Lower Mainland LGA 2021

Last week was the annual Lower Mainland LGA conference and AGM. It was all (alas) virtual this year, but it was still a great event. As a VP of the Lower Mainland LGA, I’m completely unbiased, and am going to use my platform to talk about how great it was, and to lament how I miss my friends and even a few of my enemies.

The Lower Mainland Local Government Association grew under the umbrella of the Union of BC Municipalities, and along with 4 other local government associations in BC, we work to bring local government leaders together for networking and education, to discuss topics important to local governments, and to lobby senior governments through a “resolutions” process on issues impacting our work.

Our 2021 conference was on-line, and as such the networking part was suboptimal, but we did have great educational sessions and a resolutions session. The theme for the conference was, perhaps optimistically, “the work ahead”. As we started developing that 6 months ago, we recognized that everything has been about COVID for the last year, and hoping we would be on the wane of the Pandemic, we wanted to concentrate on the most pressing needs for local government in the post-COVID world, and perhaps use the lessons of COVID to frame how we could address those other crises / urgent issues.

There were four main educational sessions, all with expert panels and Q&A. We were honoured to have Bob Joseph speak on UNDRIP and what it means in a local government perspective. We had panel including public health professionals, drug policy experts, and local government folks talking about the opioid crisis and policy levers local governments can apply to reduce the harm. We had a session in bringing back a better, more sustainable form of tourism, and a session on mobilizing local government action on the Climate Emergency. We also had two pre-recorded sessions on envisioning the Post-Pandemic workplace and priorities in Asset Management – both very “inside baseball”, but really important topics to our crowd. And though much of the program was interactive, we also spent a lot of time looking at panels like this:

This year, we had two “book club” discussions, less formal chats with authors about their new books. I had the opportunity to interview and moderate a discussion with Seth Klein on his book “A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency”, and Mayor Jack Crompton of Whistler moderated a discussion with Megan Elper Wood on her book “Sustainable Tourism on a Finite Planet”.

After greetings from the Premier, and a presentation and Q&A from the Minister for Local Government, we had a resolutions session, which for many Lower Mainland LGA members is the highlight of the conference. There were 32 resolutions, and you can read them all here. 30 of those resolutions were endorsed by the membership, some after a bit of debate. The two defeated were a resolution to re-consider the name of British Columbia to a non-colonial name, and a resolution to ask the Province to legislatively provide local governments more flexibility to adjust their local election voting systems (i.e. ranked ballots) to better suit the needs on the ground in each municipality. This last one was pretty divisive, and surprisingly lost on a tie vote(!) which I think (and this is only my opinion) reflects that some saw the resolution as being perhaps too ambiguous in its drafting, opening up local government elections for too much political manipulation. That said, I suspect if we had a proper in-person meeting, this debate (along with the “Renaming BC” one) would have been much more lively and interesting, as there are good ideas in there that are not well summarized in a short resolution.

New Westminster was a sponsor of one Executive Resolution (Help Cities Lead by increasing tools available to local governments in regulating GHG emissions of buildings which I mentioned here) and one membership resolution (Giving regional governments the authority to regulate the sale and use of single-use plastics, which I mentioned here). Both were endorsed by the membership.

And after all that business, I still really miss my Local Government friends from across the region. The virtual conference was interesting and educational, but the chance to sit around a table at breakfast or with beers and talk about what’s new in their community, how they are addressing a familiar issue, their troubles and their successes, is really valuable. There are some dedicated, serious leaders in our region, from Chilliwack to Squamish to Delta, and I learn from them every time we meet. Here’s looking forward to 2022, when we will have hopefully truly put COVID behind us.

FREMP 2.0?

I’m going to try herd not to be too political here, but there has been something brewing that intersects both with my City Council life and my being-a-Professional-Environmental-Scientist life. As is typical in both, I have had several conversations with lots of different people over the last year or more about this, but while I was talking, others were doing, and one of those get-it-done people has put together an event where people who both talk smarter than me and do more than me are going to talk about what needs to be done if we want to be smart about doing things.

I’m talking, of course, about FREMP.

