public Realm, Public Engagement / Inclusion, and the Electrical Utility Commission. There were a few members of that Committee not happy with this direction, and Council will be reviewing how to assure that the INW Strategic Plan is measured and reported out. More importantly, the City needs to recognize that there is a real braintrust of people who understand the digital economy and how information technology is evolving regionally (and globally) as the Internet of things and 5G networks become our reality. New West has some unique advantages here, we need to be vigilant to make sure those opportunities are not lost.

Last week, the members of City Council and a few senior staff members attended a special training session as part of our ongoing Truth and Reconciliation work. We had Brad Marsden lead us in a workshop around improving our understanding of the history of Residential Schools and Colonization, and its impact on Indigenous and Urban Indigenous Peoples. This was a powerful and emotionally draining session, and I understand New West is the first “Mayor and Council” to take part.

This week I was also fortunate to be able to attend the first in a three-part public conversation about changing the conversation around social housing. Led by the Douglas College philosophy department, this series seeks to explore how we can have better public conversations about social and supportive housing in our communities:

The first session put the conversation in context with an introduction by Elliot Rossiter (who wrote this great opinion in the Record recently), followed by short presentations that talked about the history of housing in New West and Canada, from the criminalization of “vagrancy” in the City’s early days through the complex social programs that virtually eliminated homelessness as we know it in the decades after WW2, to the neoliberal shift and commodification of shelter that made “unhousing” of people a common occurrence for the first time. This was followed by a panel (including Councillor Nakagawa) talking about how we can improve the community conversation about providing housing, and move past the stigmatization of people who are victims of the complex systemic and societal failure that is poverty in Canada.

Sorry, Phil, but the “neolibralism” count I got from the panel was 7. All on mark, from people who actually understand the meaning of the term.

There will be two more talks in this series that are more about exploring potential solutions than naming the problems. If you care about justice, about local governance, or even about how your neighbourhood can have better conversations about housing, you should come out! It’s free!

Finally, in the last week I had a Canada Games Pool Task Force meeting, an Electrical Commission meeting, and a less formal meeting with one of the guiding lights in the New Westminster Environmental Partners, to talk about how they view our current recycling situation, and some great initiatives they are hoping to lead around raising the profile of the Brunette River as an ecological asset in New West.

Depot

As you may have heard, the current recycling centre adjacent to the Canada Games Pool has to close, and the services are being relocated to United Boulevard. For the best part of a year there has been a lot of discussion (mostly on social media) about what this means for our City’s commitment to recycling. Even the Record took the unprecedented step of making something that hasn’t actually happened yet their top news story of 2019.

Last Monday, there was both a report to Council from our engineering department on developments in the city-wide recycling program, and a number of people came to Council to delegate on the imminent closure of the recycling depot. Many of them came to speak in support of a an on-line petition promoted by a local political party asking that the current recycling centre be kept open. I find on-line petitions are a terrible way to gauge people’s opinions for several reasons, but this is an entirely different blog that I will maybe write someday. For now, I would rather address the report that came to Council and what I heard at the delegations.

First off, we need to be clear about why the current facility is closing. Through two years of consultation on the replacement of the CGP, it was clear that the community wanted the existing facilities to remain open and operational until the new centre is opened in order to maintain continuity in programs and offerings. This decision fundamentally shaped the new facility and the site plan.

Those conversations around the new facility answered the big questions (25m or 50m pool, one or two gyms? Daycare? Meeting rooms? etc.) and we settled on a fairly large structure – over 100,000 square feet. After a tonne of work by the architects and engineers, it was determined that the facility would not fit well on the parking lot to the east of the Canada Games Pool, and due to some utility issues and uncertain ground conditions related to the old Glenbrook ravine (which used to extend all the way to 8th avenue!), the only place where this large a facility fits is snuggled alongside the existing pool and community centre on the west side:

A rough drawing of the footprint of the new recreation centre (in white) and landscaping/entrance area (brown) that will be required for laydown during construction. This area (and much of the all-weather field to the top left) will be an active construction site. This is a rough drawing, I did it in MSpaint(!) based on drawings available here, please don’t use for navigation.

That means that the front parking lot will need to be excavated, meaning for two years the main road access to the current recycling depot would be a hole in the ground then an active construction site. Again, the engineers looked at a few options including shifting the one-way road adjacent to the fire hall to two lanes and providing temporary direct access off of McBride, but no solution was found that would meet safety standards our engineers demand.

