Ask Pat: Wards

KJ Asks: Hey Pat, why don’t we have wards in New Westminster? Is that the only way we can get a Councillor from Queensborough?

Your timing is a little off. The discussion of a ward system usually come up some time during municipal elections. It is often raised by a neighbourhood group that feels it gets less benefit from City Council largess than it deserves (so, pretty much every neighbourhood), with the suspicion that a ward system would help.

In many jurisdictions in Canada, municipal councilors are not elected “at large” to represent the entire City like in New West, but are elected to represent a single neighbourhood or group of neighbourhoods called “wards”. Instead of voting for your favourite six from across the city, you vote for one from your neighbourhood only. For some reason, this is not common in British Columbia, and excepting Lake County (which has 4 wards and two “at large” councilors, to the chagrin of some, there are none in BC. Surrey is looking at it, though.

Section 53 of the Local Government Act makes it possible for a City to pass a bylaw to switch from the default “at large” system to a “neighbourhood constituency” system, with no specific requirement for a referendum to make the switch, though the Provincial Government does need to sign off on the change. Running a ward-based election is a little more complicated (efforts need to be taken to make sure voters are voting in the right neighbourhood) and potentially a little more expensive, but there is no technical reason I can find why a City couldn’t do it.

There have been some suggestions made about why cities shouldn’t do it. Mostly, it is argued that the ward system actually reduces the diversity of representation and provides more power to established political systems/parties. Those are balanced perhaps by arguments that local neighbourhoods may have more direct representation, or at least the majority of the people in that neighbourhood do. I guess there has been enough written about this by others that I’ll leave it to you to decide which system is better, and that is not the question you asked.

What I’m more interested in is what wards might look like in New West if we went that way. In theory, we would try to have balanced population in each ward and do our best to keep traditional neighbourhoods whole. Having 6 council positions and 71,000 residents in the last Census, that would mean about 11,830 residents per ward. The problem is, we have 6 Council positions and something between 10 and 15 neighbourhoods, depending on how you choose to chop them up. Even the City’s OCP, there are two “neighbourhood maps”, neither of which align with the current list of Residents Associations. So there is definitely some ambiguity going in:

So I decided to have some fun with the 2016 Census data, which breaks the City into something like 92 census tracts. The tool census mapper by Jens von Bergmann makes it easy to look up various census data at different scales, so I relied on that data. I used to be a GIS guy, but don’t really have GIS tools at home to do this eloquently, so I took the data from census mapper and did a little traditional pen and paper work (I knew I would finally use that Geography degree!) and simple drawing software to sketch out what wards (if New West had them) might look like.

Gerrymandering aside, my basic first task was to think of how to clump neighbourhoods. My first attempt was to start at each end (Queensborough and Sapperton) and draw a ward for each of them that expanded to get as close as possible to the magic 11,833 number within the existing census tracts (71,000 residents divided by 6). Clumping downtown and Quayside together made sense to me, and the rest I just tried to draw lines that split up the middle third by population without too many squiggles in lines and trying to keep traditional neighbourhoods intact. It was not easy. Here are my 6 wards with the 2016 population:

One of the surprising things to come out of this exercise was to see how populated the Brow of the Hill is, even compared to Downtown and the Quayside or Sapperton. Alternately, Queens Park would need to append all of Victoria Hill, Fraserview and a significant chunk of the Brow to meet the population threshold required to fill a Ward.

One thing people may not realize that Section 118 of the Community Charter says a City of New Westminster’s size should have 8 City Councilors. Apparently, when New West hit the 50,000 population threshold about 20 years ago, they had a plebiscite about adding to the size of government, and you can all guess how that went. But if we were to shift to a ward system, it may be a good time to review what a Council of 8 would look like so I did a bit of a map with wards of ~8,875 residents:

In some ways, this works a little better. Queensborough would have a case for its own ward, and clumping Fraserview/Victoria Hill with the east end of Downtown makes more sense to me than clumping it with Queens Park.

Of course, population is growing faster in some neighbourhoods (Queensborough and Downtown) faster than others (Connaught Heights actually shrunk in population between the last two censuses), so future shifts to a ward system would shift a little to reflect this. I also wonder how we would ever create a transparent and fair ward districting system, because if former-GIS-guy City Councillor doing it using Microsoft paint based on 5 year old Census data is not the perfect system, I’m not sure what is.

There is also the small problem of my being the second most popular Councillor in the Brow of the Hill.

As for the Queensborough question, I would make two points. First, there is nothing in the Local Government Act that says a representative of a ward needs to live in that ward, though it would surely be an advantage electorally. Even without a ward system, I would suggest for a person from Queensborough to get on Council, they would need to run. Going back through the last 4 elections, 46 (!) people have run for City Council in New West, some multiple times. Only one of those people (to the best of my memory – I stand to be corrected here) lived in Queensborough. That’s not good odds. Alternately, looking back at the last three elections for School Board Trustee, 32 candidates have run, only one person from Queensborough has run, and she won handily in her first attempt. So the odds are good?

Making Hay

I’m not the only one who blogged a Year in Review. At the risk of giving them a little more Streisand Effect attention than they deserve, local political Council Watchers have risen a bit from the political shadows to throw a little light mud towards City Council. I would normally let it pass without comment, except that a comment by their sole elected member is misinformed and misinforming in a way that I think undermines the work of Council and the School Board. So I’ll risk a retort.

In her year-end letter to the community, Trustee Connelly suggests the following:

The truth of the matter is that since the Trustee was elected in 2018, the City has altered the Official Community Plan with exactly four amendments:

OCP Amendment Bylaw #8156 (to remove Heritage Conservation Area protection from 7 houses, on account of their lack of heritage value);
#8122 (To support the Heritage Conservation the Slovak Hall at 647 Ewen Ave);
#8151 (a housekeeping bylaw to fix some designations that didn’t match current use); and
#8145 (to allow a Childcare operation in a hall attached to a church on Sixth Ave).

Of those, only one involved an increase in density: the Ewen Ave amendment permitted the building of 5 townhouse units in exchange for permanent preservation of the Slovak Hall. The Sixth Ave amendment was to permit the addition of 114 childcare spaces to a Heritage-protected church location, and the housekeeping amendment was to fix minor errors included in the original OCP regarding four properties – including one (ironically?) requested by the School District.

