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Board of Variance: How did this mess happen?

September 27th, 2009 · 8 Comments

I just got off the phone with recently dismissed Vancouver Board of Variance member Ray Tomlin to try to understand the events leading up to this week, when city manager Penny Ballem essentially fired him (following a council vote to do so, after getting a request from board chair Tony Tang to look at the issue).

This is what I’ve been able to disentangle from this unpleasant situation so far. Try to follow if you can.

Ray, one of the two Board of Variance directors fired by the previous NPA board, had had many discussions with Tony in the first six months of this year, along with Arminder Randhawa, about the changes they would make to the board to take it back to its previous style of operation.

You’ll recall that after the NPA canned the COPE-appointed board back in 2007 because they didn’t like the size of their legal bills and the number of third-party appeals they were hearing in fights between neighbourhoods and developers over specific pieces of property, the council appointed Marguerite Ford to lead the Board. She streamlined the operations of the board, eliminating things like site visits to the properties the Board was ruling on and oral presentations by people appealing their cases to the board.

So Ray thought that he and Tony and Arminder, once appointed, would get rid of all that. (Though, as far as I can tell, there was no move to try to bring back third-party appeals under any conditions.) Then, according to him, at their first board meeting after they were appointed, on July 29, Tony and Arminder didn’t do everything Ray thought they would. Not coincidentally, Tony Tang is a Vision board member and Arminder Randhawa is the wife of park-board commissioner Aaron Jasper.

That’s problem one, according to Ray. Have there been any complaints from people whose cases are being heard at the board about the process? No. Have there been some site visits? Yes. Are people allowed to make oral presentations again? Yes. But he’s still unhappy about other things he thought they’d agreed on but haven’t happened.

Problem two. Somehow, in the city hall organization chart issued earlier this year, it indicated that the staff of the Board of Variance would now be reporting to Brenda Prosken, deputy head of community services, which oversees planning. Effectively, that makes the person in charge of planning also in charge of the independent body that’s supposed to review planning decisions. Has there been any indication to date that Brenda is interfering in the operations of the board? No, says Ray, but there is the possibility, he claims, she could get access to the board’s internal documents and legal opinions that it is using to come to decisions about cases involving the planning department.

Problem three. There appears to be some huge kind of personal problem between Ray and Arminder that I’m not even going to attempt to summarize, in part because these kinds of conflicts are impossible to summarize without a) a novel b) a libel lawyer standing at one’s elbow. Suffice to say that they appear to have said many unpleasant things to and about each other. Ray’s was more public, because he posted notes on his Facebook site saying he wished he had never supported her as a candidate for the Board of Variance.  However, there appears to have been some kind of public dispute at a Sept. 2 board meeting that got very personal on both their parts — a meeting that some tried to suggest should be taken out of the public meeting but wasn’t.

At this point, without reviewing audio tapes and files and many emails, I can’t say I am confident about what is really going on, how much of this is genuine “issues” and how much of it is a bunch of people with personality problems who aren’t very skilled at resolving them.

The usual test of a real problem, in the world I operate in, is if the public is being negatively affected or there’s a potential for them to be negatively affected. Ray acknowledged to me that no one who has had an appeal before the new Board has expressed any concerns to him about the way the Board of Variance is operating. He can’t point to a decision that he thinks was a mistake because of the Board’s “bad” processes. And his concern about the Board having to report to Brenda Prosker is, at the moment, very academic.

There does need to be as much effort made as possible to ensure that the Board is independent, because people who come to the Board rely on that. I guess that’s what the city manager is going to investigate or have investigated.

My ultimate conclusion on all this is that the new Vision crew could have invested more time in deciding who to appoint to this board. Given the recent history, it was bound to be contentious. (Though it’s not the only one — I’ve heard rumblings about internal fighting at various points several times in the past decade.) That’s even though it actually doesn’t deal, at the moment, with very big issues. For those who don’t know, the vast majority of cases the Board hears are about non-conforming decks or additions that don’t quite mesh with the bylaw and fine-grained issues like that.

I await your comments and analysis.

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