Strategic Planning

As I reported last week, New West Council completed our Strategic Priority Plan. You can read the plan here, and I will write a second post about the content of it, but first a bit about the process that got us here, and the next steps. In the Strat Plan Blogging sandwich, this will be about the bread, and we can talk about the meat in the middle in the next post.

This Strategic Plan is the work of all of Council, with significant support from staff in preparing it. This is a new Council, with 4 new members and a new Mayor. We have also seen some significant changes in the last few years, between the persistent impacts of COVID-19 on our program delivery and the generational scale of our capital plan. Though it is common for a new Council to adopt a new strategic plan to guide staff work for the term, I felt it was important that this time we take a bit of time for the new Council to get their feet under them, and that we do intensive onboarding and training to assure all of Council are adequately informed to take a meaningful part in the Strat Planning.

As both Strategic Planning and budget planning take a lot of work, I did not want to rush through the former before we started working on the latter, and the budget has legislated timelines we needed to meet. The timing we followed allowed Council a chance to go through their first budget cycle before we buttoned up the Strat Plan – an important lesson in compromise and priority setting. The Strat Plan (and future budgets) will be stronger because we did this learning, but we also needed to recognize that our Strat Plan will not be fully demonstrated in our budget until next year.

The Strat Plan process included a weekend workshop, it was embedded into the many onboarding workshops we held, and there were early written drafts that all of Council opined on, as staff were able to frame and make sensible from all of that input. This was a good exercise overall, as members of Council were free to discuss technical and legislative policy limits with staff in a way that they feel free and unencumbered to ask the “bad question”. There was also space to debate values, ideas, policies, and challenges in a way that is mostly free of the political fray. I think we grew as a Council through this.

All that said, there is a responsibility that Council make decisions transparently, which means that the Strat Plan comes to an open meeting, and all of Council have an opportunity to speak to it. You can see this process (closed development discussion followed by open release and endorsement) is the standard practice for Municipalities that do strategic plans, and you can see other Munis reports here, here, and here.

Now that the Strat Plan is adopted, we will use it to guide future budget discussions, and will integrate it with our other major planning documents, from the Official Community Plan to our Climate Action Plan and Parks and open Spaces Strategy. When Staff or Council bring ideas forward, they will be discussed in the context of this plan – either the new work should match our priorities, or we need a compelling reason to adjust those priorities.

To bring the Strat Plan to function, we will likely be making some changes in the operation of the City. We had a report last week about Advisory Committees, and are beginning the work to assure they are structured to serve the priorities of the Strat Plan. It is also possible that we will make some organizations changes at the staff level to assure that workplans are better aligned with Council’s priorities and that the reporting structure is designed to provide oversight and accountability to the goals of Council as expressed by the Strat Plan. This is the work of the months ahead.

We are in a time when Local Governments are being asked to do more things for more people all the time. We are also being asked to do more with less, in the sense that our budgets are strained and the regional labour shortage means fewer people are available to do the expanded work. To achieve our major strategic goals, we are going to have to set priorities. This is a hard thing for New Westminster (the City, and the community) to do – we are the small city that does a lot, and we are proud of our level of achievement. Yes, there are a lot of great things we could do but we simply cannot do it all. This is called a Strategic Priorities Plan for a reason, and I’ll write in the next post about what those priorities are.

Finally, it was disappointing that the work of the last few months was not endorsed by all of Council. I assumed everyone was in those meetings and discussions for the same reasons, to work out a shared sense of principles and priorities. I thought we had got there, and it was communicated to me that we got there. To have a last-minute amendment on a parochial item seemed performative to me, and to use the lack of support for this performative gesture as an excuse to oppose the result of months of staff and Council work seemed to disregard the collaborative approach Council had taken into this work. I am disappointed by that, but will learn from it.


I wrote last week about the political part of the Lower Mainland LGA annual conference, here is the rest of what happened, including the Sessions and Resolutions.

A major part of the annual meeting are workshops and panel sessions where Local Government leaders can share and learn. Considering about half of the attendees this year were new to the job of being a Mayor of City Councilor, these formal sessions (and the ample informal networking time) is really valuable. This is the briefest summary of the sessions this year.

Local Government Partnerships & Innovation
This was a panel discussion with representatives from three Municipalities taking innovative approaches to their unique challenges: Abbotsford taking an Airport the Federal government didn’t want anymore and making it a local economic driver; Whistler working to bring community-based health care work in their unique community; and Chilliwack taking an aggressive approach to Downtown Revitalization.

The last item sparked a lot of interest in the room, and was also the subject of a pre-conference tour. The centre of the discussion is a block branded as District 1881 that over more than 15 years went from this:

To this:

To this:

The Streetview images don’t fully represent the texture of the change, as the first photo has a lot of end-of-life buildings, many boarded up stores and low value leases inthe few remaining. The new Centre is certainly attractvie and higher value (arguably gentrified?). There were some good lessons from their experience here, some not particularly useful now (“buy up land before the prices are driven up!”), and some very useful, though sometimes hard to achieve (“be clear on your vision and stick with it, even through changes in council and government; build partnerships early”). I had some good discussion with colleagues from Chilliwack after the panel to get more details, and will be following up.

Everyone’s Responsibility: Codes of Conduct & Ethics in City Hall Description
This was an interesting and timely panel ad most local governments (by direction of the Province) are reviewing their Codes of Conduct now, we have new Councils across the region, and we were meeting in Harrison, one of the municipalities that is currently facing scrutiny for its council conduct challenges. The Panel included a member of the Provincial government who works in local government oversight, a Councillor for Squamish, which is a municipality with a “model” Code of Conduct, introduced last term, and a Lawyer who guides Cities (including New West) on Code of Conduct issues.

This was an interesting conversation that spoke about the importance of a strong CoC, and also admitted that a CoC was not a panacea for all forms of organizational dysfunction. So many of our systems in local government organization rely on good faith participation, and the development of a CoC is one of these. The importance of developing a CofC when things are going well was emphasized, because trying to bring them in during time of maximum disruption (when they are needed the most) does not work – they have to be in place ahead of time. Lesson learned.

Running a Positive Election Campaign: Reflections and Lessons Learned from the 2022 BC General Municipal Election
This panel brought elected types from Vancouver, Burnaby, Squamish, and Langley together with the observer of all things Municipal, Justin McElroy, to discuss the campaign of 2022, and the potential for positive messaging as a positive force in elections. There was a*lot* here about the battle of ideas, and the absolute quagmire that is election period Social Media. Perhaps one of the insights that stood out was Justin’s advice/observance that elected people who are still talking about the election 6 months later are probably the ones who will not survive, which evokes a bit Nenshi’s comments: stop campaigning and do some work. There will be lots of time to campaign three years from now. Perhaps the most interesting moment was when the question was asked about the role of “Kennedy Stewart’s Road Tax” in a positive campaign, but you had to be there to appreciate it.

We also had a great closing keynote from Bowinn Ma, the Minister of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness, speaking about the lessons learned from the atmospheric river floods, Lytton fire, and other major events of the last few years ,and new ways the Provincial Government is working to help local governments be prepared for the next shitty climate-change-driven catastrophe (my words, not hers), including the Climate Ready BC website

Except for years where there is a spectacular speech implosion, the resolutions session is the most noteworthy part of most Lower Mainland LGA meetings. This is the part where municipalities put forward resolutions they hope the membership will endorse, mostly calls for Senior Governments to do things, like change policy, legislation or revenue streams for local government. In 2023 we had 35 resolutions debated, and you can read all about the here. Most were successful, but some failed. I am only going to speak to the ones that New Westminster took to the session. For the rest, you will have to find some other mayor’s blog. This is a really fun debate process for those who dig local government policy wonking, and want to make change.

R9 Equitable Communities
…be it resolved that UBCM call upon the Province of British Columbia and the Government of Canada to provide resources and policy direction to enable local government to implement analytical processes for the assessment of systemic inequalities (i.e. Gender-Based Analysis Plus) across local government capital investments, operations and strategic initiatives to ensure all citizens can participate fully in civic life and to make measureable progress towards dismantling system inequality in our communities.
This passed non-controversially.

