sunday! Sunday! SUNDAY!

I wrote a bit about this Surrey Fraser Docks coal issue a couple of months ago, but the issue (mostly, I think, due to the badger-like political ferocity of one James Crosty) keeps on rolling.

Several Municipalities up and down the Fraser have now taken, or are exploring, positions on this project, and even the Metro Vancouver Parks and Environment Committee discussed the issue at their last meeting. Coal terminals seem to be in the spotlight right now, with Port Metro Vancouver once again serving as whipping boy in the political discussion.

The Port might be getting concerned, as I was one of those randomly selected folk to take part in a phone survey “to determine local opinions about transportation issues in your community”. The survey was a short one, but had a couple of themes (with a short version of my answers):

What is the most important issue in your community? (Transportation)

Do you know much about Port Metro Vancouver? (yes, more than any healthy person should)

Do you believe international trade is important to your community? (a question so ambiguous, it is hard to answer)

Do you trust communications you receive from the Port? (This was an interesting one. I had to answer “yes”, as I don’t think the Port management are dishonest or secretive – I think they are misguided and irresponsible. They have not made it a secret that they want to turn ALR land into industrial land, or that they will continue to profit from an expanding hydrocarbon export business and will consider Climate Change impacts as somebody else’s problem)

Do you know about the Surrey Fraser Docks plan to move coal? (yes, see above)

Do you agree with moving commodities like coal and oil through our ports? (problem here’s is the use of the phrase “commodities like”. I support the moving of grain through our ports, grain is a commodity, is moved in bulk, and comprises mostly hydrocarbons – is that “like” Coal? I do not support the moving of coal for the reasons I outlined in my February post, and I determined this is really a question about coal, and answered no)

Be sure to look out for the results of this survey, as I have heard through Twitter that many people who have strong opinions on this project were asked to respond.

And if you were NOT called, but want to voice your opinion about the Coal Terminal proposal in Surrey, or even about the ethics of British Columbia ramping up coal production and export at the same time that atmospheric carbon dioxide is approaching 400ppm, you have an opportunity this Sunday.

I encourage you to drop by and learn where the conversation is going on this topic:

The Wal-Mart enigma.

I work for a City, and I serve on some civic committees and volunteer for a few not-for-profits, so I go to a lot of meetings.

Yes, some of those meetings can be crushingly dull, but most are interesting and informative and productive (otherwise, I don’t stick with the organization too long – I bore easily). Occasionally, there are great moments that could not be repeated in any other setting.

An example happened a few days ago, and I will spare the who-what-where details to protect the innocent. There was a consultant talking on some arcane (but pertinent to the meeting) operation of the free market to a (in her perception) less-informed member of the committee. Everything below is paraphrased from my memory:

Consultant: “Let me give you an example- you shop at Wal-Mart, right?”

Citizen: “No. I don’t”

Consultant (after brief pause to re-group, addresses crowd of ~20): “How many people here shop at Wal-Mart?”

Crowd:      [crickets]
       [snickers]        
       [one hand goes up]

Consultant (long pregnant pause): “Ok, people shop at Wal-Mart, right, and…”

It was funny because the consultant clearly didn’t know the crowd.

This was a group of hyper-engaged citizens, most of them (like the person who said “No, I don’t”) were taking time out of their busy day to take part in a public consultation for no reward, just to take a small role in making the City a better place. Some actually had to book time off work and (in my case) re-schedule some deferred time off to take part. We were not there because we were paid, or even for the free cookies. We were there because we give a shit about our community.

Now I recognize that many people shop at Wal-Mart, and this is not about judging them. The majority of the population may, I really don’t care to know the statistics. But in that room full of people who value their community enough that they invest their “free” time and their income into making it a better place? Wal-Mart is for the most part not part of that equation. Frankly, we would rather pay a few pennies more for (or buy a few fewer) socks or bags of nails or lawn furniture knowing that the marginal difference is more likely to be re-invested in our local community, through better wages, local sourcing, or non-predatory pricing policies.

Of course, if she said “Costco”, she might have got a different result. I don’t shop there, but it seems that Costco unfairly avoids the local-retail-crushing non-sustainable-consumption community-killing reputation that Wal-Mart carries. And apparently Target will also avoid that fate, based on the conversations I have heard in reference to potential Uptown tenants. I wonder why that is.

Even a dull meeting can bring moments of insight, and new questions to ask.

Off to the Races

Today the writ has dropped. We are off to the races.

This event has much less meaning than it used to. Back when elections could be called on any day convenient to the Majority, this represented the true start of a civilised and tolerable 28-day election period.

We no longer live in those more-civilized times.

Our elections are now drawn-out American-style affairs where everyone can see them coming years in advance and every decision made by government is based on their fixed timing. This campaign has been the longest in BC history, really starting 25 months ago when Christy Clark won the leadership of the BC Liberals, or maybe 2½ months later when she won her By-election. Hard to pick a specific start date, but we have been bombarded with campaigning and advertising for more than a year. The lawn signs and campaign finance disclosures starting tomorrow are really just a new phase.

“Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning”.
              – Premier Clark

The worst part is that we have had to endure a year of a government who is campaigning instead of governing, and the next damn government is going to do the same thing. The fact the Liberals have spend the last 6 months asking the opposition to disclose their election platform shows that they have failed to understand the role of government vs. opposition outside of the 28-day campaign period…

…wait, I’m going off on a rant here, and that was not the point of this post.