But the OCP is older than the tenure of this School Trustee, as it was adopted in 2017. So let’s test her assertion against all of the amendments made before the Trustee was elected:

#7956 (allowing childcare spaces on vacant City land in Queensborough);
#8025 (preservation of heritage single family houses in Queens Park);
#8021 (44 units of Temporary Modular Housing for women in need of support in Queensborough);
#7982 (appending a small portion of commercial land to a Townhouse and Childcare project in Queensborough);
#8039 (requiring builders of new mutli-family buildings provide EV charging infrastructure);
#8042 (expanding the Heritage Conservation Area in Queens Park).

So, to reframe the Trustee’s concern: the City has “alter[ed] their new official community plan to accommodate more densification and growth” by a grand total of five (5!) family-friendly townhouse units and a Temporary Modular Housing project to support women facing homelessness. The question may be asked: which of these OCP amendments would she have asked Council to vote against?

I know what you are going to say: “What about all the towers!?” And that is a fair question. What about them?

In the time since the Trustee was elected, there have been two high rise residential developments approved in New West. The first was a 237-unit building in Uptown which was the first major residential development approved in Uptown in more than a decade. It was also recently amended – without added density – to go from mixed strata and rental to 100% Purpose Built Rental – filling a dire need in our community. The second was an increase by about 190 units at 100 Braid to support a shift from Strata to Purpose Built Rental. Other than the units in these two towers, there have been fewer than 80 dwelling units approved through rezoning in two years in a City with more than 34,000 dwelling units in the midst of a regional housing crisis. To be clear, none of these rezonings required altering the OCP. All of those units were fully in alignment with the existing Official Community Plan. They were also in alignment with the Regional Growth Strategy approved a decade ago by New Westminster in conjunction with all 22 regional municipal governments and the Provincial Government, who funds the building of new schools.

The Trustee is free to argue that the City is growing too fast or changing in ways she doesn’t like, if that suits her political motivations (though I would note the sum of all approvals above represent a growth rate of less than 1% a year). But it is disingenuous to claim OCP Amendments are instruments to create growth. They are actually the responsible governance response to growth, and looking at the examples of OCP amendments in New Westminster, are more likely to *restrict* densification through Heritage Conservation than actually support it. Even the rezonings  are not examples of City Council forcing new population to move into areas underserved by the School District, but the building of much-needed housing in areas consistent with a decade-old regional plan and and Official Community Plan that the School District was not only consulted on, but provided meaningful feedback to.

No doubt there are challenges related to regional population growth for School Districts, and anticipating how growth impacts the School District is a significant aspect of how the City reviews development plans. This is not a “particular challenge for New Westminster“, but common across the growing region. That is one of the reasons we have a Regional Growth Strategy and an Official Community Plan in the first place.

This is also why we have Section 476 of the Local Government Act that specifically requires Local Governments to have this consultation with the Board of Education. The Trustee would like “a coordinated effort to accommodate this growth as it translates to schools” and I retort with Section 476 of the LGA, and the active role the School District has taken in the OCP and OCP Amendment process. We do this not just because it is the law, but because it is a good idea. We do it so when the School District is planning, for example, a replacement for McBride Elementary, the School district and their funders in Victoria know what capacity is needed. This is also why Council has been supporting the School District in their aggressive capital plan over the last decade, bringing new schools on line and anticipating their needs in the decade ahead.

I recognize that part of politics is making hay.  Political Science is often about finding local wedge issues and figuring out how to use them to separate yourself from *them*. But when your argument is disconnected from the way governance works (both in practice and in legislation) then it seems disingenuous. Maybe it’s a dog-whistle, maybe it’s just misinformed. I’m not sure which is worse. We all want the residents of the City to have access to great schools, and the Board of Education and City Council have a good working relationship based on an honest understanding of the pressures we both face, and a strong desire to deliver on those needs. Happy New Year.

Ask Pat: Blogs

JL asked—

Are you aware of a blog similar to the one you run but focused on the city of Richmond?
I have grown to love New West in my 5 years here and am sad to leave. I really want to let you know how much I appreciate the time you take to write these entries on the council meetings and topics related to the City of New Westminster. They are very informative and make me feel more connected the city. Frankly, I think a monthly (bi-weekly?) email newsletter similar to your blog would be an asset to the city’s residents.

In short, no. I don’t know anyone in Richmond doing this. Actually, I don’t know very many City Councillors doing stuff like this, which makes me wonder why I am doing it, to be honest.

I love that there are a few Councillors more actively engaging the public in interesting ways. Nathan Pachal in Langley City has a more concise blog than mine covering what happens on his Council, Mathew Bond in North Vancouver District (@mrmathewbond) has been live-tweeting Public Hearings to enlightening effect. There are some real Local Government stars like Christine Boyle in Vancouver who blogs and uses other media to tell the stories of Council work and of her vision for bigger change, but I see nothing of the sort in Richmond. A few blogs that were very active in the months before election, and silent since, seems the trend. There are likely a few more active Facebook pages, but not much else.

In my experience (disclosure: I used to work in Richmond City Hall) Richmond is a strange place politically. Where else can a candidate can run for the Conservatives in opposition to oil & gas development in one race, be endorsed by an NDP candidate in another, then after a half dozen tries, be elected when running on a slate with a Green Candidate? With the public generally disengaged in local politics (aside from the Steveston neighbourhood preservation activists and a few very tight ethnic- and religious<-based cliques), and a pretty popular and non-controversial Mayor, it was really hard to know where the public was on issues. So, maybe once you get there, you can figure it out and report out to us?

That is kinda how this all started for me here. It was back in the heady days of the 2000s when everybody had a blog. I was blogging on other stuff around my environmental activism and loving my adopted community of New West. A brief period of time between when Letters to the Editor and Calling into Your Local AM Radio Station were replaced by Facebook comment threads and Podcasts, the blog was a medium where anyone with an opinion could start a conversation with people they had never met. I do cringe a bit in reading some of my early stuff, because I really didn’t know how the City worked (I sort of still don’t, but I’m getting better). The upside is I actually earned a great network of friends in New West though this thing.