R10 Exemption to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act
…be it resolved that the LMLGA and UBCM request that the BC Government request Health Canada add “public park spaces designed for and used by children and youth” to the list of exceptions to the Controlled Drug and Substances Act exemptions.
This resolution was divisive, and was eventually amended to remove the work “park”, which left it asking for a ban for all public spaces. As this effectively results in full recriminalization of decriminalized drugs, this derailed the motion completely. The amended motion was endorsed by a slim majority of delegates, but in this form will no doubt be ignored by the Federal and Provincial governments, a classic example of cutting off ones nose to spite one’s face.

R16 Vacant Property Tax on Commercial Properties
…be it resolved that UBCM urge the Province of British Columbia to provide local governments with an option to introduce a vacant property tax applicable to commercial properties
This was another hotly-debated resolution, but with a solid majority of delegates voting in support. This will no doubt be ever more hotly debated at UBCM, and the rural-urban divide on this issue may be more pronounced than one might expect.

R28 Bringing Equity to Traffic Enforcement
…be it resolved that UBCM calls upon the provincial government to implement a means-tested traffic fine system, similar to Finland, Switzerland, Sweden or the UK where fines may be calculated on the basis of the offender’s income.
Perhaps surprisingly, there was little debate on this issue, and reflecting the public opinion polls on the matter, this resolution was supported by a solid majority of delegates. Again, I expect this to have a rockier ride at UBCM, but the level of support was positive.

So all in all, New West was 3 for 4 for our resolutions, and our memberswere the re to support solid resolutions for other progressive councils from around the region – this is an area where Port Moddy asnd Squamish really step up and take some regional leadership.

In what became a running joke for some during the resolution debates, was the frequency with which the term “slippery slope” was used as an excuse to not endorse a regulatory change. This is a bit silly, as all regulation is, buy it very nature, a potential slippery slope, which is why the framing of it is as important as the request for it. But I also note that the “slippery slope fallacy” is the only logical fallacy we common name as we are committing it. In debate, we rarely say “this is a total non sequitur, but…” or “I would like to offer the strawman argument that…”, but we have no shame in saying “If we approve this, it is the thin end of the wedge!”.

Maybe I’ll save the rhetoric lecture for UBCM… 

Council – May 8, 2023

It was a long, and at times complicated, council meeting on Monday, but we got a lot of really positive work done, and left the room feeling more refreshed than we should have been at that late time of night. The Agenda was lengthy, and started with an important Presentation

2022-2026 Council Strategic Plan
Council has been working on a Strategic Plan for months. This included a bunch of onboarding work, which is important when the majority of Council is new to the job, and brings different expectations of what the City is, and where it needs to be, to the equation. We had an intensive weekend retreat at the Shipyards on North Vancouver, and some workshops following that session. We have also asked staff to do a bunch of work to translate our “wants” into potential deliverables. Anyone who works for an organization the size of this City understands the challenge of distilling visions into a digestible document. I’m really proud of Council and staff for getting here. Share and enjoy.

Is it the Strat Plan I would have written? Maybe not exactly. But I am one of seven at Council, and as much as I might want to impose my own vision on everything in the community, I am part of a team, I recognize the product of the team is a better product – more likely to reflect the vision of the broader community and more likely to reflect a vision that can be realized by the team. This is a good thing, and I have a lot of faith in the team to see us though.

I’m a little disappointed that after all this work, there was not unanimous adoption of the product of that work, ostensibly because the balance of Council was unwilling to add a last minute parochial issue (that had recently been the target of a campaign by a business person with a clear pecuniary interest) into the long-discussed community-focused strategy. Alas, that is where we are politically.

More blog posts to come, because this is an important topic, but for now, the Council adopted the Strat Plan, and our work ahead is prioritized.

We then had a couple of Information Reports pulled forward for discussion:

Anvil Centre Operations
This Report provided City Council with some updates and details on Anvil Centre operations, as a compliment to the report under Consent regarding Anvil Centre budgets. After almost 9 years of operation, and the Anvil Centre being important to many of the priorities in the just-adopted Strategic Plan (Downtown revitalization, the blending of Arts and Culture with Economic Development, developing better connectedness and belonging in the city), Council asked that we have a deeper discussion around the successes and challenges of Anvil, and an opportunity to discuss the mandate of Anvil going into its tenth year. This will come back to us in Workshop format in the middle future.

Demographic Profile of Be Heard New West Registered Users
The City has operated on-line engagement portal since 2020, called Be Heard New West. This is one of the deliverables from the City’s Public Engagement Strategy, which was adopted in 2016 following a Mayor’s Task Force on Public Engagement (which included two members of Council who were not on Council then!). This is , of course, not the only Public Engagement work we do, but it is one that allows pretty close tracking of who we are engaging with, and perhaps more reliantly, who we are not reaching with our community engagement.

This report compares the demographics of the people connected with Be Heard New West with the demographics of the community gleaned from the 2021 census. We have almost 3,500 registrants (just under 5% of the population), which would be a statistically relevant number if it wasn’t self-selected. Groups under-represented might not be surprising. Renters only make up 24% of Be Heard participants, while renter households are more than 45% of the households in New West. People under 35 are underrepresented, while people 35-64 are very much overrepresented. People of Colour are underrepresented, as are immigrant residents. There was some expressed interest in Council to look at other tools to assure better representation of the community in our engagement, which slightly previewed our discussion of the Advisory Committees below.

These items were then moved On Consent:

Anvil Centre Operating Overview
As a companion to the earlier info report, this is a report that arose out of some deeper conversations Council has been having around the budget for the Anvil Centre. Where some on Council have asserted repeatedly that the Anvil is “losing $5 Million per year”. The reality is something different.

It costs about $5.3 Million to run the Anvil Centre every year. $2.4M of this is conference services, $1.2M is Community Arts & Theatre operations, and the remaining $1.5M the cost of the Museum, Archives, art and technology functions. This is offset by $2.6M in revenue earned every year, mostly from Conference Services. This does NOT include parking from the parkade under Anvil or leases of the commercial spaces in the Anvil, which are a separate revenue source, nor does it include the $2.7M in annual capital depreciation, which is not an actual cash “cost”, but an accounting for the idea that the Anvil, like all assets, has a lifespan we need to account for in our capital budget.

Appointment of Corporate Officer
We have a new Corporate Officer, and this is one of the positions we need to officially assign as City Council as they have regulatory role and delegated duties. So this was done.

Approach for Budget 2024 Engagement & Budget Timelines
This report outlines the timelines for engagement on next years’ budget. We have just wrapped the 2023 budget, but Council has expressed a desire to engage earlier and deeper with the broad community on budget matters, and a desire to complete the budget work earlier in the year so we can better align our budget with annual staff work plans, which means we are going to begin the 2024 budget engagement process this month.

There are two plans here: a quick start for 2024, recognizing he tight timelines and staff resources that will include Be Heard New West and directly outreach to a broader community, including both educational materials about municipal budgeting and questions about service levels, priorities, and tax tolerance. Given how this works and more planning time, there will be enhanced work for the 2025 budget season.

Daycare Lease Agreement at 490 Furness Street
This is the Lease that allows KIDS to operate a daycare (12 infant/toddler spots and 25 preschool-age) in a building the City negotiated out of the development of a townhouse project in Queensborough. The Developer built the building and gave it to the City. The Province provided a $500,000 grant towards construction. The City fitted it out, including using $450,000 from our daycare reserve funds, and will continue to own and maintain the building. KIDS won the contract in an open call for proposals, and will staff and operate the daycare, including daily building maintenance. The City will collect $2,800/month in lease to cover the majority of costs for the building, utilities, and to help offset the depreciation of the building, which is clearly a small percentage of what “market rent” would be for a building like this. These costs (and the lease amount) will be adjusted over the term of the lease through quarterly reporting to KIDS.

Early Steps Daycare – Playground License Agreement at 601 Queens Avenue
A new Childcare is trying to set up on Queens Avenue, but the “front lawn” is not large enough to meet provincial standards for outdoor play space. Immediately adjacent to this lawn is City boulevard with more than enough space well set back from traffic, with no clear delineation where City land starts and private property ends. The Daycare operator would like to include a small part of the City-owned lawn as their designated outdoor space. This is OK with the City, but as they are a for-profit organization, we can’t just let them use it (ref. Section 25 of the Community Charter), so we need to agree to a fair lease for the use of public space. This is that agreement.