The Fraser River Estuary Management Program was, for almost 30 years, a non-profit agency funded by all three levels of government that supported responsible development and environmental protection along the Fraser River Estuary – essentially from the ocean to the Mission Bridge. Along with a sister agency called the Burrard Inlet Environmental Action Program (“BIEAP”), this was an organization that brought stakeholders together to coordinate planning, protection, and development of the federally-regulated shorelines of the Lower Mainland.

This coordination meant that when there is a change in industrial use along the waterfront, when a community suggested a project like the proposed Pier-to-Landing walkway in New West, or when environmental remediation or compensatory habitat projects are needed, there was a “one counter” approach that allowed a coordinated review by the three levels of government and relevant First Nations. It was easier for each of the government agencies, because they knew where everyone else was on projects. It was easier for proponents because they could speak to one agency and not get mixed messages from different levels of government. It was better for the estuary because impacts and compensation could be coordinated based on a plan that sought to balance the many pressures on the system. As a bonus, all of the works along the river would provide data to an invaluable repository – data vital to inform future planning and to help us understand the health of the ecosystem.

FREMP wasn’t perfect, but it didn’t deserve to be killed. As part of the now-legendary gutting of Canada’s environmental protections under the Harper Government, the Federal contributions and support for the program were cut. This matters, because with all the interagency overlap in Burrard Inlet and the Fraser River, ultimately they are federally regulated. When the Port and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans could no longer participate, the Provincial Government ministries followed their lead, and the agency was folded, leaving local governments in a bit of a lurch. The Port was tasked with environmental reviews within their narrow jurisdictional parameters, and every project was going to have to find its own path. Regional coordination was no longer coordinated. Project proponents are on their own. There is no longer a cohesive regional environmental plan for the Estuary of the most important salmon river in Canada, or for the Burrard Inlet.

The situation is shitty, and has been shitty for long enough. Several stakeholders along the river, including local governments, environmental organizations, and First Nations are talking about what I hesitate to call “FREMP 2.0”. As you may read into the above, there is some political baggage around BIEAP- FREMP, and though it was valuable, it was not a perfect design. The discussion now is around what would a better FREMP look like? There are two important components, and the interaction between the two is obvious.

The first is a return to inter-agency review and coordinated regional planning in the estuary. A one-counter stop for project applications, and a clearing house for project details and data. This will benefit local governments hoping to revitalize their waterfronts, or protect valuable industrial land-use areas. It would also serve developers and industry who would have a clearer, more predictable path to project approval, mostly by having clear understanding of the stakeholders to be engaged. Ideally, it would also make it easier for First Nations to manage the constant demand for consultation feedback by providing them the resources they need to assure their concerns are addressed, and by assuring the knowledge they carry about the history and present of the river informs planning discussions.

The second is to provide oversight to the health of the estuary ecosystems. This would mean coordinated habitat protection and restoration, and a return to collecting that important data depository of the current and future health of the river that sustains us. Part of this is understanding the changes in the river that are coming with climate change, and developing strategies to address future flood risk, ecosystem services, and water quality concerns.

All this to preface: if you care about the Fraser River, development along the river, and the protection of this unique ecology, you may be interested in this free Webinar being put on by the Climate Caucus next week. Coquitlam City Councillor is the main organizer and moderator, and she has three brilliant panelists who know much more than I about the ecology of the Fraser River, the threat, and opportunity. This should be a great introduction to the conversations that no doubt lie ahead for the Metro Vancouver region. Join us!

Population 2020

Statistics Canada’s population estimates for 2020 are out, and there is a bit of news coming from them. Maybe more “confirmations” than “news”, but it is interesting to look into our assumptions of how the region is growing compared to the data. As a Local Government elected type, I am actually more interested in how the population is growing compared to the predictions used to develop the Regional Growth Strategy that guides development in our City and the rest of metro Vancouver.

First, the headlines. New West grew fastest (as a percentage of population) of any Municipality over the 2019-2020 year. Residents will recognize the reasons for this, with a couple of fairly high profile residential developments coming on line in the last year and a half, including a couple of major Purpose Built Rental projects. Our being in first is likely a one-year blip, but our growth rate since the 2011Regional Growth Strategy was created is among the highest in the region, only behind Surrey, Langley Township, the Tsawwassen First Nations Lands and Electoral Area A (which is mostly UBC endowment lands). But the growth rate isn’t the whole story. We added just over 15,000 people in the last 9 years, compared to more than 120,000 in Surrey and 80,000 in the City of Vancouver proper.

