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Keep city councillors accountable to Vancouverites

The following opinion piece was published in the Vancouver Sun on May 15, 2017.

Not so fast. That’s my message to Vancouver city council, preparing to consider a measure next week that would shift responsibility from elected representatives and onto city staff for the making of potentially disruptive decisions affecting road use.

Vancouver happens to be one of the most densely populated, traffic-choked jurisdictions on the continent. The public these days has every right to be concerned about the adjustments that are being made continually to accommodate pedestrians and cyclists, transit-users, the disabled and motorists.

Yet, councillors are poised to consider a report Tuesday that seeks changes to the Street and Traffic Bylaw that would transfer important decisions into the hands of city engineers. Decisions such as removing traffic lanes or parking spaces to make room for wider sidewalks or bicycling infrastructure.

Vancouverites elect city representatives to oversee such matters for good reason. Councillors, unlike city staff, are directly accountable to members of the public. They know that, to remain in office, they must make decisions that reflect the views of their constituents.

Further, their decisions are open to public scrutiny, discussed and debated at open council meetings, not in cloistered back offices away from public scrutiny.

Vancouverites care deeply about how their city streets are used. Who can forget the fury of some Vancouverites several years ago over a city decision to block car access along Point Grey Road or the ire of business owners whenever adjustments are made along Commercial Drive, a popular and heavily used artery in Vancouver.

Even the smallest changes can damage business interests and greatly impact motorists trying to get to and from work. Indeed these days many motorists, undertaking necessary commutes, feel their needs are being forsaken in the interests of those who pedal to their destinations. And business owners are rightly riled when disruptions stemming from road improvements disrupt the running of their businesses.

Judgments about balancing the interests of these various groups, no matter how small the issue, should be in the hands of city councillors, not bureaucrats.

A city report to council is arguing that existing traffic-bylaw provisions need updating, to better reflect a modern era in which Vancouver is no longer as car-centric as it once was.

And, it asserts that it would be more efficient to allow city engineers to make their own decisions about small improvements to local streets rather than having to seek council approval, and the often messy public consultations that accompany these decisions. The report offers assurances that large-scale and controversial projects would continue to be directed to council.

Specifically, the bylaw amendments being sought would give the city engineer authority to reallocate public rights of way, divert motor traffic from streets and reroute transit routes onto different streets with TransLink support.

The problem, of course, is that in the current era no reallocations and diversions imposed on Vancouver’s heavily used streets and sidewalks are equally distributed in their implications for members of the community.

All such adjustments appropriately require the scrutiny of councillors who remain directly answerable to the cyclists, transit-users, pedestrians and motorists using the streets.

And problematically, the determination of which projects would be decided privately and which are significant enough to warrant councillor input would rest in the hands of the bureaucrats rather than folks who are publicly accountable.

What this change would mean is that Vision Vancouver members never again would have to publicly defend their decisions about creating bike lanes.

And this matter raises a further concern. If decision-making on transportation issues can be taken privately, in the interest of avoiding public scrutiny, will such a strategy be used elsewhere by the city?

I also believe that input from the public, especially during council deliberations, is a very necessary part of the decision-making process. This bylaw change seems to negate that fact entirely.

I firmly believe the buck stops with city council. When we start circumventing that process, we are in big trouble.

George Affleck is a Vancouver city councillor with the Non-Partisan Association.

Open Letter from Former NPA School Trustees

On October 17th, 2016, we publicly raised concerns about the work environment at the Vancouver School Board. Our concerns and other allegations of wrongdoing resulted in the commissioning of the Goldner Report, an internal Vancouver School Board report that an independent expert was retained to investigate and prepare as per School District #39 (Vancouver) Harassment in the Workplace Policy. On March 7th, the Vancouver School Board released the redacted confidential version of the report.

The School Board’s primary mandate is to facilitate the effective teaching and learning of students. As trustees, we always respected the sound advice and well-considered recommendations provided by our senior staff. Senior staff, the education experts whose expertise and experience are essential, need to have a healthy environment to ensure the proper functioning of the school district.

The Goldner Report confirms the public statement the former NPA School Trustees made in their October 17, 2016 release calling for action to end the toxic dysfunction at the Vancouver School Board. To question the validity of the report is not helpful in moving forward to ensuring that our education experts have a healthy place to work for the betterment of all students in Vancouver.