The point of this post is to talk about how elections impact community. New Westminster is in many ways a small town, and this is even more apparent at election time. Our concerns are often local, the same familiar voices pop up – you will likely see Dave Brett helping at the Queen’s Park All-Candidate event, and me helping out at the NWEP one, and people will flood to Tenth to the Fraser to get the best local on-line coverage. We know Bill Zander will have something to say at a Public Meeting, and Ted Eddy will write a letter to the Paper before this is done. Often, the same issues come to the surface, and we know where many people stand on those issues, and we know the grudges people have. Grudges are easy to hold, hard to move past.

However, 29 days from now, we are all going to have to keep living here in the same small community, the “winners” and the “losers” together. How we conduct ourselves in the next 28 days is going to frame how we work together to keep building this community that we all care enough about to go through this.

Going into this election, we have a great field of local candidates. I have had the opportunity over the last few months to have lengthy sit-down conversations with three of the four declared candidates. I feel confident that any of them would represent New Westminster well in Victoria. They are all approachable, honest, and good listeners. Their ideas vary somewhat, but I get the sense they all have the best interests of New Westminster and BC in mind, and that they want to serve this community for the right reasons. A “bad” result for New Westminster on May 14th is pretty unlikely. It doesn’t have to be divisive – elections can be about bringing people together.

The only “bad” result will be if we spend the next 4 weeks talking about what divides us (“Socialists” vs. “Free Enterprise”), instead of talking about what we all aspire towards, and how our plans to get there differ. The political system, representative democracy itself, is just a tool that allows us to set collective priorities and pool our resources towards achieving popular goals. We know we disagree on the pathway (that’s why we have elections) but we all share the same goal – a safe, prosperous, livable community.

The politics itself should never be the goal. If it is, you are doing it wrong. Argument for argument sake is part of the reason people become cynical about the process.

I know who is getting my vote this time. As someone at a recent political event (and self-confessed “Angry Young Tweeter”) reminded me, no-one is 100% sure until they write on the ballot; so with that in mind I will declare myself 95% certain. I plan to attend events and hear all of the candidates speak, and I hope I can have meaningful dialogues with each candidate to see where our ideas merge or diverge. I am even helping organize an All-Candidates event, one that will hopefully attract a diverse crowd to meet the Candidates. But I don’t think I am going to “declare” who I am voting for right now. I might blog about it before the end of it all, but for now, we’ll hold onto the secret ballot. That said, my regular readers probably know who I am supporting, and you might see a bag sign in my front yard before its all over (if Ms.NWimby will let me).

More important, I want to keep the lines of conversation to all candidates open. For good reason: In a “small town” like New Westminster, politics can be personal, but campaigning shouldn’t be. Political disagreement for me has always represented the start of the discussion, not the end.

Just look at James Crosty. We spar quite a bit on twitter, call each other names and ridicule the hell out of each other’s opinions or ideas. He is usually wrong, of course, but so am I. Neither of us have very good grammar. Yet we always seem to laugh at ourselves as much as at each other, and none of this disagreement has prevented us from shaking hands, sharing a conversation or a beer. I consider James a friend, and even when I disagree with him, I perceive that his only interest is in making his community a better place. We have the same goal, we just see different pathways towards it, and that is what makes our conversations fun. I learn from James, and I hope he learns from me, even if only by cautionary example!

In contrast, I was at an event recently where one of the campaign workers (not, I hasten to add, the Candidate) asked me if I would sign the Candidate’s nominations papers. I said “sure”, and she confirmed I was an eligible voter and lived in New Westminster (-all good-) or if I had signed anyone else’s papers (-uh oh…). You see, a few weeks previous, I had signed the nomination papers for another candidate running locally. The campaign worker’s reaction was like I had spit in her face: a mix of incredulity and disgust. I tried to explain that the person whose forms I signed was good person, running for the right reasons, honest, etc. etc. The campaign worker left in a huff and sent me dagger-eyes for the rest of the event.

It occurred to me afterwards that she should have immediately identified me as a “soft supporter” (I was at her candidate’s event, after all) and turned the charm on to make me feel welcome and important, and try to convince me the merits of her candidate. Instead, she made me feel like an outsider who should be treated with suspicion. Clearly, she did not feel the same about community and politics as I do. Or maybe she just cared more abut the path than the destination. I don’t think she lived in New Westminster.

So I am calling on Candidates, Pundits, Twitterers and Trolls to try to keep it above the belt, try to hold on to your sense of humour. You can take the issues seriously without taking yourself too seriously. The more voters we can get to polls from all sides, the more included people will be, and the stronger a community we build.

I hope to see many of you on May 4th for a real community-building all-candidates event.Then i hope you all vote.

Envision 2032 Survey

Some of you may remember the Envision2032 event that took place last November.

It was a two day event where Day 1 included a collection of inspiring and informative talks on the topic of Sustainability, and one random blovator rambling on about Richard Nixon or something.

Day 2 was a more interactive event, where people talked in round-tables about a variety of topic areas, and described how a sustainable community looked to them. This was the first step in a longer process being run by the City’s Planning Department to develop a community sustainability framework.

As described by Mark Allison, Senior Planner for the City, the sustainability framework that will result from this process, “Envision 2032”, will create a “lens” through which future plans, policies, practices and projects will be viewed. This will become a major guiding document that will impact, potentially, every decision made in the City for the decades to come, so it is, uh, kind of important that we get it right.