How does this relate to the Regional Growth Strategy? That document was approved by all Municipalities in Metro Vancouver back in 2011, and serves as the master regional planning document. In order for our region to plan new utilities like water and sewer services, flood protection, green space needs, transit and roadways, we need to predict how many people are going to be living here in the decades ahead, and where in the region they are going to live. So the strategy includes growth predictions for 2021, 2031, and 2041 produced by demographic experts who do that kind of thing. As we close in on 2021, we have an opportunity to see if the predictions have so far got it right.

The newest Stats Can numbers are for 2020, so we can compare the actual change over 9 years with the predicted change over 10 years from the RGS:

Here are the headlines I pull out of this. Metro Vancouver predicted the regional population would increase by 18% over 10 years, it has increased 16% over 9 years, which puts us pretty much on track to be within 1% of the estimates. That’s pretty good. However, before looking at the breakdown by community, I want to project the growth rate of the last 9 years to one more year so we are having as fair a comparison to 2021 goals as we can (until after the 2021 Census, which should be available a year from now):

You can see that the population growth of the region is less than 1% behind what was predicted, meaning about 22,000 fewer people moved to the region than expected – not bad for a decade-long population trend for almost 2.8 Million people, especially as the factors affecting this (immigration, global socio-economics) are largely out of the control of local and regional governments. The difference in how this growth was distributed across the region is a different story, and this is something local governments have more (but not ultimate) control over.

That last table might be easier to digest in comparative pie charts:

Edit: To @MarkAllerton’s point, this may be a better graphic? 

Aside from Electoral Area A/UBC, you can see a few cities have exceeded their growth targets, and perhaps there are no surprises which ones: North Vancouver City (densifying its waterfront and the Londsdale corridor), Maple Ridge (a fast-growing suburb supported by lots of new freeway infrastructure), New West (growing a transit-oriented urban area), and Surrey (growing both its transit-oriented City Centre and its freeway-supported suburbs). Vancouver marginally exceeded its growth target as did White Rock and Delta. In raw numbers, Vancouver added 21,000 more residents than predicted (sorry, Councillor Hardwick!), where Surrey added 18,000 more residents than predicted and New West just over 4,000 above the goal.

Who didn’t meet their target? Again, the Tsawwassen First Nation is a bit of an anomaly, and for that matter so are Belcarra and Anmore, whose tiny population counts are irrelevant to regional trends. West Vancouver – the only significant municipality to actually lose population during this period of unprecedented growth – should surprise no-one that they didn’t meet even their meagre Regional Growth Strategy targets. Perhaps the bggest surprise is how far behind the Tri Cities are in comparison to their goals. All missed by more than 10%, even as they received the biggest regional transit investment of the last decade in the Evergreen Extension. Coquitlam is more than 20,000 residents short of the regional target – a number very similar to the number of extra residents that moved into Vancouver.

This is interesting, and is a conversation we have to have as a region as we look to update the RGS in the next year. Perhaps in the context of the first suggestion in a recent Op-Ed by Delta City Councillor Dylan Kruger (note: Delta is really close to its targets, though those targets are a little light due to lack of transit infrastructure planned that direction), where he suggests the region should:

“Tie provincial and federal grant dollars to achievable municipal housing targets. We can’t keep spending billions of dollars on SkyTrain projects without guarantees that cities will actually allow transit-oriented development”

Maybe we need to ask Metro Vancouver and senior governments to tie their City-supporting grants and benefits (new Metro Vancouver park money, Provincial and Federal Active Transportation funding, transit capital funding, Green Infrastructure funding, etc.) to municipalities meeting and exceeding the regional targets that those Municipalities already agreed to. It is the Municipalities who are building the housing that our region demonstrably needs that will also feel the greater need for green space and sustainable transportation investment to support those residents.