I told the story here before, but my inspiration was actually Jordan Bateman. Before he became and anti-tax Reaganite crusader for Economic Freedom™, he was a tax-and-spend City Councillor like the rest of us. Even during his spendthrift Councillor days, he was still much further over to the right side of the political spectrum than I, but I did admire his blogging prowess. While serving on Langley Township Council he did something akin to what I am doing now, reporting out on the activities of Council. You didn’t have to agree with him politically to appreciate that he at least provided justification for his positions, which to me is the most honest way to approach this work.

Eventually, Jordan flew too close to the sun. One day he used his blog to publicly criticize his own BC Liberal Party (he worked for Rich Coleman) over their inconsistency on the HST issue, and within a few days was forced (chose?) to print a retraction and apology, one that was weirdly unclear about what he was apologizing for, other than making Finance Minister Colin Hansen look bad for pointing out that the Finance Minister looked bad. Shortly after that, Jordan’s blogging days (and apparent political ascendency in Langley) were over.

I have completely failed to take the obvious lesson from that. After a few years of blogging and becoming increasingly political in New West, I threw my hat into the ring for Council. At the time, a few people suggested the blog thing was going to be a political liability, but I swore I was going to keep doing it. I am perhaps naïve enough to think that in the local politics realm, people value honesty and transparency, and the risk of pissing people off who don’t agree with you on political points is by far offset by the trust-building of being open and honest.

I don’t know about all of the discourse that happened out there in the community during the last municipal election, but there was at least one candidate for Council who tried to leverage a few cherry-picked quotes out of my blog to campaign against me. Not having deleted any of my old posts, it was easy enough for me when challenged on what I said to point at the cherry picked posts and “here is where I am transparent, and here is where my opponent is being disingenuous”. It didn’t help that the opponent was himself a municipal affairs blogger who deleted all of his old blog posts before running – which somewhat undermined his claims about transparency and openness. Anyway, the upshot of that funny situation was that I got a lot of positive feedback from people I didn’t even know read my blog, and I’d bet a few voters were made aware of my blog via my opponent’s campaign and turned out to vote for me thanks to it.

However, we can still learn from Jordan’s Icarian moment to remember politics don’t happen within a bubble. Before being elected, I was pretty critical of the Harper Conservatives because I am an environmental scientist and saw the damage he and his policies were doing to environmental science and the environment (Damage Mr. Trudeau is, alas, reluctant and slow to undo). I also became critical of the Christy Clark BC Liberal party as she steered the ship in strangely Harperian directions. I admired the work that Jack Layton did, and have a tonne of respect for Peter Julian and Judy Darcy, and have written about this in my blog. I have even made clear my voting intent in previous provincial and federal elections. That has not, however, stopped me from being critical of the NDP at times (I still think they are 100% wrong and cynical on the topic of road pricing, for example). I have even provided firmly-worded suggestions to how they could do better when I feel like they deserve to hear it. The only evidence I ever got that they were listening is once when I was writing about the flaws in the Public Hearing process when applied to critically needed supportive housing, I get a note from (then Minister for Local Government) Selena Robinson letting me know she read it, she heard me, and was aware of the issue. I think some of the temporary changes made during COVID reflect these concerns, and I hope post-COVID we can keep some of these changes.

Anyway, I am aware that the comments my electoral opponent pulled out a few years ago that were not complimentary to the NDP or the swear words that Stephen Harper sometimes drew out of me are probably career limiting if I aspired towards senior government, so I’m not sure why anyone else elected to public service would do this, and in a way understand why so many City Councillor blogs go silent shortly after they are elected.

Problem is, I’m stuck now. After 6 years in office and 500+ blog posts (on top of the 450+ posts I wrote before getting elected) I can’t quit now. I got elected saying I was going to keep blogging about things in the City, and here I am, until the internet goes away or I get booted from office. To be honest it is getting to be a bit of a timesuck of questionable value, as unfortunately people simply don’t engage in blogs like they used to (see how few comments I get compared to the old days), and long Council Agendas, even when reduced down to 4,000-word blog posts, don’t fit the culture of Facebook (or, shudder, Reddit). So, it is good to hear someone reads them, and I’m not just shouting into the void.

This speaks to another problem that I don’t pretend my Blog can solve, and that is the trend towards lost accountability in local government. With the hollowing out of local newspaper newsrooms and the consolidation of news media, we have very little coverage of the day-to-day workings of City Hall. A single reporter in New West with a much wider beat than City Council cannot keep up with the wide range of issues we are dealing with. New West is actually lucky to still have that reporter – many Cities are going without. It is hard to keep track of what is happening locally, and blogs (or, it being 2020, Podcasts) are not the answer, especially when they are written by people like me who necessarily have a bias and do not have the training or professional responsibility to manage that bias like we expect (perhaps idealistically) from capital-J Journalism.

So good luck in Richmond. Support your local newspaper. Start a blog, or a podcast, or your own newsletter.  Let us know what’s happening over there. I worked there for 8 years, and was never able to figure it out.

Defense

I have written a few times about the Trans Mountain Pipeline project. I have strong opinions about it that have developed through the years.

At some point in my past I worked for an organization where my job was to provide technical support to an intervenor to the National Energy Board approval process, so I have way more knowledge about this project that is probably healthy. Yes, I have read the application, yes I have read the business case, yes I have watched the story of the pipeline evolve. My opinions about the project have been formed by my emersion immersion in this process, not Twitter memes or PostMedia opinion pieces.

I continue to assert it is the wrong project at the wrong time for all the wrong reasons. It will threaten the ecology of important parts of the province, including one of the most ecologically sensitive parts of New Westminster. The business case for the pipeline is a house of cards with a foundation of bullshit. If realized at the scale that the proponents aspire towards, it will blow Canada past any semblance of the commitment we made to the world in Paris. It is an embarrassing ode to a failed economic model and an icon to lack of leadership.

Fair to say, I’m not a fan.

Just last week, the reactionary Marxist hippies in the Parliamentary Budget Office told the Parliament of Canada and the Prime Minister that the pipeline is unlikely to meet its financial targets if the country plans to meet its climate targets. These were the climate targets that the Prime Minister feigned to make “law” just a few weeks before. I am not one to say “we need to choose between the environment and the economy”, because that is a false dichotomy too often used to delay climate action, but it is clear that if we are going to meet 2050 climate targets, we need to stop investing in the 1950 model of “the economy” (take that as a warning, Massey Bridge Replacement proponents). The time for special pleadings is over.

