Workshop – July 8, 2024

Council has been holding more “workshop” style meetings, with the idea that these meetings are where staff and council can dig into more details about programs, strategies, or ideas, prior to them coming to Council. There are a few advantages to this. They reduce the number of staff who have to come to evening Council meetings, which can go quite late, leading to significant overtime costs. They also allow us to have a bit more informal presentations and toss around ideas, raise concerns prior to Bylaws or strategies being fully cooked for approval at Council.

I rarely report out on Workshops, as these are generally preliminary things that will be reported out in the evening meeting when ideas are more fully baked. However, our workshop last week had 6 items that I thought were interesting to write about, and fit a bit with the theme of the evening meeting that I reported out on here (and complained about in the newsletter, for you subscribers). Workshops are public meetings, so you can watch them here and read the agenda if you like.

Massey Theatre Capital Project Additional Scope Items
The City made a decision more than a decade ago to “Save the Massey Theatre”. At the time, the theatre belonged to the School District and the School Board of the time decided that they didn’t want the hassle of updating or maintaining an end-of-life theatre with 1,300 seats, and determined it would be demolished with the old NWSS. A community uprising ensued, and City Council decided to take on the theatre in a land swap with the School District.

Of course, the Council of the day had no idea what the financial impacts of that decision would be. The Massey is a 75 year old building, and the School District did not spend a lot on maintenance or upgrades for quite some time, expecting the building to be demolished. We have already committed $22 Million in what we consider important life safety, building envelope, and accessibility upgrades, including the demolition of the north gym, for which there is simply no business case for preserving. That work is ongoing. It was hoped that the gym removal and envelope work would allow us to get a few more years out of the end-of-like HVAC systems (as it would significantly reduce the load on those systems). But it looks like the AC is failing sooner than we hoped.

Staff are going to develop a project plan for HVAC repair, upgrade, or replacement. Very preliminary estimates of replacing the heating and AC systems is $8 Million, but again, this is the kind of thing where estimating costs is not easy until you start doing the planning work. There is hopefully opportunity for us to avail ourselves of Green Municipal Fund or other senior government grants. There will no doubt be energy saving and greenhouse gas reductions coming with these upgrades (the Massey is now the largest single source of GHG emissions in the city’s facility stock, another unanticipated cost Council might not have thought of 15 years ago), and that combined with the Heritage and Arts and Culture aspects, make it a pretty attractive project for senior government partnership.

Council Strategic Plan – First Annual Report
A compliment to the Annual Report that was presented in regular Council, this report is more of a status report on progress toward the Strategic Priorities Plan that was adopted by Council in early 2023. There is a bit of a “stoplight” report here, with green for things on track, yellow for things falling behind, and red for things not moving forward enough.

Clearly, the elephant in the room is the massive shift in housing regulations that we could not anticipate when developing our Strategic Plan, and the workload related to those changes in regulation. I think when it comes to the need to increase housing supply near transit, and diversity of infill housing, our approach to these provincial changes will support goals in the long-term, though the road may be a bit rockier than we anticipated. I am still disappointed in the lack of rapid funding for affordable and supportive housing, never mind our persistent lack of a 24/7 shelter, but we continue to advocate to the province for these.

One of our strategic Plan pillars was around making transportation safer, and though we are doing the engineering work, there are identified safety governance and culture challenge. I will be bringing a motion to Council by the fall that asks for support to commit New Westminster to become a Vision Zero community. Bringing a safe systems approach to road safety and that may be a test of our ability to coordinate between departments in the City and other government agencies. We have suggested this direction in our strategic plan, but I think we need clear direction from Council if staff are to make this a priority and commit the resources to make it happen.

I also note that the biggest risks identified to moving our priorities forward are staff and resource shortages. We have been hiring, and are filling positions as fast as possible in this hypercompetitive labour market, but we still have a lot of staff doing too much off the side of their desks, and are at the limit of what we can deliver as a City until we give staff some space to breathe. The other stress is increasing cost escalation for all engineering projects – construction cost inflation is much higher than CPI right now, and our capital plan will be strained to keep up.

It is worth while watching the presentation from staff here, as they did a great job framing not just the pillars of the strategic plan, but also talking about how staff are keeping us abreast of the “lenses and foundations” part of the plan – how we are assuring the things we are doing are being done in a way that aligns with the expressed values of the Council around reconciliation, DEIAR, and climate action (for example).

For reasons never made clear, because there were no question or comments offered by the members to explain why, two members of Council voted against receiving this report.

Comprehensive Public Toilet Strategy Council Motion: Confirming Direction
This was actually a short discussion, as the direction from last week’s meeting on the Public Toilet strategy was from Council directly, not from a staff report. So staff put a quick report together to reframe those instructions in a way that is clear for them and aligned with previous instructions, and gave it to us to approve. The majority of Council moved forward with, and get us to approve it, but two Councillors voted against moving forward with a public toilet strategy.

Budget 2025 Public Engagement Methodology
We are going to do a commissioned survey on budget priorities to help inform the next Budget discussion. This is external to the Public Engagement process we usually go through, as it isn’t really “public engagement” as it would be defined by IAP2. There is a good article talking about the challenges of surveys as engagement here. However, it has been a few years since we did a public opinion survey in the City (I seem to remember one in my first term of Council, 6 years ago?), and so I’m not opposed to going through this process. However, we do need to be sure we put it in the right context.

I also thought it was funny to see this exchange on BlueSky the week we approved this:

Not an opinion I necessarily endorse, just one that made me laugh.

Procurement Policy Update
This is very Inside Baseball, but our procurement strategy has not been updated since 2013, and there have been significant shifts in construction costs over that decade. One part of the change is to align our thresholds for public procurement with those in the New West Partnership Agreement, a public procurement agreement that covers all of Western Canada. The second part is to update the values at which an emergency sole source contract can be awarded by the Purchasing Manager or CAO to align better with practices in neighboring communities and keep up with practical needs. A couple of Councillors voted against the second part here, but the majority of Council supported the update.

Development Application Process Review
One of the common narratives in the current housing crisis is that municipalities are to blame because we are slow approving new homes. There is no doubt that the steps to approve a new high-density building are complex, and include a huge number of geotechnical, engineering, building code, and other approvals to assure the building is safe, but also reviews about how a new building connects to the sewer system, the electrical grid, the road network, etc. The City of New west has been, since 2023, going through a Development Application Process Review to find out if there are redundancies, pauses, issues that make the process slower than it needs to be. The initial report from the Consultant is clear in its conclusion: “the City’s current development review process does not include any fundamental steps or requirements that would unnecessarily lead to slower approval times”. This is good. But there are opportunities to make things work smoother and more predictably in our approvals process, including better recordkeeping and increased digitization of records. These processes will require people to do them, but we fortunately have access to grants to pay for those people while the processes are updated, and permit fees for development should pay for most of their work going forward.

The purpose of this report is twofold. First, to seek Council’s endorsement of the results of the City’s Development Application Process Review, and second to seek Council’s endorsement of bringing new staff positions to the 2025 Budget discussion, recognizing the positions would be initially be offset by the UBCM Local Government Approvals Grant.

Council voted in a slim majority to approve this work, with two members voted against both receiving the report and doing anything about it, raising concerns about possible future impact on taxpayers. But I need to put this particular “no” into context. It was a year ago (May 29, 2023, I wrote about it here) when a motion asking for this very thing was proffered by a City Councillor. Council at the time voted it down because these processes were already going on, and the motion looked to be doing nothing but adding layers of bureaucracy to it. But Council voted that motion down knowing the work would go on because it was already happening. Now that the DAPR process has returned results, that Councillor who was so interested in “reviewing the effectiveness of and efficiency of our planning processes and procedures” opposes both the receipt of a report that outlines this, and the allocation of resources to make those processes and procedures work better. It simply baffles the mind.

After all that, the summary is that we are getting the work done, from Massey to DAPR, the City has a lot going on, and are making progress on so many fronts. I’m really proud of this work, but we have a lot more to do.