Premieral Popularity, Part 2

Remember when I wrote this piece three years ago? I made what I think was a pretty convincing case on a dubious data set that political popularity in Canada correlated inversely with time in office. The Angus Reid poll looked like this:

And I graphed popularity vs. days in office, and found a pretty strong correlation (R = 0.92!) suggesting a direct inverse relationship. The way to be popular as a Premier is to be new on the job:

What a difference time makes. Three years and a raft of elections later, the Angus Reid folks did the poll again, and here are the results:

Aside from the obvious (Horgan still on top; doesn’t matter if you are a Boomer or GenX as long as you are a white guy; PEI still doesn’t matter), I am stumped by trying to find easy single-cause narratives here. The one from three years ago certainly doesn’t work:

The correlation looks bad. If we take the anomalous Premier Rankin (who was very recently selected to lead a party that has been in power for a few decades, but has yet to introduce himself to the electorate) and the graph is as close to a random distribution as I can draw:

So my certainty from three years ago was misplaced. I was wrong.

But, hey, it’s Pandemic time, and surely that throws everything else aside. So we can safely assume that the most important public health and economic emergency of our generation must have thrown the numbers for a loop. Surely Premier popularity must correlate with their ability to manage the Pandemic and keep the voters safe, right?

Nope. Looks like the only thing I have reinforced here is that I really know nothing about politics. As you were.

Feedback

I don’t often do this, but I want to avoid misunderstanding in the community about my recent motion to draft a formal apology around the Komagata Maru incident, and possibly pre-empt my response being used out of context by my correspondent. I received an e-mail from an organization that occasionally spams local government officials with somewhat strident positions on a variety of topics concomitant with their name “Immigration Watch”. I don’t even want to excerpt the e-mail here because there were some pretty hurtful things in it, but I thought it worth sharing the response I sent the author.


Hello Mr. ______.

Thank you for writing to New Westminster Council. As the Councillor who moved the motion requesting the City draft a formal apology, I guess it is on me to correct a few misconceptions you seem to have about the motion.

To start off, no-one from the Sikh community or any other community “demanded that New Westminster City Council apologize to them for the Komagata Maru Incident”.

About a year ago members of the New Westminster community asked Council to consider a memorialization of the Komagata Maru event somewhere in the City**. The City has several similar memorializations of historic events scattered about, including a bust of Simon Fraser memorializing his European discovery of the estuary, memorialization of prominent Labour actions on the waterfront, plaques marking the Great Fire of 1898, the lives of those imprisoned in Woodlands, or the location of the historic Chinatown. We tasked our Museum and Archives staff to research of there was a local connection to the Komagata Maru incident that warranted such a memorialization. We anticipated, I suppose, that members of the South Asian community living in Queensborough at the time may have taken an active role in support of the passengers.

What we found was clear evidence in the written record that the New Westminster City Council in 1914 took a very active role in the incident. Far from being passive observers or advocates for reduced immigration (this was a decade when immigration to the City from European countries was booming), our Council took action to assure not that immigration laws were adhered to, but to “call on the Federal authorities at Ottawa to… if necessary, enact new laws, to effectively deal with the total exclusion of Asiatics from this country”. It was further suggested by our elected officials at the time that “all the ingenuity and courage of the Government would be exercised to keep out Orientals”. It is clear from the correspondence that this was a multi-partisan effort fueled by narrow economic interests supported by notions of white supremacy.

I do want you to note that these actions by our local Council were occurring in a community where there were already significant South Asian and East Asian populations. People from British India, China, and Japan were working on the farms in Queensborough, in the lumber mills along our waterfront, and in commercial enterprises on Columbia Street. They were building our community and raising their families, and were as Canadian as the people serving on City Council, even if they did not enjoy the same rights. Many of their descendants still live in New Westminster.

Hearing these narratives, and in light of the vision for the City outlined in our current Official Community Plan and this Council’s Strategic Plan for the term, which include creating “a welcoming, inclusive, and accepting community that promotes a deep understanding and respect for all cultures”, we recognized that the actions of the previous Council were exclusive and harmful to a voiceless portion of the community. There are many people whose actions I cannot take responsibility for, including the persons of varying faiths on the Komagata Maru, the Government of Canada that created racist immigration policies, or others who may have exploited the situation for personal or political gain at the time. I can, however, speak to the residents of my community with humility and respect, and recognize actions taken by the legislative body I now represent were specifically and intentionally harmful to residents of this community, and may make them feel less welcome in their home. It is for that – the actions of New Westminster Council that knowingly harmed the residents of New Westminster – for which I asked Council to issue a formal apology. I am happy that my Council colleagues unanimously agreed.