There is other news around the TMX recently, from their workers imperiling others on New Westminster city streets to the workers imperiling themselves on the worksite, but I’m not above kicking this mangy cur when it is down. So when the BNSF police (yes, a multi-national corporation with headquarters in Houston has armed police with the power of arrest roaming the streets of British Columbia) served an injunction on land defenders that have been placing themselves in the way of the deforestation of riparian habitat in the Brunette River, it is perhaps surprising that only one reporter bothered to file a story about it.

Health researcher and physician Dr. Takaro and a group of concerned citizen have been occupying space near the New West / Burnaby / Coquitlam border since the summer. The pipeline project seems to have tolerated them for a few months, but removing the trees they are occupying now appears to be on the critical path of getting the oil to tidewater, so the injunction was served last week and the Corporate armed forces of BNSF and CN, with support from the RCMP, tore down the camp an forcefully evicted the residents. As a response, the land defenders and Dr. Takaro have filed a request to the BC Supreme Court to have the injunction set aside, citing the flawed NEB process that empowered the approval in the first place.

All this as preamble to say I am proud out City Council is clear in its support for the land defenders, as our concerns in regards to this pipeline and its location in the Burnette River riparian zone have not been addressed – not in the original NEB process rammed through by the Harper Conservatives, and not in the fake “review” offered by the feckless Trudeau Conservatives once they gained control of the process. Council released this statement today:

New Westminster Council continues to be concerned about the location of the new Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion Project (“TMX”) within the sensitive riparian area of the Brunette River;

As an intervener in the flawed National Energy Board process that led to the approval of the TMX project, the City of New Westminster has not been satisfied that TMX sufficiently addresses the imminent and long-term risks to the Brunette River, its unique habitat, and species at risk, including recently-rejuvenated local populations of chum and coho salmon, and the endangered Nooksack dace;

New Westminster Council continues to be concerned that the TMX project is at odds with Canada’s regulated commitments under the Paris Agreement to reduce global Greenhouse Gas emissions and limit global warming to well below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius;

New Westminster Council stands in support of the land defenders currently acting to protect fragile riparian habitat near the Brunette River through peaceful protest and occupation of federally regulated lands, and ask that the injunction preventing this action be set aside.

Police budget

Last week we had a Council workshop on the budget. After a couple of previous workshops, and backed up by a pile of reports on different aspects of both the Capital and Operating plans for 2021 and beyond, staff brought us a presentation with an outline of the budget they would like to bring to Council for approval. The basic asks from staff were: do you have the info you need to make this decision, and are there any significant changes you need to see before we ask you to vote on this in a subsequent meeting?

The answers were basically yes and yes.

But I’m not going to go over the budget material again here today. It has shifted a bit since I wrote these Blog posts on the Capital, Utilities, and Operational budget, and there may be some minor adjusting yet, and when the final documents get to Council for approval, I will come back to report on that.

The one part coming out of those discussions that garnered a lot of attention was a motion to freeze the Police operational budget at 2020 levels. In short, the Police budget in 2020 was $31.6 Million and the requested budget for 2021 was $33.3 Million, an increase of $1.73 Million, or about 5.5%. As I have written about in earlier discussions of the Operational budget, some of this is a baked in increase due to inflation and annual wage increases, some of it is “enhancements”, which are new costs related to new programs or changes in how the department operates. It is also a little more complicated because some of these costs (about $650K) are anticipated to be offset by new non-property-tax revenue, as some of the activities the Police Department does are revenue-generating.

The requested “enhancements” for 2021 were pretty modest, $90,000 for a new Temporary Full Time position to hire someone to coordinate the Diversity Equity, Inclusion, and Anti-Racism (“DIEAR”) plan that arose from the recent Police Board Motion on these issues, and $44,000 to pay for increased PPE and Naloxone, which apparently used to be funded by the provincial government, but is no longer. In Council’s discussion of these enhancements, it was questioned whether the DIEAR work should be under the Police budget or the City’s HR budget (as the City is undergoing similar work and the two streams really need to be aligned). No-one opposed the spending on Naloxone, though I may lament that the Province should not be downloading this cost on to local governments.

Again, it is worth reviewing again what I wrote about in the summer. The Police Act makes a clear distinction between the roles of City Council and the Police Board. Council is not meant to oversee the operations of police, but are required to approve a budget for police. The budget is first put together by the Police Board (well, in reality, put together by the police department and approved by the Police Board, much like how City staff put together the City budget and ask Council to approve it) then brought to Council to be included in our budget. As a Council, we have essentially no say in how the Police spend the budget they are provided. Though there is some reporting every year of operational details from Police, and we do have occasional (maybe once a year?) Council-Police Board meetings, from a numbers point of view this is the level of detail that City Council gets when asked to approve a police budget:

We also go through the requests for additions to the Capital budget. The police service Capital budget request for 2021 was this, which mostly represents replacement of heavily used equipment as it approaches end-of-life:

The discussion at Council about these requests was mostly around when the best time to shift the types and number of vehicles we purchase in order to achieve our larger Climate Action goals. Police fleets as they exist are a real trouble spot for de-carbonizing our vehicle operations, as electric or even plug-in Hybrid vehicles essentially don’t exist in North American police fleets (Google low-emissions Police vehicles, and the majority of hits are from the UK, for some strange reason that is taking me way off track here…). In the end, Council voted to support all of the $1.3M in Police Capital requests, so the rest of the conversation here is the about operational budget.


During budget deliberations over the last few weeks, there has been more scrutiny of the Police Budget than I remember in previous years. Of course, this is in context of the larger conversation around North America about policing, about the impacts our model of policing disproportionally has on Black and (in Canada especially) Indigenous people and on populations made vulnerable by the overlapping crises of a poisoned drug supply, a failing mental health system, and increasing economic disparity as we endure a fourth decade of this grand neo-liberalism experiment. I hear the calls for change, and the questioning if the Police are the right organization to be at the front line addressing these crises in our community. The center of those discussions was the idea of shifting resources from policing to other ways to address the community impacts of these crises.

