Tree loss & protection

A few years back when I was still complaining about the City’s lack of action on a Tree Bylaw, I pointed out the presence of a great beech trees on my street. This was one of three, gigantic, more than 100 years old, trunks more than a metre across. They provide so many benefits to the neighbourhood and the community: shade, noise abatement, wildlife habitat, storm water detention, cooling the air.

These three had “heritage” protection, so they were unlikely to be capriciously removed, but that limited protection was not afforded to most trees in the City. The vast majority were afforded almost no protection – if the landowner chose to remove them, she was good to go. A Bylaw was needed, and through the lengthy development of an Urban Forest Management Strategy, these newly-monikered “specimen trees” are protected from removal by short-term thinking.

I was shocked last week when a neighbour came over to complain to me that the City had allowed one of the three grand beech trees to be removed. “I thought there was a Bylaw!”

Alas, I wandered over to the property in question, and indeed one of the three is no more. No more than pile of alarmingly large slices of wood, as the arbourists were working on site clean-up. I noticed a Tree Removal Permit attached to the house, so clearly they got permission, but I felt the loss as much as my concerned neighbour. So I called up staff and we have had some discussions about this tree.

*I am trying to be careful here, because the homeowner who owned the tree did not do anything wrong, and I don’t want to cause them embarrassment or any kind of trouble, but a few people have asked me about the loss of this tree, and now there is a story in the Paper, so I felt like I needed to comment about it here. It will be difficult to tell the story without providing clues about the location, and I think people need to know the story of the loss of a community asset like this. So please, be respectful of the homeowner who – I’ll say it again – did nothing wrong here. If you feel the need to act out or speak up or react negatively, do it to me and Council, not them. Thanks.*

The story of this tree is that it was suffering from senescence, which is the technical way of saying it was dying of old age. I don’t want to get into the detailed description given by the arbourist, partly because I’m not an arbourist and may not clearly translate their terminology, and partly because there are probably FOIPPA issues in releasing a report provided to the City without passing it through the privacy protection filter.

The now-gone tree in 2011, looking pretty happy. (ripped from Google Street View, no permission requested)
The now-gone tree in 2011, looking pretty happy. (ripped from Google Street View, no permission requested)

Our efforts to look back are, fortunately, assisted by technology. Google Street View has photos both from 2011 and from 2016 on adjacent streets. The visible decline of the tree is obvious. It looked (again, to my untrained eye) healthy in 2011, but by 2016, the leaves are sparse and diminutive, many branches looking bare. There was quite a bit more evidence of decline in the arborist report, but there is no doubt this tree was not very happy.

The same tree in June, 2016, looking sparse and lob-sided at a time of year when it should be in fill bloom. (also ripped from Google Street View)
The same tree in June, 2016, looking sparse and lob-sided at a time of year when it should be in fill bloom. (also ripped from Google Street View)

The contributing factors to a tree like this entering full-plant senescence are usually multiple. Sometimes there is an attack by a pest, and the drought-like conditions we have experienced for a couple of summers probably hurt the resiliency of the tree. It is possible (I’m just speculating here) that poor pruning practice or damage to the roots for home improvements may have also been a factor, further reducing the ability of the tree to cope with declining productivity.

In the end, the things that made the tree so majestic – its great size and hulking branches – are the things that made it a “hazardous tree” once that decline began. The arbourist did not think this was a temporary setback, and that recovery was unlikely. what was more likely was continued decline until the branches started to collapse, potentially onto a building or person. The homeowner got a permit, had a tree health assessment done, and received permission to cut the tree down.

As this is a “specimen” size tree, and a hazardous one, Schedule A of the Bylaw indicates that the homeowner is required to replace the tree, and the City collects security to assure that replacement takes place. Of course, putting a new dogwood or birch sapling in the place does not really “replace” a 100+ year old giant like what was lost. It will be decades until the replacement starts to provide the mass of benefits that the old tree did. But even this replacement policy did not exist before the Bylaw.

Which bring me to the point – the Tree Protection Bylaw does not mean no trees will ever be removed again. What it means is that the City has applied measures (call it Red Tape if you are so inclined) to act as disincentives to the removal of trees, and to provide compensation to the community for trees lost. When it comes to private property, that is about as far as we can go as a City. It has proven to work in other jurisdictions, though.