Coming out of that initial kick-off and early consultations, the City has now developed some draft “Description of Success” (DoS) statements. These are broad, visioning statements the essentially answer the question: what are the characteristics of a sustainable community?

The City is now asking stakeholders (and if you live or work in New Westminster, that means you) to review and comment upon those DoS statements. And to do so, they have set up a Survey Monkey survey, which you can access here:    www.surveymonkey.com/s/envision2032DoS

You only have until March 31st to fill those surveys in, so please go to it soon!

Note the survey is broken up into 11 policy areas, some will no doubt be more interesting and important to you than others, so don’t feel you need to delve too deeply into every single one. If you are a wonk like me, you might want to spend a few hours deliberating over this stuff, but if you just want to be heard, pick and choose the parts where you think you can contribute. As you will see, you could spend hours doing this survey, or be out of there in 10 minutes. It’s up to you.

Rather like people who say “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain about who wins”, I say if you do not take a bit of time early on in a processes like this, you have lost some of your argument when you then whinge about the results of the process. Blanket disagreement with the statements is a valid form of comment, but it might be more useful if you actually take the time to describe better statements, or point out where the statements are flawed. Of course, if you agree with them, then also say so! Remember, democracy is when decisions by people who bother to show up.

Rarely, for me, I am going to reserve my comments until the survey period is over, so as to not poison the well. I suspect if you bother to read my blog (Hi Mom!) you either agree with me, or strongly disagree with me on these topics, so why would I try to change your mind, or give you fuel for the fire (respectively) prior to your going over to the survey and completing it yourself?

In the meantime, I have already done my survey, but will provide a bit of more informed opinion here after the 31st, and after I do a bit more research:

Damn

UPDATE: I was just informed there will be a brief memorial at 2:00pm on Tuesday at the Queens Park bandshell, moving to the Rose Garden. My work commitments keep me from attending, but I do hope some New Westminster folks who care babout pedestrian safety will show up. It’s not about politics, or blame, it is about showing Gemma’s family that we as a community recognize the tragedy and want to do better…

This sucks.

I hate reading about this kind of thing. It makes me sad, it makes me angry, it frustrates me.

Putting a face to the name, recognizing Gemma Snowball as a young Australian woman who worked for a couple of local businesses makes it a little more personal. It’s not like I knew her name or shared any relationship more than being two people living in the same community, but just having interacted with her, recognizing her as a human being, and not just another nameless accident victim, it hits you a little harder.

It shouldn’t, though. Every person killed in what Newz Radio euphemistically calls an “incident involving a pedestrian” is a person, they were humans with families and jobs and futures and stories. Even if we didn’t have a chance to know them. Instincts deeply rooted in our evolution as tribal animals make deaths in our community more important than ones farther away, deaths of people we share a language and skin colour with more important than those whose cultures we don’t understand, people we have met more important than those we haven’t. One of those vestigial bits of human nature we would be best to get past.

My connection to this also comes from another direction, though. Serving on the City’s Advisory Committee on Transit, Bicycles and Pedestrians and the Master Transportation Committee, and being an outspoken advocate for improving pedestrian safety in New Westminster, I spend a lot of time talking with other (better informed and more effective) advocates for safe pedestrian environments, like Mary Wilson and Marion Orser and Bruce Warren. When we discuss the need for better traffic control, reduced speed limits, better lighting and pedestrian protection, better crosswalks, we often feel we are in our little bubble speaking to the wall.

We aren’t speaking to the wall, though. The City is making positive changes. We have a Pedestrian Charter, although fulfilling its vision seems a glacially slow process at times. Small changes are happening all the time: improved lighting or signals here, a new crosswalk there. Planning at every level in the City is doing a better job acknowledging the needs of pedestrians instead of just suffering their existence. The movement is slow, but those of us who spend our free time working on this stuff can see that we moving in the right direction, otherwise, why would we bother?.

Then something like this happens, and you shake your head and wonder if we are moving fast enough. In the priorities of “needs” a City strapped for resources has: firefighters and keeping the sewers running, plugging potholes and aiding the homeless, maintaining a vibrant community spirit and protecting people from crime, where do we stick “Pedestrian Safety” on the list?

The good news is that the pedestrian space in New Westminster is relatively safe. For a City with 400,000+ cars and trucks a day driving through, pedestrian deaths are uncommon: one in each of 2009 and 2010, none at all in 2011 or 2012. Maybe we have been lucky, dodging bullets, as MetroVancouver averages just under 20 pedestrian deaths a year. Even more depressing, the majority of automobile-related deaths in Vancouver are pedestrians – not cyclists, not drivers or passengers, certainly not Transit users, but people on foot.

The reality is that accidents happen. We don’t yet know the details of this incident. We know it was dark and rainy and the media reported the driver was making a left turn, which is clearly illegal at that intersection. Maybe it was an honest mistake by the driver; maybe it was intentional… a “victimless crime” if there was no cross traffic. But this time there was cross traffic. Maybe Gemma wasn’t as cautious as she could have been crossing the street at night, rushing to catch the bus on a rainy night after a long shift at work.

We may never know the combination of bad decisions made in a split second that resulted in one dead woman, and a driver whose life has now been tragically altered.