Expanding the Inter-municipal TNS (Ride-Hailing) Business Licence to include Hope, Kent and Mission
The City is part of an Inter-Municipal Business License scheme along with 20+ Greater Vancouver municipalities to provide a single business license to ride-hailing companies, meaning the operators can legally operate across the region, and each municipality gets its share of the license revenue. Three Fraser Valley municipalities want be added to this IMBL. Which means we need to amend our own bylaw. If you have opinions, let us know by May 29th.

The following items were Removed from Consent for discussion:

Application for Strata Conversion of the existing building at 716 Columbia Street.
This building has been sitting empty for a long time, one of the persistent gaps in our downtown streetscape. Of all the gaps, this the one that we quickest to get filled, as there already was zoning for mixed use and building and building permits were granted almost a decade ago. Strata conversions are not common in New West, as we do not permit existing rental to be converted to Strata. This site was never a rental building in any official way (though it operated as a hotel at some point in the middle-distant past), and is currently not occupied by residents.

There was some discussion about the small footprint and slightly unusual layouts of these suites. They would probably not be given a development permit to build this in 2023, but they were back in 2010, and were granted building permits based on the building code and regulations applicable at the time, so it would be highly irregular (and legally questionable) to retract those approvals now that the work has finally been done.

Long and short, this is the first of the “gaps” downtown that we have got activated, with commercial at grade and some small strata apartments above. That is a good thing!

Rezoning Application for Conversion to Supportive Housing: 422 Sixth Street – Preliminary Application
The owner of this building in the Brow of the Hill wishes to convers two floors of the mixed-use office building to a form of supportive housing desperately needed in the community. 30 units of supportive housing for people facing homelessness, with on-site supports. This is consistent with the OCP designation for the site, and the mixed residential/commercial use and density are within the zoning, but the supportive nature of the housing is not, so we need to do a rezoning to address that specific point.

This is a preliminary report, and there are some details and funding to work out. There will also be a public engagement step as is typical of a rezoning, however as this is consistent with policy and priorities in the City, we are going to waive the Public Hearing on this rezoning.

We then Adopted a a Bylaw:

Tax Rates Bylaw No. 8395 2023
This Bylaw, as it suggests, sets the Tax Rates for 2023, and it was adopted by Council.

Then we had our Motions from Council:

Inviting the Community to Celebrate and Say Goodbye to the Pattullo Bridge
Councillor Fontaine

BE IT RESOLVED that the Mayor write a letter on behalf of Council to the BC Ministry of Transportation to determine the feasibility of opening the Pattullo Bridge to pedestrian, cycle and other non-vehicular modes of transportation for a period of three days (Friday, Saturday, Sunday) subsequent to the opening of the new bridge; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that Council enter into discussions with the Ministry of Transportation to facilitate a community-based celebration of the existing Pattullo Bridge by way of an ‘on bridge’ day-long street festival during the three day public access period

Through some discussion on Council, this got amended to something like (forgive my notes, this may not be perfect):

BE IT RESOLVED that the Mayor write a letter on behalf of Council to the BC Ministry of Transportation and TransLink to determine the feasibility of opening the Pattullo Bridge to pedestrian, cycle and other non-vehicular modes of transportation for a period of three days (Friday, Saturday, Sunday) subsequent to the opening of the new bridge; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that Council notify the Ministry of Transportation and TransLink that the City wants them to host a community-based celebration of the existing Pattullo Bridge by way of an ‘on bridge’ day-long street festival during the three day public access period with City input to the event; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this include a memorial event or day be held to mark the lives lost on the structure.

This motion is consistent with the conversation we are already having with MOTI, including a couple of weeks ago when they came here to present to Council about the Pattullo Replacement project and we will need to engage TransLink, as I understand they are still the owner of the asset.

The history of the bridge is complicated. While the arch has marked the skyline of New Westminster for generations, and is iconic for that, it is also a place where many people lost their lives, and I think a day of remembrance would also be appropriate. We have a year or more to plan this out, so let’s see where the conversation goes.

Updating and determining the effectiveness of the City’s Tree Protection and Regulation Bylaw
Submitted by Councillor Minhas

BE IT RESOLVED that staff be directed to report back to Council regarding the costs, potential sources of funding and operational impacts pertaining to the City conducting an independent and arms-length review and public consultation regarding the effectiveness of our Tree Protection and Regulation Bylaw

It was not made clear what the goal of this motion was, or why this bylaw was being selected for scrutiny among out hundreds of bylaws. There is no data supporting the assertion that the tree canopy is declining, indeed it is likely holding steady. What we can say for certainty is that there are many, many more trees in the City than even a couple of years ago, and their contribution to overall canopy cover will not be realized for a decade. We plant a tree not for today, but for 20 years in the future, and that is why we have an Urban Forest Management Strategy, of which the Tree Protection Bylaw is only one component.

Has this Bylaw been reviewed? Yes. Since the initial introduction of the Bylaw, which came itself after significant public consultation and industry review, this Bylaw has been iterated to make it clearer, more functional, and easier to navigate. Indeed, our Amended Bylaw has served as a model for other municipalities who have followed our lead on navigating the unique challenges of implementing a tree bylaw in a heavily urbanized area facing significant population growth.

If the point is external arms-length review, I would suggest the reviews by the Canadian Institute of Planners, who gave our Urban Forest Management Strategy the national Award for Planning Excellence, and the Planning Institute of British Columbia who gave it an award of Excellence on Policy Planning. To experts in the field, this strategy and the Bylaw demonstrate incredible industry-leading work by our staff.

Without specific ideas of what needs fixing, I can’t support staff spending time or limited resources reviewing this program at this time. I would suggest that time and money are better spent in continued implementation of the strategy. Council did not vote to support this motion.

Finally, we had one piece of New Business:

Potential Changes to City Advisory Committee Structure
Now that we have an adopted Strategic Plan, we are going to do the next bit of work, which is adjusting our Advisory Committee Structure. This happens every Council term, as we did a pretty big shift in early 2019 to a paired Task Force – Advisory Committee model and pared back our 30+ Advisory Committees to more align with areas of strategic focus. There were strengths and weaknesses to this model, but the biggest challenge (identified going back to our 2016 Public Engagement Strategy) is making our advisory committees better match our community profile in demographics. This was also noted in the report further up on Be Heard New West demographics, where council agrees we needed new tools to better connect with the diversity of our community. In this report, one such tool is outlined.

Though there are details to work out, Community Engagement staff are going to develop a “community assembly” or “citizens assembly” or “advisory council” model. The name doesn’t matter (yet. I think it will matter, just not yet) as much as the idea – a larger demographically-representative group of residents to serve as an advisory body to Council and staff. This could be applied in various ways, including having a demographically-representative pool of hyper-engaged participants from which advisory task forces or panels could be drawn on various topics. As the need arises.

This is a new model, we don’t know of anywhere it has been applied yet, but it does represent a new model that meets the goals of our Public Engagement Strategy in a new and exciting way. It is a bit risky, but could be ground-breaking. I’m excited to see where this goes.

And that was the meeting that was. Go outside, get some sun.

Lower Mainland LGA 2023 (pt 1)

This week the Lower Mainland Local Government Association held their annual conference in Harrison. The Lower Mainland LGA is the collective of the elected local government officials of Metro Vancouver, the Fraser Valley, and the Sea-to-Sky, and includes 29 of the 30 municipalities from Hope to Pemberton as members. (bonus guess on who is missing?). All of New Westminster Council attended, and as is my wont, I like to write an (admittedly-biased) review of what happened. This will be a series of blog posts, as there are three main components of the event, but I’ll start with the one that is freshest in my mind, the speeches, and come back to resolutions and sessions in follow-up posts.

Every LMLGA has speeches, political ones from each of the three main provincial parties (mush of our resolution work and discussion at the event is about advocacy to the provincial government) and a keynote.