The Bylaw is only one part of our Urban Forest Management Strategy, but it is an important part, and this fall Council will be taking a closer look at the Bylaw application to see where it can be strengthened, and where it needs to be relaxed to make it more functional for residents. If you have opinions one way or another, please send Mayor and Council an e-mail or letter.

The TransMountain Panel

For reasons probably not relevant to this discussion, I attended a couple of the “Trans MountainPipeline Expansion Project Ministerial Panel” public meetings in Burnaby and Vancouver.

For those who have not been keeping track, here is the TL;DR background condensed to a single run-on sentence:

An American tax-dodge scheme called Kinder Morgan bought a 50-year-old oil pipeline from Alberta to Burnaby, and now wants to replace and twin it, tripling capacity, and shipping mostly diluted bitumen for quick export via daily Aframax tankers berthing in Burrard Inlet, which previously would have required an Environmental Assessment, but the Harper Government changed the rules in 2012, giving an Oil and Gas Regulator/Booster in Calgary called the National Energy Board the ability to review and approve the project, which they unsurprisingly did in May 2016 despite significant local and First Nations pushback, causing the new Trudeau government to say “hold yer horses, Cowboys” and strike a new “ministerial” panel that will be doing further stakeholder, community, and first nations outreach to “seek additional views that could be relevant to the Government’s final decision on the project”, a panel whose validity is being questioned by many critics, as its Chair was, until recently, working with Kinder Morgan.

I went to the meetings as an observer, not a presenter, so this post is made up of my impressions of the presentations of others. You may not agree with them (me?), and although the public meetings are pretty much wrapped up now, you can still take part by sending your comments or filling out a questionnaire here.


The roundtable I attended in Burnaby took place in one of those familiar hotel convention rooms, all crystal chandeliers and pukey carpets, which was essentially empty for most of the day, with many more seats than participants. Right from the get-go, it was hard to determine what the actual plan for the day was.

The morning session was meant to feature “Environmental NGOs” (I counted three), with two later sessions featuring “Local Governments” (a total of four, including New Westminster, who were well represented by City staff). There was no fixed agenda, so there was no idea who was presenting when, and any member of the public was apparently able to sign up and get their time at the microphone after the pre-designated speakers were finished. There was a polite request that each of the speakers would have 5 minutes, but there was no timekeeping, and some presenters went on for better than a half an hour.

In her introductory remarks, the Chair instructed the audience that this was meant to be an “informal dialogue”. They appeared to have perfectly nailed in the “informal” part, but the dialogue was distinctly lacking. In three sessions totalling almost five hours, I can recall a single instance where a Panel Member asked a follow-up question of a presenter. Even when directly asked questions by presenters, the Panel members seemed unable (unwilling?) to answer, but more on that later.


The Vancouver event was crowded and went well into the night, where the lack of any formal organization led to the inevitable. There was a significant presence of the patchouli and gorp crowd that, as usual, had a frustratingly hard time keeping on topic. Concerns were expressed about everything from Site C to salmon farming to LNG. At one point, a gentleman came to the microphone cradling what was, apparently, a plastic doll swaddled in a blanket and finished his talk with a short a cappella folk song of sorts. Perhaps I missed the point. No, I’m almost positive I missed the point.

However, there were also several compelling arguments offered, including the failure of the NEB process to address significant concerns with this project, questions about the ability of the Federal Government to respond to a significant spill in the Canadian half of the Salish Sea (the risk of which will clearly increase if this project is approved), and questions about how Canada will meet its stated GHG emission goals if Oil/Tar/Bituminous Sands developments proceed at the pace outlined in the business case for this project. The one question hanging over the entire proceeding was clearly “Why?” How is accelerating the extraction of a non-renewable resource for rapid export in the “National Public Interest”?

It was the sparsely-attended Burnaby event that was actually more interesting. Mayor Corrigan of Burnaby, love him or hate him, can be a hell of an effective orator, and he was on his game this day. He spoke clearly without notes for about a half hour, and despite his reputation for, uh… being outspoken, he was respectful and calm for the length of talk. He started by talking about the history of the existing Trans Mountain pipeline, and how 50 years ago Burnaby consented to a cooperative-owned pipeline to supply the 5 refineries around the Burrard Inlet because of the important local jobs and domestic supply needs it represented. He also spoke of the history of Burnaby gifting Burnaby Mountain to the University, then buying large portions of it back 40 years later to protect the conservation area that had become so important to Burnaby and the region.


