on Phase 2

There is a lot of stuff going on right now. There are stories local and international that are causing people alarm, confusion, and anxiety. I cannot tell if things are spinning faster now, or if we are all so apprehensive about our imminent release from social quarantine that the tension is making us hyper aware. There will be a reams of sociology research coming out of the time we are in, and the times to come over the next 6 months. Or 8 months. Or 12. Who knows, and maybe that we don’t know timelines is part of this. Or maybe its just me.

I get a lot of correspondence as an elected type, and like many of you have been spending a lot of time looking out through social media at the conversation in my community. I have been stepping out to shop, to exercise, to smell the flowers in a park. Talking to friends from 7 feet apart and stepping sideways to yield some sidewalk space. Wondering if I send the wrong signal when I tried to hold the door for someone, not at first recognizing that they didn’t want to walk past me. There is a common thread through all of this – anxiety. Or maybe nervousness is a better word, and anxiety best reserved for when it becomes disproportionate and disabling, Even then how are we to know what level of discomfort is “disproportionate” right now?

Last year, the City of New West was reviewing applications for cannabis retail stores. These were, nominally, just regular rezoning applications to add another legal use to existing retail locations. We had many people write to us and come to the Public Hearing expressing fear and concern about the impact of these stores on their neighbourhood, their community, and their children. With cannabis made legal and its use already ubiquitous in our community, it was hard to understand where this seemingly disproportionate anxiety was coming from.

A wise colleague put this into context for me. Government at every level, police, schools, churches, and the media, had spent most of the last century telling the public that cannabis was a terrible threat. Reefer Madness, gateway drug, a surefire way for your child to throw their life away. We invested millions in scaring the population about this menace, and incarcerating people for using or trading in it. Then one day, government declared it legal and all fine now, with very little fanfare, and (most importantly) limited education about the reality of its health impacts. They frankly never said “we were wrong”, or if they weren’t wrong, why those fears they transmitted are now not important. What right do we have now to act surprised that everyone didn’t just say OK when that shift happened? We need to recognize that the anxiety came from a place not of the anxious person’s making. We must be compassionate about the impact it is having on them while working on re-doing the public education about this issue.

I feel that the same applies right now as people start to transition out of lockdown, and into whatever modes come next. Except it is on a compressed timeline, and a threat more imminent. Parents are understandably unsure about sending their kids to school, some are nervous about playgrounds opening while others are chagrined that we are not moving faster to open them up. Some feel inconvenienced by the lineups and physical distancing requirements at the Farmers’ Market, others are comforted to see that they can buy food with crowding managed for safety, still others feel the Farmers’ Market is not doing enough to satisfy their personal comfort.

It’s not necessarily because people don’t trust guidance from government or public health officials. Though some may feel that way, the people of BC have demonstrated over the last 4 months incredible faith in the leadership guiding us through this, and faith in their community. However, as that guidance changes, people need time to interpret and adapt to that change. Very few people alive have been through anything like this before, and we are all (experts and lay people) making this up as we go along, doing the best we can. We are all taking different paths through this crisis, some are more vulnerable, some feel more vulnerable. As this is a crisis that has required collective action, our vulnerability and sense of vulnerability are impacted by the actions of others as much as our own action.

So all this to say what Dr. Henry said eloquently in so few words: “Be calm, be kind, be safe

As we transition to re-opening, try to do so with other people’s anxiety in mind. It may not be rational to you, but that is a sign to listen, not to dismiss. We need to be kind to each other and recognize their path is different than our own. Before we criticize others for attending events, or refusing to attend events, before we judge decisions other parents make about how their children interact or play in the weeks ahead, before we mask-shame someone or question their picnic habits, use kindness to inform your view.

And be kind to yourself. It is okay to feel uncomfortable or unsure. We are all making this up as we go along, we are all doing our best, and we are all wondering if it is enough. BC has done a great job up to now, potentially thousands of lives have been saved, and we did it by working together. Let’s keep that collective spirit, keep thinking of each other.