This speaks a bit to the problem with on-line petitions. Several hundred people in New West signed a petition asking the City to do the one thing we could not do, unless we were going to turn our back on 2 years of public consultation and more than a year of architecture and engineering work. The author of the petition knew this, which is another example of how disingenuous politics are good at creating a scene, but not at finding solutions. Finding solutions is harder work.

Some have suggested that the recycling facility (even temporarily) be moved to the east parking lot. Staff have (of course) looked at this, and from what I hear, I cannot support that idea. The east parking lot has about 120 parking spots to support a recreation facility with more than a thousand visits a day, and a curling rink with a capacity of about 100. A parking spot for every 10 users is a very, very low number, and this is already certain to cause significant neighbourhood and user group stress during the building of the new facility. Moving even a shrunk-but-still-workable recycling depot to that spot would mean removing about half of those remaining spots. This challenges our earlier commitment to keeping the current facility functioning and accessible during constructions.

For all of the political hay-making and quoting of Joni Mitchell, this is just a question of geometry.

So the status quo is not viable. What do we do now? Some of the delegates provided some good ideas, and I think that it was useful to hear what types of recycling people are most stressed about. I think for many people in the City, the new joint recycling depot on the Coquitlam border with more services than our current facility, longer hours, and easier access to SkyTrain, will provide more convenience. I also recognize that for some people, this change represents a change to their established patterns and extra inconvenience.

We have not really had a robust conversation with the community about what that change looks like for them, and I recognize that was a communications and engagement failure on the City’s part. Over the last couple of months a few people have asked me questions about recycling, I have met a few for coffee, replied to some e-mails, tried to listen and learn (and have occasionally reported out on those conversations). During the delegations last Monday we heard a few interesting ideas, and there were also several people who came to delegate to say they fully supported the change. People had different recycling needs – some spoke of lawn clippings, some of Styrofoam and glass. Its clear most wanted to have a deeper discussion about what role recycling plays in our community, and asking for resources to make not just the City’s recycling system work better, but to assure our waste management systems are meeting our climate and sustainability goals.

Council heard that call for a better discussion, and staff heard it as well. The staff report that came to Council last Monday outlines a series of opportunities to provide the City some feedback and ideas on recycling (open houses, on-line polls), and I am spreading hearing rumours of the NWEP “Trash Talkers” group getting together and working to raise public awareness and gather ideas about the barriers to waste diversion, and strategies to address them.

Year of the Beard

I’ve been taking a serious year-end break. I took a couple of weeks off work, got out of town just after the last Council meeting. I’m taking a social media break as well, though I do hazard a short lurk once in a while to assure myself #NewWest still exists. I brought a few City documents on the road with me, and I am spending a bit of down time reading capital budget stuff (January is coming on soon!)but it’s been nice to turn most things off for a bit, ride my bike, sit on a beach, and chill with @MsNWimby.

That said, the week between Christmas and the New Year is ripe for these “year in review” things, so here goes mine. 2019 was a strange and interesting year, and I have a hard time summing my 2019 up.

One big change for me personally in 2019 is a change in my work/life balance. I went back to more regular “work” outside of Council. When elected in 2014, I was working full time. After almost two years of increasingly strained attempts at making it work, I had to be honest that I was not giving the attention or energy my 40-a-week professional job deserved, and decided to quit. For the balance of my first Council term I was doing a bit of consulting work, but nowhere near full time. Being honest about the effort and time I could put in with this council work (and my volunteer work with the CEA, CSAP, and LMLGA), I had found a couple of clients that offered the right level or workload, though I think @MsNWimby would have liked a more equitable contribution to household expenses.

In early 2019, I had an opportunity to take a real job working in my field that was half time – a solid 20 hours a week at a proper professional wage. It is work I am very familiar with so the learning curve was easy to get past, and I was able to provide value right up front. The employer is super flexible, and we have a great relationship around planning a work load for the weeks ahead, so I can assure scheduling conflicts are avoided. It all seems very “millennial” in work conditions, but it is working for everyone, and I am staying connected in my field. It has been a fun team to get to know as well, and the work is really interesting. so all’s good!

I also spent a bit of time in 2019 volunteering on the local federal election campaign. This was mostly a good news story – Peter Julian is an easy Member of Parliament to support, he had a great team working for him, and it is fun to knock on doors and make phone calls when you are stumping for such a popular guy!