He went through how his Council and Staff evaluated the Kinder Morgan proposal to “twin” the pipeline, primarily for export, and in comparing the significant costs and limited  offsetting benefits, determined it was not in the interest of the City. They then learned about the National Energy Board, a non-elected body in Calgary made up of (mostly) former energy executives, who would be tasked with reviewing the project to determine if it was in the “national public interest.” They identified fairly quickly that there is no national plan to develop our hydrocarbon industries or to manage our non-renewable resources over the short or long term, making determination of how any project fit within something called the “national public interest” a very difficult thing to determine. At no point was there an explanation of what the “national public interest” was, nor a discussion of how one would measure it. For a Municipal Politician, whose job it is to plan and make those plans a reality, the complete lack of planning or even a clear definition of a goal, was shocking.

Further, going through the process with the National Energy Board, the City of Burnaby (along with most everyone else involved) soon discovered that the hearing process was cumbersome, chaotic, and lacking in some pretty fundamental protections that a formal hearing should have, such as the ability to cross-examine witnesses and test the evidence that has been presented to assure it was credible and had merit. In challenging the process, Burnaby discovered that Kinder Morgan’s legal fight was funded by a special surcharge on the pipeline use approved by the NEB, a source of funds not available to local governments and other stakeholders in the process, and that the NEB was not made up of a broad representation of citizens from across BC and Canada who can fairly evaluate what is reasonable to the general public, but are drawn from within the Oil and Gas industry and friends of the (at the time) oil-soaked federal government.

After discussing some of the technical and safety concerns the City of Burnaby has, and the inadequate responses to these risks provided in the “conditions” to the NEB approval, Corrigan compared these to the inferred benefits: maintaining some jobs in Alberta to accelerate the removal of harder- and harder-to-extract oil reserves so they can be exported faster for the benefit of a few multinationals,with little or no long-term evaluation of Canada’s long-term petroleum needs. Are the needs of future generations included in “the national public interest”?

He summed up by calling the Panel out for what they really are – a political body comprised of two former politicians and a former Deputy Minister – and the review for what it is – a political process to correct the fundamental flaws of the NEB process that Prime Minster Trudeau recognized prior to his election. In summary, the Mayor quoted the Prime Minister, stating “Government can grant permits, but it’s communities that grant permission.”

He then put a period on that point: “Well, we don’t.”

I was also fortunate to have heard Kai Nagata from the Dogwood Initiative ask some rather pointed questions to the Panel, for which he received respectful non-answers. To paraphrase heavily from my memory, the exchange went something like this:

Q: Who was invited to speak? Is there a list of which organizations were sent invitations? What efforts were taken to get the word out to impacted parties, so they can take time from their summer schedules to take part? Was there any vetting of the people who wished to take part?
A: There is no list. Everyone was invited. Anyone can speak.

Q: So you are taking anything from anyone. How are you vetting the information received? With no opportunity for cross-examinations, how are you assessing the strength of evidence? What measures are you taking to determine if the voices you are hearing represent a fair cross section of stakeholders, or the general public. What processes have you brought to weigh the evidence you have received, and where is that process explained?
A: We are here to listen, and we will produce a report summarizing what we hear.

Q: There does not appear to be any official recording or video of these hearings, nor does it appear that official transcripts are being produced. Some presenters have provided you written materials, how will the record of these hearings be entered in to the official record, and how with the public know what transpired here? What process exists to assure the public input is fairly reflected in the report you provide to the Minister, or that the written evidence you have received has been vetted for accuracy?
A: We are here to listen, and we are taking notes, there are no official transcripts.

Q: So with no formal process to solicit input or assure the presenters are representative of the community, no vetting of the information you hear, no process to determine the validity of evidence, and no official record of what transpires – how will this Panel, to quote the Prime Minister “restore public trust and confidence in Canada’s environmental assessment processes”?
A: Hrrm…

I don’t mean to come down hard on the Panel Members. They were hastily called up and thrown into a hastily assembled process, with a mandate that may appear simple, but suffers from a lack of definition or process. Their job is to report to the Minister with some ideas or impressions of whether this project, a narrowly defined pipeline delivering and extra 600,000 barrels a day of products to the Pacific Coast primarily for export through Burrard Inlet, is in the “National Public Interest.” Unfortunately, they have not been provided the tools to define, never mind measure, such an ethereal concept. This “informal” and apparently ad-hoc process is not going to get them any closer to that definition.