Streets for People

I had a motion on the Council Agenda on Monday, which I said I would write about later. First the motion in full, then the rant:

Whereas the City of New Westminster established a Bold Step target to re-allocate 10% of automobile-only space toward sustainable transportation and/or public gathering use by 2030; and
Whereas the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in significant shifts in the use of public space, and “physical distancing” directives exposed the critical need for greater and more accessible pedestrian, active transportation, and public gathering space in the City; and

Whereas the recovery phase of the City’s pandemic response will put tremendous pressure on the City to address these inequities in public space, to assure that the freedom to move about and be active in public spaces not lost, and that our commercial districts are supported in finding creative ways to activate sidewalk and road space to excite customer support; and

Whereas urban areas around the world are currently demonstrating a commitment to reclaiming roads by rapidly converting automobile-only space to more equitable uses that better support neighborhood livability, commercial district viability, community resiliency, and public safety during the crisis and into post-Pandemic times;

Therefore be it resolved that:
The City of New Westminster move quickly in 2020 to expand road re-allocation toward pedestrian, cyclist, and public gathering space, using temporary measures where necessary with a mind towards more permanent solutions that can be applied after the period of crisis has passed;

And be it further resolved that:
The Transportation Task Force make rapid reallocation of road space a priority work item, are empowered to immediately apply temporary measures in 2020, and accelerate the timeline towards the 10% space reallocation goal set out in Bold Step 7 of the City’s Climate Action Plan.

In a rapidly growing city, the need for our streets to be public spaces where people can walk, shop, even recreate – as opposed to merely roads for the purpose of automobile throughput – has never been more clear. Intrinsically, we knew this all along. Every time we have opened up space for people to use at a human scale, people show up and take advantage of that space. When that space is lost again, we feel the loss. Yes, I’m talking street festivals and parades, but I’m also talking about the temporary closure of the east part of Front Street that brought people to use that space creatively for a summer, and the small calmed or reclaimed areas like the Front Street Mews and Belmont, or the pedestrian space reclaimed on McInnes.

Along comes a pandemic, and all of the sudden commuter traffic has reduced, and people are using space differently. People have shifted to walking more, there are noticeably more youth and families out on bikes, and the way we shop and assemble and queue use transit has changed. With people spending more time working at home or (alas) unemployed, there are more people outside using public spaces. Gathered in parks in small virtual pods of a few people, spread across the space. People want to be outside, but people are wary of being too close or crowded in public space. The only solution to this math is: more public space.

The City has reacted in some rapid ways to support these changes in the transportation realm. The report we received in the May 11 Council package outlines much of this: fixing the pinch point on the Central Valley Greenway at the north end of East Columbia, asking people to use the Quayside esplanade differently, making more space for safer use of the McInnes Overpass. And the obvious happened: every time we have opened up space for people to use at a human scale, people show up and take advantage of that space.

At the motion says, New Westminster has already set a goal to re-allocate 10% of road space by 2030 as one of our Bold Steps towards Climate Action. In light of current events and the radical change in the use of public space we are already seeing, the 2030 timeline no longer feels bold. In a city with as much road and as much pressing need for public space right now, we need to act faster.

And we are no alone in this, Cities from Vancouver to Montreal to London to Seattle have shifted the use of street space to make pedestrians, cyclists, and other street users more comfortable and safer.

New Westminster has a lot of road space, an excess of road space in many ways. We can demonstrate regional and national leadership not by changing our plans, but by simply re-setting the timeline for this work – the immediate shift of road space by temporary measures – paint, no post barriers, planters, delineators, and bollards. We can aggressively do this in the summer of 2020, with a mind to making these re-allocations permanent as capital budget and recovery allow.

My motion calls on us to do the things outlined in the Staff report, and more, and much more rapidly. Additionally, as much as I appreciate the great work transportation staff have done so far, I want us to also think about how we take this work out of the transportation realm, and expand it to thinking more holistically about how we can re-allocate space to support our business districts, support the arts community, support people finding new ways to connect socially while distancing physically, how the re-use of public space will be a keystone to the recovery from this crisis.

The summer of 2020 is going to be different. And coming out of the Pandemic, there will be transformations in how we live in our City. If we are bold and brave now, we can shape those transformations towards the more people-focused, more equitable, and more sustainable community we envisioned in our long-term planning. Like so many other needs in the community, the COVID-19 crisis did not create this need, but it did demonstrate the urgency of the need, and provides the opportunity for accelerated action to address the need that was always there.

