Opinion: Big changes are coming to Vancouver City Hall

Oct 20 2022, 8:23 pm

So much has already been said about how the governing party of ABC Vancouver will address homelessness, mental health, addictions, crime and policing-related issues, and relief for Chinatown, along with their strategies for generating more housing.

But how will they operate? What will be different with the functionality and organization of the new makeup of Vancouver City Council? What will be their mantra for governing?

The outgoing Vancouver City Council is known for its dysfunction, with an independent mayor unable to steer policy without consistent allies, and a makeup of as many as six political parties at its peak — COPE, TEAM, NPA, Green, Forward Together, and OneCity — and at one point up to four independent councillors.

Come November 7, there will be zero independents, and the number of parties will be whittled down to just three — the super majority of eight ABC members, including the mayor and seven councillors, plus two Green Party councillors and a single OneCity councillor.

Expect to see the majority of eight ABC members in City Council be organized in a way that has not been seen in four years, since Vision Vancouver ended its decade-long rule.

Overall, there will likely be fewer member motions from the ABC majority compared to the previous pace of the outgoing City Council, which has been criticized for stretching City staffing resources thin and adding to financial costs through its unrestrained motions on just about anything and everything. Over 300 member motions were made by City Council over the last four years, an all-time record in the body’s modern history, and representing a 73% increase over the last City Council between 2014 and 2018, governed by Vision Vancouver.

These member motions consumed City Council’s time, with a good number of issues well beyond the municipal government’s jurisdiction.

For the new City Council, while their overall number of member motions will likely to be lower in the term, there could potentially be a higher rate of member motions early on in the term (November 2022 to 2023) to achieve a rewind on some of the controversial decisions made by the previous City Council, and to get the ball rolling as soon as possible on new major approaches and strategies under the clear mandate given by voters. For the same reason, the Vision Vancouver-led City Council recorded its most member motions in 2009, the first full year of their governance.

This new City Council will also have fewer members with training wheels on. Of the 11 members in the new makeup that will be sworn in next month, six are re-elected officials, including ABC’s Rebecca Bligh, Lisa Dominato, and Sarah Kirby-Yung.

In contrast, for the City Council that was sworn in on November 2018, only two of the 11 members were re-elected — Adriane Carr and Melissa De Genova. The rest of the body was mostly completely new to government, apart from Kennedy Stewart, who was previously the MP for Burnaby South, and Sarah Kirby-Yung and Michael Wiebe, who were previously Vancouver Park Board commissioners.

Early on in the term of the outgoing City Council, the body on one occasion even spent hours during a public meeting not only to debate on an issue under the jurisdiction of senior governments but also to craft the precise language of the motion that would merely have the end result of asking the Mayor to write a formal letter to senior governments.

Although there are five fresh faces in the body for the incoming City Council, including the Mayor, they are all under ABC, and are well-supported and advised by their re-elected councillors, and the very strong internal party organization and support systems, which currently includes an advisory transition team comprised of former Surrey mayor Dianne Watts, and former Vancouver city councillors and city managers.

Over the next four years, expect to see a high degree of internal party organization within ABC Vancouver for a united front in establishing positions, including proposing member motions, and voting on decisions. Organized chaos during City Council meetings is likely largely a thing of the past.

While this will most probably be a far more efficient City Council compared to the last one, Mayor-Elect Ken Sim says they will still be highly “accountable and transparent.”

“In business, you have to be accountable, because if you’re not, you’re out of business,” Sim told Daily Hive Urbanized on Tuesday, in his second interview with the publication following Saturday’s win.

“We talk about sustainability, and it’s more about caring for people, the environment, and looking for a longer term. We’re going to hold the city accountable for things that we want to get done, and we’re going to be incredibly empathetic to all of our residents of the city.”

To implement the party’s policies, Sim says there are currently no plans to completely overhaul Vancouver City Hall’s bureaucracy. Instead, he says they will focus on fixing the bureaucracy’s broken systems, and making sure the right City staff leaders are in the right place and with the right resources.

Shortly after being initially elected in 2008, Gregor Robertson’s Vision Vancouver overhauled the bureaucracy and aligned it with their new mantra of what a municipal government should be responsible for, starting with changes from the very top with the firing of longtime City manager Judy Rogers. It is believed that the purge of longtime City staff contributed to the 2011 Stanley Cup Riot, with a deficit in experienced City staff with “institutional memory” to flag the obvious warning signs of a poorly planned viewing event and the brewing trouble in the street crowds weeks leading up to the riot. All warning signs were missed or ignored, despite hosting the 2010 Olympic Winter Games just a year earlier.

“Right now, our view is that we have amazing people in the City of Vancouver. Some of our systems are broken, but we have great people working in the broken systems, and if we just fix the systems we’ll create a great environment for people to work in,” Sim told Daily Hive Urbanized in an exclusive interview on Sunday, in what was his first and only interview with media over the weekend after the election outcome.

“I’m very optimistic — when you have a strong mandate in City Council and the Mayor’s office, it can provide a lot of guidance and assurance to the people who are working at the City. We’re looking forward to that challenge and we’re excited about it.”

In the other important municipally-elected body of the Vancouver Park Board, expect the ABC party organization to be at work as well, initially with rewinding controversial policies made by the outgoing Park Board, and setting a new direction on improving regular maintenance and upkeep, and renewing aging community and recreational facilities more quickly.