Nor will this process restore the public trust in the way the Prime Minister anticipated. The only question remaining is whether he has the political courage to stop this project based on this failure, because it has not moved him any closer to receiving a mandate to approve it.

on the commute.

The Ides of August was hellish for people trying to get home from work. It was a hot day by Vancouver standards, without much of a breeze, but the sweat on the brows was more caused by a series of incidents where cars unsuccessfully tried to share space with one another.helltraffic1

However, on a hot day like this, one incident causing delay often cascades into a series of other incidents as people become less patient, less rational, and the natural dehumanizing effects of being in a car get people treating everyone around them, the people they share a community with, like their mortal enemies for having the gall of trying to do the same thing they themselves are doing because aaaAAAARRGGH!


I commute by car, by transit, and by bike, depending on day, weather, schedule, and lifestyle factors. Yesterday, I was fortunate to have taken my bike into work, so my commute home was relatively stress free. I have to admit a bit of smugness enters the mind when you are relaxed on a bike, enjoying the weather, and pedaling softly by a long line of single-occupant cars, which almost offsets the self-hatred I suffer every time I am in the car, stuck in a line, and see some much happier person riding their bike past me. However, having been that person stuck in a car, stuck in traffic that I am also a part of, it never occurred to me to blame the person on the bike for my physical predicament, or my mental state.

So yesterday, I am riding east along Westminster Highway near the Nature Park during this traffic chaos when I see something new to me. I am exposed to Richmond Drivers on a daily basis, but this was a little over the top. There was a line of about six or seven cars just rolling down the bike lane. It is almost as if the drivers had decided that two lanes were not enough, and had, en masse, decided this is a three lane road, passing the vehicles stuck to their left. At some point, a group of about 4 were stopped at a light, and I rolled past them. This might have been a little untoward, but after all, it is a bike lane – no sharrows or bus stop or shared parking space or right turn lane ambiguity here, and I was on a bicycle.

This was too much for a guy in a 4th generation Camaro Convertible with the ginormous Polska Pride flag decal covering the the hood. He took the opportunity to suggest to me in no uncertain terms, that I should not be riding my bicycle “on the road”. I saw this as a great time to remind him that I was, in fact in a bike lane, as evidenced by the nearby signage, and that he, in fact was also in the bike lane, without a bike, so I may have been in the right here.

At this point, he started into a lengthy screed, which was about 40% profanity and about 60% Bruce Allen “reality check”, neither of which were probably appropriate for the 8 year old in the passenger seat to witness. The short version was that bicycle riders don’t buy insurance, they should not be on the road, and that I, although obviously homosexual, engage in unwholesome acts with my mother.

I rode away from him and his impotent rage, and generally enjoyed the rest of my ride home. I did so, however, once again wondering what it is about driving a car that dehumanizes us. Why do we behave in a line of cars like we never would in a line at a bank? Why do we feel a car allows us the threaten and intimidate other people, be they children or senior citizens, and yell racial and homohpbic epithets that we would never do at a public park, on the beach, at work or in a mall? Outside of actual war, is there any other group activity we volunteer to engage in where we so publicly and unabashedly hate the people we are surrounded by? Why do we even do it?

Also, what is this strange fascination with attempting to license bicycles like they are some sort of parallel with cars? As His Snobbiness (slightly profanely) reminds us: you don’t need a commercial pilot’s license to operate a car. Bicycles present pretty nearly no risk whatsoever to drivers, passengers, or public property, except for some risk of scuffing the paint on their car, for which ICBC will make the person at fault pay. Even if I did buy insurance attendant to the risk I present to third parties (which would surely cost a few dollars a year relative to the risk I pose when I shuffle down the road at 100km/h in 2,000lbs of steel), do I think Mr. Polska Camaro is suddenly going to see me as a legitimate sharer of road space and afford me respect?