While the Goldner Report identifies and confirms the issue that we raised, WorkSafeBC, who has the broader mandate to make specific recommendations, still has to issue its report on bullying and harassment.

This has been a difficult time for all of us. We look forward to learning about the recommendations of the WorkSafeBC report and how they will be implemented for the good of the Vancouver School Board staff and all of the students.

Sincerely,

Fraser Ballantyne
Penny Noble
Christopher Richardson
Stacy Robertson

NPA Park Board Commissioners Standing Up for Safety at Community Centres

Vancouver Park Board Commissioners Casey Crawford, John Coupar and Sarah Kirby-Yung have called for a Special Park Board Meeting to address safety concerns related to the use of Park Board operated community centres as warming centres by the City of Vancouver.

Sarah Kirby-Yung will bring forward a motion in response to the concerns of parents regarding safe access to community centres used as warming shelters.

Commissioner Kirby-Yung says “We appreciate the need to provide additional cold weather shelter relief for those in need. At the same time, Park Board facilities and staff are there to provide recreation services, and safety for patrons has to come first.”

Commissioners are concerned that neither staff nor the facilities are equipped to support the homeless at this time while ensuring the community safe access to our facilities. “Parents are sounding the alarm and saying they no longer feel comfortable going to centres like Creekside Community Centre,” said Kirby-Yung.

The City shut down Creekside Community Centre as a warming centre immediately following the incident of a child being exposed to a used hypodermic needle. The West End Community Centre warming centre was shut January 11 in response to safety and security concerns from the community centre association.

NPA Commissioners are deeply concerned about the chronic and growing homeless issue in Vancouver. They are also committed to delivering on Park Board’s mandate and ensuring safe and comfortable use of community centres for Vancouver residents, including families, young children and seniors. The recent warming centre trial at community centres resulted in the dumping of needles and drug paraphernalia within public spaces.

The Special Park Board Meeting will be held this evening, January 12 at 7:00 pm at the Park Board office at 2099 Beach Avenue. Interested parties can speak by registering before 12:00 PM today, the day of the scheduled meeting.

Register to speak at http://vancouver.ca/your-government/speak-at-a-meeting.aspx or sign up by phoning the Park Board’s Meeting Information Line at 604-257-8158. You can also email your comments to pbcommissioners@vancouver.ca

Opinion: Vision’s spendthrift ways are making Vancouver more expensive

Okay, everyone, hold on to your party hats. It’s that time of the year again. No, I don’t mean your plans for New Year’s Eve. I mean the City of Vancouver’s annual operating and capital budget.

Yes, that’s right, the most under-reported, least-interesting, pre-Christmas financial juggernaut that has, in fact, become one of the many reasons Vancouver is so unaffordable and, if properly analyzed, would demonstrate clearly that Vision Vancouver and Mayor Gregor Robertson are short-sighted, out-of-control spendthrifts when it comes to managing your tax dollars.

I have voted against every single operating budget since being elected in 2011. People may say, “Well, George, you are just doing what opposition politicians do.” But no, that’s not the case. I understand the importance of social responsibility and the many issues Vancouverites hold dear, including how we might build, with partners, truly affordable housing.

But we can’t bankrupt the city in the process. We need to make balanced decisions.

Let me simply put the math on the table. Don’t be afraid. It won’t hurt (well, it won’t hurt much … bear with me).

This year, we will see one of the highest property tax increases in Vision’s eight-year reign of error: A 3.4-per-cent increase for residents, plus, averaged out, another 1.2 per cent increase in various fees, including water, sewer, and solid waste — the big three. That works out to a total tax increase of 4.6 per cent, more than twice the current rate of inflation.

If you look back a little over 10 years ago to 2005, the city’s Annual Financial Report (the only place you can find anything close to line item budget info from City Hall these days) shows that Vancouver taxpayers handed over a combined total of $622 million to the city in property taxes and related penalties and utility fees. That money paid for roughly 75 per cent of the city’s operating expenses.

Now, jump ahead 10 years to 2015 and look at those same four budget items: property taxes and utility fees (water, sewer and garbage). The total take is $937 million. Nearly a billion dollars to pay for roughly 75 per cent of the city’s operating expenses!