The Keynote in 2023 was from Naheed Nenshi, the recently-more-relaxed former Mayor of Calgary. He spoke about the times and the current challenges of Local Government, and of governance of all forms during the “long emergency” we are experiencing. He spoke of the overlap of 5 crises: The ongoing Pandemic (“It’s not over folks!”); Mental Health and Addictions (Sorry, folks the Alberta Model is not a panacea); Racism and Decolonization (this has been going on for generations, but the need to reckon with it is now and present in all of our discourse); Climate (yeah, he kinds breezed over this, as a guy used to speaking to the Calgary business crowd tends to); and unprecedented inequity (economic inequity is higher now than it was during the Industrial Revolution, than it was during the days of Carnegie and Rockefeller).

He also spoke about his affinity for Purple – not a primary colour, neither red nor blue, but both. He had tried himself to be as non-partisan as possible and found success in speaking to issues, not ideologies. It was interesting to hear him talk about that line, as a Mayor of a fairly progressive local government floating in a sea of conservatism, and after him speaking of the issues above through a lens that most would recognize as a progressive one. But his message of service to the community, of love for your community, should be universal for those called to public service.

His message directed at the crowd at Lower Mainland LGA (elected people recently put in office with three and a half years of work ahead of them) was simple. Forget about the campaign and instead do your work. If you are always talking about the last election or the next one, you are not making good decisions, because you are putting the service of yourself in front of service for the community. Now is the time to Do Your Work, and 6 months before the next election, you can point back at that work, and the voters will decide whether that was enough.

The Leader of BC United, Kevin Falcon, gave a campaign speech that was at times confusing. Much like his speech at the UBCM Housing Summit a few weeks ago (where he told a room of bureaucrats that the last thing the housing crisis needed was more bureaucrats), he perhaps missed his audience here by framing the first half of his speech around the inability of government to do anything useful, while he was talking to a room of people recently elected to do things. There was also a lack of internal consistency in his comments. He spent much of the time saying “government can’t build housing”, and lamenting how ideas to build more housing are hampered by BC Hydro’s ability to supply power, by the need to expand sewers and water and roads. Then he switched to his strategy which was to “Flood the Zone” with new housing, while making no reference to the problem with that approach he just talked about. So, a campaign speech.

The speech was also notable in his unique discretion in only saying “Catch and Release” a single time. And once again, he made it clear to everyone he *Really Loves* the current members of Vancouver city council, and *really hated* the old ones. It is unclear how he stands on the majority of Vancouver councilors who were both on the old council and the new one. Maybe I’m missing some nuance here.

Sonia Furstenau of the BC Greens gave a Sonia speech, in that her approach to these events is so notably different than most politicians. She clearly riffs off of her notes, sometimes far off, but speaks about what she is hearing and feeling in a human way. She is also talented at finding parallels with the points made by others (you should never want to go before Sonia on the agenda if you have the option) and reframing them in creative ways. Example: like Falcon, she wants to “focus on outcomes” – but she is more directed in asking what those outcomes are, and who they serve? At each point, she talks at a deeper level, and challenges us to do the same.

There is a luxury in being the Third Party, but Sonia uses that privilege effectively. She is able to get meta (as the kids say), look at the debates we are having and raise the question “why”? If our processes and debates don’t let us agree on the starting point, don’t let us work from the same data, how will we ever agree on the path to better outcomes? A good example is in how she talks about question Period in the Legislature, when the two parties (for the most part) yell at each other hoping for media quotes. She asks – how does this serve anyone? What would question Period look like if we centred the people being served? If we talked about policy outcomes and took that service seriously? Dare to dream.

The NDP were represented by “our” Minister, Anne Kang of Municipal Affairs (though Minister Bowinn Ma was also on a panel on Friday). She opened in referring to herself as the “Minister of Friendship” – and her first goal being to get to know and meet with the local government leaders around the region. This is a big task with ~180 Local Governments, but Minister Kang has been working hard to make those connections. Spending time as a City Councillor herself, she was able to relate to the folks in the crowd, and received more applause than perhaps the other folks giving Friday speeches on Friday – the benefit of being able to talk about the $1billion Growing Communities Fund and other funding the Province has sent to local governments (Library funding perhaps the most popular in this crowd – note to all current and future Ministers of Municipal Affairs).

She had a few great lines (“Alberta may be calling, but only because this is the place people actually want to live”) but her speech (to my taste) leaned a bit too much on the speaking notes, and not enough on her personal experience in local government and her personal learnings from her first few months on the job. She is new to the role, and has room to grow in it, but the best part was her clear willingness to make the connections that Local Government needs in Victoria.

This points a bit to the overall tone of the room during these speeches, and over the three days. When I was first attending these Lower Mainland LGA and UBCM events 8ish years ago, relations between the Provincial Government and Local Governments were strained. There are, of course, local elected people across the political spectrum, but 8 years ago the lefties and the righties seemed fairly aligned on the idea that the province was doing local governments few favours. This shifted when the NDP got elected. Minister Robinson was “one of us” (a Local Mainland LGA Executive member!) and a bridge builder, as was Minister Osborne. The provincial government was present again at Lower Mainland LGA and UBCM events, and were actively engaging local government. Most of the lefties and the righties agreed this was a breath of fresh air, and received this support warmly, even if some begrudgenly did so.

After a few years of not meeting like this, and with the NDP now owning a long enough legacy of successes and failures, It was clear the room was more divided along partisan divisions than I ever remember feeling before. Perhaps this is “regression to the mean” after a decade of anomalous swings, maybe it is the room half full of new folks trying to find their place and their voice. But I’m afraid the message of Mayor Nenshi may have fallen on ears less purple than we might hope.

Budget Amendment

Last meeting we approved a provisional budget. After several months of work by Council and much, much more by staff, a 5-year financial plan was presented that included Capital and Operational budgets for both the General Fund and the Utility Funds. The next step is for staff to forge these into Bylaws that can be read and adopted by Council – a process that needs to be completed by the end of April by regulation. But first Council has to approve the 5-year plan in principle.

In a move that is no longer surprising, an Amendment motion was proposed late in the discussion that sought to derail much of this work. Not in a way that allowed staff or Council to meaningfully deliberate the changes proposed, but in a way that appeared to be (and I’m not saying this was intent, I’m saying this is how it appeared to me, recognizing one cannot really know what is in another’s mind) more of an attempt to score talking points. And I’ll detail why I got that impression, but first, I want to talk about the Amendment.

The Amendment that arrived in front of Council at almost literally the 11th hour is a list of 12 different shifts in line items, projects, and plans in the City, with little rhyme or reason. All were framed as initiatives to reduce the burden on property taxpayers by reducing the proposed 6.4% tax increase. I cannot bury this key point, so I’ll underline it:

*Not a single item in this list, if approved, would have any effect on the proposed 6.4% tax increase. Not one.*

It is also worth emphasizing that many of the items sought to undermine years of work by different departments based on long-standing strategic plans and sometimes years of community engagement, advisory committee work, and partnerships in the community. This is not good governance.

So beyond the headlines, here’s some detail:

The biggest line item was “Eliminate $46,337,399 in funding allocated for the District Energy Project in Sapperton”, and this is emblematic of the entire Amendment.

The District Energy Utility (“DEU”) is a project the City has been working on for some time, similar to successful projects in Vancouver and Richmond. It is still conceptual, because it needs several things to come together for it to be successful, some of them outside of the control of the City (like pace of residential development and global energy prices). The City has been carefully evaluating market conditions, and has been building partnerships and raising external funding to support the financial modelling and design work. When the business case is right, when the known risks are managed, we need to be ready to move.

As we have received external funding support in anticipation of these factors coming together, we have a line item in our Capital budget to support the capital cost of building the DEU. That is the number that appears above. Cutting this from the budget means the DEU doesn’t go forward, now or ever. It seems to me good governance would include a deeper conversation about that (including with our funding partners) before we throw away years of work by striking a red line through it during budget deliberations.

Perhaps the more important aspect of this is that the DEU will not be funded by property taxes.  The “U” stands for “Utility”, and it will be operated as such. The people who will pay for the DEU are the customers of the DEU – the people and businesses of the new buildings that hook up to the DEU and receive the benefit of resilient, carbon-free, and affordable space- and water-heating provided from sewer heat recovery. The entire point of the DEU is that the capital cost (somewhere around $50 Million now, it may be more or less depending on how it is built and when) will be covered by rates paid by customers, supported by some external grants and value gained in the carbon credit market.