Yet for some reason, otherwise seemingly rational public servants from Toronto to Vancouver suggest there is some problem with adults riding bicycles that licensing can somehow cure. They aren’t too sure what the problem is, and have a hard time tying this solution to it, but they need to be seen to be doing something about the bicycles, because people in bicycles are not angry enough.

Let’s all try to get along, folks. Autumn is nearly here.

Ask Pat: Pangaea?

Natasha asks—

Hi Pat,
I was told you are a geologist of sorts. My question is as follows:
Why is it believed that Pangaea is the only original continent? I understand that earth was essentially hit with “space water” which created our current ecosystem in that we can survive . Why though , was there only one super continent and not many different smaller continents ? Were there smaller continents that have been pushed below the “great blue” or do we not really truly know and it is all a wonderful hypothesis ?

A geology question! Sorry I took so long answering it. Indeed, I was a geologist of sorts at one point in my life. I even got paid for a few jobs with “geologist” in the job title, but telling rock stories is now more of a pastime. That doesn’t stop me from spending an inordinate amount of time taking pictures of my own finger pointing out interesting things in rock – like the Ophiomorpha above. But you asked about Pangaea.

Pangaea is the name geologists give to a “supercontinent” that existed about 175-300 million years ago. It is generally thought that during the early Mesozoic, pretty much all of the extant continental crust was pushed together into a single big piece, and (consequently) the rest of the planet was covered by a single huge ocean, Panthalassa. However, it likely wasn’t the only “supercontinent”, just the only one at the time. To understand the history, you need to understand a bit of Plate Tectonics.

Plate Tectonics is the unifying theory of geology. It is to geology what evolution through natural selection is to biology and atomic theory is to physical chemists. The answer to every geology question is tied back, somehow, to Plate Tectonics. This is the theory that the rigid crust that forms the surface of the earth is broken up into thin plates that slowly shift around due to complex dynamics of the underlying plastic/molten mantle. Plates move very slowly, measured in centimetres per year (about the pace that your fingernails grow!) but over millions of years, these small movements add up. At the edges of these plates is where (almost) all the action happens: colliding, mountain building, subduction at ocean trenches, volcanoes, earthquakes…

totally ripped off from Wikipedia
Source: totally ripped off from Wikipedia

The crust is made up of two main types: continental crust (which is older, thicker, and less dense, for chemistry reasons we don’t need to get into here) and oceanic crust (which is generally younger, thinner, and more dense). There is some mixing of the two types, and most plates are an amalgam of both types, due to all that along-the-edge action. Most of the time, continental crust is distributed about the globe, rather like it is today, but sometimes it all bunches up in big amalgams, known as supercontinents. I’m not really sure we know why, or how often this happens, but Plate Tectonics has only been the prevailing theory of the earth for about 50 years, so people much smarter than me are still working our some of the details!

Pangaea was the last time that we think all major pieces of continental crust were pushed together into more or less a single piece. They started to be assembled together around 300 Million years ago, and were pretty much broken up by about 175 Million years ago. I’m not sure if the dinosaurs even noticed, but the fact that early dinosaurs managed to populate what are all now spread-apart continents is one of the pieces of evidence that supports the theory.

Remember, though, the Earth is much older than that. We have dated hunks of continental crust to almost 4,000 Million years, and have evidence that something similar to plate tectonics has been occurring on earth for at least 3,500 Million years. Because all of the collisions and other action at the edges tend to mess up the record, the further back we go, the less certain we are. This is made even more complicated because the plants and animals that make up the compelling fossil evidence for Pangaea’s geography simply didn’t exist before ~600 Million years ago. That said, convincing reconstructions based on multiple lines of evidence have been developed of the supercontinent “Rodina” from 1,200-750 Million years ago, and “Protopangaea” at something like 2,500 Million years ago. There may have been three or four more. So Pangaea is the latest, but not the only.

The part of your question that doesn’t really fit the model of the Earth as a geologist would describe it is the inference that continents are “pushed below” the sea. For the most part, that doesn’t happen. When plates with continental crust collide, they get smushed together and create mountain ranges, like the Himalaya or the Alps. As they rise, they get eroded, and large rivers carry them off, one sand grind at a time, to the ocean, but that isn’t really the same thing as sinking. If a piece of continental crust collides with oceanic crust, you also get mountain building, and a bunch of volcanoes (think the west coast of Washington and Oregon), and you also get a subduction zone where oceanic crust gets pushed down into the mantle and melted. However, in those collisions, the less dense continental crust always stays on top. Very, very little of it is recycled back into the mantle.