We don’t know the details, and I don’t know the solution. Maybe the built infrastructure had nothing to do with it – a freak combination of events that could not be avoided. But like many others, I can’t see an event like this and ignore it. Gemma was too close to my tribe and died in my back yard, I can’t let it pass unnoticed. Some have set up a vigil at 6th and 6th, and that is good for a time. Some others are holding an event on this upcoming Tuesday at the Dublin Castle to remember Gemma and raise a little support for her family. I am going to plan to go and help out in that little way.

More important, I am going to continue to advocate for pedestrian safety, to make our streets safe to cross. Gemma (and Christian Mesa) will stick in my mind, even if they were not friends. They are the reason we are working to make our urban areas better by making our streets safer for humans; so a momentary lack of attention doesn’t result in the tragically premature end of a life full of promise and hope.

If you are an advocate for pedestrians, a person who has felt that more needs to be done to make our crosswalks and sidewalks safe for the people of our City, maybe you might want to show up on Tuesday at the Dublin Castle and show some support. This isn’t a political issue (I don’t know any politician who wants streets to be less safe!), just a reminder of why we should be listening to advocates like Mary Wilson and keep fighting the good fight.

Environmental Forum – debrief

In the end, it all went remarkably well!

It started as an idea in the mind of NWEP member and consciousness-raiser Virginia Ayers, and after much hand-wringing, many meetings, and an alignment of stars, last weekend’s Environmental Policy Forum turned out very well, in spite of some last-minute organizational spackle application!

 The opening phase of the event, where people were asked to present ideas, concerns, issues and post them on out tack boards went well. In hindsight we could have stretched this time out, as the interactions in front of the board were happening well ahead of our more formal discussions. It was the meeting of minds and people during this early phase that made the rest of the day successful and, “primed the pump” for greater in-depth discussion.

Although not every topic on the bard made it to the table discussions, NWEP data-cruncher Peter McMartin has already entered all of the post-it note comments into a database, and is working out how best to make a searchable or otherwise suitable display of the data. So the ideas are not lost, and may form the nucleus of future discussions. Be sure the NWEP will refer back to them when looking at future events.

Once all the ideas were up on the boards, a furious voting period ensued, when all participants were asked to vote for their “top pick topics”. The facilitators high-graded the highest-vote topics (and categories of topics) and made up 5 roundtables for discussions. The topics that rose to the top were and interesting combination of the usual New Westminster issues, and hot topics of the day:

Transportation (and dealing with traffic pressures on New West)

Food Security (GMO crops, pesticides, local and organic food)

Solid Waste (details around, and alternatives to, waste incinerators)

Green infrastructure (building codes, reducing the impact of our built environment, carbon tax)

Air Quality (especially impacts from all truck through-traffic, and the expansion of coal ports).

I was, unfortunately, running around doing other things (see below) and was not privy to all of the discussions that ensued. Word-of-mouth has some relatively benign and positive discussions where it was easy to forge a common position (i.e. food security) where other topics (I’m looking at you, Transportation) resulted in a more complex discussion, and many counter-points raised.

There were a few common themes that tied many of the topics together. Many touched on climate change, the “transportation” theme clearly interacted with “air quality” when talking about truck traffic, and “air quality” concerns were obviously related to the trash incinerator topic. This (I hope) clearly demonstrated than sustainability is a complex topic, and easy answers are hard to find, as every change in one are impacts other areas in sometime unforeseen ways. Hence the need for “systems thinking” when we approach these complex problems.

However, the one overarching theme, the one that each of the groups included in some way in their report-out, was the need for more education on every issue. This included us, as citizens, needed more education on the impacts of the various waste-to-energy technologies, and it meant more education of the general public on the hows and whys of Port approval for projects that impact the greater community, and on the impacts of vehicle exhaust on our health. As an NWEP member, this was one of my take-aways from the event- people want to be better informed on issues, and the NWEP can help with that role.

And, last but not least, the four candidates vying for our Votes in May seemed to be pleased with the event. They had ample opportunity to hear from a wide breadth of the electorate. We had a good turn-out considering it was a warm, sunny weekend day in March, and maybe they would have liked to have spent those couple of hours door-knocking, but they were all game to a rather free-form discussion. They were all provided an opportunity to interact with the discussion groups and to provide a short speech afterwards.

One bonus was that our local community web-based TV volunteer group NewWest Dot TV was there to film and live-stream the event. This provided the opportunity during the relatively dead-air time of roundtable discussion for each of the candidates to be interviewed by some clown in a cheap suit. Clearly the clown was out of his element doing interviews, having both a face and a voice more suited for newspapers, but the candidates were great, providing concise and clear answers to his rather simplistic and idiotic questioning (starting about 45 minutes into the live stream now visible on the Newwest.tv website).

Interviewing Clown, Patient Candidate

Thanks to the NewWest.tv folks, the reporting out of the tables discussions, and the short speeches by the candidate are also view-able, for them that couldn’t show up. The NWEP will also be “reporting out” over the next month or two on their website. I have no idea what it will look like, but stay tuned!

Personally, I had a great time at the event, and thought it went really well. Because I have a loud voice, I was asked to emcee the proceedings, which with a successful event like this, allows me to receive lots of kudos from the happy participants. Appreciated, but I really only helped a little with a few tasks them yapped loudly at the crowd. This event was the brain child of Ginny Ayers, and between her incredible idea-generation and problem solving, and Karla Olson’s boundless energy and ability to get things done, about 90% of the entire project was managed. I’d also like to thank Andrew Feltham, Reena Meijer Drees, Kathleen Somerville, Antigone Dixon-Warren, Virginia Bremner and Mary Wilson for being conversation-facilitators at the individual tables, and to Alex, Peter, Anna, and probably a few people I am forgetting, for helping with the set-up & tear down and all the other tasks that made it happen.

