Written for Daily Hive Urbanized by Geoff Costeloe, a practicing lawyer and entrepreneur in Vancouver.
If you dare to endure a Vancouver City Council meeting, I’m sure you’ll encounter the same feelings of confusion, frustration, bewilderment, and disbelief that I do.
It is shocking that the chaos you hear is how a world-class city governs itself. But behind the confusing procedure and grandstanding is something more disturbing: the lack of vision for Vancouver’s future.
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In some ways, provincial and federal governments have it easy. Federal and provincial politicians campaign on competing visions, but aren’t expected to personally be involved in every nuance of that policy. They have large bureaucracies and ministers that do the detail work for them. For example, the prime minister sets the agenda, but isn’t involved in approving or rejecting each issue.
Municipal politics are different. We want a city council to set a broad agenda, but then also require them to adjudicate the details of every project. Councillors feel obligated to weigh in on where the shadows of a proposed building should fall on a specific time at a specific day. Focusing on these details inevitably causes councillors to lose the forest for the trees.
And don’t forget, being a city councillor is technically a part-time job.
In addition to the above, the hours and hours spent arguing over minutia plays into the hands of councillors whose purpose seems to be to obstruct, block, or delay any proposal they can.
This is bigger than one municipal issue, whether it is housing or homelessness. It is about how city council makes decisions and moves our city forward into the future.
Vancouver needs a city council that can focus on the big picture issues and not get bogged down in enforcing and litigating policies they have already passed. We need our elected leaders to be able to advance whatever vision they were elected on and not become judges of existing city ordinances.
The fix for this isn’t straightforward. Adopting an alternative meeting system is one possibility. Set a deadline for amendments to motions so that all councillors can arrive at council and know what they will be discussing and voting on.
The current system of sweeping, on-the-floor amendments is confusing and unfair to the public who are listening in, speakers who have volunteered their time to speak to issues at meetings, and even other councillors, who end up debating a motion that is completely different from the start of the meeting.
Another option: Limit the ability for councillors to refer matters back to staff for revisions and consultations.
Consultations with residents and advice from city staff is obviously a crucial part of moving any policy or motion forward. But all too often these requests are used to indefinitely delay motions, without the stigma of voting against them.
If a councillor does not like a proposal, motion, or project, they should vote against it and give reasons for doing so. There is such a thing as too much consultation, resulting in projects that are forever stuck in limbo or being perpetually adjusted (at city staff’s expense) even though there is no intention of city council making it a reality. This is a delicate balance that I don’t have a clear answer for, but it needs to be explored for the sake of the city staff, who seem to walk away from each meeting with more work than they had going in.
As for me, I would love to see a city council that embraced the strengths of this city and grew upon them. A focus on growing both the density and diversity of our neighbourhoods, growing our infrastructure and public transit options, and finding creative ways to work with business to grow opportunities would benefit current residents and encourage new ones to come here.
City council is slated to meet on Friday to have an emergency vote on measures to deal with the ongoing homelessness crisis. This could be an opportunity for city council to return its focus to big picture issues that our city desperately needs leadership on.
Unfortunately, if you listen in on a regular city council meeting, you would not know that any of those ideas are even on the radar for city councillors. It seems shadows remain the biggest challenge facing our city.