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.

Budget 2020!

This week in Council we are going to be talking about the Budget, and are asking people to once again provide us some feedback on budget issues. Providing this feedback is difficult for many people, or it is hard to understand how your feedback will be incorporated, because municipal finance is a little bit arcane. So I thought before the meeting, with the reports and tables on line here, I would give you a bit of a run-down of how the budget process works.

We have already had some lengthy discussions about the capital budget. This is the budget we use to pay for things like buildings and vehicles and computers. These are (mostly) one-time items, though most need periodic replacement, and (mostly) tangible objects, though we can use capital funds to fund planning for tangible objects, like hiring a consultant to develop an Urban Forest Strategy that will result in capital expenses to buy and maintain trees.

The City is required to balance its budget over a five-year financial plan, so when we talk about “Budget2020”, we are talking about an excerpt of the overall 2020-2024 Financial Plan. Following from this, our 2020 Capital Budget is part of a 5-year Capital Plan, which makes sense because most large infrastructure works cannot be planned, financed, completed and paid for in a single year.

Our draft budget has a 5-year capital plan to spend ~$468 Million on new buildings, infrastructure and equipment, with a some of that representing a few major projects: The ~$100M Canada Games Pool, $54M for a district energy utility, a ~$40M electrical substation in Queensborough, ~$17M to fix up the Massey Theatre, $20M in road paving, etc. This includes the Utility capital investments ($123M for Electrical, $50M for Sewer, $25M for water, and $1.6M for solid waste). In 2020, we are budgeting to spend ~$140 Million of that total.

The City has three options to pay for any capital expenditure: reserves, debt or revenue. Reserves are the monies we have in the bank, some to assure financial solvency, some earmarked specifically for projects, like the money we have put aside for the Canada Games Pool replacement. If there is a reserve fund appropriate for the spending we plan, then drawing from those reserves make sense, though we have to be cautious about drawing those accounts too low because they provide us some financial resiliency, and improve the rates we get from banks when we borrow. Borrowing to pay for infrastructure makes sense for a recreation centre much the way it makes sense to get a mortgage for your house: the people using it pay for its use while it is being used. We have a *lot* of debt room in the City as far as regulations and good financial planning are concerned, but we have to address the public tolerance to take on debt (through a public process when we take out loans), and of course manage the cost of borrowing. The third option is to draw from revenues in the year we have the expense, be those revenues in the form of a grant from senior government or through raising taxes. These both, of course, have limits.

The part of the annual budget that directly impacts your tax rates is the Operational Budget. It is from this budget that we pay staff and buy paper and diesel. Sometimes a pundit in town will chagrin “most of the City’s spending goes directly to salaries!”, to which my only retort is “Yeah, and?” The City provides services more than we build widgets. Widget ore is not as big and expense as delivery of those services, which are delivered by people, from lifeguards to librarians to police officers. Sure, we buy asphalt and pipes, and firefighters need firetrucks, but most of our budget is service delivered by people.


We spend most of the year operating the City based on the operating budget set in the previous spring. As the year goes along, staff, Council and the public identify places where the City can do things differently, where our service is not meeting demands, or where new services are being pondered. Some small things may get done as staff find space in their existing budget to make them happen (or stop doing other things to make the room). But some things are more costly or need more staff time to manage, so managers put forward an “enhancement request” – they ask for more money.

Part of the task of our senior management team is to review all of these enhancement requests, and decide what is reasonable and what isn’t, then set some priorities. Council is not directly involved in that process, but the priority-setting is based on a framework of Strategic Planning created by Council. One of the questions staff need to ask themselves and each other at this stage is – does this enhancement meet a strategic goal of the Council? Then ask if we can afford it. Which is where Council comes in.

Before these enhancement requests, the draft 2020 budget sees costs equaling a 3.9% tax increase already baked into our 5-year financial plan. These are things like increased debt servicing, annual salary increases, inflationary pressures and financing of earlier enhancement commitments already made by Council in previous budgets. Staff have brought forward new enhancement requests equaling just under another 2% of taxes. They then recommended that about half of these enhancements be included in the 2020 budget, and the other half deferred to a future year. This equals out to a draft 4.9% tax increase.