Housing and Growth

The discussion around provincial housing regulations hasn’t slowed down, as the first of several deadlines related to bills 44, 46, and 47 came and went. Some Cities have complied, some have chosen a different path. In New Westminster we adopted two Bylaws in June that make us complaint, and staff are busily working on the next steps- a renewed Housing Needs Assessment, OCP updates, and revising our DCC, ACC, and Density Bonus programs.

City staff are also working with provincial staff on their Housing Target Order methodology, so we can respond on the expected timeline, likely in August. I was on the radio last week alongside the Mayor of Langley Township talking to Belle Puri about this (you can listen here!), and we had slightly different takes on the core issue. I actually agree with the Minister that the introduction of Small-scale Multi-Unit Housing and Transit Oriented Area regulations will be a good thing. IT is clearly a massive hassle and staff time suck to implement, and will likely slow down development for a short period of time while everyone finds their path through the massive changes, in the end it will be a positive for the reshaping of the next era of regional growth.

My problem remains that we have had some significant tools taken away that we have used to fund infrastructure and amenities in our community. Equally troubling is that our ability to compel developers to build childcare, to provide spaces for new schools or parks, or to include affordable housing as part of their developments, has been eroded at the same time that the cost for development has gone up. It is unclear whether the Province is going to give us the money needed to make up for these shortfalls, or expect property tax to fill the void.

That said, I did appreciate the Minister’s thoughtful responses the next day (you can hear them here!). We are all trying to get the same thing done on housing, and I hope that the province brings the kind of aggressive, proactive change to our funding model that they did to our building approvals model. Dare to dream.

There was another related piece of news that snuck out last week, and it was related to a report we received at Metro Vancouver Regional Planning Committee. Metro staff working with academic demographers have created updated regional growth projections. These are not “targets” the region is aiming for, but instead projections of what is likely to happen given demographic changes, birth/death statistics, immigration, and inter-regional and inter-provincial migration patterns. The numbers are all here in this report.

The local angle on this might surprise some folks, especially my colleague on the radio last week from Langley Township who always refers to his community as the “high growth region”, that the City projected to grow fastest over the next 6, 16, and 26 years is New Westminster. Here’s the numbers:

These are numbers for the medium-growth scenario, but both the low-growth and high-growth scenarios have us in a similar spot: top of the charts for proportional growth.

There are a lot of factors that drive this, including our commitment to Transit Oriented Development and the large proportion of our City that is near that transit, but also the balance of housing types, the “sweet spot” between affordability and location on the north side of the River, and the attractiveness to both young families in the growing stage, and new arrivals to Canada and the Lower Mainland – for every reason you choose to live here.

This speaks to our Housing Needs Report, but it also speaks to our need to invest in infrastructure now to support that growth, and the community amenities that residents want in a thriving, growing community. Adding austerity to this trend will be a disaster for the livability of our community, we need to show leadership to shape a community that serves today/s residents, and the people arriving tomorrow.

FCM 2024

June’s been a very busy month with little time to get a bike ride in or write about the things going on. The long weekend couldn’t come fast enough, and I got a nice long bike ride in on Saturday, so here is another piece of catching up, sorry it took a month to get here!

Back in the beginning of June, Councillor Henderson and I attended the annual Federation of Canadian Municipalities meeting in Calgary. I gave a bit of a photo preview here, and people who subscribe to my Newsletter got my summary of the politics part of the program, so that leaves this post as a bit of a broad overview and my highlights from the meeting.

FCM is the annual meeting of local government leaders from across Canada. As Lower Mainland LGA is for the Lower Mainland, and UBCM is for the province of BC, FCM is a chance for us to get together, attend tours, workshops and panels to learn what’s happening in other jurisdictions, share our successes, challenges and opportunities, and do some networking. It is also an opportunity for us to meet with national agencies (the Federal Government, Railways, Ports, etc.) and talk though issues or opportunities.

FCM is not my favorite conference. The municipal-federal relationship is a bit less clear than the municipal-provincial one, and FCM tends to skew towards the rural, with many more representatives from small towns in the Prairies and Ontario than there are form the urban areas with who we share challenges and opportunities. This year provided a couple of unique opportunities to talk to folks about train whistle cessation, the Green Municipal Fund, and some other funding opportunities in the transportation and housing files that tipped the balance towards attending in Calgary. Those conversations, still being preliminary, I will be talking more about in the near future.

Solar Energy
As a member of the New West Electrical Commission and somebody generally interested in the energy transition, I leapt at the opportunity to take a tour of new solar generation projects in the Canadian city most closely aligned with fossil fuels. Like most events at FCM, this tour was also a chance to talk to other people around the nation to hear how their transition plan is going (Kirkland Quebec: 75% of their municipal fleet is electric, but two municipal buildings run on diesel generators because of an underdeveloped electrical grid; Summerland BC has invested not just in solar, but in battery storage for peak shaving), but the star of the show was three installations of new solar power by the City of Calgary.

We saw an example of small installations on the roof of neighbourhood community centres, where the queerness of the Alberta “Micro-Generation Regulation” makes it illegal for a project like this to produce more energy than consumed by the building that hosts it. We saw a medium-sized (1.2M kWh/year) solar-panel-as-parking-lot-shade project, and a larger (5.5M kWh/year) filed array at a landfill site on the edge of town. There were some great learnings here about snow (not much of a problem, except when the warm panels melt it and make the parking lot below a skating rink), hail (they manage golf-ball-sized hail without damage) and design angles (turns out pointing arrays optimally at the sun is less important than you think), and various technical and lifecycle costing details.

In the end, it always comes back to economics, and it is hard to translate the Calgary example to British Columbia. First, their consumer electrical rates are highly variable and typically twice BC Hydro rates, so their pay back times and value as a hedge against price uncertainty do not translate at all. Secondly, Alberta still has fossil fuels as the foundation of its electrical generation base, meaning the GHG reductions resulting from these installations are significant, where in BC this would simply not be the case except ins a few off-grid communities.

Sustaining Growth
A common theme across workshops was the challenge of growth and trying to keep up with infrastructure funding. It was a bit relieving to hear it wasn’t just me, as these pressures are being felt in many regions of the Country, from Saskatoon (14,000 people moved there last year, while only 2,500 new housing units were built, having predictable impacts on homelessness, rents and vacancies) to Toronto (much like BC, the Province is bringing in aggressive legislation to drive local development, but not providing tools to fund infrastructure investment).

Among stories of Exciting! New! Massive! Developments! like Quayside in Toronto, Zibi in Ottawa, and Brighton in Saskatoon, the stories are more about development paused due to interest rates, construction costs, and economic uncertainty, local challenges in funding important infrastructure to support the growth, and a general inability to find the financing room for significant affordable housing among new developments. At the same time, jurisdictions across the country are seeing increased downloading of provincial infrastructure costs (school, hospitals, etc.) to local governments while provincial governments in the same breath blame local governments for increased development costs – one of the few tools local governments have to pay for those downloads.

It’s almost like people are starting to recognize the Market is not going to fix the problem created by two decades of runaway market growth. This is hardly news in Greater Vancouver, but to hear the same lament across the country in cities of various sizes comes with both the comfort of not being alone, and the recognition that this is a national crisis that needs a national response. No amount of digitizing local building plans or using AI to speed up approvals is going to fix it. We need a new financial model.

Municipal Growth Framework
The FCM itself does common advocacy, and they are addressing the infrastructure funding gap by asking for a new Municipal Growth Framework. There were several discussions of this during the conference, and it was referenced by the Federal housing minister during his address to the delegates.

Fundamental to this is a review of the funding model for local governments, dominated as it is by the single tool of property tax. Even the way we tax property is such that it is not intrinsically linked to population and economic growth. The senior governments get most of their revenue from income, sales, and consumption taxes. When the economy grows, their tax revenues increase automatically track along with it, because a growing economy grows incomes, sales, and consumption. Though people have the impression property taxes are increasing at unprecedented rates, they are not increasing anywhere near the rate of the thing they tax – property values:

The MGF also asks for the Federal government to step up their contribution to municipalities by $2.6 billion per year (which is about 5% of annual GST revenues), and to index these contributions to GDP growth. There is also an ask for Provincial Governments to agree to match these federal investments through reform of municipal finance, or allocation of a portion of PST or Provincial income taxes.