I want this motion to be the start of a conversation – but getting mired in debate about priotization and compromises is the biggest risk to us actually getting change during this critical time. I will be talking out a lot in the weeks ahead about this, and I want to hear form the community about the visionary changes you want to see in your community, in your neighbourhood, on your street.

I want to see rapid deployment of greenway treatments to finally address some of the gaps. I want to see expansion of sidewalks into car storage spaces so that people have comfortable space to walk in our commercial areas, and so our commercial businesses can be supported as they re-open by taking patios or merchandizing areas out on to the sidewalk. I want to see small chunks of our local streets closed to traffic and converted to active use for neighbourhoods that are going to be itching for social connection during a summer with no festivals. I want every student to have a safe route to walk or roll to school. I want us to stop laying pavement expanses on parts of roads that don’t facilitate safe speeds or safe crossing. And I’ll be going on at length about these things…

I wrapped my little speech at Council by quoting Gordon Price – the former Director of the City Program at SFU and City Councillor for the City of Vancouver:

Reallocation as a health response, a climate-emergency response, a neighbourhood planning response, and an active-transportation response – all of the above at a time when the difficult-to-do has become the necessary-to-do.

Because it is time, because it will make us a better City, let’s do this.

Ask Pat: Petitions & Letters

OK, I’m lying a bit. This wasn’t the result of someone hitting the red Ask Pat button, but a question I got asked on Twitter that I thought deserved a longer answer than Tweets were good for. And I must be housebound because 1,500 words later here I am writing an intro.

I have been peripherally involved in some of the campaigning to secure emergency funding for TransLink during this crisis. Mostly by using my platforms to connect people and amplify the ask. (For example: Go here and here and sign a petition and write a letter). An engaged New West resident asked me, perhaps rhetorically, how effective are petitions and form letters in getting action from governments? Is this kind of action useful? So I thought I would answer that here as best I can. TL;DNR: All correspondence matters, the more personal the better. 

Perhaps as a caveat – I do not consider myself a brilliant campaigner. In my life of being a rabble-rouser and then elected guy, I have relied on smarter and/or better trained campaigners. There are library shelves of theses on this topic, people whose entire career is based on engaging the public and driving political action. They may laugh or cry reading what I write below, but you asked me, not them, so I’ll do my best to answer and not worry about the tears of others.

I would say any communication with elected officials is better than none. Your elected representatives need to know and be reminded where you stand on issues that matter to you. They receive correspondence all the time, and though there are many things impacting their decision making, there is something about receiving constituent correspondence that makes any (thinking) elected representative consider their assumptions. If they disagree with you, they are going to be forced to think about why they disagree, and this may result in a more nuanced consideration of a matter. If they agree with you, you have provided them another arrow in their quiver when they have to make a case against the (inevitable) correspondence they will receive on the other side of the issue. So if you care about something, let them know, because a person on the other side of the issue is likely doing the same.

But the real question was about the effectiveness of petitions and form letters coming out of campaigns like I linked to above? To qualify my answer yet again, that depends on what you mean by effective, and how big they are.

I don’t think electronic petitions like those at Change.org change the minds of many elected types. Any petition would have to have huge results to shift elected people away from ideas that were otherwise defended by good public policy or other important political drivers – no petition project exists in a vacuum. I suppose there are some populists who would say “1,400 people signed this! We need to react!”, but for a decision to get to that point there must already be a solid public policy driver, and in a City with 70,000 residents, it is hard to tell what number of self-selected signatures it would require to represent a true plurality of opinion.

This is exacerbated by petitions being strictly directed communications, and are sometimes based on facts that are (to be polite) separated from the decision-making points at hand. If I launched a petition “New West should fix traffic now!” I could probably get a lot of signatures, especially if I had a little money to throw towards a Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram campaign. This would be easier if I worded it so I could rely on signatures from people who want roads expanded to “get traffic flowing” and those who want to further restrict through-traffic to make sidewalks and crosswalks safe for pedestrians. So it would be effective at saying “somebody should do something”, and may be perceived as putting elected types on the hot seat, but it is not going to change anyone’s mind about any specific approach.