There is an interaction between the Capital and Operational budget. The interest we earn on our reserves is a revenue that is included in our operational budget, so draw those reserves down and we have less revenue. Similarly, the interest we pay on our loans is an operational expense. There is also an operational impact to many capital projects: the NWACC will cost money to heat and light, and will need to be staffed. It will also bring in revenues. Those numbers will be different for the NWACC as they are for the current CGP. These changes have to be budgeted towards.

Since we have a regulatory requirement to balance the budget at the end of the year, if we pull in more revenue (through taxes, charges for services like parking and permits, grants from senior governments, investment income, etc.) in a year than we spend (on salaries, supplies, grants, etc.) that extra money (“profit!”) goes into our reserves and helps offset future capital budget costs. The corollary to this, of course, is that a large capital budget requires us to raise taxes a bit to keep these reserves at a stable level and to pay debt servicing costs.

(I have almost completely skipped utilities in this discussion, I talked a bit about them, with fancy coloured diagrams to show how those work in this blog post from a couple of years ago)


So, this week Council will be asked in two meetings (Monday AND Tuesday nights) to review the budget, review the results of the public consultations that occurred around the budget, and provide one more public meeting where people can come and address council with their concerns regarding the budget. We will review the capital budget commitments for 2020, and will review the recommended and non-recommended enhancements. Council will then make recommendations on any changes, and staff will take those away and work on putting together the necessary Bylaws to make the budget a reality. By the end of the Tuesday special meeting, we should have a pretty good idea what our budget increase will look like for 2020, but looking at the reports, it will likely be something around 5%.

Two Bridges

A presser was called in New West this week to let people know that the design-build contract for the Pattullo Bridge replacement has been awarded, complete with a first rendering of what the bridge may look like. This is design-build, so expect that early renderings may be adjusted to accommodate the many competing demands and value engineering that the contractor will have to wrestle between now and ribbon cutting.

And then there are the political demands.

This conversation has gone on for a few years, but each new news cycle will require it to be told again. Such are our times. The City of New Westminster, the City of Surrey, and the TransLink (which was the responsible agency for the Pattullo) spent years doing planning and public consultation on the very question of what to do about the Pattullo. A quick scan of this blog finds that these conversations were happening back in 2011, and before I was elected I attended numerous public meetings, open houses, and community events (even dressed for the occasion on occasion).

At the end of that work, after all of those conversations in the impacted communities, an MOU was completed between the major stakeholders agreeing that a 4-lane bridge with appropriate ped/cycling connections was the appropriate structure to replace the aging Pattullo. Not everyone agreed, some wanted the bridge closed completely or moved, some wanted a 8-lane bridge and tunnel to Burnaby. If you look closely at the costume above, you will note it features a 3-lane refurbished Pattullo with a counter-flow middle lane, so there is my bias. Clearly, not everyone was going to be happy. As is usually the result if consultations are comprehensive and honest, the most reasonable result was settled upon.

The 4-lane bridge is the project upon which the Environmental Assessment and Indigenous Consultation were framed. It is the project that was taken to Treasury Board to fund, it is the project whose impacts were negotiated with the City at each end. It is the right size for the site, and it is the project that will be built. Re-negotiating those 8 years of consultation and planning now is ridiculous because nothing has changed in the principles that underlie that MOU.

Which brings me to this little news story. It is hard to tell where this is coming from, except for a zealous local reporter in Delta trying to put a local angle on a provincial news release. There is nothing new in this story, no new questions asked or answered, but a re-hashing of staff comments from 3 years ago.