Finally, the MGF asks for a comprehensive plan to address chronic homelessness through federal re-investment in non-market housing, and a more coordinated approach between federal and provincial governments.

Alas, at least one of the panels I attended around this need for public re-investment in our communities kept circling back to some apparent need for municipalities to “reduce transaction friction” and “build structures where business can invest [in infrastructure] with certainty”. The neoliberal imperative filtering back into the problem created by 30 years of neoliberal austerity.

Mental Health innovation
This was an excellent panel comparing three different municipal approaches to a nation-wide challenge – addressing the community impacts of the mental health crises. The PACT program in New Westminster was one of the models presented (by the Canadian Mental Health Association), along with EMMIS in Montreal and REACH in Edmonton. The targets and the approaches vary quite a bit. This is most obvious in the funding sources, EMMIA being a $50 Million project over 5 years, with the cost evenly split between the Province and the Municipality, where REACH is about $4.5M Million a year, 100% funded by the Municipality, and PACT is 100% funded by the Provincial government.

In Montreal, there is not just a diversion and crisis support function, but also a function to address “social cohabitation issues between people who share public space”, which more closely parallels the City of New Westminster’s Three Crises Response Pilot.

In Edmonton, there is a close tracking of activity and success, and through 33,000+ responses and 4,000+ emergency service referrals, they have tracked the social return on investment of at least $1,90 for every dollar invested. Montreal has seen similar levels of pay back, though the tracking of health care savings and other externals is surely an underestimate.

Finally, there was an excellent expert panel on protecting the health and safety of municipal workers (included elected officials) at the front line of the polycrisis. This spoke of the tools we need to give staff who are addressing a perceived or real loss of civility and standards of respectful behaviors, on the streets and inside City Halls. There was much discussion of the widespread introduction of Integrity Commissioners, and the challenge they have in addressing egregious behaviors, when so many of our policies and practices are based on an assumption of good faith. It was commonly recognized that good faith was not a universal political or social principle these days, presumably driven by social media and increased anxiety in the pandemic hangover.

As maybe a final take-away, one of the benefits of a meeting like this is the recognition that none of your challenges are unique. Municipalities across the country, in every province, are dealing with similar and overlapping challenges. Talking to our cohort, there are areas of work we need to be very proud of in New West – our aggressive Asset Management Plan, our leadership in PACT and with our Three Crises Response work, while there are areas we can benefit from the experience of others.

Council – June 10, 2024

Our Monday Council meeting was another long one with a fairly short agenda, but aside from a full list of public delegates, there were also quite a few speeches that needed to be made, so there we are. We started with a Development Variance Permit for consideration:

Development Variance Permit No. DVP00697 for 114-118 Sprice Street
The owner of these properties in Queensborough is rezoning to build 10 compact lot detached homes. Nothing unusual here, in fact when it came to Council for a comprehensive review almost a year ago, Council approved it on Consent without comment. The Bylaw also saw three readings by Council and adoption this year, all without comment. So I was a little surprised when this DVP (required only because the lot dimensions are such that that the frontage is less than 10% of the total lot circumference, which the Local Government Act says staff can’t approve without a Development Variance Permit) resulted in numerous questions from a single member of Council that were more related to the previous-approved rezoning than the DVP, but here we are. Nonetheless, Council approved the DVP.

We then had the following items Removed form Consent for discussion:

Building Safer Communities Fund Program Update February 2023 to March 2024
The City received BSCF funding (up to $1.7 million) from the federal government to implement a plan to address youth being at risk for gang involvement of violent crime. The working group established by the City to implement the plan, and incredible partnerships in our community – NWPD, the Lower Mainland Purpose Society, Dan’s Legacy, the School District and many others. Between the Situation Table model that is aligning agencies to address very specific and emergent needs to the Youth Hub at Purpose, we are building resiliency in our community here. This report is long, because there is a lot happening. I’m really proud of our community for doing this work, but it was effectively just an update for our consideration, not an action item for Council.

Development Variance Permit for Works & Services Security – 602 Agnes Street (68 Sixth Street) Affordable Housing Project – Notice of Consideration of Issuance
68 sixth street is moving forward, now addressed as 602 Agnes. This is a bit of government sausage-making, but the short version is we need a services agreement to connect any new building to City services (electrical, water, sewer) and usually collect a Letter of Credit to secure any unexpected costs the City may suffer from this connection. With a regular developer that is an important piece of security in case the development goes insolvent so the city (taxpayers) doesn’t get caught holding the bag. With BC Housing, we are pretty sure they are not going to go bankrupt, so we are asking for a letter of indemnity (a promise to pay, effectively) instead of freezing up their capital. This needs Council approval, which we are doing, because we want affordable housing built.

We then address several Motions from Council:

Tenant Protections
Submitted by Councillor Campbell and Councillor Nakagawa

WHEREAS new provincial legislation is creating a path for increased development density around transit areas which will impact many more affordable New Westminster neighbourhoods due to our abundant transit services; and
WHEREAS Bill 16 (Housing Statutes Amendment Act) allows municipalities to enact tenant protection bylaws related to redevelopment, including within transit-oriented areas; and
WHEREAS tenants—especially those in older and more affordable rental housing— may be disproportionately impacted due to this new development; and
WHEREAS New Westminster has previously shown leadership in protecting vulnerable renters with strong actions to curtail demoviction and renoviction; and
WHEREAS the regional housing market is reaching new levels of crisis, increasing the risk that existing tenants will lose access to adequate housing through displacement related to redevelopment;
THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED THAT the City of New Westminster update our tenant protection and relocation policies, using Burnaby’s as a model to provide support for tenants who may be displaced from their homes, including by redevelopment.

We had several people, including folks from the New West Tenants union delegate to Council about this issue, all in support of the motion. There is significant concern that the unanticipated impacts of the new Transit Oriented Development regulations from the province may impact our ability to enforce demoviction protections in the same way we have previously at the same time as it puts increased pressure on redevelopment near transit centers. Time for a review. This was also timely as Tasha and I had returned from FCM, where we both saw protesters calling for basic rental protections for Alberta (where there is almost none) and met with Councillors from Ontario that were using New Westminster anti-rennoviction bylaws as a model for their own similar regulatory approach to protecting the most affordable homes in their community. The contrast was shocking and reminded me of what side of this fight I want New Westminster Council to be on. Council voted to support this motion.

Making the Annual State of the City Address More Inclusive to Our Youth
Submitted by Councillor Fontaine

Whereas a recent series of State of the City addresses by the current and past Mayor have taken place at a private venue that restricts entry only to those 19 years and older; and
Whereas the most recent State of the City address held on May 7th, 2024 was a ticketed event which also required people show government issued identification to enter the premises; and
Whereas the City of New Westminster is committed to supporting our youth and embracing inclusivity; and Whereas other Mayors within our region ensure their State of the City address is held in an open, no-cost, low-barrier venue such as at City Hall;
BE IT RESOLVED THAT Council prohibit the Mayor from hosting future State of the City events that are not fully accessible to all members of the public free of charge.

I cringe whenever we use possessives to describe a group of people, but we don’t debate the titles of these motions.

This motion seemed to be based on a strange idea about what the State of the City is, as an event. The word “official” kept getting applied to it by the mover for unknown reasons. There is nothing “official” about it. It isn’t in the Local Government Act or any other legislation in the City. This is not the Annual Report of the City (which is “official”, prepared by staff and delivered by the CAO of the City in Council Chambers).

Instead, the State of the City in New Westminster (like in almost every other City in BC where such a thing takes place, including Surrey, Vancouver, Delta, White Rock, Langley, North Vancouver, Burnaby, etc…) is a partnership with the Chamber of Commerce in the form of a ticketed business luncheon sponsored by valued local businesses. I think the participation by the Mayor in a Board of Trade or Chamber event of this nature is a win-win.

There are many events that I am asked to take part in where I talk to select groups of the community about the City. That’s one of the roles of Mayor. Last week I gave a (shortened and looser) version of the STOC to seniors at a registration-required event at təməsew̓txʷ, I have also met recently with several elementary and middle school classes to talk about local government and the City. Net month, I will be talking to the (Members only!) Rotary Club and next week providing a Keynote to the (registration required!) Active Transportation Summit. None of these were open and accessible to all for a variety of reasons, but are facilitated to address a specific group. I don’t think there is anything wrong with the Mayor taking part in these types of events, and I can only speculate why some members of Council want to limit my ability to talk to different groups of the public.