Although ABC has control of the Park Board, Sim says there are currently no plans to bring back his early platform promise made in 2021 of abolishing its elected body of commissioners and transferring the responsibilities to City Council. A major hurdle with abolishing the Park Board is the need to seek the provincial government to change the Vancouver Charter. Instead, with the clear mandate of a super majority, they are now focused on fixing the Park Board.

“The goal has always been to have great vibrant parks that stand the test of time. There was a point in time when we were looking at getting rid of the elected Park Board. In Canada and United States, only Vancouver, Cultus Lake, and Minneapolis have an elected Park Board, so we know that it works everywhere else without it being an elected function,” said Sim.

“What has changed since last year is the parks have gotten a lot worse, the Vancouver Aquatic Centre saw a side of the building fall apart, and Kits Pool was effectively closed for much of the season… We determined that we would not get the time and attention to change the Vancouver Charter in order to change the elected status of the Park Board, so we decided to put a great group of individuals together who will roll up their sleeves and actually make our parks better. That is the current path that we are on.”

The ABC super majority controlling six of the seven Park Board commissioner seats has already signalled they will immediately direct Park Board staff to change the design of the Stanley Park Drive bike lane, in a configuration that allows for one bike lane and the pre-pandemic standard of two vehicle lanes to reduce congestion and improve accessibility.

“We have six amazing individuals who are elected and have a deep passion for the parks, and we’ve spoken with residents throughout our city to understand what they want,” he said.

“We’re excited about making our parks better, and that’s what we’re going to do. If not, then we’ll look at other options, but right now we’re focusing on making our parks amazing.”

Given that he has a business background, Vancouver residents can fully expect Sim and ABC to place economic development, investment attraction, and job creation on a far higher pedestal than previous administrations, especially the outgoing one.

The other part of the equation to improving affordability and livability in the city is bringing more and better employment opportunities to its residents and the wider Metro Vancouver region.

Sim says he will work to be an ambassador of Vancouver’s economic strengths in the tech sector, film and television production, and tourism.

“I think a big part of the Mayor’s role is to be a cheerleader for Vancouver in all the different industries, and selling Vancouver on the world stage and promoting the brand. We have an amazing brand that has not been promoted,” said Sim.

Sim already signalled his clear interest in executing this “cheerleader” approach from the top earlier this year, when he travelled to Austin, Texas in March to attend the South by Southwest (SXSW) conference.

Currently, Vancouver has not shown that these industries are a priority for the municipal government and its political leadership. It merely relies on the work of the underfunded Vancouver Economic Commission.

That is anything but the case for Toronto, which has, in recent years, made some inroads in shifting a growing proportion of the “Hollywood North” business eastward.

This past May, Toronto mayor John Tory led a delegation of 50 people from both the private and public sectors to meet major studio companies and executives in Los Angeles. The goal of “The Mayor’s Mission to Los Angeles” was to establish Toronto as a top filming destination, providing Los Angeles-based firms with updates on Toronto’s efforts to increase studio space, continue the growth of a diverse workforce, prioritize green production infrastructure, and promote tax credit stability. This was also the second trade mission Tory made to Hollywood since 2019.

All of these film and television production industry strengths that Toronto possesses also happen to be the same strengths that Vancouver has, if not even better. For instance, across Metro Vancouver, there are at least four major purpose-built film production campuses planned, with two facilities — both the largest in Canada — currently under construction. This is in addition to other new smaller production facilities, and the expansion of existing locations.

But Vancouver’s political leadership has not advertised this, nor has the current administration shown any interest in this topical area. Expect this to change over the next four years.

“We should be a big champion and touting our horn all over the world. Not only does it help our local industries get more investment into them, but it attracts talented people, and we need a lot of people to help us in all areas of our economy,” said Sim.

“We have the second biggest virtual/augmented reality tech sector on the planet, which very few people know about. We have an amazing ecosystem when it comes to blockchain and NFTs, and there are some obvious ones like film and television production and gaming.”

In a city with world-class affordability issues, but without any of the world-class perks, Sim and ABC will also work on making Vancouver more fun.

He says they will start with the basics of supporting the tourism and hospitality industry, and reforming the permitting system so that restaurants, bars, and entertainment businesses can open up quicker.

They will experiment with closing Gastown’s roads to establish a pedestrian-only and event-friendly corridor, but with the input of businesses, residents, and the operators of the parkade.

“We will experiment with it at first, and then when we work out all of the kinks, we will make it a car-free zone between May long weekend and Labour Day,” said Sim.

“It creates this great vibe where we have restaurants, patios, live music, artists, and events, and it makes the streets safer and supports our local businesses. We are giving people another way to have a great time in our city, both locals and tourists.”

He says ABC will also explore the possibility of doing the same type of car-free or car-lite transformation to the Granville Entertainment District.

And on the opposite end of focusing on the basics to make Vancouver more fun, Sim has stated ABC will support the potential First Nations-led bid to host the 2030 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games in Vancouver, but with the stipulation that the municipal government is not placed in a position of financial risk. The matter of the 2030 bid will likely be presented to the new City Council for a key decision before the end of this year.

Altogether, this amounts to the biggest directional change in the City of Vancouver in 14 years.

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