When you compare 2005 to 2015, it works out to a total revenue increase from property taxes and utility fees of $315 million. If you convert the 2005 numbers into today’s dollars, you will discover that it works out to a 30-per-cent increase in tax and fee revenue for the city in just 10 years.

Now, the mayor and Vision might argue that this revenue increase is justified because of population increase. This is patently untrue.

The population of Vancouver has only gone up by 10 per cent in the same 10-year period. This means revenue from property taxes and utility fees has outstripped population growth by a factor of three to one.

Sadly, amid all this talk about affordability — mostly related to the housing market — there is one thing that we as a city council can control: spending. But Vision has clearly not controlled spending and they show no interest in ever doing so.

With taxes and fees increasing 30 per cent over a 10-year period (or three times the rate of population growth), it has indisputably contributed to making Vancouver a far more expensive place to live than ever before.

So, on Dec. 13, when the vote comes down on the budget and I, as usual, vote against it, don’t mark it up to George just being George. No, we need to get our house in order at City Hall. For too long Vision has treated the taxpayers of Vancouver as complacent writers of blank cheques.

We can no longer accept this annual dip into our wallets with blank stares. Money matters. The buck-taking has to stop somewhere. And there is no better time than now, this year, maybe even today.

George Affleck is a Non-Partisan Association Vancouver city councillor.

Published in the Vancouver Sun on December 1, 2016

NPA Councillor Ball defends access to parking in West 10th Medical Precinct

Vancouver, B.C., October 31, 2016 – Vancouver City Councillor Elizabeth Ball will bring forward a motion to City Council on Wednesday November 2 at 9:30 am from the Seniors Advisory Committee regarding access to the West 10th Medical Precinct.

Councillor Ball says “Patients, caregivers and seniors with critical health care and treatment needs are begging that access to hugely important street parking remain available on West 10th Avenue behind Vancouver General Hospital.”

West 10th Avenue is home to the British Columbia Cancer Agency, the VGH Eye Care Centre, the Blusson Spinal Cord Centre, the Mary Pack Arthritis Centre and many other critical services.

The City is considering installing separated bike lines along this busy and much needed corridor that includes the entrance to VGH Emergency Care. The suggestion has been made that 77 much needed parking spaces will be removed, making life even more difficult for suffering patients.

Patients and caregivers are pleading for priority access on this busy stretch of road that is also the access road for delivery and services.

The entire NPA Caucus supports seniors’ needs in our community. Councillor Melissa De Genova will second the motion.

NPA Councillors disappointed by decision to politicize Vancouver neighbourhoods

Vancouver, B.C., October 19, 2016 – NPA Councillors are baffled by Vision Vancouver’s decision to assign two Councillors to each of Vancouver’s twenty-two neighbourhoods. Vancouver has an at-large system that allows voters to choose 10 Councillors citywide to represent them.

Councillor Melissa De Genova is concerned by the process and the lack of answers from the Mayor with regards to the way he chose individual Councillors for liaison positions. “Nothing about this process is fair and it is the neighbourhoods that lose out. This is Vision Vancouver’s attempt at a mini-ward system. At least with a ward system the electorate gets a choice. Today, Vision made that choice for Vancouver voters” said De Genova.

De Genova holds the opinion that this is politically motivated. “It might have been more fair if he had picked names from a hat. When I asked the Mayor what metrics he used to place Councillors, he admitted that there were none. He could have used highest votes and election data, or assigning Councillors with fewer responsibilities to a greater number of neighbourhoods or the most densely populated areas, instead he assigned a Vision Councillor to every neighbourhood.”

All three NPA Councillors voted against Vision Vancouver’s motion on January 20, 2016 to assign neighbourhood liaison positions to Councillors. “Vancouverites have voted firmly against Wards. This form of ward-lite as an early campaign exercise is both inefficient and confusing to the public” stated Councillor Elizabeth Ball.

“I stand by my opinion that we were elected to represent Vancouver at large. I will continue to do that and attend any specific residents’ needs whether I’m a liaison in that neighbourhood or not” Said Councillor George Affleck.

NPA Councillors are committed to representing all Vancouver residents equally and will continue to respond to correspondence, issues and concerns from Vancouver residents and voters citywide.