Anyway, Council defeated this motion. And for those curious, the State of the City is recorded and streamed on the City’s website, anyone can watch it any time they want, which I think is a nice benefit for every one of the Chamber providing their partnership for this event.

Undertaking a review of the City’s outdoor events policies, procedures and permit fees
Submitted by Councillor Minhas

Whereas the process, procedures and policies linked to the establishment of outdoor events in New Westminster has been described at complex, costly and a challenge to overcome; and
Whereas there is a desire on the part of the City to encourage more outdoor events on a regular basis throughout the year; and
Whereas it is good practice to regularly seek feedback from the community regarding whether there are opportunities to streamline our processes in order to reduce red tape;
BE IT RESOLVED THAT Council establish a citizen-based taskforce to review our policies, procedures and permit fees regarding how they may be impeding the development of new and/or putting into jeopardy existing outdoor events; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED THAT the taskforce make recommendations to Council regarding how we can streamline our processes and reduce red tape to help facilitate more outdoor events on a regular basis.

This resolution seemed to be a solution looking for a problem. Rather like some recent discussions about businesses abandoning New Westminster while our business license count shows we are growing new businesses faster than ever, this motion seems to be about a nostalgia for events that no-one in the community was interested in running (Show and Shine) without recognizing that we have organizations running literally dozens of events in the City, from well-established events with long history like the Hyack Parade and Nagar Kirtan, to the new traditions of Uptown Live, Pride Week, and Recovery Day, to emergent new events like On Your Block, National Indigenous Peoples Day, and Blocktober Fest. The best part is to see the recovery after COVID and how people in the community show up for these events.

It seems the mover didn’t speak to the organizers of these events putting this together, or otherwise did not recall the work the City is doing in this space, endorsed by Council in February. The mover is a member of the Arts, Culture and Economic Development Advisory Committee, where much of this work is being coordinated (as Festivals are the perfect interaction od Arts, Culture, and Economic Development), and would have benefited from getting caught up on what’s happening at that committee.
Staff have created a FEST team to coordinate though a one-stop-shop the fire, police, engineering, traffic and Fraser Health requirements that are often the biggest logistical step for festivals. There are other concerns related to policing and safety costs, which is where the City’s current work on updating our Grants process has a role. We are also building back our volunteer coordination resources after COVID, as volunteer support is one of the areas where many festival organizers are feeling pinched. I don’t want us to take people off of those work areas to coordinate another task force. It seems that adds to instead of reducing complication and bureaucracy.

Council did not support this motion.

Requesting that Metro Vancouver conduct an independent review of the North Shore Wastewater Treatment Plan cost overruns
Submitted by Councillor Fontaine

Whereas Metro Vancouver’s North Shore Wastewater Treatment Plant project is now estimated to cost nearly $4 billion dollars, a massive cost overrun compared to the original $500 million dollar budget; and
Whereas the specific circumstances that led to one of the largest cost overruns of any public infrastructure project (on a percentage basis) are still mainly unknown; and
Whereby given Metro Vancouver is about to undertake several other mega projects that will cost Metro Vancouver taxpayers billions of dollars;
BE IT RESOLVED THAT Mayor Patrick Johnstone, as our representative on Metro Vancouver, be asked to submit a motion to that governing body calling for a full, independent public inquiry into the North Shore Wastewater Treatment Plant cost overruns.

This motion may have benefitted from the mover talking to their colleagues on Council or on the Metro Vancouver Board instead of spending all their time talking into various TV cameras. And the conversation about it in Council was equally frustrating, because it never seemed to get through that the motion (if approved) was not going to deliver what the mover seemed to insist would be the result. On that failure to understand the situation, I prefer to invoke Hanlon’s Razor.

Like the mover, I also have significant questions about how the North Shore Wastewater Treatment Plan was approved at just over $700 million, and the conditions that led to the firing of the main contractor in 2021 – events that presaged the current budget on the order of $3.8 Billion – because I was not on the Board when those events occurred. But I do know (and it has been widely reported) that we are currently in the middle of a legal fight with that contractor – suit and countersuits that will no doubt preclude any full public disclosure of the conditions that led to those lawsuits until people get their day in court, because that is how legal processes work. One would expect Metro Vancouver, having several hundred million public dollars at stake in those legal proceedings, do not want to do anything that might jeopardize them. So, calls for a public inquiry at this time will not be heard by anyone in a position of responsible governance.

I know that isn’t a satisfying answer to anyone, it isn’t a satisfying answer to me. But that is where we are, and when I serve on the Board of Metro Vancouver, I have a legal duty of fidelity to that organization, and cannot ask for things that would threaten that.

What I can say is that this situation is not representative of how Metro Vancouver delivers large infrastructure projects. Metro is commonly delivering numerous large and complex infrastructure projects in the hundreds-of-millions scale, from water treatment to major region-spanning pipelines, and has a strong record of delivering on time and on budget. The Metro board has also committed to internal review and addressing concerns that led here so they don’t end up in the same boat on future major capital projects. There is no reason to believe that this is a new normal, or a situation that will be repeated in future capital investments.

In the end, Council did not support this motion, as it would not deliver what the mover wanted to insist it would deliver. However, this is not the last we will be talking about this project.

Supporting families, people with mobility challenges and/or a disability to access New Westminster’s waterfront
Submitted by Councillor Minhas

Whereas access to our City’s waterfront should be something accessible to all residents, regardless if they have mobility challenges or not; and
Whereas there are several City owned-operated elevators that connect our downtown to the waterfront which have been out of service for periods of several months at a time; and
Whereas a lack of elevator access can prove challenging for people with mobility difficulties to access our waterfront
BE IT RESOLVED THAT staff report back to Council regarding the status of our City owned-operated elevators (connecting our downtown to the waterfront) over the past year including how many days they have been out of service; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED THAT staff report back with an action plan to ensure that at least one City owned elevator always remains operable to ensure a minimum level of access to our waterfront.

This is an email, not a resolution. In fact, this comes on the heels of an email provided to Council on the status of the McInnes elevator (repaired and still under warranty). We don’t need an “Action Plan” developed on elevator maintenance for two elevators, this is an operational item that is not something Council needs to meddle in. We are a policy body, not managers. Our goal as a City is to maintain assets in a way that best applies our limited resources, and our goal is to have all of the elevators operational at all times. Recognizing that, maintenance of elevators is complex and outdoor elevators do occasionally break down, and as anyone who lives in a high-rise knows, when things go wrong, there is sometimes a wait for parts and people who can fix them. I have confidence that staff take this work seriously, and are doing all they can to be responsive to maintenance challenges.

That saying, we also recognize that broken elevators are problematic for access, and this is why we made the decision to not rely on an elevator for the west Pier Park access built for the City by Bosa, but invested instead in the bigger, more expensive, and maximally accessible ramp. It is also why we put so much emphasis on assuring the new access across the tracks at Begbie will be fully accessible.

This resolution was amended to change from a report to an email (saving staff time and energy) and asked that other issues regarding accessibility to the waterfront be referred to the Accessibility Committee. The Amended motion was approved by Council.

And to wrap we had one piece of New Business:

EComm AGM representative
New Westminster is member of the EComm “syndicate” and we need to assign a member to attend the AGM and vote on our behalf. Council appointed Councillor Fontaine to be this representative.

This Happened (in Calgary)

Last week was mostly spent in Calgary, attending the annual Federation of Canadian Municipalities meeting. This is the annual get-together of local governments from all across Canada to network, share, learn, and advocate. It is not my favourite conference (I find UBCM more relevant) and I have not attended in a few years, but this year brought the opportunity to have some meetings about some specific issues important to New West (more on that later), so packed the bags and booked the flight.