Cutting this out of the budget now and spiking the project on a whim will do nothing to change property tax rates, now or in the future.

There is also a line item here that suggests we “Eliminate $15,321,089 in funds earmarked for the installation of advanced ‘smart’ meters”, effectively ending the Advanced Meter Infrastructure (AMI) project.

Again, this is a capital project paid through Electrical Utility rates, so it will not impact Property Tax rates, but that is not the most baffling part. The City has already invested in the IT work to support integration of digital meters, and we have already signed the contract to purchase 40,000 next-generation electrical meters. Taking away the Capital budget for their installation and integration now is a strange request, as we already own the meters. They would become very expensive doorstops.

But let’s talk about the Advanced Meter initiative, and why we are doing it, because not all of you have the benefit of lengthy onboarding that the Councillor moving this Amendment had access to, or serve on the Electrical Commission like the Councillor who seconded the Motion does.

The City’s electrical meters are old and overdue for replacement. The mechanical meter technology we rely on is harder and harder to get inspected and certified by the regulators, because of their age. They are becoming less reliable, and repairs are challenging. At the same time, Utility customers have been asking the Electrical Utility for more information about energy use, more consistent billing, and even more innovative rate structures to support EV integration, building electrification, and conservation. We can do none of these things relying on 1950’s technology meters. Even if you don’t think digital meters are a good thing, and don’t value those benefits, I don’t think throwing away the investment already made in new meters and keeping the failing older technology in place provides any benefit at all to utility ratepayers.

There are other items in this list that are out of left field like cutting $2M from the BridgeNet capital plan (another thing not paid for by property tax payers, but by service users and ISP partners, who maybe we should talk to before we toss away our development plan?) to a random cut of almost $5 Million in the Capital budget to make long-needed improvements to the sidewalks and commercial streets through the Great Streets program. Some other line items point to familiar grievances like the Queens Park Farm upgrades (not sure why a motion to not update the farm area after two years of consultation and design work that failed earlier in the day during workshop ended up back here only hours later to fail again?) or adding a few hundred thousand dollars to the whistle cessation line item (when staff have repeatedly made clear it’s not lack of money that is preventing faster implementation of whistle cessation).

It is important to note that none of the numbers in this laundry list have been verified, nor has there been any analysis of the impacts of these cuts on existing programs, on long-term strategic plans, or on the people and businesses of New Westminster. No public consultation, no business analysis. Just randm numbers on a sheet of paper.

This is why several Councillors, surprised and confused by the suggestions, fell to using language like slapdash, knee-jerk, and crazy when referring to the content of the Amendment, and why Council, in its wisdom, voted this down.

There is another conversation to have here about intent, and that is harder. Especially when one sees the first proposed change: “Establish a $1 budget for the City’s rebranding for the rebranding process aimed at eliminating the Royal City moniker”. We didn’t debate this in Council, but it is not difficult to infer intent here. But I am going to hold off on talking about that for now, because I don’t want that necessarily-political discussion to distract from the cold facts above about why the Amendment was misdirected, misinformed, and unsupportable.

Council – March 27, 2023

We had long Council day on Monday. Aside from the regular meeting, we also had some open and closed workshops (the open ones you can see here), but overall a ~15 hour day for Council and senior staff. The Agenda wasn’t that long, but you know how these things can go. We started with a Public Hearing:

Heritage Revitalization Agreement Bylaw No. 8379, 2023 and Heritage Designation Bylaw No. 8380, 2023 (802 and 806 Eighth Street and 809 Eighth Avenue).
This project in the Moody Park area of Uptown proposes to amalgamate three single family detached lots, relocate one of the homes on those lots for heritage protection, and build townhouses totaling 17 units. The 1929 heritage house would be permanently preserved.

This project includes the compact townhouse density that reflects the OCP designation, and includes 13 regular townhouses, but in exchange for preserving the Heritage home, they are building 4 smaller accessible ground-oriented units in a bit of a stacked townhouse form.

We received about two dozen pieces of correspondence, mostly in favour, and we had 10 delegates speak to Council, which were a mix of supporters, opponents (mostly with concerns about the off-street parking relaxation given), and a few that liked the project except for having concerns (again, almost exclusively about the limited off-street parking).

Council voted to approve Third Reading of the Bylaws.

We then had Presentation for discussion on the Budget:

Budget 2023: Draft 2023 – 2027 Financial Plan
We have been working for some time (almost three months) on the budget, which is really two separate yet connected budgets. Our Capital Budget is $173.2 Million – that is the money we plan to spend this year on capital works, repairs and upgrades. The Operational Budget includes $301.5 Million in revenues and $235.4M in expenses – which means we are planning to spend about $66M less on operations that we collect in revenue, but that extra goes to reserves to pay for things in in that Capital Budget.

This budget as presented follows the input provided by Council in previous budget meetings, and incorporates feedback from the community. Out Utility Rates were approved in December, We went through proposed service enhancements in January and the Capital Budget in February. Every one of these budget meeting and workshops is publicly viewable on our web page, because we debate the budget in a transparent way in New West.

There was some discussion in Council about where this budget is, but I will hold that off for a follow-up blog post, because it deserves deeper discussion. In the end, Council voted to approve this budget going to Bylaws which will be read by Council in April, as they must be adopted at our April 23rd meeting. Until then, we will have will have the information available for public feedback.

We then moved the following items On Consent:

Construction Noise Bylaw Exemption Request: 22nd Street SkyTrain Station – Amending Report
They are upgrading the safety capacity of SkyTrian stations. Some work needs to be done at night when trains are not running and the station is not full of people. Makes sense.

Construction Noise Bylaw Exemption Request: Columbia Street at 8th Street (New Westminster SkyTrain Station)
They are upgrading the safety capacity of SkyTrian stations. Some work needs to be done at night when trains are not running and the station is not full of people. Makes sense.

Official Community Plan Amendment and Rezoning: 102/104 Eighth Avenue and 728 First Street – Bylaws for First and Second Reading
This project would bring 10 townhouses to a couple of lots in Glenbrook North. This requires an OCP amendment, not just a rezoning, which means it had a more intense public and First Nations consultation. The project will go to Public Hearing, so I will hold my comments until then.

The following items were Removed from Consent for discussion:

Construction Noise Bylaw Exemption Request: 1031 Quebec Street, New Westminster – Metro Vancouver Annacis Water Supply Tunnel, Fraser River Crossing
Metro Vancouver is currently boring a tunnel under the Fraser River from Surrey to New West. It will come to the (near) surface in the Lower 12th Street area. The work to build this end terminal will take a few long concrete pours, and a few of those might exceed our construction noise time periods. So Council moved to grant them an exemption.

Engineering User Fees and Rates Bylaw Amendment for Three Readings – Bylaw 8386, 2023
We moved earlier to remove the nominal charge for block parties this is the bylaw change needed to make it happen.

Rezoning and Special Development Permit (809 – 811 Carnarvon Street and 60 – 70 Eighth Street) – Preliminary Report
This is an interesting project in the “tower district” of downtown. It would achieve one of the City’s longer-term Economic Development needs: more hotel space. It is consistent with the OCP, but the residential component is taller than current allowance, so it is proposed to use our Density Bonus policy to achieve the required density (though it is taller than them it is lower density than several adjacent developments). This is a preliminary application, and there are many details to be worked out, including a significant Public Consultation process, but given that consultation be satisfactory, we are able to waive the Public Hearing as the project is consistent with the OCP, stated policy, and strategic goals of the City.

We then read some Bylaws including the following Bylaw for Adoption:

Council Procedure Bylaw Amendment Bylaw No. 8385, 2023
This bylaw that defines a mechanism to handle Notices of Motion being placed on the agenda was adopted by Council. It’s the Law of the Land.