When the motion came forward to freeze the NWPD operation budget at 2020 levels, the motion did not come out of “Left Field”, but was a natural extension of the conversation the community (not just in New Westminster) has been having over the last year, and was written in the undercurrent of our budget deliberations over the last month. During the spirited Council debate on the issue, I was compelled by the strength of the arguments for making this move at this time, and I thank my Council colleagues for that (As always, I don’t want to speak on their behalf, you can watch the video yourself is you want to follow the tenor of the conversations).

If we agree (and I do) that we need a different model to address the impacts of addiction, mental health, and poverty in our community, that the status quo needs to change, then this is one of the few places where we, as a City Council, can force that change. So much of the increases in City budgets in recent years has been finding other ways to help with these problems in our community, even when those things are outside of our jurisdiction – we are spending the money because someone has to. We are helping provide community-based health care in our support of the Umbrella Co-op, we are helping reduce homelessness in supporting the Rent Bank, we are helping reduce the impact of the poisoned drug supply with funding of Naloxone for our fire department and in working with Fraser Health to establish safe consumption sites in the City. So much of the emphasis of our COVID response was in assuring the most vulnerable in our community have access to the supports they need – because we know they are going to feel the impacts of COVID the most. Emergency shelter, food security, seniors outreach, access to washrooms and hygene for unhoused people, the list goes on. As do the demands. This is what we need to fund to be a just and safe community for all.

So when asked “what are you going to do instead”, those are the beginning of the answers. We also need to be holding the new Provincial Government’s feet to the fire about the downloading aspects of expecting local governments to fund these things, and we need to keep pushing for the legislative changes needed to help the most vulnerable in our community. They are moving in the right direction, but it simply isn’t fast enough, and it is not clear to me that they are really committed to spending the money that needs to be spent.

This is hard. This is not a decision made lightly, or for unthoughtful reasons. It is also difficult to have conversations about these issues because so much of the public rhetoric about policing and police reform is polarized and lacking in both civics and civility. But I’m hopeful we can have a respectful and productive conversation between Council, the Police Board, and the Province about where we go from here. The idea that New Westminster could go from having an truly innovative police service (and we do) to having a transformational approach to policing, to even be a “pilot city” for new approaches at a time when the Province is talking about changes to the Police Act, is an opportunity I think we should embrace.

on Skepticism

I think of myself as a Skeptic. I capitalize that word, because it probably doesn’t mean what you think when I describe myself that way. Some may think it synonymous with cynic or freethinker, which creates this tautology where capital-S Skeptics feel the need to define the term. I think Tim Farley summed it up as well as anyone has: ““Skepticism is the intersection of science education and consumer protection.”

Skepticism is a less a philosophy than a thought process, but it is also a culture and some go so far as to call it a “movement”. Skepticism has its media, it has celebrities, it has conferences, and it had its messiah. It even has, as all burgeoning great movements must, a Great Schism. As traditional Skepticism was organized mostly by white guys, the schism was inevitably about misogyny and representation in the movement, and for the record, I’m on Rebecca’s side on this one.

Since I seem to be going on about definitions, there is no such thing as a “Climate Change Skeptic” or a “Holocaust Skeptic”. One can apply Skeptical principles to determine whether (for example) a carbon tax is an effective policy tool to address consumer-driven emissions of greenhouse gasses, sure. But calling into question whether anthropogenic climate change driven by the burning of fossil fuels is happening, and whether it has the potential for catastrophic impacts on global ecosystems that support human society is not “skepticism”, it is denial. Until proven otherwise, and it hasn’t been, it is the scientific consensus. Though seeking to challenge the scientific consensus at every opportunity is the heart of skepticism, understanding the roots of that consensus until a valid challenge is found to it  is the blood running through that heart.

I have been around Skepticism for a long time now, listening to the Skeptics Guide in pre-Rebecca days, I am old enough to remember before Brian Dunning was a convict. I was probably (probably – because memory is fallible) was guided by my Thesis supervisor back when I was an undergrad. But I don’t think back then we could have imagined the role that conspiracy theories and anti-science thought could be playing in larger society – especially American society – now. Well, Carl knew, but he was always a few decades ahead of us.

I’m not sure if it is me, or if it is Joe Rogan, but I feel we are seeing an overall media and politics shift away from the principles of scientific skepticism, and towards faith-based and conspiracy-based cynicism about the world. It would be easy (and lazy) to blame social media, but then Twitter brought this into my life:

Credit: Abbie Richards

This chart is a classification system of conspiracy put together by social media Phenom and alternative golf commentator Abbie Richards (@abbieasr), and I think it is a valuable tool for talking about conspiracy, fanciful though, skepticism, and answering the hardest question of all: “What’s the harm?

I do have some quibbles. UFOs are probably in the right spot, as there are a variety of poorly explained visual phenomenon in the atmosphere, but when one links this to extraterrestrial life, it moves up a category to leaving reality. There may actually be more thinking in here than I read (as Abbie herself adds context in her on-point and hilarious way in her Tik Tok videos), so I’m happy to hear and learn more.

Aside from laughing and enjoying taking a dig here, I think a powerful way to use a tool like this is to keep it in mind when having those slightly-uncomfortable conversations Skeptics are always having. To avoid going off on a Storm-like Mincinian tirade whenever someone uses the term “sheeple” in a conversation, you can instead think about where the thing you just heard fits in the spectrum. Is it worth asking for more details about this idea that is new or strange to you? Go a step up or down the spectrum, see where the common ground is.

So Abbie’s great diagram entered my world when I’ve been thinking a lot about Skepticism. It may be because we just lost James Randi, who really was the spiritual leader of a movement, if there is a movement, and we accept that “spirit” is a collective drive towards something as opposed to a supernatural force.

Or maybe the fact-free US election may be part of it. It’s not just that the discussion down south isn’t around substantive things, it’s that the very idea that facts exists, that there is an objective reality that is somehow verifiable, seems to have fallen by the wayside for a large number of people. In its on way, our own BC election was almost completely bereft of policy conversation, instead discussion of who do you “like”, who do you “trust”, and who is “connecting” with whatever “voter demographic.” So we end up with very popular, but completely nonsensical, ideas like fixing traffic by removing road tolls and selling hydrocarbon fuels as the key to Climate Action.

So, as someone who was almost certainly not Carl Sagan once said, ““Keep an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out”

Compassing

Are we all enjoying the election?