As usual (see here and here for example), I will provide a more detailed report on my FCM take-aways in a follow-up post here. In my Wednesday newsletter (link here to sign up and get the juice into your mailbox), I’ll write a little more about my thought on the political part of the conference, where we had very different addresses from the Prime Minister, the shadow minister from the Conservatives, and the leader of the NDP. In the meantime, here are a few pictures of the Calgary FCM experience:

Tasha showed up with a specific message for any Federal Government types we met at the conference!
This emergency alert arrived in our inbox as 1000s of local government delegates arrived in Calgary. Infrastructure Funding Anyone?
The Mayor of Edmonton and I had a significant difference of opinion on the value of bandwagons, but all in good fun!
The challenging regulatory environment in Alberta has not prevented the City of Calgary form investing in solar infrastructure at various scales.
Wherever you go, there you are! With Councillor Dominique O’Rourke of Guelph, Ontario.
In Calgary, the ultimate virtue signal is a cowboy hat in a convention centre.
I had a lunch discussion with Sam Trosow, a Councillor from London Ontario who sought me out at the event, because his City has studied New Westminster’s anti-demoviction regulations, and wanted to chat about challenges and successes.
My view for most of FCM was some version of this. The weather was always fine inside the conference sessions.
Streetscapes in Calgary are a study in contrast. Some nice public spaces, some serious car sewers.
Being a geologist, I know a few people who work in Calgary. I had a chance to catch up with a couple of old University friends I had not seen in something like 25 years! Good times. And yes, Calgary has craft beer.

Council – May 27, 2024

As Mayvember moves in Juneuary, we spent Monday cozy and warm in Council Chambers with a regular agenda we moved through relatively quickly.

We started with moving the following items On Consent:

Construction Noise Bylaw Exemption Request: 330 East Columbia Street (Royal Columbian Hospital Redevelopment Project)
The RCH project has been operating at extended hours on Saturdays for some time, and it has only resulted in two noise complaints, both resolved. They are entering a phase where deliveries may need to occur as early as 7:00am on Saturdays to keep things moving, and council is granting them a construction noise exemption to permit this.

Construction Noise Bylaw Exemption Request: 612 Seventh Avenue – Marcon Construction
A large slab pour is required for the new mixed use tower being built Uptown. This work site had a few early noise complaints where the operator paid fines, but not complaints have been received in some time. Council is granting them a one-time expansion of work hours to facilitate a single large pour.

Development Cost Charge Bylaw – Inflationary Amendment Resubmission
DCCs are funds we collect from developers to help cover the cost of supplying infrastructure related to growth resulting from their developments. They are strictly regulated by the Province, and the money must pay for the specific infrastructure we identify as being needed to support that growth. As the cost of building that infrastructure goes up, we are able to do inflationary increases to our DCC rates. This Bylaw does that. We passed a similar one back in March, but the Provincial inspector of these things didn’t like the language we used around the date the change becomes effective, so staff have redrafted a version to the inspector’s liking, and we are moving it again.

Zoning Amendment Bylaw for 310 Blackley Street: Bylaw for First, Second, and Third Readings
The “Eastern Node” is a long-coming and slow –developing project in Queensborough. There is a master plan for townhouses, apartments, and commercial spaces in the area just west of Port Royal, and this single lot is part of “Phase 3”. The property is included n the land assembly, and is now coming to us for rezoning to match the masterplan.

Zoning Amendment Bylaw for 1005 Ewen Avenue: Bylaw for First, Second and Third Readings
This 23- unit townhouse project in Queensborough came to council for three readings back in 2019, but has been somewhat redesigned to better fit the site, so those three readings are being discarded, and a new bylaw to reflect the new alignment of the property is being brought to council for three readings.

The following items were Removed from Consent for discussion:

Queensborough Transportation Plan
Transportation staff have been engaging the Q’boro neighbourhood on the first transportation plan specific to that neighbourhood, recognizing it has unique transportation challenges. The first being that there are no plans to replace or expand the (provincial) Queensborough Bridge any time soon, and much like the adjacent Hamilton neighbourhood of Richmond (and downtown, for that matter), moving around within the community is challenged by twice-a-day through-commuters. The new Plan includes priorities to address some of those unique challenges of Q’Boro, and identifies some of the pains of growth in the community.

The depth of consultation here is something to behold: lots of info on the Be Heard New West project page, direct outreach to 25 identified interest groups, community pop-ups, social media, advertising in the record, on the digital billboards and at community bulletin boards, and 4,000 direct mailings. The resulting report is a really good read, and identifies strategies to address the walkability and transit access on Lulu Island.

One of the key issues in Queensborough is the intersection of Howes and Highway 91A, which is statistically one of the most accident-prone intersections, is a comfort and safety barrier to pedestrians walking to Queensborough Landing from south of the freeway, and has abhorrently bad bus stop conditions for such a key bus stop location. The City has little more than advocacy power on the intersection, because it belongs to the Ministry of Transportation, but we need to be taking that advocacy to a new level to get this gap fixed.

One other key topic in Queensborough is the general lack of sidewalks in many of the residential neighbourhoods. This is a long-standing grievance, and though the City has had preiovus plans and policies ot address this gap (mostly waiting for redevelopment of older neighbourhoods, or doing a special assessment to share costs with homeowners), it is complicated by Lulu Island’s special conditions – soft soils and open ditches. Very long story made much shorter it costs a LOT to cover ditches, and it is simply not possible in some areas, and traditional road-curb-sidewalk structures would need enclosed storm drainage, meaning $500/m sidewalks become $10,000/m infrastructure programs.

We asked staff to come back to Council with some updates on how we might prioritize some of this work. “It’s expensive” is a good argument against making a quick commitment to just do it, but I think folks in the ‘Boro have reasonable expectations that at least one side of a road has a sidewalk of we expect the neighbourhood to be walkable and safe for everyone.

This report also talks about a commitment the City is making to the QtoQ ferry, and though it’s cost is increasing (diesel and staff costs are not going down!), its ridership is rebounding a bit after COVID. Some folks rely on this service, but we are going to have to continue to keep an eye on costs. The provider contract is running out this year, and we will have to go to RFP for a new contract, and that process should give us some clarity on the future of the service.

Report Back on Provincial Electric Kick Scooter Pilot Program
Electric kickscooters and other forms of new electric mobility are, for the most part, illegal in BC. This is because the provincial Motor Vehicle Act has not been updated to recognize them, and the City can’t really overrule provincial rules. The Province is running a Pilot Program in some communities to legalize them, with the local government committing to amending its local street and traffic bylaws, and aligning requirements with the MVA. Essentially, the scooters have the same rights and responsibilities as cyclists, except the rider must be 16 years old, and cannot exceed 25km/h.

The recommendation that New West join the Pilot is one I nominally support, but some good questions were raised around how enforcement works now, and how it will change if we enter the Pilot Program that could not be answered in the meeting, so we referred the decision here to allow more consultaiton with NWPD.

Response to Council Motion: Ensuring that ground level retail spaces in new developments prioritize community-supporting businesses and organizations
This is a follow-up to the discussion Council had regarding (ugh) dentist offices at retail grade. Staff are reporting back that they are prioritizing this component of the Retail Strategy, and will come back with some policy options in later June. There was a bit more instruction provided to staff from Council to not just report back on the Retail strategy components, but our planning and development policies and bylaws.

Response to Council Motion Regarding “Supporting Child Care Development Across the City”
This is also a follow up to an earlier motion from Council asking about opportunities to expand the range of properties in the City where childcare will be permitted without rezoning. It is noted here that New Westminster is already a regional leader in childcare-supporting policy, and as a result has one of the highest levels of childcare availability per capita in the Metro region (34.4 per 100 children, compared to a regional average of 25). The last time we expanded childcare zoning was 2011, and a re-look seems timely, especially as we are the fastest growing Metro Vancouver City in the “having kids” demographic of 25-44 years old.

Staff are going to review permitted childcare spaces as they implement the new Provincial housing regulations, as the pretty substantial zoning rewrite resulting from that regulation is a great opportunity to get it right at the same time. There are, notably, some (provincial) building code barriers to larger childcare facilities in typical residential buildings, but we want to make sure there aren’t municipal barriers if people want to make that investment.