Speaking of Notices of Motion, we had a couple of Motions from Council:

Ensuring the timely removal and replacement of dead and/or dying trees on city property
Submitted by Councillor Fontaine
BE IT RESOLVED that staff report back regarding the resources required and staffing implications to conduct an audit of how many dead or dying trees are on city sidewalks, boulevards and adjacent to arterials that require replacement; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the report incorporate the estimated costs associated with the removal of all dead and/or dying trees on city-owned land and have them replanted prior to the April 2024; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that upon approval of this resolution any tree on city-owned property which must be cut down to a stump will be removed and replanted within a 12 month period</>I
This motion made me itchy, because it is deeply operational. The question about managing dead trees was raised several times through on-boarding by the Councillor (virtually every time planting trees was mentioned. Every time staff provided a clear answer explaining the operational parameters around street tree replacement, first addressing the safety issue, then the operational cost management issue, then the issue around how some trees cannot be replaced because of what we now know as inadequate soil volume to allow then to survive longer summers. We have been told that engineering ops has acquired new equipment to facilitate the stump removal so we no longer need to rely on a contractor, and that there is a work plan that includes removing the existing stumps, but there is a backlog, as other horticulture work (maintaining living trees so they don’t join the dead, primarily) is prioritized. Asked and answered.

However, Council found a way to re-frame this motion to meet the goals of it (for example, there is no need for an “audit” when staff know and track trees living and dead) without undermining the larger goals of our Urban Forest Management Plan. I’m working form memory here, but the motion Council unanimously approved is something like (check the official minutes if you need accuracy):

BE IT RESOLVED that the report incorporate the estimated costs associated with the removal of all dead and/or dying trees on city-owned land and have them replanted prior to the April 2024; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that upon approval of this resolution any tree on city-owned property which must be cut down to a stump will be removed and replanted within a 12 month period where practical, with priority for replanting aligned with the equity principles in the Tree Planting Master Plan

Supporting Single Mothers’ Alliance Transit for Teens Campaign
Submitted by Councillor Fontaine
BE IT RESOLVED THAT the City of New Westminster endorse the Single Mothers’ Alliance Transit for Teens Campaign; and the Mayor write a letter to the Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure, the Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction, the Minister of Children and Family Development, and the Select Standing Committee on Children and Youth to express Council’s support for extending free transit to include youth 13-18 in all transit systems in BC.

New Westminster was a leader in the #AllOnBoard campaign, that was instrumental in securing the funding from the Provincial Government to make public transit free up to the Age of 12. The goal of that campaign was (and still is) not just to make transit free to the age of 18, but to introduce a sliding-scale monthly pass system based on income to assure poverty was not a barrier to transportation freedom in public transit served areas. The previous Council did a lot of work to rally local government support and put forward a UBCM resolution that got referred. But we were bolstered by the local and regional anti-poverty and Labour activist community to convince the Provincial Government to get part way there. Many of the same groups are calling for this next step.

The TransLink Mayors Council mandate does not really allow them to introduce this, and they have no source funding to support it, which is why it was important then (and remains so now), to keep this campaign focused on the Provincial Government, as the Single Mothers Alliance are doing. So the motion above is a slight amendment to the original motion to keep it on track, but was approved by all of Council.

I am hoping to have some time to write a couple of follow-up blogs on this meeting, because I feel there was some important sub-text in the conversations that happened on this day, both in workshop and in Council meetings, that reflect poorly on the goals I had for a collaborative Council. Indeed, it was a repeat of events I talked about here, but with a sharper edge to it. And at some point, we need to start talking about this more frankly. Until then, get out and enjoy some sun.

on reserves

The discussions about municipal budgets are ongoing across the region, As it is budget time, and as the Province has decided to flip $1 Billion to local governments right in the middle of that budget period, which will lead to some interesting conversions in every muncipal hall. Some Councils will see it as a windfall to be spent on new things, some will use it for political cover for questionable decisions, some will prudently invest, others will go full populist. A real Marshmallow Test for local government.

Among the stories, this one popped out to me. PoCo is getting a reputation for artfully blending populism with prudent investment, but the bigger question about balancing reserves is something that every city neeeds to grapple with. The McElroy story caused me to dig deeper into reserve levels across the region, so I can test my preconceived notions about New Westminster’s relative financial health. As always, I want to preface this by saying it is not a competition, as every municipality has its own pressures, its own priorities and its own way to serve their populace. In comparing ourselves to our regional cohort, I want to get a sense of where we are doing better or worse to inform our priority setting while approving a budget.

I am once again leaning on the BC Government Local Government Financial Statistics, which are reported in a more-or-less consistent way every year. This is not my data, but the data provided by law to the Province by local governments every year. When it comes to Financial Assets, Reserves, and Tangible Capital Assets, all data is pulled form Schedules 301, 302, 404, and 503. Got a problem with the numbers? Take it up there.

Every City reports Financial Assets (the money in their savings and chequing accounts) and their financial liabilities (their mortgages and loans). The difference between them is reported as “net financial reserves”, which is the number McElroy was pointing to in that story above. These are the reported numbers for the 17 major Municipalities in Greater Vancouver (sorry, Belcarra) in the most recent reporting year, which is the end of 2021:

But perhaps a better way to look at it is to subtract the liabilities form the assets, so you can compare the Net Reserves:

Some things are not surprising: Vancouver has the most money, and the most debt. Burnaby has the highest net neserves, and Richmond and Coquitlam are both doing really well if money-in-the-bank is your preferred measure. Indeed, PoCo has the lowest net, with New West a little below the middle, but there is a trend following population, as you might expect, with smaller Munis over on the right, larger towards the left. So let’s calculate the net reserves per capita using 2021 Census data:

Burnaby still way up there (with $7,700 in net reserves per resident), and New Westminster shifting further over to the right (with $972 per resident). PoCo in this measure is not the lowest, but is pretty closely clustered with Surrey and the Township of Langley at under $500 per resident.

This is interesting, but does not really reflect the purpose of reserves. Part of it is to demonstrate financial health to make it easier to borrow money, but part of it is also to have sufficient cash on hand to address unexpected future costs. Mostly those costs are related to capital replacement, so it is more useful to compare your reserves to the value of your capital assets. This is the value of the roads, buildings, pipes, computers, vehicles and all of the “stuff” your City owns and operates. Schedule 503 provides these numbers as reported by the City every year. This chart shows the reserves as a percentage of the net book value of our tangible capital assets:

There needs to be a big caveat here. Though a fundamental measure of your reserves vs the value of your capital assets is a measure of financial resiliency (our finance staff have suggested 10% of the asset value is a good minimum benchmark), the denominator of the equation needs to be viewed with a certain skepticism. This is because local governments have not historically been very good at evaluating the true value of their capital assets, and that might take me down the rabbit hole of talking about asset management, which is probably another blog post on its own.

Just to create a sense of comparison, here are the net reserves per capita and relative to tangible capital assets, plotted as a scatter. Somewhere in here is a trend. I added the green dot to show the “average” for the region:

Finally, part of the conversation about reserves is the direction they are moving. Are we building them, or are we depleting them? Luckily the province provides data going back a few years in their Schedules 404. To compare across cities of varying size, I indexed the reserves value based on their 2012 value so we can see the decade-long trend. Problem is, a couple of Municipalities (Vancouver and West Van) had negative reserves in 2012, which makes it hard to compare this way, so I removed them from the data set. Suffice to say, their increase over the last decade has been proportionally much higher than all others (they would be well off the top of this chart). But for the rest of us, you can see most Munis are in building phases, and only one has fewer reseves than a decade ago:

The comparison over a decade is valuable, because reserves serve another function – they are where a City stores some money for big capital investments, like a recreation centre or a new City Hall. And when a City borrows to build a new capital asset, that downward pressure on net reserves is felt for several years. New West has been growing reserves in the last couple of years in recognition that təməsew̓txʷ and it’s $114 Million investment will have this impact on our net.

So, comparatively? New West has lower-than-average reserves by most measures, has been building them, but has a big capital investment that will put downward pressure on these reserves in the years ahead. That should inform some of our thinking about future investments in the City and our ability to make expensive promises.

On fiscal responsibility

Council has for several meetings been going through the budget. In practical terms, this means staff have been writing reports, providing long spreadsheets, and Council members have spent hours reading through those reports and spreadsheets in preparation for meetings. We have then held these meetings (mostly in Workshop format during the day, Jan 23, Jan 25, Jan 30, Feb 6, Feb 13 and Feb 27; you can watch those meetings and read those reports here) and discussed different aspects of the budget in some detail. We were able to ask questions of staff about departmental priorities, about work plan capabilities, about the policies that drive the priorities behind the budget, about where we could fit our own priorities (because we all have them), and at times went line-by-line through different operational and capital line items. These have been productive and positive conversations, and the budget has been iterated along during them.