With all due respect to the staff member quoted, those comments from early 2017 are now based on bad data, since the traffic impact issues raised were from before the removal of Port Mann tolls – which everyone in New West recognizes had a profound impact on Pattullo traffic. I have some data on that coming in a future post, but for now this is my (paraphrased) retort:

Of course, the Pattullo isn’t the only bridge Delta wants money poured into right now. The patently ridiculous 10-lane boondoggle project to replace the Massey Tunnel has been effectively shelved, but the province is currently reviewing other options. Unfortunately, the currently-leading option would be as expensive and no less boondoggley, doubling freeway car capacity to a low-density sprawling community that still resists the type of density or growth that would support more sustainable urban development, while somehow framing this entrenchment of motordom as a functioning part of a Climate Emergency response. This is a 1950s solution to a 1990s problem.

This is troubling climate denial, as Delta will certainly feel the impacts of climate change more than any community in the lower mainland, but I digress yet again.

The short news here is that Delta wants New West paved over and the people who live here to breathe their exhaust and walk near their speeding boxes. They also want the people of Richmond to pave over more farmland and have their community bisected by more freeway noise and disruption. If accomplished, they will (no doubt) be calling for the people of Vancouver to expand the already-congested Oak Street Bridge and the Granville Corridor and maybe a third crossing of the north arm because their suburban lifestyle demands it. And they want everyone else to pay for it, because tolls are “unfair”.

If this ode to motordom in the face of a Climate Emergency boggles your mind as much as it does mine, you can always let the provincial government know, because they are taking public comment on the Massey Tunnel Expansion Project right now. Go there, remain anonymous, and tell them what you think. I did.

Uber alles

I have tried to avoid the social media storm that is the long-awaited arrival of large, legal ride-hailing operations in Greater Vancouver. Though I think this tweet sums up my feelings at the end of the day yesterday:

And eventually, during a transit ride home that I drafted my subtweety response:

So, it is clear that I am not excited about the arrival of Uber and Lyft, despite the almost constant media saturation and lobbying pressure from Uber Spokesfolks (in contrast, I have not received a single letter, e-mail, or phone call, or invite for a meeting from the Taxi industry on this topic). My tweet lead to a few questions from people who have never connected with me on social media before. It was also referenced in a local Reddit comment thread, so I drafted up a Reddit response. Apparently multi-platforming is the hot thing in media today, so I figured I would re-draft the Reddit response for a blog here, without even taking time to edit out all the damn brackets, because who has time? Here we go!

In response to concerns that Uber or Lyft are not available today in New West (or Maple Ridge or Delta), I need to clarify that ride-hailing companies will decide what areas they want to serve. It should hardly be surprising to anyone that they are concentrating on areas already served well with transit – those are the areas where there is a density of users and destinations to support the business case of ride hailing. Because it is the same business case that supports Public Transit in the neo-liberal model of service delivery.

The regulations created by the provincial government are really clear: local governments cannot prevent operation of ride-hailing within their borders. They can regulate the service by requiring things like business licences and set conditions for pick-up/drop-off in their road and parking bylaws, but they can’t just say “no”. In this sense, the Mayor of Surrey (in my humble opinion) is blowing smoke. He could, I guess, create a regulatory and licencing regime that is so difficult to navigate that no-one bothers, but I seriously doubt he has the enforcement personnel to make that effective. I guess time will tell how that works out.

New West is working with regional partners to set up a regional business licence system for ride hailing, we talked about it back in November, and the best update I have is that staff in the many municipalities are still hammering out the details. Unfortunately, the sausage-making of making harmonized regulations work between all these jurisdictions is difficult, and they really couldn’t get started until the provincial regulatory regime was made clear. Such is government.

My understanding (and I stand to be corrected here) is that ride hailing companies licensed by the Passenger Transportation Board to operate in the Lower Mainland can operate in New Westminster (and Surrey and Coquitlam, etc.) right now. There will be a period of shake-down as they get their drivers organized, their service areas worked out, and local governments get the licencing requirements (and enforcement processes) organized. It’s a new world, and there is nothing unique about this as these kind of choppy launches occurred in every single jurisdiction where ride-hailing launched.