NPA School Trustees call on Minister of Education to end the dysfunction at the VSB

Delaying tactics and public criticism of the work of senior VSB staff by some trustees has made Board meetings and planning sessions “an intolerable, toxic place to be”: NPA School Trustees

Vancouver, B.C., October 17, 2016 – The Vancouver Non-Partisan Association (NPA) School Trustees are calling on the Minister of Education to release a Special Advisor’s Report and take action to end the toxic dysfunction at the Vancouver School Board (VSB). The current School Board, they say, is “a Board of inaction” that has failed to create a positive, respectful work environment for the District’s senior staff.

The NPA School Trustees note that the Minister has granted several extensions to the latest Special Advisor assigned to investigate the VSB: “We want the Minister to act, and to act now. It’s time to release the Special Advisor’s Report and take action to end the dysfunction at the Vancouver School Board.”

Setting aside the recent allegations of bullying and harassment currently being investigated by WorkSafeBC, the NPA School Trustees point to several examples of VSB trustees who have publicly challenged the professional work and recommendations of senior staff, simply because the recommendations did not conform to the political agenda of those trustees. Examples include:

•         Trustees attempting to delay action on the District’s longstanding enrolment realities by demanding that the Board wait for new census data to arrive, even though the historical evidence cited by senior staff clearly indicates that this data is not an effective tool for projecting student enrolment. This year, the District’s enrolment planning tools predicted student enrolment with a 99.95% accuracy.

•         Trustees who have claimed that the consultations surrounding the school closure process were not robust enough, even though District staff went above and beyond in following the Board’s detailed School Closure Policy – a policy drafted and voted into effect by previous Vision-dominated boards.

•         Trustees demanding a report on population projections from the City when every trustee knows full well that District staff already meet regularly with the City’s planning staff in order to gather information about future developments that may impact on school enrollment: Staff already have this information factored into their recommendations.

•         Trustees who have publicly suggested that the removal of the 95% capacity requirement by the Ministry of Education has somehow changed everything despite correspondence the Board has received directly from the Ministry which states that the same school seismic approval process will be followed as before. The previous process did not rely on the 95% utilization target, and several Vancouver schools that were below 95% capacity were approved for seismic upgrading.

•         Trustees who want to revisit the District’s Long Range Facilities Plan planning process despite that fact that none of the underlying fundamentals have changed.

“As trustees who respect the sound advice and well-considered recommendations provided by our senior staff, we (the NPA School Trustees) have found the delaying tactics of other trustees, and the public criticism of the work of senior staff, very difficult to watch. It has made our Board meetings and planning sessions an intolerable, toxic place to be. The current Board is a Board of inaction. The Board has not taken any meaningful steps in the past two years to address the pressing financial and seismic issues before it. Nor has the Board made any significant progress on many of the recommendations from last year’s Special Advisors report.

“Senior staff have found themselves having to deal with the disparate interests of the Board’s nine elected Trustees while also trying to deal with the interests of – and direction from – senior officials at the Ministry of Education. This has put our senior staff in an untenable, unworkable position for which there are few if any easy solutions. The senior staff we have lost were the education experts whose expertise and experience is essential to the proper functioning of the school district and to meeting the Board’s basic mandate, which is to facilitate the effective teaching and learning of students. The time for the Minister to act is now, for the good of our staff and our students.”

ICYMI – Listen to Stacy Robertson on this morning’s Jon McComb Show on CKNW:

 

Statement from NPA School Trustee Stacy Robertson on Forensic Audit of VSB

Statement from NPA School Trustee Stacy Robertson on Forensic Audit of VSB:

STACY ROBERTSON - NPA SCHOOL TRUSTEEThis morning, the Minister of Education announced that a “forensic audit and full review of the Vancouver School Board (VSB) is being launched by the Ministry of Education in the wake of the board’s refusal last night to pass a balanced budget.”

As disappointed as my NPA School Trustee colleagues and I are that the board failed in its duty to pass a balanced budget, we are nevertheless encouraged by the swift and measured response by the Minister.

My NPA School Trustee colleagues – Fraser Ballantyne, Penny Noble, and Christopher Richardson – and I agree that students are, and need to remain, our first priority. Read more