Reading your letter, you clearly have strong feelings about a number of issues involving the Sikh community. I hope you can approach these concerns with an open heart and good will towards your fellow Canadians. As an Atheist myself, I sometimes fall into the trap of characterizing an entire faith community through a lens that filters out their individuality or even their humanity. I try hard to see past my filter and recognize people as individuals, and put aside that broad brush. That, to me, is an ideal we should strive for not as Canadians, but as citizens of the world.


** It too late to edit the letter I sent, but I failed to give credit to Councilor Das for the motion she brought forward in late 2019 in response to the calls from the community. We get a lot of correspondence and delegations on a lot of topics, and this may have slipped by us if Chinu hadn’t put the issue into a Council Meeting agenda and motivated us to get staff working on researching the historic ties our community has to the story. Far from the footnote I am adding here, this work by Chinu was the important action that resulted in our memorialization effort, and I don’t want that to go unrecognized. 

Pros & Cons

The first phase of the Agnes Greenway project has been installed, and is getting a bit of feedback online. That’s good – the City hoped to receive feedback on this important piece of infrastructure as a part of how it is being rolled out. I will write another blog post about that as soon as I get time, but before I do, I want address this niche-popular meme created by Tom Flood that appeared in my twitter feed, and excuse me for feeling attacked:

…and add a bit of a retort from the viewpoint of a City Councillor oft criticized because I like the idea of installing protected bike lanes, and agree with almost all of the “Pros”.

Right off the top, I need to say, protected bike lanes are expensive, and cities are struggling right now with so many overlapping challenges and priorities. Yes, I hear, understand, and accept the argument that an integrated bike network will save us money in the long run and improve livability to far outweigh the costs, but that takes nothing away from the current challenge of the immediate capital costs required for a safe network. Proper bike lanes are not a few planters and green paint (the latter of which is inconceivably expensive – it would be cheaper by the square foot to make bike lanes of engineered wood flooring, but I digress). If we want them to be safe for all users, we need to install new signage and/or signals at all intersections. This can mean moving street lights and telephone poles and power conduit. Installing grade separations often means redesigning storm sewer infrastructure. We may need to move or re-engineer bus stops, curb cuts, pedestrian islands, street trees, and, yes, parking. When you expand this out to kilometres of bike route and scores of intersections, these changes are not cheap.

The retort to this, of course, is they are cheaper than road expansions. Which is kinda true, but not really helpful. This infrastructure is almost always built in urban areas like Downtown New Westminster: a built-out City that is essentially out of the building-new-roads business. I don’t mean that rhetorically; we have a policy goal to reduce road space in the City and convert it to active transportation and other uses, therefore we don’t really have a “road building” budget line. This means we can’t just re-allocate from there to a “Separated Bike Lane” budget line. It doesn’t work that way. Yes, we spend millions every year on road maintenance and upkeep, but taking away from that in a significant way will widen an infrastructure deficit (unmaintained roads get much more expensive to fix when the road base fails and safety is impacted when signal lights and road markings are not kept in good working order) and so much of the spending is on infrastructure that supports transit users, cyclists, pedestrians (including those with accessibility barriers) that it is difficult to argue for where cost cutting here can occur without impacting everyone – not just the car users we usually associate with “roads”.

The presumption in the Pro list above that bike lanes make sidewalks safer is a presumption reliant on very well designed bike lanes. Integrating safer cycling infrastructure with safer pedestrian infrastructure is a serious challenge, as the number of “conflict” zones increases. Cycling advocates will recognize how pedestrian bulge design often makes cycling feel less safe on some arterial roads, but are less likely to recognize how important those bulges are to improving the safety of other vulnerable road users. Conflicts inevitably arise between what cyclists need to feel safe and what other users (especially those with mobility or vision impairments) need to feel safe in the pedestrian space.