My personal opinions about Uber and Lyft have very little impact on this. As I mentioned, back in November, New West Council set out the framework for staff about how we feel ride-hailing should operate in New West. Some parts of it I agree with, some I don’t. My concerns about labour rights, environmental impacts, road safety, traffic impacts, transit system impacts, and neighbourhood livability are based on a *lot* of research about impacts of ride hailing in other jurisdictions. It has also proven in other jurisdictions that most of the promises of ride-hailing (cheaper! more convenient! fun!) are false, and the entire business model is propped up by massive financial losses. The system itself is not sustainable, which makes me wonder why we are rushing into embracing it (see “media saturation and lobbying effort” above). I trust urban transportation experts like Jerrett Walker on this more than I trust the well-oiled Uber/Lyft marketing machine. The Taxi system is not perfect, but I have gone on at length (note this piece from several years ago) about how it is actually the arcane regulation of the industry that makes it not work the way we might like. But that’s another rant, and times have changed since I wrote that piece. Not for the better.

But that said, my (Council) job is partly to advocate for things that make the community stronger and more sustainable, but it is equally to assure the City is runs as effectively and responsibly as possible. Ride-hailing is here, (some) people want it, the local government job is to work to reduce the inevitable externalities and make it work as best as possible in our community. Of course, one of those externalities is that this “cheap” transportation option is going to cause your property taxes to go up. Uber and Lyft don’t pay taxes to the City, and regulation and enforcement are not free.

You may not like Uber or Lyft, but due to powerful lobbying and a brilliant international viral marketing program, you will be paying for it.

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.

Bad measures

I try not to be one to rise to the bait.

In my role as an elected official, there are voices you are best to just ignore. Part of this is something I have talked about before around not punching down – an elected role is a bully pulpit, and it shouldn’t be used to ridicule people who have less access to information or less understanding of what my job actually is. There is also a second part, though, where disingenuous arguments are used by political opportunists – those who know better – but responding to them just throws attention toward them, and we enter some weird Streisand Effect peril.

This is the second one, and here I am rising to the bait, because someone who knows better is being very, very silly, and trying to make narrative out of it. He is doing this specifically because he knows that most people don’t recognize the flaw in his argument, but having worked in City Halls himself, he knows perfectly well how disingenuous he is being. Since he already has many platforms, I don’t mind calling him out.

When Daniel Fontaine started a blog to specifically criticize New Westminster Council, it wasn’t a surprise. The blog is a little light on content (hey, blogs are dead as a media!) but the hook is something he calls the “unanimeter”. This ostensibly measures how often New West Council votes unanimously on motions, apparently an effort to prove we are all one like mind.

Anyone who watches Council meetings, especially our (always free on video) afternoon workshops, can hear that we are rarely of one mind. But that is not the point I want to push back against. The inference in the Unanimeter is that if we had a few people like Daniel on Council, we would have more split votes, which would mean, in an underpants gnome type of causation, better democracy. But measuring split votes is based on a flawed understanding of how a City Council works.

Currently, Daniel has pegged the “Unanimeter” at 96%. We have, apparently, voted unanimously 96% of the time on motions brought to vote in 2019. I don’t know if this claim is true, as he doesn’t really provide back-up to this claim, and I’m not interested in doing his math for him. But more importantly, he also doesn’t provide any kind of “ideal” number, because he knows the idea underpinning this is ridiculous.

Does anyone think a Council that is always arguing (0% unanimous) is a better one? How many people on the Council have to vote against the majority for democracy to be served? One? Three? What exactly are we measuring here? 

Still, to the people Daniel is trying to misinform, 96% sounds bad. So I thought I would do a bit of my own math to see how bad that is compared to other (supposedly better, by the underlying conceit) councils.