And especially thanks to the 40+ random New West folks from all walks of life who showed up on a sunny Saturday to make for a fun conversation.

NWEP Environmental Policy Forum

Tomorrow, the New Westminster Environmental Partners are trying a bold experiment in grassroots environmental policy development. I have been privy to some of the organizing, and have been asked to act as an MC and facilitator at the event. However, I have been amazed to watch other NWEP members put this thing together, and come up with, what I think, is a remarkable plan. 
The genesis of the idea is the upcoming (not yet officially begun!) election (even though it has not yet been called), and we already know who our local Candidates will be. The NWEP could get together in our group and come up with some policy ideas, raise holy hell about a specific issue or two, but how do we know we are representing how the Community really feels about an issue?
Was there some way we could poll the “environmentally engaged” populace and get ideas? Since our budget is too small to get Ipsos on the phone, one of our members had the idea for this forum.
The event is envisioned as an exercise in grassroots policy development, with the aim to encouraging lots of lively discussion and sharing of ideas. Fitting with the NWEP’s mission, the main theme will be “environmental sustainability”. However, the topics will be generated by the citizens who show up, not by the NWEP board.
Of course, we can anticipate what some if them will be (transportation, coal terminals, climate change?) but who knows what will come up in the early part of the event when we ask people to post their ideas and concerns?
After a short period or idea collection and a voting mechanism to choose the “hottest” topics, we will break the room up into several smaller groups. Each of the smaller groups will flesh out the idea at that station. Again, NWEP people will be there to help the conversation along, but it will be the participants doing the talking, and the NWEP will be doing the record keeping and note taking.
This will be the fun, dynamic part. I frankly have no idea where these conversations are going to go. I anticipate some topics (LNG comes to mind) will draw a wide breadth of opinions, and the goal will not be to argue and debate the merits of opposing positions, but to find the common ground – the essential underlying ideas or philosophies where agreement can be found (even if the details differ), or even where the real friction rests- the point where people cannot agree.
Either way, the discussion will no doubt create an interesting record of the community’s concerns, documentation of where the community conversation and the level of education that the community has on some of these (obviously controversial) topics.
The Candidates who have agreed to attend (listed in politically-neutral alphabetical order here: Hector Bremner, Judy Darcy, Paul Forseth and Terry Teather) will NOT be taking part in these discussions, but will instead be circulating around the room, eavesdropping, hearing the conversations, and no doubt taking notes. Because only after we do this community conversation and each group gives a very brief report out of the results of their conversation, will the Candidates be asked to comment on what they heard, what they know about the issue, what their feelings or their position is on that topic.
The hope here is that the candidates get to hear what the people are saying, then report back that they have heard the concerns of the citizens. In a perfect world, we would like to think that the candidate who is successful in May will take those ideas to Victoria, and be they in Government or Opposition, they can speak clearly with their community’s voice.
I was explaining this to a politico I ran into in town today, and he asked “why would candidates agree to show up just to listen? Can’t you give them more time to talk? ”
So to counter the cynicism of that mindset, I am glad to report we at the NWEP told the candidates what the format was, that their speaking part of the event was going to be relatively short and late in the event, but for the first hour, they were going to be listening, and all of the candidates agreed to attend. I think this speaks to the quality of local candidates we have.
So I am excited, if a little nervous. I honestly have no idea how this will turn out. If it goes great, we may have a new model that can be adopted for other policy areas (economic development? Education? Health Care?). If it goes less than great, we will at least create a written record of the conversation and have a better understanding of where the community stands on various environment and sustainability topics. As we all spend so much time in our own policy/political bubbles, staring inwards at our own ideas, we can all benefit from sharing ideas with the broader community, even if it means we have to hear ideas we don’t agree with. Actually, specifically because may hear ideas we don’t agree with.
Also, the event will be recorded by the good folks at NewWestTV, there may even be a webcast on the day of, (I have no idea if this is technically possible!). Also, the NWEP will collect the conversations and condense them into a document that will be published on our website before the election writ is dropped.
So , I hope to see you there! I’m a scientist by training, and some the funnest parts are when you don’t know what the results will be, but you just throw the switch and collect the data, and let the numbers fall where they will.What could possibly go wrong? 
Sapperton Pensioners Hall- 318 Kearey Street- Saturday, March 9, 1:00pm to 3:30 pm.

Digging Deeper

I love it when I agree with the people I am disagreeing with.

Chris Bryan, the Editor of the New West News Leader, is building a reputation for some compelling opinion pieces. This week, he definitely hit that mark with his column entitled “New Westminster’s traffic discussion must dig deeper” .  It is compelling because I can agree and disagree with almost every idea in the column.

The essential question (if Bryan will afford me the benefit of paraphrasing) is: “How long can New Westminster resist the paving over of our neighbourhoods to service the cities on our borders?”

My simple answer is as long as we are here. Because what is the alternative?

Yes, Surrey (pop 468,000) and Coquitlam (pop 126,000) would love it if New Westminster (pop 68,000) would get the hell out of the way and allow their residents to get from house to work or shops quicker. I would argue that is firmly in the category of “not our problem”.