Rezoning: 88 Tenth Street (Columbia Square) – Introductory Report
The owner of Columbia Square wants to redevelop the site to provide a significant number or residential homes, while maintaining the existing volume of retail and commercial spaces. We had a preliminary look at this back in April, and now staff want to work with the applicant to go to public consultation and move a more detailed design forward, so that rezoning can be considered by Council within this year.

This is a slightly different process, in that rezoning (which defines landuse, density, heights, and amenities) would be read three times, and if approved, some of the more detailed Development Planning part would come after. This two-phase process is more common in some other cities, but not as common here.

The challenge on this site is that the retail preservation and redevelopment and cost of building on the site do not provide economic viability if a significant below-market housing component is included. It being within the Province’s Transit Oriented Development Area defines in Bill 47 also complicates our ability to require affordable housing on the Site. We can receive Density Bonusing, which is money the developer pays the city to exceed the maximum density granted as right on the site, and the City can invest that DB into amenities.

The request from staff here is to work with the applicant to proceed with public consultation and the work needed to frame a rezoning Bylaw, which council will in turn be asked to consider some time later in the year.

Train Whistle Cessation Resolution at the Furness Street Rail Crossing
Whistle Cessation is complicated process. Once the engineering is done to make the crossing safe enough for the Railway and Technical Safety BC to agree whistles are not necessary, Council must pass a resolution deeming that whistles are not sounded. After significant engineering work (funded by an adjacent developer), and the City’s commitment to maintaining the engineering controls, we are ready to pass this resolution for a high-profile crossing in Port Royal. The train operator can still sound a whistle if they see a track intrusion or other hazard, but won’t sound it every time they cross, which should slightly improve the quality of sleep for a few folks in Port Royal.

We then read some bylaws including the one Bylaw for Adoption:

Zoning Amendment Bylaw (114-118 Sprice Street) No. 8387, 2023
This zoning amendment to permit 10 new houses on compact lots in Queensborough was adopted by Council.

We then addressed a single Motion from Council:
Encouraging the BC Government to Terminate the Failed Decriminalization Experiment
Submitted by Councillor Fontaine

BE IT RESOLVED THAT the Mayor write a letter to the Premier and Minister of Mental Health and Addictions requesting they immediately halt the failed decriminalization experiment pilot project in BC.

This motion was, for anyone paying attention to the news, redundant when it landed, but the mover decided not to withdraw it, but to instead take some Council time to have their say on the topic. Because of this, we were treated to several well-worn BC United fearmongering speaking points, and an argument that instead of harm reduction, we need to equally fund all pillars in a “four-pillar approach”, which demonstrates a stunning ignorance about the very “Four Pillars” the mover is advocating towards.

This is not just because harm reduction (every aspect of which the mover steadfastly argued against for five minutes) is not only one of the four pillars – it is consistently the least funded of the four pillars. Don’t take my word for this, the Government of Canada tracks these things. So how do we unpack what the mover is actually arguing for? Clearly he is not asking that we increase by 7 times the funding we put into Harm Reduction (safe consumption, safe supply, etc.) to bring it up to the amount we spend on enforcement, so I have to read it as a radical Defund-the-Police motion advocating to cut by 80% our drug enforcement budget in order to bring it down to where harm reduction spending is. I’ll have to remember to ask the mover about that.

I have more to say about this entire debacle of a motion, and will perhaps follow up in another post if I can stomach it, because not only were people stigmatized by the comments in council, there was a woefully unfirmed argument in favour of stigmatization. Ugh. I’ll just wrap this report by saying Council wisely voted against supporting this redundant and ill-considered motion.

This Happened

Every week or so I put out a newsletter to subscribers. Usually Wednesday afternoon/evening. It’s generally shorter-form than my posts here, provides updates on what I’ve been up to, with occasional opinion and politics that can get spicy. It’s free, no hassle to subscribe, just hit that “newsletter” link up at the top of the page.

And every once in a while I provide a reminder here, with a hint of what is in last week’s newsletter, where I wrote a bit more about these things:

ReDress day at Hyack Square to mark the annual National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and Two-Spirit People.
Attending the New Westminster Hospice Society annual River Walk for Hospice.
Standing at the Dias speaking during the Mayor’s State of the City address.
New Westminster won the Walk30 Challenge, and a class from QayQayt Elementary went the extra mile.
Taking part in the S&O Beer Run with a couple of council colleagues.

LMLGA 2024

Last week was the Lower Mainland LGA annual conference and AGM. This is the annual convention of local government elected folks from all of the municipalities and regional districts from Pemberton to White Rock and Hope to Bowen Island.  As I have done in previous years (here, here, here, etc…), I like to provide a bit of a summary of what happened at the conference. Over in my Newsletter I provided a bit more behind-the-curtain stuff for those who want to read that kind of stuff, all you need to do is register here to get the juice directly into your mailbox every Wednesday.

The LMLGA has three main public-might-be-interested parts. We have a Resolutions Session where we agree as a group on areas of senior government advocacy, Panels/workshops where we share strategies and challenges around emergent local government issues, and political speeches from provincial folks. Maybe I’ll talk them in reverse order here.

Unlike previous years, the Senior Government sessions were structured as Q&A sessions moderated by members of the LMLGA Executive, instead of stand-alone speeches. I appreciated this change, especially as it is an election year, and we didn’t want to hear stump speeches, we wanted to hear their party’s approach to issues that matter to our members.

Like previous years, Sonia Furstenau seemed to connect best to the audience. She worked in Local Government, but also has that third-party opportunity to speak truth about power (something I frankly think the Federal NDP could do more of). One favourite (paraphrased) quote: “You don’t run for MLA with the greens if power is your motivating goal.” A policy wonk after my own heart, she spoke to the flaws in the current Carbon Tax regime, issues with the Water Sustainability Act, and the dismal state of the current political discourse, which is eroding much of the ability to get the actual work of governing done.

Also like previous years, Kevin Falcon sometimes missed the mark in ingratiating himself to the crowd in the room. Local government elected trying to get housing built don’t need to be told “bureaucrats” are the problem, or that his experience as a for-profit developer is all BC Housing needs to fulfill our affordable housing needs while suggesting taxes are the reason the $400k townhouses he built in Surrey are now selling for $1M. He also, unknowingly I suspect, countered Fursteneau’s message around public discourse by suggesting “Decorum is great when you are in government, not great when you are in opposition”, following up with a passionate defense of fearmongering as political rhetoric. Meanwhile, there was no representative from the BC Conservative Party at the conference, so I guess he owned that space.

Anne Kang spoke of the work she did over the last year-and-a-bit as Minister of Local Government, including extensive touring around the province to meet with as many leaders of local governments as possible, and her championing for the turning over $1 Billion of infrastructure money directly to Local Governments through the Growing Communities Fund. She also emphasized the increased support her government is providing to Libraries across the Province. She spoke to challenges she hears from local government on the overlapping homelessness, poisoned drug, and mental health crises, though didn’t really get into the discussion about new legislation coming from the Ministry of Housing that is challenging many communities. She was light on new promises (with two more weeks in this session and an election pending), but was clearly very engaged and informed about the issues Local Governments are facing.

There were several Panels this year, but I found the first one the most interesting. The topic was “Public Safety Challenges in Public Spaces”, and I can imagine the direction of the panels shifted several times over the last few weeks, as the conversation province-wide around decriminalization has evolved. The panels was deftly (and very entertainingly) moderated by Andrea Derban from the Community Action Initiative. Her framing of the challenge really set the discussion up: we are at the Moral Panic phase and need leaders to push past that; This is not an OD crisis, it is a toxic drug supply crisis and there are material differences; the data is crystal clear that safe supply is not causing deaths; the people who are dying are not who you first think, and that flawed assumption is in the way of us saving lives.

The panelists included a police member from Abbotsford talking about their revised approaches to addressing mental health and addictions issues as health issues, not criminal ones, and collaboration with businesses being impacted by people seeking shelter. A Fire Chief from Surrey talked about their Second Responder program (which I wrote about New West adopting here) and signs of its success. Councillor Nadine Nakagawa spoke of our Three Crises Response Pilot and other work the City of New Westminster is doing. My phone lit up when she was speaking about it with texted questions from our colleagues about the Pilot, from how we paid for it to how we are measuring outcomes.