For example, New Westminster has a School Board made up of 7 Trustees. Five of them ran together as a slate (full disclosure – with me!), one ran as an independent, and one ran on Daniel Fontaine’s team. They are, by all accounts, doing a great job. The School District is managing money well, building new infrastructure, and showing provincial leadership on some important issues. If these positive results are related to the diversity of representatives, and this can be measured by a Unanimeter, surely their Unanimeter would count lower than New West Council? I went through the publicly available minutes for SD40’s Board for 2019, and guess what? 96% unanimous votes. (numbers below).

But that is a School District, surely  City Council is a different animal? I went back to 2008 to look over the minutes of the most diverse Council for which New West has an online record. This Council was chaired by Mayor Wayne Wright, and included three “labour endorsed” City Councillors (Cote, Harper, and Williams). There were also three long-serving Councillors who were definitively NOT labour-endorsed: Calvin Donnelly, Bob Osterman and Betty MacIntosh (who is still a Facebook critic of everything this Council does). Going back through their minutes from 2008, how did this democracy-serving Council work? 96% unanimous votes. (numbers below).

To demonstrate why this is especially disingenuous coming from Daniel is that we can all remember he worked in Sam Sullivan’s office when Sam was the Mayor of Vancouver. Daniel helped the increasingly-unpopular NPA Mayor manage a Council of 5 NPA members, 4 Vision Vancouver members, and a COPE member. Luckily, their 2008 minutes are available online as well. Guess what? This fractious and oppositional Council made up of three parties with no love of each other and representing very different political alignments was unanimous 92% of the time. When you dig deeper into the minutes, you see most of the “defeated” votes were on amendments to motions that were subsequently approved unanimously by Council. If you adjust for this anomaly, the Unanimeter tips to 96% (numbers below).

Short version: The Unanaimeter is useless at measuring… the thing Daniel claims to be concerned about.

Now, there may be an argument that majority government is a bad idea, but if Daniel is making that argument, the Unanimeter is not supporting it. There may be an argument that this Council makes bad decisions, or that the voters made a big mistake when they gave the people who are on this Council more votes than they did to Daniel. I would like to hear Daniel make those arguments, because at least they will be based on something other than an ill-informed meme that only serves to misinform voters.

I’ve always been transparent about my decision-making on Council, and anyone is free to watch our meetings and ask Council questions. Part of the reason I do this blog (though blogs are a dead media!) is to help people be informed enough to engage meaningfully with Council. Sometimes people use this to call me on what they think is a bad decision on my part, or on the part of Council, and I encourage that. Sometimes I change my mind.

But what I won’t do is the easy thing – throw meaningless votes away to shift the numbers on a voter-insulting meme like the Unanimeter. It would be easy, and it would disarm Daniel, but it would be silly, and it would be disrespectful to the people I serve and the work the Council is doing.

Links to the sources are above, but here is my math, please check it! 

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!

Gross

There was a weird event in Council last week, following something that got a little media news on the TriCities, if not much mileage here in New West. This week, New West Council moved to take a piece of  correspondence out of closed, which means I am now able to talk about it. I should probably add that to this post one of my semi-regular caveats that this blog is my writing and contains some of my opinions and should not be construed to reflect the official position of the City or the opinion of anyone other than me.

The first point here is to clarify why City Councils have in camera, or “closed” meetings at all. There is certainly a broader collection of topics talked about in Closed than suggested in the news report linked above. Pretty much every Monday, Council has a closed meeting, usually just before the regular or “open” meeting. At those meetings we talk about things that fall under Section 90 of the Community Charter, which you can read here in its full breadth. This is the Provincial Law that governs how local government councils operate, and Section 90(1) list the reasons a council may discuss items in closed, where Section 90(2) talks about where council must keep the topic in camera – a not-unimportant distinction.

The topics typically discussed in closed are ones you might expect – real estate negotiations, human resources issues, advice from our lawyers, or involving information about a member of the public that is subject to the privacy protection provisions of FOIPPA but also many things beyond that involving security of the organization, procurement, negotiations with senior governments, financial planning, and more.