The disappointment side of the 2019 Federal Election, personally, is a regret that I didn’t spend more time over in Coquitlam/Port Moody helping Bonita Zarrillo’s campaign. I have known Bonita from local government stuff for a few years, and was really excited to hear she was going to represent the NDP in Fin Donnelly’s riding. She is passionate, smart, caring, and hardworking, and she loves her home in the Tri Cities. In the end, she lost a squeaker to a parachuted-in ultra-conservative who failed to meaningfully campaign when she arrived. To see such a brilliant local leader lose to a party-issue hack form central casting is sad. To me a Member of Parliament is representative of your community in Ottawa, not a representative of the Party in your community. I feel disappointment that I didn’t have the foresight to invest more of my volunteer time to help Bonita, when she just needed a few hundred votes to get over the top. Sorry Bonita, but I am glad we are still working together in Local Government in the Lower Mainland.

In the local political realm, New West Council had probably the most quietly challenging year I have ever experienced. From my seat, it seemed there were very few big splashes, yet we pushed some really bold stuff forward. I have felt a tremendous amount of personal growth in how I approach the work, and the organization’s growth in some of the functional changes we are making at City Hall and in Council Chambers. We are making the organization more efficient and effective, though some of this is a bit out of sight for all but the vigilant council-watcher. This is alongside the real progress and growth reflected across the organization on files like climate and reconciliation. I think our Strategic Plan is (perhaps) too aggressive in wanting to achieve much more in a short time period than will be easy for a City our size. That said, I can’t disagree with the bold vision created, and hope we can continue to build the political will to be the most progressive and forward-looking local government in the province, if not in Canada. The shift represented by our Council and Staff’s embrace of aggressive climate actions is an encouraging example of progress that can be made when we are all on the same page, and I’m glad this community is still pushing us forward on that front.

In looking back at the direction we are forging, I find myself using words like “aggressive” and “bold”. Still, it feels like we are being given the clear political push from the public to get this work done. The community is telling us they can be just as bold as this Council, and perhaps through us providing transparency and a clear set of underlying values and vision, I am more confident in our ability to make this progress.

It is a bit funny, but you sometimes need to go outside to see how good things are inside. Our Council has ways of disagreeing – even new ways different than the last Council –and can drive each other nuts with our 7 different ways of approaching solutions, but if our paddles sometimes cross, we are all at least rowing the same direction. It is mostly at regional or provincial conferences where our cohort reminds us that New West is functional and punching way above its weight in the local government actions, and we do it while avoiding so much of the hijinks afflicting other less-functional Councils around the region. They get headlines, we get work done. That is a good feeling.

2019 had challenges, but I think the year ahead will be more challenging. We are deep into Capital Budget discussions right now, and are asking for the public’s help in setting those priorities. Translating an aggressive capital plan into a sustainable operational budget is the hard work part. We will be having some conversations not just about the things we want to do, but our vision for the 5 years ahead is going to have to include some conversations about what we are not going to do, or are going to stop doing. And New Westminster is not as good at letting things go as we are at starting new things (and by that I mean Council, City Staff, and the Public!). These conversations will be at times hard, but worth while. I’m looking forward to the work!

With all of this going on, I hardly had time to ride my bike for recreation, my blog here has been suffering from lack of attention (but blogs as a media are deader than dead, so who knows the future of this?), and my garden was a pretty dismal failure, except for all the tomatoes. I also found myself intentionally stepping back a bit from some things in 2019, mostly because of my new work & commuting schedule: fewer of those “I should make an appearance” events, and less patience for social media. I’m not sure what to make of my nascent impression that our local political challenges have become pettier, despite the good work we are doing (see above). I am not sure if that is a product of the changing social media landscape, or just the natural result of me settling in after five (5!) years of elected life. Or maybe I’m getting older.

Which brings the big personal news – I turned 50 in 2019. I’m not sure how that happened, but it just kinda snuck up on me and now I am looking down the second half of middle age. @MsNWimby threw a hell of a party, and I really haven’t taken the time to thank everyone who came out to celebrate. 50 makes you ornery, I guess. Or gives you a ready excuse to be so. Thank you for the great party, and for being a great support network for me and @MsNWimby.

Let me wrap my 2019 in review by thanking the wider network of great people in New West working to build this unique, progressive, compassionate community. There are so many people in this town who are doing so much to make it a great place to live. My Council colleagues are constantly challenging and surprising me, and the Mayor has really grown into a strong leader who earns more respect every day. There are true leaders in the School District, in the Arts community, in our BIAs and local businesses, in the many service agencies that make New West tick. Please keep up your good work, though it may feel you are fighting against the tide, your contributions are noticed and appreciated. If I have one resolution for 2020, it will be consciously spending less time worrying about the boo-birds on Facebook, and more time expressing gratitude to the many people around New West actually working every day to make this community so great. Happy New Year!