There were some take-aways around the need to collect data on measures we are taking – New West again providing the example of our Second Responder and Pilot Project both include collaboration with academics to measure outcomes). But it was Andrea who told us we need to tell better stories (“compassionate, evidence based, action-oriented”) about who is being impacted, and what success looks like.

The resolutions session is where resolutions from member jurisdictions are put before the membership for support. If endorsed, they effectively call on senior government for anything from policy changes to financial support for various causes. This year there were 60 Resolutions considered (you can read them all here), including the following 6 submitted by New Westminster:

R3- Additional Funding for Overdose Prevention Sites:“…be it resolved that UBCM ask the Province of British Columbia to increase funding for Health Authorities to augment existing, and to open new, supervised consumption and overdose prevention sites, including related inhalation services, across British Columbia and including local governments which do not currently offer this service to residents”.

This was endorsed by the LMLGA executive, and then endorsed by the membership On Consent. This is actually a pretty significant and clear message to the province that the municipalities of the Lower Mainland want to see harm reduction in every community.

R4 – Eliminating Barriers to Publicly-Owned and -Operated Home Care Services and Long-Term Care: “…be it resolved that UBCM ask the Province to eliminate financial and accessibility barriers by investing in more publicly owned and operated and not-for-profit home care services and social supports required to age in place, and by further investing in publicly owned and operated and not-for-profit long-term care to ensure seniors are well supported in the continuum of care.”

This resolution was endorsed by the executive, but was pulled from consent to facilitate an attempt by some members to amend it to also call for more public funding for for-profit care providers, which was wisely defeated when folks argued effectively that the intent of the motion was to build capacity in the public provision of seniors care, as the Seniors Advocate is asking for. The main motion was then supported by membership.

R11- EComm Governance Review: “…be it resolved that UBCM ask the provincial government to engage local governments in a comprehensive review of the governance structure and delivery model of 911 emergency call taking, related non-emergency call taking, and emergency dispatch services across BC with a goal to assure reliable, affordable, and sustainable services for all communities”.

This was also endorsed by the LMLGA executive, and then endorsed by the membership On Consent. It’s clear that much of the province is frustrated by escalating EComm costs and continued failure to meet the expectations of the community. The clear support for this motion is perhaps a bit surprising because EComm currently belongs to Local Governments, and this could be interpreted as us asking the Province to step in and take the management of it over – to upload the problem.

R34 – Creating Safer Streets for Everyone with Intersection Safety Cameras:…be it resolved that LMLGA and UBCM call on the provincial government to expand the implementation of speed and red light intersection safety cameras in local governments across BC, prioritizing intersections near schools and those with a high rate of crashes that result in injuries or fatalities as identified by ICBC, and that the provincial government provide all revenue from additional speed and red light cameras to local governments as grants to be invested in implementing local and safety improvements;
And be it further resolved that the LMLGA and UBCM request that the provincial government allow BC local governments to install speed and red light cameras at their own cost and set and collect fees directly to be earmarked for road safety improvements”.

This motion was debated well by the members, as was a similar one from the City of North Vancouver that didn’t include the mention of school areas. It was supported by a healthy majority of the members, which reflects the current public opinion about speed and intersection cameras – the majority support them.

R48 – Allowing Local Governments to Apply Commercial Rent Controls: “…be it resolved that UBCM ask the Province of British Columbia to provide local governments with the legislative authority to enable special economic zones where commercial rent control and demo/renoviction policies could be applied to ensure predictability in commercial lease costs, so local small businesses and community-serving commercial tenants can continue to serve their communities”.

This motion was also well debated by members, after being motivated by Councillor Henderson. In the end it was supported by a thin majority of the members. I might expect this one will not do as well at UBCM, but that is some advocacy work we need to do.

R56 – Creating a Ministry of Hospitality: “…be it resolved that UBCM ask the Province to create a Ministry of Hospitality to support and engage restaurants, food service vendors and the hospitality sector generally by acting as advocates within government for policy development and reform”

This motion arose out of advocacy from the BC Food Service Association’s “Save BC Restaurants” campaign, and lead to an interesting debate, but was ultimately defeated by a slim majority.

One more bit of voting news was that Ruby Campbell was elected as a Director at Large of the Lower Mainland LGA. This continues the tradition of Lorrie Williams, Chuck Puchmayr, and myself in representing New Westminster on that executive.

Finally a major part of this, like any conference, is the opportunity to network with leaders from around the region. We can laugh about our horror stories with the only cohort who really understands, learn from each other by sharing successes and challenges, and remind each other that we aren’t alone in this work. As it seems the media is filled by stories indicating (to quote my friend Mary) “we are not always sending our best”, it is great to connect with some of the most dedicated, serious, and accomplished people doing this work for all the right reasons.

Mixing Business

As a follow-up to my Council report from last week, there were two items I promised to circle back to, like how I circled back to the preposition at the end of that sentence.

English teachers will find that last sentence fun. Hi Mom!

The two items spoke to supporting local businesses and streetscapes. We had a report on Bill 28, and the opportunity for us to explore whether Bill 28-style property tax relief might be a useful tool for our community, and we had a motion from Councillor Nakagawa to review our development and zoning policies to better support local community-serving small businesses. Both of these linked back to some recent chatter in the community around street-level commercial spaces, with people wanting to see more experiential retail and entertainment, and less service and office, to “liven up” the street (I got through all of that without mentioning dentists once). So I want to unpack each item a bit and discuss not just what a city/council can do, but more about the varying ideas about what a city/council should do.

Bill 28 – Property Tax Relief Legislation
I have written quite a bit over the last 9 years about how property tax works (examples here, here, and here). This new legislation changes this a bit for one category of properties, allowing us to provide some short term (5 year) property tax relief for some commercial property owners.

To review, the City sets tax rates, but the tax paid on property is based on BC Assessment Value, determined by “Highest and Best Use” – not necessarily the current value of the property, but the value the property would have if the owner sought to maximize that value. The change with Bill 28 is pretty specific, limited to properties where the “Land-value ratio” greater than 0.95, which means the value of improvements on the land (the existing building) is less than 5% of the total assessed value of the property. Where it is flexible is in how the local government can apply tax relief, and how much.

Some folks would suggest any tax relief for business is good, but we need to be clear this tool provides us a potential tax shift – giving one type of taxpayer some relief transfers that taxation to other taxpayers – not an overall decrease in the revenue on the part of the City. We are taking a more cautious approach here, because not only are there more devils in details, there are likely perverse incentives in there as well.

There is a general feeling that high lease rates and tax rates make it harder from small neighbourhood-serving business to set up shop, and that is surely a factor. The diversity of business types on Twelfth Street is almost certainly a product of low per-foot lease rates. So one part of the thinking here is that if the lease cost (including taxes) was lower, we would more likely get smaller, more diverse, and more interesting business types setting up. Instead of dentists (there, I said it).

One potential challenge with the Bill 28 approach is the recognition that property owners pay taxes, not business owners. Sometimes a business also owns the property they operate out of, but for most small neighbourhood businesses in New West a lease is paid to a landlord. It is the common practice for the landlord to pass the property tax bill directly to the tenant (through “triple net leases”), but there is nothing in Bill 28 or elsewhere that forces a landlord to pass any tax relief savings down to the small business person, so a tax incentive may not get to the small business types we are trying to support, and might actually make the situation worse for the business owner, but better for the Landlord. It may also be a disincentive to upgrading, repair, or improvement of marginal buildings, reducing the attractiveness and safety of commercial spaces.

The City of Vancouver is the only City that has taken on a Bill 28 approach, and we are going to hope to learn from their example as staff bring some data and analysis back to council to see if this approach can be made to help. It may be a useful tool, if we can wield it creatively enough.

Ensuring that ground level retail spaces in new developments prioritize community-supporting businesses and organizations
This motion from Councillor Nakagawa was a bit more all-encompassing, and completely within our jurisdiction. It was asking that the City “review and refresh current policies relating to ground level retail” and “develop policy to ensure that future ground level retail spaces in new development are built to prioritize community-supporting businesses and organizations in alignment with the retail strategy.”