Source: Geological Survey of Canada Open File 3309, 1998

Now onto the water. There are only two reasonable hypotheses for why earth has so much water: it was here all along, or it came later as the Earth was pounded by water-rich comets and asteroids at the end of the Late Heavy Bombardment (Maybe 3,600 Million years ago). Both are probably true, but more recent hydrogen isotope data suggests that most of our oceans’ water was here all along. This is because our water is isotopically similar to the trace amounts we find in other nearby bodies (Mars, Venus, the Moon) and less like that we find in comets that we have recently been able to measure, like Hale-Bopp and Churyumov–Gerasimenko (which the ESA landed a freaking probe on last year!).

That we have water in such abundance, and in all three phases, is a pretty fortunate situation for those of us who want to live a carbon-based life on this planet. This is either a much-too-convenient coincidence, or a banal observation, depending on your philosophical bent, but that has little to do with geology.

Council – August 8, 2016

We had a short “Special” council meeting this week. This is a meeting that isn’t on the regular schedule, but we had a few time-sensitive items that came up, and a meeting was convened.

It happens that earlier in the day, a quorum of Council attended the Rainbow Flag Raising at City Hall and Proclamation of Pride Week in New Westminster (New West Pride President Mike Tiney, acting Mayor Lorrie Williams, and the Godfather of New West Pride Vance McFadyen seen above at the ceremony). Then in the afternoon, we had the following less glamorous tasks:

Housekeeping Amendment to Zoning Bylaw to Allow Drug Stores (Pharmacies) in C-CD-3 and C-2L Districts
Almost all commercial-zoned properties in the city permit pharmacies. There are a couple of established commercial properties in Sapperton near RCH that do not, because of historic inconsistencies in how the area was developed. It so happens an existing and successful pharmacy in the area wants to move to a larger property which is one of those few not zoned to permit it.

A logical approach is to do a “housekeeping” amendment, updating the language of the two zones in Sapperton that do not permit pharmacies. That is, effectively, a rezoning, requiring a Public Hearing. Council approved this moving to the Public Hearing stage.

709 and 705 Cumberland Street: Proposed Consolidation and Development Variance Permit Application for Consolidated Parcel
This property near Canada Games Pool had an unprotected heritage house on it, and the owner decided to protect the house with a Heritage Revitalization Agreement in exchange for subdivision, which would allow more density and the building of a second house. Unfortunately, the conditions for protecting the heritage values of the original house were breached, meaning the terms of the HRA were not met. Therefore, the City has come to an agreement with the owner to reconsolidate the lots, effectively taking away the benefits the owner received through the HRA.

The new agreement will not need a Public Hearing, but there is an Opportunity to be Heard on the issue scheduled for the next Council Meeting on August 29. C’mon out and tell us what you think.

Arising form the first agenda item above, we had one Bylaw to address:

Zoning Amendment (Housekeeping) Bylaw No. 7862, 2016
As discussed above, this Bylaw to allow pharmacies in two commercial zoning designations in Sapperton was given first and second reading. There will be a Public Hearing on August 29, 2016. C’mon out and tell us what you think.

And with that, our special early august meeting was adjourned. Enjoy Pride everyone!

What do you do?

I’ve been at the City Councillor thing for a year and a half now, long enough that I have to stop referring to myself as “the new guy”. At some point, I have to stop blaming / giving credit to the previous Council for everything going wrong / right in the City. I suspect (hope?) the steep part of the learning curve is now behind me, and I start directing more of my learning towards the problems I want to see solved, the opportunities ahead. It is also long enough that I should be able to answer the simple question “What do you do?”

I have tried, over the last 18 months, to report out on this blog some of the mechanics of City Council, as it was my goal when running to open up the process a bit, and try to do a better job explaining the sometimes-incomprehensible decisions Council (and the City) make. Recognizing many in the City will disagree with any given decision made by Council, I wanted to at least provide enough information so that they know what they are disagreeing with, and not rely on the few very vocal boo-birds in town who assume a decision is bad only because this Council makes it.