Voting For

My regular readers (Hi Mom!) will not be shocked to find out I have a bias this Federal Election. Still, there are some people who follow me on social media or read this blog hoping to read about City Council stuff who get angry that I sully that with politics. Some feel that I need to bury my partisan opinions not that I am elected and pretend I support everyone’s ideas equally. If you fall in this camp, I respectfully disagree, and suggest you might want to skip this post and go on to another one where I am ranting about bike lanes or climate change or housing or some other “non-political” subject.

This election has had some holding their nose, but I feel fortunate that I have someone and something to vote for in this election. I have not always been a strong supporter of the NDP (a point one of the campaign managers in this election tried to make hay with when he was running against me in the Muni election – strangely not recognizing it undermined his own narrative that I was a hopeless partisan hack, but I digress…) but I have become a stronger one with each passing year.

At the Federal level, I was inspired by the strength, vision, and positivity of Jack Layton. I appreciate that it was Tom Mulcair who served as Judge, Jury and Executioner on the corruption of the Harper government and opened up the gap that Trudeau was ultimately more effective at filling in 2015. I can debate at length (and have!) the direction the NDP Campaign went that election, but the principles of the party, including speaking out strongly against the Hijab ban, stood in contrast to the alleged progressiveness of the Liberals, who predictably swerved back to the Right once elected. I have had the opportunity to meet, eat, and ride bikes with Jagmeet Singh, and am always amazed at his grace, his firmness of vision, and the intensity with which he listens. He sees people as good, and sees Canada as a force for good, and wants to see that vision realized. Dude is the real deal.

Fortunately, here in New West we are represented by Peter Julian, and it is easy for me to support him as well. He has a well-deserved reputation as one of the hardest working MPs. His busy Constituency Office here in New West has helped thousands of people address everyday problems with the federal government. He has spent more than a decade running seminars to help people with disabilities and other barriers assure they receive the benefits to which they are entitled in their income tax filings. Representing one of the most culturally diverse ridings in Canada, Peter has learned to greet constituents in dozens of languages (some put the count at 50) because he feels it is important that every resident of this riding feel welcome here. In Ottawa he is bringing forward issues that matter to this constituency, most recently including the Canadian Green New Deal bill he brought to Parliament, hoping we can begin to justly and fairly transition away from a fossil-fuel reliant economy.

I’ve got at least 1,000 more words about the other local candidates that I wrote a few times and deleted, because I am trying really hard to avoid negativity here. Perhaps I can sum it all up wondering where these people were before the election. Other parties parachuting in candidates with zero name recognition and no history working on issues in this community, only to have them avoid all candidates events and play duck-and weave with voters, will assure this remains an “NDP stronghold”. I see no effort by another party to develop a following, or even identify local leaders to carry their brand. Based on the last 5 years in this riding, it appears the NDP are the only party to take New Westminster seriously. After the election other parties will no doubt lament the NDP is unfair or too strong in New West, blaming voters for the work the parties and candidates themselves simply didn’t do to earn their votes.

No federal platform is perfect. There are things in the NDP platform I would like to see them push further on, and things I am critical of (e.g.: electric car subsidies are not great climate policy). Their housing plan is ambitious, and realistically relies less on incentivizing the market (which if done poorly only pushes prices up and is ultimately a better policy area for provincial and local governments) and instead emphasizes doing what Canadian governments did successfully in the decades between WW2 and Brian Mulroney: investing in subsidized housing to provide supply at the lowest parts of the affordability scale. The NDP Climate Plan pushes the edge of possibility (as it is now too late for half-measures) and rightfully centers the marginalized and those displaced by the inevitable economic shift. Their platform more holistically addresses Truth & Reconciliation than any other federal platform. The time for universal pharmacare and sliding-scale dental coverage is now, and will get our health care program up to speed with those provided in advanced European economies while ultimately saving the government and employers money. And we will pay for the (short-term) cost by taking the subsidies away from the companies that are using them to nuke our climate, and by charging more tax to very wealthy people. And, of course, the type of social investments the NDP are talking about are the type that actually grow an economy, not the type that the wealthy can squirrel away in the Caymans…

There is stuff in here for me to vote for, and lots of it.

So I count myself lucky. No holding my nose and no ill-informed strategic hedge betting. A local candidate who walks the walk and does the work, a federal leader I believe in, and a platform I can support. I voted NDP at the Advance Poll last Sunday morning and was enthusiastic in doing it, and on Monday I will be spending my time Getting out the Vote and thinking of a better Canada.