When people ask what Council can do to assure a (insert type of business you want to see) opens in a specific location instead of a (insert type of business you don’t want to see), I often retort with the question: are you sure you want to give me the power to do that?  Council has some power to restrict different business types through zoning, but do you really want 7 elected people picking and choosing the businesses in your downtown? Are we the wisest ones to choose this, or is this somewhere we need to ask “the market” to address? Clearly there is a huge spectrum between completely hands-off and being so prescriptive that we end up with streets full of unleased spaces because Council of the day fails to understand the market. Personally, I would love to see a small hardware store downtown. But we had one for a few years, and it was really great, but it was not supported enough to stay open and now you can buy discount shoes in that spot. The reasons for that specific store closing may be complex and global (as they were part of a nation-wide chain that changed its focus and has now closing many Big Box offerings across Canada as well). The City saying “only hardware stores here” would not change those global forces, and we would likely have an empty space in its place, and angry landlord, and a decaying business district. That said, we do exercise limited powers to restrict uses like cannabis or liquor stores (for example) to address perceived or suspected risks.

Nothing against dentists, but mine is Uptown and on the second floor, which is probably a better space for the kind of use that doesn’t really “activate” the street or lead to good walking-around experiences. One thing we can all agree is that a street is more fun to live near and shop on if we have a variety of interesting retail and service experiences along it. As part of our Council Strategic Priority Plan, we talked about supporting a people-centered economy, supporting retail areas that address the needs of the local community.

When Starbucks made a global decision to close thousands of stores including Columbia and 6th, people lamented this loss. Since that time, three new coffee shops have opened downtown, and the old Starbucks location is a popular Italian deli. There are literally dozens of businesses Downtown that were not there at the beginning of the Pandemic, and there is not a lot of lease vacancy. By many measures, the business environment Downtown is pretty healthy. Still, the community is engaged in a conversation about retail mix, though it’s not clear how the community wants to get there.

There are two policy areas inherent in this motion we can look at. We can look at how we approve new street-facing spaces in new mixed use developments like 618 Carnarvon, where a brand new dentist office is opening in a space where folks might have wanted to see a coffee shop, or boutique, or other more experiential use. The other is to look at policies that rezone existing spaces to limit the variety of uses possible when businesses turn over, much like we do with liquor stores. To traditional businesses this sounds like a lot of “red tape”, and may result in an incredibly complex zoning bylaw that makes it harder for any business to find the right space. One can imagine this resulting in any new and innovative business types wanting to set up in town having to come to Council to ask permission, because their specific type that doesn’t fit the Bylaw. We went down that path with a video-game arcade that wanted to serve alcohol – and it was a massive pain in the ass for staff, a difficult challenge for the business owner who felt unsupported, and left everyone feeling soured. And that was for a business idea that that everyone on Council liked!

There is a guy I have had lunch with (Hi John!) who suggests the City should simply open more restaurants downtown. I don’t think it is that simple, because I don’t know what the role of the City is in doing that. Restaurants are permitted in almost every business storefont on Columbia Street, there are no rules or regulations preventing them from opening now. At the same time, we cannot force the landlord to kick out the current tenant and put in a restaurant. Reducing taxes of set-up costs will not have any positive effect on a restaurant business model that it doesn’t equally have on a nail salon or dog grooming business model. Further, we are limited by Section 25 of the Community Charter (the part that says it is illegal for a City to “provide a grant, benefit, advantage or other form of assistance to a business”) from directly incenting a specific business owner to do a specific thing. We could, I guess, buy up the land and start leasing it to the business types and business owners we like, but I’m not sure that is the best role of a City government.

All this to say, there is an interesting bit of policy work we can do here, but we are also limited in our powers by legislation and common sense. This also speaks to and augments existing work we are doing around the recently-adopted Retail Strategy.

Humility and Power

We had a challenging meeting on Monday. I am still a little unsettled by what occurred, and as the person required to chair meetings, I am still uncertain about how we could have managed the situation differently. To frame the challenges, I need to first talk about power. Power is an uncomfortable thing to talk about for people who hold it.

As a Mayor, I hold power. Some 6676 people in this community voted for me, giving me some power over how council meetings are run. There are limits on that power, in legislation and procedure bylaws written by people who similarly won some number of votes sufficient to give them power to make those decisions. The vast majority of people granted the power to make those decisions are people like me. People with privilege that comes predominantly with whiteness, maleness, access to education and wealth.

Through these systems created by people like me, we make decisions that impact our community, and impact people with much less power in our community. To do that justly, we in power need to bring humility into decision-making. The history of broken systems is not one of the most vulnerable being protected and supported, so even if we aspire to adapt those systems to make them more just, we must practically operate within the unjust systems to serve our community as best we can until they can be fixed.

And I am going way too deep into sociology for a geologist, so let me get away from the abstract here.

In a recent meeting of Council, a member of the community felt they were harmed by the comments of a member of Council. In a just system, this member of the community would be able to hold the member of Council accountable for those harms. Part of our system is the opportunity to delegate at a public meeting and bring to Council and the community’s attention the harm that was caused in the same forum in which those harms occurred. In some ways, this is a beautiful expression of democracy. Except we have not set up our system to support this.

We have a Procedures Bylaw and a slightly vague set of community standards around what can and cannot be said in that Delegation. We ask that delegates not speak about members of Council or other people. We ask that people speak about issues, not about people. But what if the issue is the words or actions of a person? What if that person is one of those holding power in that room?

In our meeting on Monday, we had a proclamation declaring a Day of Remembrance and Action on Islamophobia. This was not controversial, we have had similar declarations in previous years, and agreed unanimously as a Council in this very meeting that this was appropriate and something we support. What was different this year is that we had a delegate, a Muslim person, saying that they heard Islamophobia in our chamber in a recent meeting, and they wanted to speak out about that. Here is a person with personal and intimate experience with Islamophobia in our community who wishes to speak to personal experience in a system not well designed for them to speak their truth to power.

The question is whether that delegate did so in a way that was consistent with “rules of order” – those procedures and practices that people like me, people with power, have constructed.

When a member of Council calls “point of order”, I am required to pause any other speaker and hear that concern. When the point of order raised is “What that person said is inappropriate”, I have two options in front of me: exert the power given me, or show some humility to the power given me. To be honest, my reflex is to do the former and revert to the procedures and practice that put me in this place and shut the conversation down if there is any hint of impropriety. If you watch the meeting, you see me and other members of Council applying these systems by calling “Point of Order” when the comments seemed to be directed at a single member of Council. But in exercising humility we must consider: does this member of the community have a right to ask an elected official to be accountable for words they spoke in the Council chamber, that the member of the community believed to be Islamophobic? Can I, a non-Muslim person, judge or dismiss the impact these words have on a Muslim person speaking of that impact? Do our positions of power protect us from criticism in delegation? Is that what the system was designed to do?

I have been in many Council meetings where delegates and other members of Council quoted my words back at me in unflattering ways (indeed, it seems inevitable that some part of this post will be quoted back to me, stripped of context). I have also seen this happen to other members of Council. I do not recall ever having heard “point of order” used to repeatedly shut down delegates who unflatteringly quote members of Council and then speak to how those words impact them. What changed here?

My questions here are mostly rhetorical, and many of us will have different answers based on our experience and bias. Could I have managed my Chair role better? Possibly, but whether you think “managing it better” means I should have shut down the delegate sooner, or it means I should have let the delegate speak is likely informed by your relative position of power compared to the delegate. And as a person of privilege, I cannot dismiss that there may be an Islamophobic or other bias in how I view what is fair, what is just, in how I approach a conflict like this. This is why it still matters that a City like New Westminster proclaims that action on Islamophobia is important. If we are unwilling to even hear a Muslim person telling us that we expressed Islamophobia in our work in this chamber, what does that proclamation even mean?

I don’t support a person occupying space in our Council Chambers in a way that takes voice away from the 8 other people who wanted to delegate to Council on matters that are important to them on Monday. But more than this, I don’t like that our systems are so bad at addressing conflict and inherent bias that this occupation of the space was the only way a member of the community felt they could hold power accountable after that person in power would not let them speak.

Ultimately, this is a difficult space, at a difficult time, and as such I think leadership needs to lean more on humility than on power. We all have learning to do, and humility will be needed for that learning.