Through it all, we now have a pretty good understanding of where the budget will land and how we are going to pay for our aggressive capital program ($166 Million in 2023!). Last meeting, we gave instruction to staff for them to prepare budget documents for Bylaws to come to our next meetings.

So, with that background for context, I need to retort to this story. Alas.

The motion that was defeated at Council arrived at the eleventh hour of that months-long budget discussion, and comprised a long list of disconnected funding items. Together they represented something like $8 Million in new spending that was not discussed in previous budget deliberations, though that number is uncertain, because the funding was requested without any actual costing, testing for viability, or understanding of the impact on work plans or the ability to deliver. It was an expensive wish list tacked onto the end of a budget, ballooning it by something like 5%, with no consideration for how this fits into any existing priorities. This is not good governance.

It was further suggested this wish list could be funded by the City’s expected grant from the Growing Communities Fund. This was based on speculation about how much money the City will get, and presumes there will not be any limitations on how this money can be used. In the meeting, staff made it clear that this was not a prudent way to plan for a senior government grant. As we were currently looking at a very aggressive ~$170 Million capital budget for 2023, one that staff have repeatedly pointed out over the last months of open discussions will challenge our debt tolerance and reserve funds, I think treating new capital funding sources as “free money” to be spent willy nilly is the least fiscally responsible idea I have heard in my time in Local Government.

This raises the question of whether, as implied in the headline, Council opposes investments in “New Sidewalks, Paved Roads And Community Festivals In New Westminster”? Of course not. The draft capital budget includes $5 Million in 2023 (more than $20 Million over 5 years) for paving roads alone. This is aside from the $11+ Million to be invested in 2023 in road and street safety improvements and $4+ Million to be invested in 2023 in pedestrian improvements (sidewalks, light signal and crosswalk upgrades, etc). We also have one of the most generous community grant programs in the Lower Mainland to support local groups running festivals and activating our streets. Every bit of that funding has been discussed and prioritized, because saying yes to more is always easy; putting all new spending into the context of tax increases, debt and reserves before you spend it is harder.

I have heard people ask us to do more. I have heard people ask us to spend less. I have not heard people asking us to be fiscally irresponsible and spend money for the sake of spending it. That is why I didn’t support the motion presented on Monday. I am happy the majority of council was equally as prudent.

As perhaps an aside (now that I am into it), there are other quotes in that piece that criticize council colleagues for not being “collaborative”. This after a meeting where there were no less than four motions brought to the floor by the author, and three of those motions were passed by a majority of Council – two of them (in my recollection) unanimously. Collaboration in my mind means working together to evaluate each other’s ideas and finding compromise and places of agreement, it does not require the capitulation to all ideas regardless of how poorly they are presented. The job of those seven people around that table is to govern, and the hardest part of governing is in setting priorities, including deciding when to say no.

I find this extra disingenuous in that these debates are framed as being partisan, with the implication that council members are acting for partisan reasons only. This implication is disrespectful to the intentions and professionalism of the council members. It also is not reflected in the voting record over the last few months. There have been many unanimous votes, there have been votes with one, two or three votes separate from the majority, because members genuinely disagreed with each other on the merits of the proposal before them. I have seen members across partisan lines working to amend motions to make them agreeable to all. As the Mayor, there are votes I have been on the losing side during this Council, but I don’t think that is a partisan conspiracy, that is members acting in good conscience and evidence of a Council responsibly doing its job.

Alas, Council responsibly doing its job and acting in good conscience does not fit the narrative being crafted by whoever is developing the Progressive media strategy. I have to have faith that the public will see through that.

2022 in review

Having a bit of time over the Christmas break to think back about the year that was 2022, I am mostly thinking about a year of strategizing, planning, and bringing teams together like I have never experienced before. It is perhaps ironic then (though being the Alanis generation, I may not really understand irony) that my life path in 2022 was nothing I would have predicted one year ago today. This was not the path I expected, but it was a path I navigated as events occurred. So excuse me if my “Year in Review” post is maybe more self-reflective than community-reflective than is my usual.

December last year was the tail end of a challenging time. The City had weathered the worst of the Pandemic admirably, but was still seeing significant challenges around overlapping regional crises related to homelessness, spiraling housing costs and inflationary pressures, the poisoned drug supply and a regional emergency response system that was just not delivering for those suffering from health crises. There was a lot of bad news locally and planet-wide. People could not be blamed for being in a bit of a funk.

At the same time, there was a lot of talk among folks around the New West council table about who would run again. This became pressing in December, as the new campaign finance rules limit the amount of money candidates can contribute per year for their own campaigns. If you were going to run in 2022, it was a good idea to do a little fundraising in 2021, or at least put your personal maximum donation in the bank before the year end. I was very uncertain about running again for Council, and as I was leaning against it I did zero fundraising in 2021. But I hedged my bets by at least opening the bank account and putting in my personal donation.

It may seem strange for the current Mayor to suggest I was uncertain if I would run for Council again just 12 months ago, but Mayor and Council are two very different jobs and we had a solid Mayor. Council would mean another 4 years of continuing to hold my professional life slightly on the side burner: I was working half time, but my heart was not in it to build my geoscience career like it had been in the past, and the half-time work meant I wasn’t really doing the professional development that my work required if I really wanted to excel. I really enjoyed the work of City Council and the team I was working with, but I had two half time jobs, both needing fuller commitment. Something had to give.

There were also some great candidates who reached out about their interest in running for Council (some who are now elected, some who are not) and when I got into the Councillor job I made a personal commitment to not stay around too long, especially not so long that I block the path for great new candidates who can bring the kind of energy and ideas that motivated me 8 years ago. So, December 2022, I was considering not just whether I wanted another 4 years of Council, but whether I was needed.

Then on the first day of 2022, Mayor Cote surprised me (and many others, I suspect) by announcing he would not be running for re-election. That put the scramble to everything, and resulted in my 2022 being divided into four not perfectly equal quarters. All with the common theme of teambuilding.

The first was mostly discussions with friends, supporters, and political allies to determine if I was the right candidate for Mayor. If I was electable, and if there was a broad enough support base out there to get elected. This also included talking to some other potential Mayoral candidates to determine if I should throw support behind them, if they even wanted the job. There were SWOT analyses, hard personal questions asked, and even values challenged. There was also some soul-seeking and conversations about the type of campaign and vision I wanted to present – positive, optimistic and pragmatic. Is that what people would vote for in 2022?

The second quarter began when I was convinced there was a viable path, but I needed a team and a broader support group to run a winning campaign. Running as an independent (as some friends recommended) was an idea I dismissed through these early stages. I think a Mayor needs a team, a supportive Council who can help get things done. With the wide variety of topics we address on Council, a leader needs a strong team of people with diverse experiences to guide them and support them. I already mentioned there were several great new candidates interested in running for Council; I wanted to work with this team. The work of putting a party together was bigger than me, there were many hands that did much more work than I, but helping in that process informed me further on whether I was ready to do the Mayor job.

It was also about putting together and gaining the support of the volunteer team for the project that is a “campaign”. Many community leaders don’t want to run for election themselves, but want to help like-minded folks get elected. Some provide financial support, some volunteer support, some real party structure organizational support, and many a combination of all three. Just as a Council is a team, a campaign is a team. With a good team, you can worry about being a candidate, and know the logistics are taken care of. Without knowing I had this team behind me, I would not have run, because I would not have been successful.

The third quarter was the campaign itself. Parts of it began as far back as January with that self-reflection, but the really intense campaign period began in the last half of the summer. Doorknocking every night, working with the team to develop platform and communications, fundraising and events. It is non-stop, and it never feels like you are doing enough. And though I had been involved in many campaigns before, supporting others and in running for Council two times: the Mayor campaign was something different.

There were ups and downs during the campaign, a few all-candidate events went great, some not so great. Sometimes I read the media and felt good, sometimes I was frustrated by it (Facebook was a complete shit-show, but that’s another blog altogether). In contrast, the doorknocking and the booth-style direct engagement were almost universally a positive. We had a great team of candidates it was a pleasure to share doorknocking time with, and people of New Westminster were their usual: engaged, interested, friendly, thoughtful, and inspiring. As the campaign went on, it was the doors and the booth (or more, the talking to people at both) that gave me energy every day to do the work, because the campaign overall was exhausting. We also had phenomenal doorknocking weather, and an incredible group of volunteers that brought a little joy every day to what is often an arduous journey. And that attack ad – that is some great scrapbook material!