However, this post isn’t about that, it is more about the actual day-to-day duties of a person you pay $40,000 a year (plus Vehicle Allowance!) to represent you, whether you voted for them or not. So here is my summary of the job.

*This is a good time for one of my disclaimers about how everything I write here is my opinion and my viewpoint, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the ideas or opinions of any other members of Council, who are, believe it or not, individual people with their own ideas and biases. Like the rest of this Blog, this is not the “official position” of the City or any entity other than myself.*

Council Meetings:
Council meeting days happen about every two weeks on average. In the spring and fall we meet more often, and we more time off in the summer and around Christmas. The schedule is flexible around work load and stat holiday schedules, but we have about 26-30 meetings a year.

Council meeting days are comprised of a Closed Meeting and an Open Meeting, only the latter of which you see on TV. About 10 times a year (the last meeting of most months), the Open Meeting is coupled with a Public Hearing. We also, at times, have Committee/Taskforce meetings (more on that below) and Council Workshops on these Mondays.

A long Council Monday can be 12 or more hours, with breaks for lunch and dinner. The portion you see on TV is only the Open Meeting and Public Hearing part. On any given meeting day I am at City hall at 9:00am, and typically wander home sometime between 9:00 and midnight.

Council Prep:
We cannot show up at Council Meetings unprepared to discuss the business of the day. Our schedule on Monday is typically pretty stuffed, and we cannot hope to learn enough about the issues on which we will be discussing during that time. On the Friday before the meeting we are delivered (electronically in my case) our “Council Package”. This contains the staff-prepared reports and background info we need to put discussions in context. The Package varies in length, but is typically about 1,000 pages when Closed and Open agenda items are combined.

My practice is to get take a glance at the Package for maybe an hour after I get home from work on Friday or first thing Saturday morning. This allows me to get an idea of what is on the agenda, to determine if it is a 700-page or a 2,000-page week, and to do a first pass over the topics being discussed. From that I can plan out my weekend to assure I have enough time put aside to review at the detail needed, and do any other research I might want to do in order to understand the issue. That is usually when I decide if I have time to do a bike ride on Sunday or attend a Saturday function.

Typically (and this varies quite a bit), I spend about 8 hours on Sunday reviewing the package and taking my notes. My notes form the backbone of the Blog I will eventually write about the week’s Council meeting, but more importantly they create a framework around which I organize my thoughts on the agenda items. This is an old trick from studying during my University years, but I find that if I write a summary of a topic I am trying to learn, it forces me to learn enough to summarize the important points, and to understand what questions I need to have answered yet. Often, you don’t know what you don’t know until you try to write it down.

I print those notes out, so you can see me at Council using my computer screen (where the agenda and reports that make up the Package are) and written notes, along with the extra papers that we receive on Council Day, typically supporting reports that weren’t available Friday, presentation materials, or other relevant documents. My desk is a mess.

Committees and Taskforces:
Like the rest of my colleagues, I serve on several Committees and Taskforces for Council. These each meet anywhere from once a month to once every second month. Most meetings are in the later afternoon, mid-week, after I get off my regular job, and meetings typically last about two hours. With my being on three taskforces and four committees, this adds up to an average of about one meeting a week during the busy months, but not many in the summer (except occasional exceptional meetings, like the Transportation Taskforce last week, and the ACTBiPed next week).

In these meetings, Council members, staff, and stakeholders work through issues, ideas, programs, or proposals, and (hopefully) provide guidance to Council to make better decisions. Prep for these meetings varies greatly, but rarely takes more than an hour. Follow-up on some of the issues that arise at these meetings, and some of the extraordinary meetings, tours or other activities involved with the work these committees are doing takes quite a bit more time.

Community Events: There are various types of community events, some you have to attend, like the Civic Dinner where we thank committee volunteers, some you attend to show support to organizations or people doing good work in the City, some you attend just because they are fun.

This is a challenge for any Councillor’s schedule. We get a lot of invitations, and cannot hope to attend everything. I try to be careful about stretching myself too thin, and end up missing a lot of events I really want to get to. I try to respond to every invitation and send a decline if I cannot make it, but scheduling is an ongoing challenge, as is managing my work and Council calendars while still finding some time to remind @MsNWimby that I exist. The job does not come with a social coordinator, and every calendar app I can find for my phone is worse than every other one. I’m still working on this part…

Constituent Services:
This is a big, but pretty loosely defined group of activities, and each Councillor can make their own decision about how they manage this, and how much time it takes. This is another part of the job that “expands to fill the space available to it”.

