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Citizens' Revolt Wins at Vancouver City Hall

New mayor caused NPA 'crash', says Planning Commission chair.

Sam Cooper 16 Dec

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Sam Sullivan has stumbled out of the gates, with a crucial part of his first major policy initiative falling in the face of a citizens' revolt of sorts.

During a 16-hour council meeting that stretched into Friday morning, the NPA's caucus solidarity crumbled, with four of Sullivan's five colleagues voting against his plan to disband the city's 21 citizen advisory committees for an indefinite period while their roles were reviewed.

Sixteen citizen committee advocates spoke against Sullivan's plan in council chambers, lead by Vancouver city planning commission (VCPC) chair Bob Williams, whose arguments helped swing council in favour of Vision Vancouver councillor Tim Stevenson's motion that committees be allowed to continue functioning while they are reviewed.

Sullivan said the review would make council and advisory bodies operate more efficiently by reducing bureaucracy, but critics like Williams and former COPE councillor Ellen Woodsworth said it would put more power in the hands of a select few bureaucrats, and derail city work for an extended period.

Strategic objectives

"It is best for all the committees and citizens of Vancouver that we thoroughly and efficiently carry out this review before reinstating their mandates," Sullivan said. "All advisory bodies…will not be reinstated until they are properly aligned with the strategic objectives of the council."

Sullivan argued it was unlikely the committees could be reformed for the better if they were allowed to continue during the review, but Williams, seeming to speak directly to Sullivan and senior bureaucrats in council chambers, said sidelining citizen groups would kill democracy.

When Sullivan's Triple R Review (roles, relationships and responsibilities) plan was unveiled, some advisory committee insiders suggested he was trying to be rid of Williams, an NDP heavyweight, who chaired ICBC, sits on Van City's board and was a clear ally of failed mayoral candidate Jim Green, because Williams' well defined vision for Vancouver's future development made Sullivan and powerful city staffers uncomfortable.

The VCPC, started in 1926, has championed high standards of sustainability in the past, notably, in the development plans for South East False Creek, which the NPA plans to revisit in the name of "economic sustainability".

The body is made of lay citizens appointed by council to cultivate planning ideas, but has no real decision-making power. However, in the past three years, Williams has worked to increase the commission's influence, putting forward development ideas for the False Creek flats industrial zone, which in a similar way to the South East False Creek plan, could make the NPA and some city hall planners concerned about financial risks.

In an interview Friday morning, just eight hours after he left council chambers at 2 a.m., a chipper sounding Williams said Sullivan got bad advice from bureaucrats tired of working with citizen advisory commissions, and got punished for it.

Staff in veto role

"They don't seem to understand that citizen volunteers are the very lifeblood of a modern democracy," Williams said. "The bureaucrats at city hall who have real power, in many ways more than city hall, find these commissions a nuisance. But they are a reflection of the community."

"The problem is you get these old bureaucrats who get a bunch of fresh faces in and then get their old complaints off the shelf and dust them off. It happened last time too," he added.

However, Williams said because of a relatively passive management style, Sullivan was easily convinced to push for bigger changes than previous mayors ever considered, with his Triple R Review plan.

And Williams questioned why city manager Judy Rogers and city clerk Syd Baxter were allowed to sit on the board reviewing citizen committees, because of an implicit possibility of bias.

"I think it is extraordinary. It doesn't make a lot of sense to have two senior bureaucrats on the review commission," Williams said. "But at the end of the day, at 2 a.m., Sam Sullivan found he was taking the wrong advice and it hurt him dramatically. The NPA crashed and said they couldn't understand the mayor's justification."

Sullivan, Rogers and Baxter were contacted for interviews but did not respond.

'One bad decision triggers another'

Bob Williams' predecessor, urban design expert Lance Berelowitz, says he respects the city planning department but acknowledged staff have sometimes felt threatened throughout the years as the VCPC scrutinizes their development plans and sometimes advocates different directions, which can cause conflicts.

"I'm not necessarily in disagreement with council putting a moratorium on and reviewing, but I also think it would be a shame if it was permanent," Berelowitz said in a phone interview before Sullivan's motion was voted down. "The commission has played a role with a number of issues over the years of shifting the direction of the city for the better."

But he added the number of citizen committees has ballooned in recent years and said it is legitimate to examine whether some committees should be cut, if small special interest groups dominate them.

Berelowitz asserted the VCPC has traditionally been clearly non-partisan, but sometimes, external political pressures cause unnecessary turbulence.

"I was swept clean (out of the city planning commission) along with two others, by the previous council in their new wisdom," Berelowitz said. "I think that diminished the value of the commission and I think it is part of the reason Sam Sullivan now has seen fit to look at it. One bad decision triggers another bad decision."

Why review?

And Berelowitz said he thinks sources that say Williams is seen to be a power threat by some in city hall are probably right.

"Bob Williams is an individual with the skills to articulate his ideas. I wouldn't be surprised in the slightest if people were saying he was punching over his weight and trying to assert positions seen to be threatening by both the staff and people on council," Berelowitz said. "Clearly he has been advocating an agenda which other people find inappropriate or think is the wrong direction for the city."

But Williams says contrary to the perception he is a threatening force in city hall, he is getting the most out of a group of volunteers for the betterment of the city, not attempting to single-handedly promote an agenda.

"The commission is a mix of wide representation including the board of trade and business professionals. It takes a majority vote (to advance an initiative) but most of our votes have been unanimous. So it is a bit of an insult to them to say one person is doing too much."

Smelling blood?

Now, after taking a hit on his review plan, the question is whether Sullivan's power to deliver on NPA election issues is diminished.

When the previous COPE council came in they re-jigged the NPA's South East False Creek development plan, instructing city staff to change the mix of housing from 20 percent "affordable" to one-third high income, one-third middle income and one-third low income, triple the size of the community centre, and build to the highest standards of environmental sustainability. But the NPA want to return $50 million used to increase amenities in South East False Creek to the city's property endowment fund, and are concerned the COPE council changes make building costs for developers to high.

Sullivan will face a stern test next week on the NPA motion to revisit South East False Creek's development plan.

It's a motion that Vision Vancouver, and Bob Williams, are clearly against.

"They are saying the $50 million shortfall is a disaster. In ten years from now it won't look like anything," Williams said. "I don't think they (NPA) will be passing too many things with a 6-5 margin. It was a hard lesson for him (Sullivan) to learn just two weeks in."

Sam Cooper reports on politics for The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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