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My wish list for new Vancouver city council: Info on key issues, staff not politicians leading discussions, a more effective Green Party

November 13th, 2014 · 11 Comments

Whoever wins control of Vancouver’s council, if anyone does, here is a short list of changes I’d like to see, changes that mostly didn’t get mentioned during the campaign. I’m sure all of you have your own favourites you’d like to add. Please join in.

1. A readable yearly accounting of what is happening with the city’s valuable Property Endowment Fund. It’s worth slightly over $1 billion and the city’s credit rating is cushioned at all times by that asset.

But no one outside of the real-estate department has any idea what’s in it or how it is changing. There’s no sense of what percentage of land in the PEF is being used for existing social-housing leases and what’s available for other purpose. I’ve heard from a couple of trustworthy people that it’s being depleted to pay for Vision housing plans, but can’t make heads or tails of the scattered numbers in financial statements to understand what’s going on. And I like numbers.

There needs to be a yearly report that someone who isn’t a CPA can understand.

2. An accounting, with each rezoning that involves community-amenity contributions from developers, of what the property’s value was before the assessment, its value after a rezoning, and what the city is getting in return from the developer. This needs to be done by some agency that the public can trust and it has to be presented, again, in a readable way.The city has improved its reporting on how much in developer-cost levies it collects and where they are being spent, by project and by neighbourhood. It’s working on something similar for CACs. But every rezoning should come with a public-friendly statement about the developer’s gain and contribution, ideally posted at the site and on the city’s website.

3. An independent assessment of the value of the social housing or rental housing that developers are producing in exchange as part of their contributions. One former planner in whom I have a lot of faith says the problem is that the city is not getting the housing units at cost, but is paying market value for them. So, when a developer, in exchange for a rezoning, offers to build 50 units of social housing, those units are being valued at what it would cost to buy them. But, of course, market price always includes a hefty mark-up for developer’s profit. That means that a developer contribution of, say $100 million worth of social-housing units is really only costing that developer $65 million. If that’s true, the city should either get the units at the real cost or ask for the $100 million in cash to spend elsewhere.

4. An audit to see whether any person who has been evicted from a rental apartment being redeveloped  (where the developer under current city rules has had to promise to rent the new units at a discount to those tenants) has ever been able to afford to move back in. I see an increasing number of older fourplexes, duplexes, and smaller apartment buildings being torn down and redeveloped on Clark, Main and Fraser. I understand that former tenants are given the option to rent units in the new buildings at a 20-per-cent discount from the new market rent. But has a single renter been able to do that? If all you can afford is $850, a 20-per-cent discount on $1,200 is meaningless. If no one has been able to move back in, what’s the point? The program should either be scrapped or revised if, in fact, it’s not helping existing tenants in any way.

5. (Okay, this is not new, but dear to my heart.) Access to a wide array of city staff again, not just the beleaguered 10 people at the top. I realize there still has to be some traffic control, as there are many more journalists, bloggers, pretend bloggers who are running partisan operations, and more now besieging city hall than 20 years ago.

But surely there is some way to provide credible reporters with easier access to staff than the current system, where everyone is funnelled through four or five over-worked people in the communications department, and then they have to try to nail down a time for the 10 over-worked senior managers who are deemed safe enough to talk to media.

And I’ll let you in on a little secret. There’s a chance people won’t hate your government and see everything as political if you do that. If planners were out talking to the public about projects and seen to be leading the discussions, every rezoning decision might not turn into a political football.

Planners come across as neutral and willing to listen, if they’re allowed to do their jobs. As I’ve said before, they were the city’s best public-relations officers and communicators for many years. And it’s completely untrue, as the mayor and others have tried to claim, that they didn’t want to be bothered with reporters and all their questions because they had real work to do. Every good planner and engineer I’ve known sees talking to the media (and thereby to the public) as an essential part of their job. Planning is worth nothing if you can’t make the public see and understand what you’re trying to achieve.

5. No more “off the record technical briefings” by staff before the official news announcement. What a crock and so unnecessary at the city level.

6. Adriane Carr. This Green Party councillor will surely be elected again. She is incredibly hard-working — it was rare for me to go to a community meeting where she wasn’t present. She’s a great retail politician, able to talk in an accessible, coherent way about issues. I wouldn’t be surprised if she ends up heading the city’s future real opposition party. But she needs to stop just saying whatever she thinks will make her popular with angry resident groups, start learning how the city really works, and start exercising some real political skills.

At the moment, she’s known among staff as someone who doesn’t do her homework or read her reports. She frequently misrepresents city information or the way the city works at meetings.

(Just one example of many: She told a Strathcona crowd breathlessly earlier this year that, just as they suspected, developers were not in fact paying all of the costs of new amenities, but that the taxpayers were being stuck with much of the bill. Of course they are. When a new arts cenre or library is built, it would be unfair to make new residents pay the entire bill in the purchase price of their units. Of course all taxpayers contribute, as they get the advantage of the new amenity. And so do those new residents, over the years, with their taxes. I could go on. But you get the point.)

Carr also takes great pleasure in telling residents how she tried to get this or that done at the city, but was blocked. But she’s fighting for people in spite of the terrible obstacles, she reassures them.

Okay, here’s the deal. Learn how to get things done. That’s what politicians, even minority politicians with hostile people in control, do. Figure out smart motions to make that everyone has to agree with. I’ve seen her do it on occasion. (One was her motion to get the city to call a meeting with the parties involved in the Hollywood Theatre.) And show that you can do the difficult thing of telling a crowd that you don’t agree with everything they’re saying — even if it’s not popular. It will be good practice for if you ever have to be in charge of the difficult decisions.

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