Emergent technologies are making this more difficult. At the same time E-bikes are opening up the freedom of cycling to many more people, modified scooters and e-bikes travelling at speeds wholly inappropriate for sharing space with those for whom we are trying to build AAA “All Ages and Abilities” space create uncertainty. I think most people are comfortable sharing safe bike lane space with most traditional cargo bikes (left), but not with electric powered cube vans disguised as tricycles that are starting to appear (right):

I’m not sure how we design for all of the variations on the spectrum, or even if we should. I have harped before about the need for a Motor Vehicle Act that reflects emergent technology, but we have a lot of work to do here. Public perception of safety, and resultant political support for separated bike lanes, are going to be influenced by how we do that job.

There are really good reasons to put the backbone of a safe cycling network in the same place your transit network already is. That is because your community and transit network have (hopefully) developed over time in a symbiotic way. Ideally, transit takes people from where they live to where they work, shop and go to school along as simple a route as possible to provide best service the most people. All good reasons to put cycling infrastructure exactly there. This complicates things, as transit and cycling routes are really challenging to integrate. Lane widths and turning radii that accommodate efficient bus movement don’t make the lanes safer for cyclists. Line of sight and signal challenges abound. Bus pull-ins create conflicts, floating bus stops create accessibility concerns and rely on sometimes expensive grade-separation. Do we move or adjust bus routes to accommodate this other mode, or choose less optimum routes to avoid transit conflict? I think the answer is a little from each column, but the Transit Authority and transit-reliant residents may not agree.

Which brings us to one of the least discussed issues or urban transportation: curb allocation. There are so many competing priorities for this precious resource in urban areas: the limited space on each block face where road meets boulevard. It is fine for cycling advocates to say, uh, “forget parking” (as I have myself on more than one occasion), but you can’t scoff off that this space is needed for everything from the aforementioned bus stops to loading zones for your Uber driver to assuring accessibility for Handi-Dart to having a place for the becoming-more-ubiquitous delivery trucks to stop while they offload your Amazon consumables. Bike lanes want to be on that curb space, and designing for these conflicts is not easy or without political cost.

There is no way around it, building bike lanes in a built-out urban area like New Westminster means taking something away. We simply don’t have the space to seamlessly slot functional, safe, AAA bike routes in without impacting the status quo of how that public space is used. Cycling advocates will usually reply that parking and driving lanes can be taken away, and in many cases, that is true. But when that means shifting a bus route that a senior relies on for their daily trips, or it means a disabled person no longer has the safe access to their Handi-Dart that they have relied upon, it’s really hard to be smug and tell people to just lump it.

I say all of this as someone who is feeling the burn of failure in my 6 years on a City Council because my community has not built the bicycle infrastructure I would like to see. The varying reasons for that are probably fodder for another too-long blog post. I also write as someone who is receiving the e-mails from people who are not happy to see the arrival of a new bike lane that has been in the plans for years, because it has disrupted their lives in ways perhaps not anticipated. I also get to enjoy the less sympathetic e-mails from people who seem empowered by the latest Bruce Allen rant about an alleged War on his Corvette – but those are easy for me to ignore, because I have been advocating for safe cycling infrastructure for a couple of decades and there is nothing new to be learned from those hackneyed arguments.

Unfortunately, there is also little to be learned from the increasingly hackneyed arguments of some cycling advocates (being a good “progressive”, I know how to hold my strongest criticism for my allies). Building safe cycling infrastructure is important, it is a good thing to do, and I lament we are not moving faster on it. But the political will to do so is not strengthened by pretending it is super easy to do, or that it is a cheap, easy silver bullet to fixing all of our urban challenges. It needs to be balanced with the many challenging needs local governments are dealing with right now. Bike lanes will help with some and will demonstrable make others harder. That’s the job of Governance, I guess.

So instead of throwing nameless Councilors under the proverbial bus by assuming their craven motivations, find those that are trying to move our urban areas in the right direction, and ask them how you can help them build the political will in your community to move bike lanes up the spending priority list. Because, trust me, there are many people reaching out to them every day telling them to do the opposite.

Ask Pat: Wards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making Hay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ask Pat: Blogs

JL asked—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defense

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

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

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

Fair to say, I’m not a fan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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