Looking back, I haven’t actually posted much here about the election. I always get push-back from a few of the readers of this blog that they hate when I get all political and partisan, and just want me to report out on what the City is doing. Commonly, it includes some line like “you are elected to represent the *entire* City not just the lefties”! To which I feel I need to reference the parable of the scorpion and the frog. I’m a politician, I have been blogging about politics since long before I got elected. I have been partisan at times, and critical at times of parties and politicians I actually support. It would be disingenuous for me to put aside my understanding and opinions of public policy when the writ drops. caveat lector.

There is still a week to go, but so far the surprise of the election for me is the lack of surprise in this election. The NDP started with a substantial lead in the polls, and though there was some early correction-to-the-mean, there doesn’t seem to be much of a shift.

As we all learned in 2013, campaigns matter, and the BC Liberal campaign is somewhere between not-where-it-needs-to-be and full-on-dumpster-fire. The Green leader has deftly and swiftly shifted her party’s policy leanings to the left to take up some room vacated by the NDP, but it does not seem to be making an impact on the polling public. The Conservative collapse and retreat to their BC Liberal fall-back was predictable, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a bit of last-minute tightening up of the front runners, if for no other reason than to keep viewers and voters awake. But the Libs need more than that. The knives coming out and discussion of Wilkinson’s leadership happening with a week still to go before the election is telling of a “broad tent” coalition without a guiding principle other than hating the other guys getting nowhere (something the NDP would be well served to keep in mind for next election).

One thing I have found interesting his election is (dispassionately?) observing the difference between incumbent campaigns and opposition campaigns. The Liberals especially have needed to re-frame their message significantly from three years ago, and austerity is not front and centre for anyone. But I still haven’t seen any interesting ideas challenging status quo this election. I suspect the NDP don’t need it, the Liberals are not capable, and the Greens are just not loud enough.

One media tool that hasn’t perhaps received as much attention this year as last election in my circles is the CBC Vote Compass. This data aggregator works a bit like a political Myer-Briggs test: you answer some questions to tell them what you think, and it spits back at you some summary of what you think after pressing it through some vague filtering mechanism. Mostly, it distills your complex political landscape into a pithy and compelling graphic that washes out all subtlety. Of course, I dutifully answered my questions and here is my politics sifted down to a single Cartesian point:

There are parts of this that feel accurate to me, no doubt because it was based on my own input. I think of myself as a little more left/progressive than the BCNDP (2020 version at least). The BCLibs supposedly-broad tent is well outside of my campsite; no surprise there. I also think of myself more socially progressive than the BCGreens (2020), but cannot rectify their allegedly being more economically “left” than I am.

I am going to skip over for now the entire can of worms that is drawing a divide between social policy and economic policy. It is, in the technical term, bullshit. Social policy *is* economic policy, and vice versa. Much smarter people than me have plumbed those depths, no point rehashing here. There is also a conceit in thinking that these two axes are the only ones, or even the most important ones, in people’s political narrative. Wherefore the Urbanist?

Instead, I want to pull up this image I dredged up from my archives of a Vote Compass I completed during the 2017 provincial election. I think it shows that not only is the Vote Compass a black box, but the apparently-simply graphic it outputs is not without its own political bias:

Though I have learned quite a bit (I think) in the last three years about reconciliation, have been challenged by BLM and related Canadian protests, and emboldened perhaps by the Climate Strikes, I don’t think my political ideas and ideals have shifted significantly since 2017. My position slightly left/progressive of the “center” of the NDP is probably as true now as then. But notice the axes around which the three parties have been aligned have shifted dramatically.

In the (upper) 2020 Compass, the NDP have been placed at the economic centre, when in 2017 (lower) they were well left of it – almost half way to the edge of the grid. The Liberals have in 3 years been pushed further right of the “centre”. Did the parties move, or the axes? Are these axes meant to represent some societal or political consensus? If not, then what are they?

The social axis is even more interesting. The Liberals are shown not shifting relative to this axis (which is arguable when comparing Christy Clark to Andrew Wilkinson in their ability to keep Laurie Throness quiet), where both the NDP and the Greens have been shifted markedly away from the “progressive” end of the spectrum towards the centre. I was bothered by where the Andrew Weaver Greens were placed on the 2017 grid, especially relative to the NDP because their policy and messaging simply did not reflect that, but the 2020 Greens under Furstenau have clearly staked out a more progressive agenda which simply isn’t reflected in this graphic.

The shift in Party poles vs. axes between the 2017 and 2020 CBC Vote Compass.

Put it all together, and the Vote Compass is showing a shift of all parties and me, or of the centre. Is this real? Is this an artifact of public opinion, of party policy shifts, of media bias, or just a freak of an algorithm?

Yes, I am reading too much into this. But political communications is all about reading too much into things. Now go vote.

Magic Bus

Here’s my get out and vote blog post, which often turns into a do more than vote blog post.

I heard from a few different sources this year a metaphor of democracy being like a bus, not a limo service. A bus doesn’t pick you up at your door, take the fastest route, and drop you at your destination. It can’t, because everyone else in your community needs the bus as well. The way public transit works is you find the bus that does the best job of getting you from where you are to near where you want to be, and take that ride. So it is with politics. It would be very rare for any party to promise 100% of what you want this or any election. It can’t, because government is a complicated thing with countless competing priorities, and governance is managing the balance between those priorities. Promising you everything means they will fail to deliver anything. You need to find the party (or candidate) that is going as close to the direction you want to go, and get on that bus. Because democracy is a collective action, even while voting is a solitary one.

I like that metaphor simile. But I want to expand on it, as is my wont.

When you rely on Transit, you don’t just jump on the first bus that comes along, or the bus your dad used to ride. If you don’t know what direction you want to go, it is tempting to hop on the shiniest bus. Without knowing the routes, however, you may be getting on a bus that suddenly turns down a strange road and leaves you lost in an unfamiliar neighbourhood. Spend a few minutes looking at platforms (they are all available on line), look at a few candidates, see what hey have to say and what their resumes tell you about their priorities. Ask your friends who they support and why. Doing your research beforehand is a really important part of the voting process, and increases the chances you will be satisfied with your choice, win or lose.