Douglas Adams, in my second favorite piece of absurdist writing, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy discussed the idea of building freeways through people’s homes:

“Bypasses are devices that allow some people to dash from point A to point B very fast while other people dash from point B to point A very fast. People living at point C, being a point directly in between, are often given to wonder what’s so great about point A that so many people from point B are so keen to get there, and what’s so great about point B that so many people from point A are so keen to get there. They often wish that people would just once and for all work out where the hell they wanted to be.”

This was just as relevant to Arthur Dent’s house and his planet, which were (spoiler alert) both destroyed to make way for bypasses, as it was to Jane Jacobs in Washington Square Park (spoiler alert) which she helped save along with the soul of Greenwich Village and New Westminster in 2013.

I’m not sure why we, in New Westminster, the first City in British Columbia, the former Capital of the Colony, and the original heart of the region, should give a rat’s ass what upstart suburbs like Coquitlam and Surrey need, now that they have built huge communities of sprawling auto-oriented neighbourhoods whose very economic survival relies on their expanding populace having an unfettered ability to drive through the New Westminster community – through our very neighbourhoods.

It isn’t our intractable resistance to plowing over our City that got them into this mess, it is their continued choice to develop on the assumption that we would eventually plow our City down to accommodate their needs.

Yes, The Strange Case of the Bailey Bridge is a great example of how New Westminster concerns itself with preserving its character and historic neighbourhoods instead of sacrificing everything we are to allow Coquitlam to build (to quote Chris Bryan) “a rapidly growing big-box retail area, and… the redevelopment of Fraser Mills into a residential community housing thousands of new drivers poorly served by transit.”

Perhaps a better example is the history of Braid Skytrain Station. Coquitlam was given the opportunity, back in the 1990s to have SkyTrain service to Maillardville. Fears of the “CrimeTrain” and density caused Coquitlam to resist rapid transit in their most historic neighbourhood, and the line and station were moved to more forward-thinking (and more historic) New Westminster.

By their own preference, Coquitlam instead got 8 lanes of Highway 1, and 6 horribly congested lanes of Lougheed Highway in Maillardville. They are now afraid that 7,500 people living in Fraser Mills will be the gigantic strawpile that breaks the back of their community. It may dump too many cars across their shiny new overpass into the traffic quagmire of their own (terrible) planning. A 4-lane Bailey Bridge and overpass looming over Sapperton will surely afford them some temporary relief, but only by pushing the traffic pinch point, idling pissed-off drivers and livability impacts a few hundred metres into New Westminster neighbourhoods.

These bad planning decisions were not made by New Westminster- in fact we were not even consulted on them. Why should we suddenly acquiesce to their unanticipated “needs”?

So Coquitlam is willing to finance the slow destruction of our 150-year-old City? Thanks, but no thanks. Their generous offer only makes us enablers.

Instead, New Westminster is taking the principled, responsible stand. We are leading the region in building a compact, transit-friendly, sustainable community. We are developing a Master Transportation Plan that builds on our current strength as the Municipality with the second-highest alternative transportation mode share in the Province (excuse the emphasis, but this is a pretty big point!). We are making it easier for people to live, work and shop in the same community. We are building mixed commercial-residential developments on SkyTrain lines. We are increasing density, and are taking risks building office space and investing in community amenities.

For those who must move across the region, we are making it easier to do so through transit, through cycling, through car-sharing. We are making genuine efforts to reduce our community’s load on Coquitlam and Surrey roads. The results are demonstrated in our region-leading alternative mode share, and we are aiming to do better!

So do we need to “dig deeper”? Hell yes. We all do. We are facing major growth, climate, and economic challenges. In New Westminster, that means we need to have cojones to say to our neighbours that their car-driving problems are a result of their poor planning, and we are terribly sorry, but you are not going to fill our community with pavement to solve them.

If Coquitlam wants to put 7,500 residents in Fraser Mills, they had better figure out a way to move them around that doesn’t include cars passing through Braid and Brunette.

If Surrey needs a billion dollars to expand rapid transit to serve their growing population, we will be the first to step up and advocate to senior governments on their behalf to get them the transit system of their dreams. But if they want to spend that billion dollars to expand a freeway bridge into the heart of our City, they will have a hell of a fight on their hands.

We are ready, Chris. We are ready to help the region move forward and fulfill its Regional Growth Strategy, its Regional Transportation Plans, its Sustainability Plans.

It may look to them like we are “dug in”, but we in New Westminster are actually leading. Maybe it is they who need to dig deeper.

Independence

With the Provincial election just around the corner… Oh, no wait, it is still months away despite an unofficial and unaccounted campaign that has been running for almost a year… the local candidates are lining up as expected. The four parties we can all name have New Westminster candidates that fit their party’s brands very well (depending on whether you agree with my rantings below, this is not necessarily a compliment), and then there’s the spectre of an independent candidate running.

I have said it before, and I’ll say it again: I am a local candidate voter. I don’t belong to any Party. I have voted for candidates from pretty much every party, from the Reform Party of Canada to the Marijuana Party, but I don’t remember ever voting specifically for a Party in an election.

As a natural critic (some would say whiner), my political opinions have tended to veer to the political left when there is a more conservative government in office, and towards the political right when there are more progressive governments. Taking on-line opinion surveys meant to test “what party fits you best” tends to stick me right in he middle of the Green Party platform, but that is mostly because I think that shitting in our own nest is probably a bad idea.

When it comes to candidates, however, I want to meet the candidate. Call me old-fashioned, but I think the Westminster system of representative democracy is built on the idea that we, the constituents, select someone to represent our community’s interests at the Legislature, not a person to represent a Party in our community.