Of course, there is very little the City can do that remains secret – we eventually have to make an open decision before we spend money or adopt a bylaw, so most things discussed in closed eventually end up in open reports. When we buy or sell a piece of land for example, we operate those negotiations in closed (to assure we have a competitive relationship with the purchaser/seller), but the final purchase/sale agreement comes to an open meeting and is publicly voted upon. The line item of the price we pay also ends up in a financial report. Review of appointments to City Commissions and Advisory Committees or hiring of senior managers necessarily contain a significant amount of personal information about applicants, so that information is kept in closed, though the final decision of whom to appoint is brought to an open meeting.

The decision whether a subject can or must be discussed in closed usually happens long before Council even sees the Agenda, and the City Clerk (whose skills include an encyclopedic knowledge of the application of Section 90, and who gets advice from the City Solicitor if there are any doubts) usually makes the call, though there may be discussion with Council. It is important to note in this case that Section 90 also applies to Metro Vancouver Board and the committees within, and if necessary, communications from the City to Metro Vancouver about those boards.

It is not unusual for municipalities to communicate with each other about how regional boards operate. The City of New Westminster sends representatives to Metro Vancouver boards and committees, agencies like E-Comm, the Fraser Health Authority Advisory Council, Municipal Finance Authority, and others. It should be no surprise to anyone who follows New Westminster Council that we have been pretty proactive at seeking diversity in the representation on those boards, just as we have for our own advisory committees, and that has included some communications with other Cities to coordinate equity-seeking actions.

But this is something different, something much less positive, but concomitant with creating a respectful and safe workplace for all persons.

At the time that New Westminster wrote this letter, the Mayor of Port Moody was indicating that he was ready to come back to work at Port Moody Council, though it was unclear if the legal case against him had been resolved, or what that resolution entailed. This return to work was, to use the technical term, a shit show. Debate about whether he should have returned to work made clear that the only person with the power to prevent him from doing so was himself. His Council and the residents of his community were powerless to remove a person facing a serious criminal charge.

During this time, it was not reported that Mayor Vagramov also returned to work on Metro Vancouver committees. This resulted in the situation where other regional leaders, often including a member of the New Westminster Council, had to sit in committee meetings beside a person charged with sexual assault while the case was still before the courts. That is not an acceptable situation to me, and it is clear from the letter we wrote that this was not acceptable to the majority of New Westminster Council. Unlike his decision to return to his regular Council duties, he serves at Metro committee at the pleasure of his Council, and it is within that Council’s prerogative to remove him from that position until his legal situation was resolved. New Westminster appealed to Port Moody Council to exercise that prerogative, to assure that all members of our Council and Councils across the Lower Mainland are able to exercise their duties in a respectful and safe workplace.

Yet another gross part about this is that someone in Port Moody leaked this letter to the media before it was released from in camera, which is likely a violation of the Community Charter, but I’m not a lawyer. Why they did it is unclear, but it smells of shitty politics. Ultimately, it was fated to come out to the public sooner than later, but by jumping the gun the person who leaked the letter put many people, including me, in the difficult spot of having to say “no comment” to the media when asked about it, because for us to comment on it would itself be a violation of Section 90.

So New West Council lifted the resolution and letter from closed this week, allowing us to speak about it. But in many ways it speaks for itself.

This is a gross situation, and it is far from resolved. Vagramov has not been “exonerated” as he claimed, and the way he and his lawyer shrugged off the original accusations with the “awkward date” language further the ongoing patterns of victimizing and the accuser by robbing her of a voice. This is not an act of apology, and shows a profound lack of self-awareness,  of judgement, and of understanding of  a power imbalance being asserted.

That there is no way to remove him from his position of power is problematic, but that is not something we can do anything about, and need to ask the provincial government to make changes to the legislation. That my colleagues in New Westminster and across the region, some of whom may have been victims of sexual assault and have felt this case more personally than I have, will now have to choose between serving beside Vagramov on a Committee, or removing themselves from committees. He should not have the power to force others to make this choice, and they should not be the ones stepping aside.