That said, voting is only the first part. Public Transportation is public, because it belongs to us. So does our democracy. We have the ability, and I would argue the responsibility, to assure the routes available meet our needs. We need to engage in our democracy even when the election is not on to assure the direction the parties go reflect where we want to go.

That means holding elected officials to account and staying informed on their progress. It also means providing positive and critical feedback to the elected officials you support and their parties, be they in Government or Opposition. If you have time, get involved in that party you supported, plop down your $10 to join the party and help them make decisions about their policy direction. Help them select candidates. If you like Party X but don’t like their position on Y, you need to let them know. The best way to change their policy on Y – the best way to get the bus route moved closer to your destination – is to be an engaged member outside of the election cycle.

Finally, one of the unique things visitors note about Vancouver is our tendency to thank the bus driver as we disembark. I think it is important that we thank the people who make our democracy work. The candidates who put their ideas to the public test, and put themselves into the public light. I know it is not an easy thing to do, the praise is fleeting and the criticism is internalized. It is a sacrifice that needs to be acknowledged and appreciated. There are also teams of volunteers who make the campaigns run, from lawn sign installers to phone callers to pamphlet stuffers to financial agents. Our democracy wouldn’t run without them, but we rarely note their efforts. Thanks, everyone.

So get out and vote, but also do the rest of the work to be a good transit rider, and a good citizen. We are all on the bus together, so mask up, be informed, be engaged, and be thankful.

All I’m asking for…

Transportation is one of the biggest files in provincial government. Though annual operational spending on the operations of transportation (transit, ferries, roads total just over $2 Billion) in BC is an order of magnitude lower than the Big Three of Health, Education, and Social Services, the combined annual capital expenditure of transport and transit (also about $2 Billion) is actually higher than any other service area in provincial government.

Transportation spending and policy also have huge impacts on two of the issues that all (rational) parties agree are top-of-the-heap right now: housing affordability and climate action. So why is there so little meaningful transportation policy, aside from stuck-in-the-1950s asphalt-based solutions? The two major parties do admittedly spend a little time arguing about who will build the shiniest new freeways or save drivers the most on their insurance costs, and the Greens transportation policy is a vapour-thin “support” for sustainable transportation. It’s dismal.

This is not to say the two major parties are equivalent on transportation. Far from it. The BC Liberals spent 16 years doing everything they could to punt transit spending down the road, including wasting everyone’s time with a referendum to decide if we would fund such a basic public good while racing to fund the biggest freeway boondoggle in BC history, and promising to fund another. The NDP, for as much as I hate their stubborn refusal to understand road pricing and its necessity in growing and constrained urban areas, have at last prioritized transit expansion.

The best evidence for this is that the TransLink area is receiving much more federal capital funding per capita than any other region in Canada right now, partly because we had the shovel-ready “green” projects, but mostly because our Provincial Government quickly committed to matching funding at a scale no other Province would. SkyTrain to Langley and UBC fans may (rightly, in my mind) argue this is still not enough or soon enough, but it is more than any other region in the country is building right now.

But that’s not what I’m here to whinge about.

As vital as transit is to our growing region, it is the Active Transportation realm where we are falling behind our global cohort. This last year has made it painfully clear to local governments in urban areas. As we shift how we live, shop, and work in the post-COVID recovery, and as there has been a quiet revolution in new technology for local transportation, cities simply cannot keep up. We spent the best part of a century reshaping our Cities around the needs of the private automobile, but we won’t have decades to undo that. We need to quickly re-think our infrastructure, and re-think our policy regime if we are going to meet the demands of the 21st century urban centre and our commitments to address GHG emissions. This is our challenge. The province could help.

I see no sign that any provincial government understands that, and none look prepared to address it. The NDP are the only one that has put together stand-alone policy on active transportation, so kudos there, but it simply does not go far enough. No party in this election is talking about helping local governments make the transportation shift that we need to make, or what the vision forward is.

So now that we are through the first part of the election and are deep into the lets-try-to-keep-them-awake-with-Oppo-research-mud-slinging second act, I thought I would sketch out my ideal Active Transportation Policy. Free for the taking for a Provincial Party that cares about the transportation needs of the 65% of British Columbians who live in large urban areas (though these policies may be even more useful for the people who live in smaller communities less able to fund their own Active Transportation initiatives). Share and enjoy!


Funding:
The Provincial MOTI should have a separate fund for Active Transportation infrastructure in municipal areas. Using the projected cost of a single freeway expansion project (the Massey Tunnel replacement) as a scale, $4 Billion over 10 years is clearly something parties think is affordable. This would represent about 15% of MOTI capital funding over that decade.

If handed out through grants to appropriate projects to local governments across the province on a per-capita basis, that would mean up to $57 Million for New West – enough to complete a true AAA separated cycle network, triple our annual sidewalk and intersection improvement program, and still have enough left over to pay for the Pier-to-Landing route. It means Burnaby would have the money to bring the BC Parkway up to 21st century standards and connect their other greenways, it would mean Richmond could finally afford to fix the bucolic death trap that is River Road.

Give the Cities the resources to make it happen, and it would make British Columbia the North American leader in active transportation infrastructure. For the cost of one silly bridge.

Active Transportation Guidelines
Update and adapt the Active Transportation Design Guide with new sections to address new needs in transportation: new devices, new technologies, and reduced speeds of automobiles.

Make the guidelines standards that local governments must meet to receive funding above, and make requirements for all new MOTI infrastructure in the Province. No more bullshit hard shoulders as bike lanes, fund infrastructure that works.

Legislation:
Repeal and replace the 1950s Motor Vehicle Act following the recommendations of the Road Safety Law Reform Group of British Columbia, starting with the re-framing as a Road and Streets Safety Act to emphasize the new multi-modal use of our transportation realm.

Immediately reduce the maximum speed limits on any urban road without a centreline to 30km/h, and give local governments the authority to increase this limit where appropriate.

Introduce measures to regulate and protect the users of bicycles, motorized mobility aids, e-bikes, scooters and other new mobility technology, including a Safe Passing law and regulations towards the clear separation of cycles and motorized cycles from pedestrian spaces along with clearly mandated rules and responsibilities for use to reduce conflict in multi-use spaces.