More recycling

There was a good letter in the Record that asked some questions about curbside recycling. So I thought I would try my best to answer them. They make reference to the current recycling yard is closing, if you are here wondering about that, I talked about that here. Short version: the road accessing the current recycling yard will most certainly NOT be accessible during most of the construction period for the Canada Games Pool replacement as it will be a hole in the ground for much of that time, so the City is working on some alternatives, and there will be more to report on this soon.

The most holistic answer to most of the questions in the letter is that the City of New Westminster does not operate in a vacuum, but is a relatively small community in a large, dynamic region. There are multiple jurisdictions involved in our solid waste systems, including Metro Vancouver (who manage all landfill waste and organic waste recycling) and the province (who manage paper and packaging recycling through Recycle BC). These operate alongside Extended Product Responsibility (EPR) programs (like oil waste management and tire recycling), and within a larger regional and global commodities market for the recycled materials, without which there would be no recycling at all.

So the answer to the question why is one type of thing collected at the curbside (newspapers and soup cans) and another is not (glass jars and Styrofoam) is because the organization that takes our recycling from us (be that a government agency, a commercial operation, or a hybrid of both) has the ability to dictate what they will and will not take as part of that commercial arrangement. If no-one will take a type of waste, has to go to landfill, so recycling relies on these agencies and businesses.

When we made the big shift to “comingled” recyclables a number of years ago, it necessarily sent us down a path where we were reliant on a certain type of Materials Recovery Facility to separate those wastes into material we can sell or have someone take off of our hands for a lower cost than sending the material to a landfill or the Burnaby incinerator. For example, the simplest reason why glass jars cannot go in comingled curbside recycling is because the newsprint and mixed paper has some value in the recycling market, and that value goes away if a little bit of broken glass is mixed in with it. We can sell recycled mixed paper for up to $85/Tonne (if we can find a customer, which is becoming harder as there is a significant oversupply of paper fibre right now), but if that paper is contaminated with a broken peanut butter jar, that paper is more likely going to landfill at a cost of $140/Tonne or more for disposal.

When it comes to “depot items”, there are a lot of things that cannot be recycled curbside, from waste paint to toasters to batteries, because handling them in a MRF is hazardous and results in contamination of potentially-recyclable materials. There may be a market for them if the initial separation of materials can happen, so they can;t go in the curbside bin, but can go in their own special bin in a collection point, be that London Drugs or a Return-It depot, or the tire store. This is why so much of our solid waste system regionally relies on education programs about recycling – what can got in curbside, and what can’t. Things that are “technically” recyclable become non-recyclable when they enter the wrong stream, and potentially make a bunch of other stuff not recyclable at the same time. As you allude to, putting technically recyclable stuff in the wrong stream may assuage guilt, it doesn’t help the environment.

Most of these technically-recyclable but not-at-the-curbside materials have multiple places they can be taken in New Westminster, including very likely, the place you bought the actual item. In my earlier post, I linked to this tool from Metro Vancouver that allows you to search for places where you recycle your wastes. There are a half dozen places in New Westminster where you can take Styrofoam or plastic shopping begs to recycle them. Glass jars can also go to a few places in town, but the commodity value of that waste glass is so low, that it is challenging to find anyone to take it. Of course, glass is environmentally inert and non-polluting, so aside from the cost ($140/Tonne +) there is little reason to divert it from the landfill, unless it can be brought into an industrial process like cement making at a lower environmental cost than other raw materials like crushed aggregate, but we are getting deep down the rabbit hole here…

The hardest part about this conversation for an environmentalist like me is the reaction you get when you tell people that recycling is not a particularly effective environmental intervention. For many materials, it simply makes no environmental or economic sense. “Reduce Reuse Recycle” is too often offered as a circular, as if they are all equal in weight when it comes to environmental sustainability. They should always instead be offered as a hierarchy. Reducing your use of single-use plastics and items that are difficult or impossible to recycle (and I am going to throw in here – economically unsustainable to recycle) should be your first priority.

If we are playing with “R” words, we can add “Refuse” – as in refuse to buy items that are packaged in unsustainable ways, and “Rechoose” – as in seek out products and formats that don’t create hard to recycle waste. We have been well trained as a society to think about recycling at the time when we are finished with a product, but we are terrible at thinking about it at the time we purchase something. I suspect our reliance on (even blind faith in) EPR programs was part of this problem.