So why would I do this? Electronic petitions collect names and e-mails, and sometimes other information, from people who fill them out, so they are a quick data source for people running campaigns. In being easy for the general public to engage with, they give an opportunity to get people thinking and interested in a topic. If you are piqued by an on-line prompt, you are more likely to take a further step, be it forward a tweet or like a Facebook post, send a form letter, or even talk to your friends about the issue. So I think petitions like this are more effective at getting non-activist people engaged than they are at changing elected people’s minds.

Form letters are better, I think. Though it is sometimes irritating to receive 30 emails in an afternoon with the same subject heading, they usually provide a name and contact of the sender, which gives the elected person the chance to respond or engage. They also tend to be clearer in their ask, as they have to be in order to get people to attach their names to them.

It is important to recognize that some campaigns and campaigners are seeking your contact information for their own purposes. You are sharing data: your name, your e-mail, your postal code, etc. with the campaign organization, and it is not always clear how that data will be used. I recently received a series of form letters from a campaign that used your postal code to determine who your local Council was, then sent and e-mail to the Mayor and Council in your area asking that they be vigilant in not allowing face recognition software to be used in the City. I noted the irony of a person concerned about digital security willingly providing their name, postal code, e-mail address, and political opinions to an anonymous letter generator.

That said, small local grass-roots organizations like I linked to above with clear mandates and clear messages are not likely to do anything that makes their burgeoning supporter base upset, like mis-using their data. I am one to usually presume good intentions unless one has acted disingenuously in the past, but it never hurts to ask the organization if they collect data and how it is used, and for the organization to have and respect an opt-out if you don’t want your data shared or to receive further correspondence from them.

From the elected person’s point of view, even the most diligent correspondent has a hard time responding to the 200th exact-same letter. I try (and sometimes succeed) to reply to every e-mail I get, but form letters tend to get a form-letter-like response. I do scan them to see if the writer has added a personal touch to it, and try to reply to that personally. But again, every elected person is going to manage this correspondence differently. If you have the time and energy, personal emails are much, much better, and I prioritize those for responses. As a decision-maker, one well-made personal argument is more likely to convince me than 100 identical form letters, regardless of how well they frame the concern.

So overall, the more personal the better, but all correspondence is important, and if all you can manage is a petition or a form letter, it is better than staying silent on an issue. All of them serve as a demonstration of how broad a support base is for any idea. It also helps an elected person who may want to take a positive action demonstrate that there is some level of support for that action. I will give you a clear and real example from my life.

I want more and better cycling infrastructure in New West. No surprise there, I was beaking off about it for a few years before getting elected, I included in every conversation during my elections, and have talked about it at Council whenever appropriate. Although I think the majority of Council supports this goal, I do at times feel I am shouting into a void. It is “Patrick going on about bikes again.” It’s OK, as you can tell by this blog post, I like to drone on.

Currently, we have limited the use of the Quayside boardwalk for cycles, because more people are using the boardwalk for daily exercise, space is constrained by physical distancing requirements, and given these pressures, bikes really aren’t appropriate there. Staff have recommended Quayside Drive as an alternative, and added some “share the road” signage. I don’t think that is adequate, and think we should close parking on one side of the road during the crisis and make a dedicated cycle route safe for 8 year olds and 80 year olds to replace the one we lost on the boardwalk.

If we do this, we will not doubt hear from people – angry letters to Council and to the Editor, maybe even a petition, demanding that free storage of cars is the best use of public land, as it always has been. Why would staff prioritize my idea, why would the rest of Council prioritize it, just to make Patrick happy when there is no demonstration of public support? I know it is the right thing to do, most of Council may agree it is the right thing to do, but with no public support, why prioritize this now and face the backlash? Everyone is busy, there are a thousand things to do in crisis response, this simply isn’t a burning-enough issue while the room is on fire. A petition or a few dozen letters from concerned citizens who want a safe place for their kids to ride a bike may demonstrate that this isn’t a fantasy in one Councillor’s brain. it may demonstrate that the inevitable backlash is worth it.