Sometimes, a person complains to you about potholes on their street, or the noise from their neighbor’s wind chimes. Sometimes they call you to ask for help with a business license issue, or to complain about a development in their neighbourhood. Sometimes people complain about unfair enforcement of a Bylaw, while others complain about lack of Bylaw enforcement. Some people just want to be heard and the problem acknowledged, some want you to fix things for them.

I try to take an approach to this based on a few principles. I am not there to help people get out of Bylaw requirements, to get their stuff pushed to the front of a line, or to help them get around a process that exists. I am really conscious that procedures and policy exist in government, and that we have professional staff working on directives from Council as translated through their management – they should not have to deal with an individual Councillor coming and telling them how to do their jobs. That said, if a resident or business owner feels that the process is unfair, or that they have received treatment form the City that is not in keeping with City policy or good customer service, I am happy to talk with management at the City and (this is important) get both sides of the story and figure out what went wrong.

It is a delicate balance. Sometimes my job is to help explain to a resident or business owner why things are so bureaucratic and irritating, and why the Bylaw is written or enforced the way it is. Sometimes staff do mess up, or processes are developed that don’t really work when put into practice, and someone needs to facilitate a better outcome for everyone. I don’t see my job as advocating for either party in a conflict like this, but as a mediator trying to figure out an outcome that works best for the City and the Residents. And occasionally the approach required is to work with the Mayor and Council at the executive level to fix a process or a system that is not working for the residents and businesses in the City. Deciding which of the three is the right course when hearing from a complainant is a tough job, and something I am still learning about and developing my skills at.

I receive dozens of e-mails a day and a few phone calls a week from residents or businesses in town. I try to respond to all of them. I fail.

When I first got elected, I dreamed I would answer them all promptly and personally, but reality has set in. Some (like the every-couple-of-day missives from the hateful racists at Immigration Watch) go directly to delete. Some I am just cc’d to, and am not the best person to answer, so I usually wait to see if a more appropriate person responds before chiming in. Some raise interesting and complex questions that I need to put a bit of thinking too before I respond. Some scroll off the first page, and I get back to them a week or two later and feel bad about not having responded right away. Some, I just don’t seem to have the time to keep track of.

So if you wrote me an e-mail, and I was slow to respond, please don’t take it personally, and don’t feel bad sending me a reminder e-mail. I will get back to you eventually. Unless your comments are full of hateful racism or other abusive language, in which case I’m likely to just ignore you and hope you go away. In that case, I guess, you can take it personally.

This other stuff:
Writing this Blog is, to me, a really important part of how I do this job. It takes a lot of time, and is almost always done after 10:00 on weekday nights. Summarizing a Council Report can take a couple of hours, depending on how many items on the week’s agenda require extended explanation. I find free time to write pieces like this wherever I can (in this case, I am sitting at one of the little desks on the Queen of Alberni crossing the Strait of Georgia while @MsNWimby enjoys the blue sky on the sun deck).

Tracking the local and regional media (including the social media) is also an important part of the job whose hours simply cannot be counted. Keeping track of the goings in the City, of the trends in the region, of Provincial and Federal politics as it relates to our City, is vital if we hope to make good decisions for the City. This includes a fair amount of general interest research, following great local sources like Price Tags, or global sources like StrongTowns along with reading great urban and economics leaders from Janette Sadik-Khan to Umair Haque.

Nothing in New West is new, we don’t have completely unique challenges, but the same challenges as other Cities and regions have had. Learning what from their successes and failures is the best way to train myself to make better decisions.

I have been at this for 18 months, and parts of it are getting easier. I am now better able to judge the amount of my Saturday and Sunday I need to spend reading my Package, more of the “background” in my Package is familiar to me, requiring less review. I have a better idea who in City Hall to call and get a question answered. The trade-off is the expanded time I spend doing that last part – the constant learning to empower myself to make better decisions and dream bigger about the future of the City.

Now if I can only get ahead of my e-mails and get my scheduling figured out…