The letter from New West Council was written at a time before this matter was “resolved” in Vargamov’s mind, but I do not think it is resolved in the minds of many people. I think it is still appropriate to call on his Council to remove him from Metro Committees, and I hope that the provincial government can finally bring in some legislation to address these issues when they arise.

Shaping our future

Expanding freeways doesn’t remove congestion.

This should not be a controversial statement. But somehow, urban planners, transit advocates, and climate activists still have to point this out to local government and provincial leaders, who have for the most part replied by saying some version of “Yeah, but this one is different”. Denial is an expensive vanity in light of the Climate Crisis.

The world around, growing cities have added capacity to congested road networks to find that the larger road networks are just as congested, and the surrounding areas made less livable because of that congestion. This is not conjecture or legend, it is a measurable certainty well established in the literature. Continued application of lanes has never, ever proven to solve the problem. I risk belaboring the point here, but if you need convincing, spend 5 minutes (or 5 hours!) Googling “The Fundamental Law of Road Congestion”, or your pick of paradoxes: Braess Paradox, Jevon’s Paradox, Downs–Thomson paradox. They all, from different angles, explain that adding road lanes makes congestion worse for everyone. Always.

So, taking those things as read, I don’t have to go into the myriad of reasons why the 10-lane bridge plan for the Massey crossing was a bad idea. As I may have mentioned in the past, it was an idea built on a foundation as shaky as Fraser Delta silt. This was obvious during the Environmental Assessment of that lamentable plan. It was found wanting, and required such a contraction of inferred impacts that it literally ignored traffic impacts 100m from the intersection pictured above. It was clear that the only benefit to building it was a political one in a riding held by an independent on the south side of the link. It was no surprise that when the political imperative went away, that half-baked mutli-billion dollar scheme needed to be cancelled.

Here we are two years later. A very-slightly-less-terrible option is being legitimately floated (immersed?), and the same arguments for expanded road capacity are being trotted out like they are long-held truths. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

I’m engaging in a bit of wrathful Patsplaining here because I have been banging this drum for a long time, as an advocate for sustainable transportation, as a professional who worked on the Environmental Assessment process of the previous 10-lane bridge proposal, and as an elected official expected to show leadership in my community. This project has been part of my life for almost a decade, and I lament we still have completely failed to address the underlying issues. After all of this time, the political conversation is no more truthful than it was almost a decade ago. Same as it ever was.

The plan to replace the Massey Tunnel with an 8-lane immersed tube is a bad one. Every bit as bad as the 10-lane bridge. Fundamentally wrong for all the same reasons as the bridge, such that they are effectively the same project. There is no defensible reason to oppose the big bridge and now support the big tunnel. To point: it is a massive waste of money that will not solve the problem it is alleged to solve, but will instead take away from efforts to address real crises in our region.

The current tunnel does not meet current seismic codes, that is not a point of debate. Like a shocking amount of our public infrastructure, even life-critical infrastructure, it was not built with a 21st century understanding of seismic risk. There is something very visceral about being one of the unfortunate dozens in the tunnel at the time of a major earthquake that does not have the same effect when we think about the dozens of schools, office buildings, bridges and other structures that are at risk, so this makes a compelling case for doing something. Upgrading or replacing a piece of infrastructure to meet current risk standards should be a priority, no argument there. We may quibble about where to prioritize a tunnel over, say, the 270 schools still on the “to do” list. However, to continue the unfortunate whataboutism of using schools as a comparison, building a much larger facility to accommodate future growth is a different discussion than whether we should replace or fix up a school. Seismic upgrades do not require doubling capacity.

If building more lanes doesn’t fix congestion, you may ask, what does? Experience from around the world tells us there are only two models to significantly reducing road congestion. The Detroit Model (massive economic collapse and depopulation) is probably something only a few fringy cranks want to promote and I want to be clear I disagree with this model for the Lower Mainland.  That leaves the Nordic Model: road pricing and serious investment in the alternatives. Invest in rapid expansion of rapid transit, and price the roads to pay for it. One will not work without the other, you need to do both. This combination is the only thing that we know will work, anyone telling you otherwise is lying. No government can claim to be progressive, to be addressing road congestion, or to be committed to climate action unless they are doing these two things.