This makes the fourth quarter the post-election period and the new job. The rest of 2022 was mostly filled with various ways of integrating into the job. This means lots of meetings with senior staff and stakeholders in the community, getting the new Council up to speed on the “State of the City” and some deeper thinking about what the “want-to-do”s and the “need-to-do”s are for the next year, and the next four years. And ow there are evets again, where I am now expected to have a few inspirational (!) words.

The good news is that the State of the City is good. We are in a decent (but not decadent) financial situation considering the chaos of COVID and our very aggressive capital plan, but costs are going up everywhere, and the City is no exception. Thanks to Mayor Cote’s leadership, we are in a good shape on a lot of policy fronts – in recent conversations with regional leaders and new Ministers in the Provincial Government, our leadership in housing policy across the spectrum has been noted repeatedly. Our role in getting PACT rolled out not just here but in other communities is also seen as demonstration of leadership, ad the multi-jurisdictional approach to addressing Downtown challenges is a great work in progress, with more to come. At the same time, the conversations we are having here on active transportation infrastructure sounds like debates from 15 years go in Vancouver, and 5 years ago in Victoria. A medium-sized City can’t be a leader on everything.

2022 also saw a return to one of the things that makes New West such a great place to live: we were back to events. Pride and Car Free Day both rocked Columbia, Fridays on Front were appreciated by significant crowds, Uptown Live and Recovery Day brought thousands to Uptown, and all kinds of different events like PechaKucha and the S&O Anniversary Party and the Mushtari Begum Festival the On Your Block Festival and the Hyack Parade and Play the Parks, etc. etc. There were so many ways for folks to connect again, to build that community spirit that was challenged for two years. It was a fun year.

And this winter, we had a few reminders that the day-to-day work of the city never stops. It has already been a challenging snow removal season, we have had crews working long hours and burning through a lot of salt and diesel to keep up with the changing conditions. The social media feedback has been demonstrative of something…

…admittedly, a bit of a mixed message.

I’m also spending some time this break thinking about how to engage differently in Social Media. Partly because the new job changes how my engagement is read, partly because I simply do not have time to track and respond to social media the way it sometimes desires, and partly because during the election I found judicious use of the “mute” button improved my outlook on the community, what with the anonymous trolls and racists filtered out. But this will be the topic of future posts and further reflection as the social media landscape is rapidly changing. Apparently Mastodon is a thing now?

So, to sum up, thank you to everyone who took part in making New West an exciting, engaged, and proactive community in 2022. There is much good coming in 2023, though I am sure the upcoming budget discussions will be contentious here as in most communities, as cost are going up and the austerity hawks will be making their damaging claims about the need to strip back community services. One of my reads over the break has been Andy Merrifield’s “The New Urban Question”, an exciting review of the impact of neoliberalism on not just the function of “The City”, but on the very nature of citizenship in the new Urban Realm, worldwide. It is an empowering and challenging read, and a reminder that the work we are doing has a purpose, even if the battle has no end.

Happy New Year! See you in Council Chambers – and around town – in 2023!

Poll-by-Poll 2022

The full election results are available on the City website, and as I have done in the last couple of goes-around, I like to look at the poll-by-poll results and infer a few things. Of course, others have taken this on and provided their own analysis, but I love to stick to a trend once I start, which in part explains the existence of this blog. Note: after boldly asserting I am NOT a political scientist, everything I write here has to be taken with a grain of salt.

This overlaps with the point that anyone in New West could vote in any polling station. One might assume that people vote in the station closest to their homes (as I did, voting early at City Hall), but there is nothing stopping someone from voting across town, so the geography of voting location is only a feeble proxy for the political leanings of that neighbourhood, which is the thesis of this entire post. Caveat Lector. But it is always fun to conject, so let’s have some fun. (Thanks Canspice for the image:

Starting with the Mayor’s Race, I marked the first place finisher in a poll with dark green, the second place finisher in lighter green. I also bunched the “Special Polls” and “Mail in” together as a single poll, for simplicity:

I finished first in most polls, and second in all the others, with my strongest polls being Downtown and the Brow, where I pulled greater than 50%. Armstrong won handily (~55%) in the two Queensborough polls, which represent about 10% of the overall votes. He also won the closer race in the Howay (Massey Victory Heights) poll. Puchmayr won Connaught Heights, which also happened to be the smallest poll, and the polls around his home in Moody Park generally had Puchmayr ahead of Armstrong in second place. As others have observed, there is a marked difference between multi-family and single-family neighbourhoods.

The Council race provides a bit more insight into how the vote was distributed. Here I shaded the first place finished in darker green, the second place finished in an apple green, and the other top 6 finishers in pale green. I used pale yellow for the three people just below the line, and no shading for the bottom three.

Much like Nadine Nakagawa last election, rookie candidate Ruby Campbell finished first overall by a good gap, and won the most polls. She finished first in 12 of the 19 polls, and second in one more. She “showed” (finished in the top 6) in all polls except (perhaps surprisingly) Herbert Spencer. Daniel Fontaine and Paul Minhas each led three polls, and Jaimie McEvoy was tied with Campbell for the favourite in the special polls, and was overall winner at QayQayt.

As most candidates were running with a party, there were clear trends related to those parties, and reflected somewhat the Mayor’s race. Community First had better results overall in most neighbourhoods, with the notable exceptions of Queensborough (the effect of Ken Armstrong being a Q’boro resident?) and Massey Victory Heights. The Progressives had a surprisingly strong showing at Herbert Spencer, which presumably draws most voters from Glenbrook North (where 3 of their down-ballot candidates reside) and Queens Park, but the same strength didn’t show at Queens Ave Church or Glenbrook Middle which would also presumably draw from Queens Park and Glenbrook. The two successful NWP candidates also had strong showings in Tweedsmuir (the West End) and Skwo:wech (Upper Sapperton), showing their appeal was broader overall this election than last, though again linked to single family neighbourhoods. The fact Queensborough didn’t show up for the one council candidate from Q’boro, when Downtown and the Brow did, will no doubt be the source of much deeper discussion.

And here are the School Board results with dark green for overall winner, apple green for second place, pale green for the rest of the top 7 finishers:

The results were close between the top three finishers, with third place finisher Connelly actually winning more polls (8) outright than Russell or Andres (4 each), who nonetheless had broader appeal across the City. Again, the NWP candidates followed Mayor and Council in having their strongest results in Queensborough and Massey Victory Heights, and Carlsen not able to leverage two first place and a second place finish into enough overall votes to get across the line. Aside from this single anomaly, it is perhaps surprising that party lines were not clearer. You could convince yourself that Connelly’s popularity pulled votes for Carlsen and Dobre in many polls, but it is far from consistent across the table.

Here is an interesting trend. Last election, about 21% of vote was cast at an advance poll. That went up to 27% this election. What’s interesting is in how the advance vote was distributed. Last election Team Cote got a bit more support at the advance than election day polls in comparison to the New West Progressives. This election, NWP candidates got an average of 28% of their vote in the advance polls, CFNW candidates only around 26% on average, with the Mayoral candidates having the biggest spread. See these tables with colour-coding for party affiliation and winners bolded:

Now, 2% isn’t a huge gap, but it is such a consistent trend between parties that it can’t be a coincidence. The prominence of an advance poll in Queensborough (and relative NWP popularity there) is not enough of a vote gap to account for this, so we need to presume something shifted in overall popularity between the first advance polls and the final election day. Community First got more popular as the election went on. The said, if we only counted advance pollsthe results in the end would be pretty much the same. The only difference would have been Carlsen being elected instead of Slinn for the final School Board spot.

Finally, there were 15,923 ballots counted, but 108 of them (0.68%) did not select a Mayor Candidate. If we project that same number of ballots to the Council race, there were 95,538 potential Council votes (6 per ballot), and 81,144 votes marked, or 85%. With School Board and 7 votes per ballot, there were 73,202 out of a possible 111,461 (66%) votes cast.