This is, of course, one of the bigger problems with the current Conservative Party of Canada, who have ramped up the Party-uber-alles philosophy of governance that so irritated Stephen Harper when the Liberals did it that he helped create a new Reform Party specifically to fight it. At this point, the most frustrating part is that Harper is so damn effective at being what he used to hate. Not a single Conservative MP can find even the slightest flaw in any piece of legislation the Party has created. So you end up with situations like local Conservative MPs explaining that closing a local Coast Guard base will make our coast safer instead of challenging their own party to make better choices for their constituents.

This situation has different effects during the election cycle. Last Federal Election, it was the curious case of the missing candidates. Why would a candidate in a riding where one Party has a significant majority bother to show up for all-candidates meetings? To hear the concerns of constituents? (pause for laughter). When the MPs role is to represent the Party to the riding, and the party platitudes platform is on the TeeVee, why bother showing up and risking saying something inappropriate? Why bother meeting your constituents? You might disappoint them!

I suggest the problem with Party Politics is the Party itself, and the power vested in the Party. The fact our current Federal Government refer to themselves (and force the Civil Service to refer to them) as “The Harper Government” more than the hopelessly old-school “Government of Canada”, shows that the Parties understand their Power, and are willing to put themselves, their name and brand, above that of the Country they are trusted to run.

So if the problem is the power of the Party, then maybe we should consider what the Party system gives us, and how we could do without it. Parties make voting “easier” for those not interested in learning who they are voting for. This is because they create a ready-built campaign machinery to keep the entrenched in power. Parties provide a central funding pool with which to purchase advertising to smear their opposition get their message out. They also make the first-past-the-post system so effective at giving a group with 37% of the popular vote an absolute majority to do what they like in Ottawa for 5 years.

Worse, the system results in too many people holding their noses while they vote for a person or a party they don’t necessarily like, because it is better than the alternative. This, more than anything else, is the reason so few people bother to vote anymore: there is increasingly little to vote for. In our hyper-cynical age, more people will show up to vote against something than will to vote for something. Parties leverage this cynicism and stoke it through negative advertising. (This is why I predict, even without the NDP investing in negative advertising, Premier McSparkles is her own negative ad, and there will be an increased turnout this Provincial election over the previous one).

So what is the alternative? Independents?

I would love to see a system where we only have independents – where the entire Party system and its funding mechanisms are abolished. Follow me for a bit here.

At election, we send 308 independent local representatives to Ottawa to sit in the House of Commons. Yes, many candidates will align on topics and form defacto parties around certain issues, but without the whip system and without the centralized funding mechanism, there will be no reason for an MP to not vote freely on a different issue. In the inevitable horse trading of votes in the House, the representative will only have to answer to their constituents. Not to a party, not to a leader, and certainly not to a mid-level political hack called a “whip”. The only thing that will influence their re-election chances is how well their community feels they were represented.

Many people smarter than me have mentioned how effective Elizabeth May is as an MP. There are several reasons for this: she is a student Parliamentary Democracy; she is damn smart; she works her ass off; and she is a true believer in Democracy as a Principle, and as a way to solve problems. However, much of her power is also a result of her unique position of being effectvely an independent who can still use the mechanisms built up to support the Party System.

So how to we break down the Party systems that separate us from representative democracy? We make Parties and their economic models illegal. At election time, everyone runs as an Independent, with only local funding and organization. When 308 independents are sent to Ottawa, their first job would be to select a Prime Minister, a deputy PM, and a Speaker. Those three then create a caucus, drawn from the MPs in the House and (this is not as shocking as you might think) unelected experts in various fields. Only elected MPs get a vote in the house, but every vote is a free vote, and the majority of the house can lose confidence in the Government Caucus only with a majority vote on a confidence motion.

Oh, there are problems with this idea. Some suggest lobbying and influence peddling would likely be more attractive, so strict controls would need to be introduced. However, with the current system in Ottawa, one needs only to lobby the PMO, and they will bring along 160 votes. A party-less system would make lobbying individual members a more daunting task, and can hardly make the lobbying situation worse than it is is today.

We would also have to do something about the current Parliamentary Retirement Castle and Party Fundraising Department we call the Senate. but that’s another blog post.

So I have a soft spot for independents. I am an engaged local voter, and like the idea that the person we send to Ottawa or Victoria represents our community there. I even agree with the premise that more Independents make for more effective governance.

Would I vote for an Independent for New Westminster in this upcoming Provincial election? Yes. Keeping in mind that that a candidate’s lack of Party affiliation is no more proof of their capability than their affiliation is. If that Independent was to convince me that they could effectively represent New Westminster, and would work their ass off to assure we are represented, them I could vote for them. But it is a tough job to be that effective in our current system – I’m not sure there are too many Elisabeth Mays to go around.

At this point, I am still a local candidate voter, regardless of whether they represent a Party or are independent. Either way, it should be a good election, as we have strongly motivated candidates.
Game on!

CEEPing along in New Westminster

It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him

I felt the same way the first time I read Catch-22.Yossarian is easily my favourite character in fiction. Part of a bomber crew in Europe during the dying days of WW2, he was surrounded by absurdity, and coped with it by trying to out-absurd his surroundings, and always failing. In contrast, his friend Milo Minderbinder fully embraced the absurdity around him, and found creative ways to profit from it. Milo was the mess officer who bought eggs for 7 cents each, sold them for 5 cents each, and made a clean profit of 1.5 cents per. It was quite the scheme.