Thing about representative democracy: in the end people are more likely to get what they ask for than what they assume should be. So use your voice.

#SaveTransit

There is a lot of bad news right now. Though we have reasons to be optimistic that BC will beat the curve, we cannot and should not ignore the fact people are suffering and people are dying. The disease is clearly worse than the cure. At the same time, many aspects of the cure are also causing significant stress and harm, and as health care professionals and disease researchers struggle to reduce the impact of the disease, we need everyone to be diligent about managing social distancing protocols and their impacts.

Today, my biggest concern is the Transit system. And it was apropos that this was the Google Doodle today:

Yes, small businesses are suffering. Many are closing, some not returning. Yes, some people are having a hard time meeting rent or mortgage payments. Yes, those who have been marginalized in our society – the precariously housed, people with disabilities, people with addiction – will suffer the most. All three orders of government are working to address these issues. There are also a lot of people working in previously-undervalued jobs who are keeping our society together. Grocery clerks, institutional cleaning staff, food processing and supply chain workers, truck drivers, warehouse staff, general labourers in any of the dozens of industries that are still operating. Many of them are being paid much less than a living wage.

Every day, despite an 80% drop in ridership, more than 75,000 people a day rely on TransLink to get them to their work, to shopping, to their appointments, and to do the things that are keeping our society operating.

Today it became clear that TransLink is in trouble, and those rides may go away as soon as next month. TransLink is losing $75M a month, and it will simply run out of cash to pay the salaries and the gas and electricity to run the system unless they get some kind of relief very soon. Unfortunately neither the provincial or federal governments have yet stepped up to provide that emergency relief, and are slow to commit that they will do anything.

The situation is dire for public transit systems across North America, but TransLink is somewhat unique. For a system its size, it relies more heavily (about 60%) on fare-box revenue than most in the North American context (most bus-based systems are around 40%). The other primary source of revenue – a regional gas tax – is also down more than 60%, while smaller revenue sources like the parking taxes are similarly vaporizing. Despite some ill-informed critique from anti-transit crusaders, TransLink runs a tight ship, so the reserves they are currently running on will not last much longer, and borrowing to run operations would be disastrous. The only option is an orderly deconstruction of the system unless emergency funds arrive.

The Federal Government has declared transit services essential, but they are not stepping up to fund it in an unprecedented emergency. Even the oft-absent US Federal government has committed $25Billion nation wide to keep transit systems afloat, including almost $500M for Sound Transit in Seattle, a system much smaller than we have in Greater Vancouver. TransLink is similarly not eligible for the Federal Wage Subsidy Program that is allowing Air Canada and WestJet to keep employees on the job. Senior Governments recognize that solvent airlines are an important part of keeping the economy rolling, and will be vital to recovery, but they have not yet demonstrated that they feel the same way about a public transit system like TransLink (which, I note, moved 5x the number of passengers last year than Air Canada).

This has come to a head right now, according to the Mayor’s Council, because a multi-modal integrated public transit system is a complicated thing. They are considering the need to scale back and reduce service right now, because a full scale-back will require several weeks. TransLink is currently burning through reserves, and will need to use those reserves to shut down and (eventually) to restart. They also note a re-start will take as long, or longer, than a shut down. In other words, if there is a serious deconstruction due to this liquidity crisis, it will take 4 to 8 weeks to get the system back up and running again once this is all over. And all this time, TransLink will not be earning enough revenue to fund the scale-up. It is crunch time.

It is bad enough to think that the people cleaning your hospitals, the people checking your groceries, the people putting your Amazon diaper order into the delivery truck, will not be able to get to work next month. It is worse to think that when this whole thing is over, the economic recovery will be dragged down by two months of not having a functional transit system in a major City. We cannot let this happen.

We need the Federal and Provincial Government to come to the Mayor’s Council immediately, and work out what value the transit system is providing to the community at this time, and the value it will bring to our eventual economic recovery, and they need to bring the money. Please connect with your MLA and your MP and spread the word that Transit is as vital to the operation of our City. Send them a short, respectful e-mail asking that they include public transit as one of the essential services that need their support right now.

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.