Education:
Implement driver knowledge testing with licence renewal. The Motor Vehicle Act has changed in the 30 years since I was last asked to test my knowledge of it (self-test – what are elephant feet, and what do they mean?) and it will be changing much more in years to come. Written/in office testing for all drivers with every 5-year renewal is a first step, and road testing for those with poor driving records will do a lot to bring back a culture of driving as a responsibility not a right.

Fund cycling and pedestrian safety program in all schools, similar to the cycling training the City of New Westminster funds through HUB.

Enforcement:
A comprehensive review of the fine and penalty structure for Motor Vehicle Act (or it’s replacement) violations, to emphasize more punitive measures for those who violate the Act in ways that endanger vulnerable road users.

Empower local governments to install intersection and speed enforcement camera technology and provide a cost recovery scheme for installation of this type of automated enforcement for municipalities who choose to use them.


That’s it. Engineering, education, and enforcement. Operational costs are mostly directly recoverable, and the capital investment is not only small compared to the MOTI capital budget, it is in scale with the mode share of active transportation in urban areas. The legislative changes are not free, but the resultant savings to ICBC and the health care system of reduced injury and death should be significant.

We can do these things. We should do these things. Our cities will be safer, more livable, and less polluting. This is an area where BC can lead, we just need someone willing to lead.

a follow-up

In my last post, I tried to give some data on how policing works in BC and New Westminster, and I tried to do so without opining, recognizing that my own biases and opinions probably sneak in all over everything I write.

There was one asterisked statement in that post I wanted to follow up on, because it relied on a more detailed reading of the Police Act, and that post was long enough without this extra 1,000-word digression. However, in the day or two since I started sketching out that previous post, there has been much news, including the Mayor of Vancouver saying he really can’t do much about policing costs, some in the chattering class suggesting that was artless dodging, and the Solicitor General and Premier saying the Police Act is due for an update. All of the sudden, that asterisked point became the center of debate, so I will try to unpack a bit here.

Again, by means of caveat: I am not a lawyer or specialist in interpreting legal documents. I am not on the Police Board, so operating under the Police Act is not part of my day-to-day. I may get details wrong here, and please correct me if I do.

The Police Act says that a municipality over 5,000 residents must pay for policing. At first blush, that means City Council is responsible for approving the Police Budget (both operational and their capital requests) as part of their annual budget work, and we do that. However, that is not the entire story.

Section 15 of the Police Act says:

…a municipality …must bear the expenses necessary to generally maintain law and order in the municipality and must provide, in accordance with this Act, the regulations and the director’s standards, policing and law enforcement in the municipality with a police force or police department of sufficient numbers to adequately enforce municipal bylaws, the criminal law and the laws of British Columbia, and to maintain law and order in the municipality, adequate accommodation, equipment and supplies for the operations of and use by the police force or police department

This makes clear that the Provincial Government has ultimate authority to determine the level to which police are funded in BC. Section 17 of the Act follows up by saying the Director of Police Services (a Provincial Government employee appointed by the Solicitor General, see Section 39 of the Police Act) must notify the City they are in breach and direct them to fix it. If they fail to do so, the Solicitor General can fix it, and send the municipality the bill.

Section 26 also puts policing costs at the foot of the Police Board:

Subject to a collective agreement as defined in the Labour Relations Code, the chief constable and every constable and employee of a municipal police department must be employees of the municipal police board, provided with the accommodation, equipment and supplies the municipal police board considers necessary for his or her duties and functions, and paid the remuneration the municipal police board determines.

Then Section 27 lays out the slightly-convoluted response if the Council refuses to pay for something the Police Board asks. The Board or Council may appeal to the Director (that Provincial government employee), who determines “whether the item or amount should be included in the budget”, and reports back, cc’ing the Solicitor General. If ordered so, the Council must include the item in its budget, or be in violation of the Police Act. Naturally, a lot rides on that should above, but ultimately, the Solicitor General holds all the cards in this dispute.

The grey ares in the middle of all this is the determination of what “sufficient numbers” and “adequate” are in the sections above. How does one measure if the level of service planned by the Police Board and funded by the Council is sufficient? Or more to the point, how would one know when it is insufficient?

This brings us to Regulations, which are pieces of Legislation that exist under Acts. Again, not a lawyer here, but Acts are high level documents enacted by the Legislature that set out general principles and duties, establishing the will of the Government. Regulations are subordinate to and empowered by Acts, but include a lot of the fuzzy details that often need adjustment without opening up the entire big Act. A probably-wrong but simplified example: an Act would say “driving above a speed limit is illegal”, where the subordinate Regulation would say “Speed limits on urban roads is 50km/h unless otherwise designated”.

In Section 74, the Police Act gives the “Lieutenant Governor in Council” (a fancy way to say, the government of the day) the power to create Regulations on various aspects of the Act, including:

prescribing the minimum salary or other remuneration and allowances to be paid to members of police forces, police departments, designated policing units or designated law enforcement units” and “prescribing the minimum number of members of police forces, police departments and designated policing units that are to be employed on a basis of population, area or property assessment, on any combination of them, or on another basis

To the best of my knowledge, these regulations do not actually exist (a list of regulations that do exist under the Police Act is available here). Police staff numbers and police remuneration are determined by the Board, the latter approved by the Council, and Regulations just don’t come into it. There is, however, a legal ability for the provincial government to create such regulations if needed to clarify the funding required for “adequate” policing. Short those regulations, if a dispute occurred and persisted, it would likely end up in the Courts and a judge would decide, though my (unskilled) reading of the Act suggests it would be the Police Board whose opinion carries the most weight.

In in my time on Council in New Westminster, there has never been a significant conflict between the Board and Council on the budget. Council has, on several occasions, reviewed budget augmentation requests made by the Police as part of our annual budgeting process and sent some back for review. This type of negotiation has always resulted in agreed-upon operational budget and Capital requests, much like in other departments in the City from Engineering to Parks.

Yes, a Municipal Council could push back hard against a Police budget and significantly reduce it. Yes, the Police Board could appeal to the provincial government if they feel this reduction would not allow them to discharge their duty under the Police Act to “enforce municipal bylaws, the criminal law and the laws of British Columbia; maintain law and order in the municipality; and prevent crime”. Then the ball would firmly be in the provincial government’s court to determine the path forward – accept that Council’s reductions or order the Council to pay. No doubt, Politics would ensue.