Why do I care, here in New Westminster, and why should you care? I assert that aside from the Port Mann fiasco, this project will be the most important region-shaping project of our generation. More than SkyTrain to UBC or rapid transit to Fleetwood (and likely at much higher a cost), the expansion of road capacity and entrenchment of a Motordom-oriented development model South of the Fraser will define our region. And the current definition makes us look antiquated and negligent. The tunnel will not only shape our region in a less sustainable way, it will take away limited resources that can must be applied to sustainable transportation approaches if we can ever hope to reach our regional livability goals, or Paris climate targets. But who is going to stand up in our region, and show the leadership needed to push back against this bullshit-driven boondoggle?

Ask Pat: Pier Park overpass

Harvey asks—

What’s happening with the new Pier Park overpass. It was originally announced to be completed in the Fall 2019 but now it appears as if no work is being done.

The overpass at the foot of 6th Street will provide pedestrian and cycling access to the west side of Pier Park prior to the closure of the through-a-construction-site access currently provided, which needs to be closed because that construction site will spend more than a year being a hole in the ground. The idea is that there always needs to be a second access to the park to compliment the current 4th street overpass and elevator.

It was originally going to rely on an elevator for accessibility, like the 4th Street one, but our experience with that elevator has been infamously problematic, first with some design issues delaying opening, then with ongoing vandalism that puts the elevator out of service periodically. The ramp was seen as a better choice for the west side, giving people more and different options (for some people, long ramps are a barrier, for others, elevators are). There has also been a long-standing complaint at Pier Park that it lacks shady areas in the heat of summer, especially for kids to play. To meet accessibility guidelines for grades (less than 5%, with regular “landings”), the ramp must be quite long. By building a light, airy structure with a wide platform, the ramp also provides shade for a redesigned children’s playground that will be in the center of it.

Now to your question. The new overpass is a partnership between the City and the developer of that soon-to-be-a-hole-in-the-ground-before-it-can-be-rebuilt-into-a-permanent-park as one of the conditions of the rezoning. Early plans to have the overpass open in 2019 ran into some permitting problems between the developer and the railways. There are 4 rail companies that need to sign off on a new overpass spanning those lines. These four Purveyors of the National Enterprise have head corporate offices in Montreal, Calgary, San Francisco and Fort Worth and combined annual revenues just under $60 Billion, so getting them all to set aside a little time to sign off on a pre-approved design for a little ol’ overpass in New Westminster is sometimes a challenge. Arranging for a window of time to lift a span over their rail lines that doesn’t interfere with their operations or possible operations is also a challenge. Especially as their empowering legislation (the Rail Safety Act) essentially puts them in a power position more akin to the Jedi Council than than any level of government, never mind the power usually granted to publicly-traded multi-national corporations operating in our communities. This means these highly profitable corporate entities not only choose not pay property taxes for the lands used in our community, they are also not required to comply with noise or nuisance bylaws, or any laws that establish community standards. They are not even expected to pay for the basic infrastructure required to keep their operations in our community safe, instead passing those costs on to the local governments they don’t pay those taxes to. They even have their own armed police force operating inside our community with no accountability to local or provincial police oversight. So each and every one of them has veto power, and they rarely feel any specific rush to respond to requests from communities or third parties trying to make good things.

Didn’t see that rant coming did you? It’s been building up.

Anyway, the overpass will be built as soon as the developer and the railways can get their regulatory thing figured out, hopefully by the spring, and then the access to the west side of the park will be via the Parkade entrance at the foot of 6th Street, and probably 2 years later, the underground construction part of the development to the west of Pier Park will be done enough that pedestrian access at the west end can be re-established on the waterfront.