That is the trick that Norm Connolly, the Community Energy Manager for the New Westminster, might need to pull off. His task, and this is typical of all CEMs in Municipalities across BC, is to find ways to reduce energy use in the community. Not the energy used by the City itself, but by the residents and businesses of the city.

The problem in New Westminster being that unlike most cities in BC, we have our own electrical utility. The Electrical Utility buys power from BC Hydro at wholesale rates, and sells it to residents and businesses at retail rates (which are the same as retail rates BC Hydro charges residents and businesses). The difference between the two pays for the hardware that runs the system, and (in recent history) makes a little extra money for City coffers. So if Connolly is successful and reduces the amount of energy used by the community, the Utility will sell less power, and make less money, transferring less to City coffers. So why is the City so interested in reducing energy use at all?

There was a report at Council last week on the City’s Community Energy and Emissions Plan (“CEEP”). The CEEP was passed in 2011, and set out the pathway to New Westminster in 2030: a City with 20,000 more residents, but using no more electricity than we do today, and producing 15% less greenhouse gases. I’m not sure the GHG goal is aggressive enough (see my recent tirade on coal), but it is an achievable goal without significant changes in our lifestyle. So it is an easy sell for those interested in re-election.

Last week’s Council report covered a few of the initiatives that are going to arrive in the City in the next few years, to head us on the path towards that goal:

I will talk about item #3, the development of District Energy Utilities, in a later post (short version: it is a great idea, and others are doing it well, but the there are devils in details!). The other two are subjects that came up in a recent NWEP Energy Group discussion. I am glad to see that the City is taking this approach, and might even sign my house up for the program!

Item #1, the Multi-unit residential retrofits, is challenging. The challenge will be in convincing Strata Councils that the gains over the long-term will be worth the short-term hassle and investment in building improvements. The ability for the City to offer incentives, backed by BC Hydro or Fortis, and finding the right test-bed building will be vital for making this work.

One of the systemic issues that we have in the Lower Mainland of BC is that we live in a mild climate- not too hot in the summer, not to cold in the winter, and we have a (somewhat unfair) reputation for lacking bright sunlight. As a result, we build buildings with less insulation and more windows than in other parts of the world. Then, because electricity is plentiful and cheap, we have lined the walls of these inefficient buildings with electrical baseboard heaters, usually on the outside walls under a bank of windows, where they have to overcome the inefficient wall system before they provide any useful heat to the rest of the unit. Because of this, there are many “quick wins” to be found in these buildings, especially many of our older multi-family building stock. In New Westminster, with more than 75% of our residential units being in low- or high-rise multi-family dwellings, this part of the program will be where most of our CEEP gains can be found.

This doesn’t speak of the future growth in the City, however. If we are going to put 20,000 more people in the City, we are going to be increasing the proportion of multi-family dwellings, so we are going to create a whole new stock of buildings. The full CEEP contains some steps in this direction, talking about LEED standards and such, but I wonder if simply banning electric baseboard heaters would be sufficient to reach efficiency goals? I’m not ever sure the City can ban them…

Item #2 is the one that excites me the most, as a detached-home owner. Providing municipal incentives for energy efficient home re-fits is not yet common (most programs have previously been run by major utilities or by senior governments), but is becoming more so (not coincidently as senior governments become front offices for energy companies and the larger programs dry up). There are several cities in BC that have implemented these type of incentive programs, not coincidently in historic cities like Rossland and Nelson, where there is a large stock of older homes with significant heritage value.

We have done a few energy fixes in our 1940 house (including replacing all of our windows a couple of years ago), but have been slow to introduce some other obvious energy-savers. It appears our roof insulation is good, but that in our walls may be upgradable. We have a relatively efficient (if slightly old) gas furnace and gas-fired water heater. Solar water heaters (we have an expansive south-facing roof) and/or an instant-heater for water (as a friend of mine recently installed) seem like great ideas, but the impetus to install is low, even with the potential savings on my gas bill.

However, for people with electrical heat and water systems, the City is still stuck in that same old bind: If we reduce energy use in the City, does the City really gain? Can BC Hydro provide incentives to the City that will offset the “profit” the City currently makes selling electricity? If we continue to peg our rates to BC Hydro retail rates, incentives from Hydro seem the only way we can still pad the City coffers while reducing overall use.

There are good reasons fro BC Hydro to provide those incentives. Wholesale purchasers in BC pay less for electricity than any other customers. The City pays way less for electricity than BC Hydro pays for IPP power from Darth Coleman’s Run-of-the-River contracts. We also pay less than Alberta and California customers, who need to choose between buying cheap power from us or burning hydrocarbons to make their own. Even in BC, we burn hydrocarbons (at Burrard Thermal) only when we have an “emergency” supply issue, thanks to the 2010 Clean Energy Act.

Reducing electricity energy use in BC reduces the need for BC Hydro and others to burn hydrocarbons for electricity, allows Hydro to sell more power to lucrative export markets, and ultimately reduces the need to major expansion of the Hydroelectric System, saving more valley bottoms for other uses… so BC Hydro has incentive to incentivize the City to incentivize the community to reduce energy. Hence the need for our CEEP, and the need for the community of New Westminster to sign up for these programs – at every step of the way, we will be saving money and reducing our impact. We can profit from making less money, like Milo the Mayor did with eggs.