Fiona York’s group appeared at Vancouver’s city hall last Wednesday full of optimism. There were 20 people, including seniors and Chinese-language speakers, with paper signs promoting increased support for people living homeless in the Downtown Eastside.
York and 13 others had prepared speeches, and they were eager to enter the council chambers and share their views with councillors.
Three hours later, after running a gauntlet of security checks, they got their chance. But by then only five of the 13 people who hoped to speak remained.
And they were lucky — Chanel Ly, who signed up to address council on behalf of the Yarrow Intergenerational Society for Justice, waited eight hours for her five-minute chance to speak to council.
Theoretically, Vancouver city council operates on an open door policy. Citizens can ask to speak during Wednesday meetings. They get five minutes to speak, and councillors are given five minutes each to ask follow-up questions.
But what’s intended to be an easy means of participation is often bogged down by slow proceedings, a large number of speakers and inadequate translation services.
And while council is planning to test changes to increase access, there is no clear path to improvement.
York, who addressed council on behalf of the Carnegie Community Action Project, described her experience last week as “off-putting.” The group was halted at the city hall doors by security officers who ushered them into a media room, removed paper signs and made waiting speakers feel controlled and uncomfortable.
“I was forced to consult with multiple security officers … by the time I finally got into the chambers, I almost missed my turn to speak,” said Nathan Crompton of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users.
The intention behind organizing a large group of speakers, York said, was to show the “diversity and breadth” of concerned citizens, which meant the group had a number of accessibility requirements.
York had been denied translation services earlier in the week, which excluded the Chinese-language speakers hoping to participate. The council’s erratic agenda also made it difficult to organize, and the long waits were difficult for the seniors in the group.
“It wasn’t supportive of our role in that process,” York said. “It was important for us to be there.”
Councillor Sarah Kirby-Yung said the increased security measures were triggered by “disruptive” action at past council visits.
“I always hope that we don’t have to do that, I want to ensure that city hall remains as open as possible,” she said. “But we do need to make sure that everyone feels safe and secure in the council chamber. That’s the spirit of it.”
However, the wait times and lack of translation services are ongoing problems that council is working to address, said Kirby-Yung.
Vancouver faces an unusual dilemma. City council hears from more speakers than almost any other North American municipality — an average of 30 every Wednesday.
Katrina Leckovic, the city clerk, said that number will increase to 60 on weeks dealing with controversial items, and has in the past pushed 100.
In some ways, this means that Vancouver has the opportunity to become a leader in public participation, but it also creates organizational challenges.
In November, Kirby-Yung requested a report from staff on potential solutions to the many procedural barriers to citizen participation. The report provided by Leckovic last week was the product of three months of research.
As a result, council is launching a two-month pilot project, beginning in April, that will cut time for speakers and councillors to three minutes.
In an attempt to deal with the long waits, speakers will be told they can expect to be called between 3 p.m. and 10 p.m.
The seven-hour window is the best council can do, said Leckovic, given the unpredictable number of questions to speakers.
If there is a better solution, Leckovic wasn’t able to find one in other municipalities. Most Canadian councils don’t allow speakers at all, and those that do — Calgary, Edmonton, Halifax, Ottawa and Toronto — average 10 speakers or fewer every week.
“It’s just difficult to compare with the volume we have,” Leckovic said. “I don’t think we’ve found any ideal examples.”
Toronto councillors hear as many speakers as Vancouver. But the city is divided into four districts with separate meetings where speakers are heard. Without the benefit of Toronto’s ward system to simplify the division of communities, Leckovic looked to the United States, where the average time allotted for speakers in many cities is two to three minutes.
“Generally, if you have a point to make, three minutes seems to be a sufficient amount of time,” Leckovic said.
York disagrees. “It’s difficult enough for a lot of people to put their remarks into five minutes,” she said. “That change is going to be very destructive, and actually just limits the democratic process.”
The difference in speaker time reflects a city’s priorities. In Seattle, public policy doesn’t require that citizens be allowed to participate, and addressing council is viewed as a privilege to be adjusted or taken away at the council’s discretion. Questions from councillors to speakers, the most time-consuming aspect of Vancouver’s process, are “generally discouraged.”
“It should be remembered that the city council and committee meetings are, first and foremost, business meetings,” a Seattle deputy clerk, Jodee Schwinn, said in an email. “The goal of these meetings is to conduct the city’s business, not to offer a public forum.”
Vancouver, on the other hand, has historically encouraged and prioritized public participation, a philosophy that Kirby-Yung hopes to nurture. “To hear from people who are impacted directly, and individually, it really brings the issues to life,” she said.
There is still a lot of work to do, and the pilot project is just a first step. In the next few months Kirby-Yung hopes council can provide translation services and introduce new technologies that will make services like live streaming of meetings more accessible.
“What we want to do is encourage residents who don’t normally come to council to come up and be heard,” Kirby-Yung said. “It’s the ones that we’re not hearing that I want to know more about. We’ve got a lot of diversity in Vancouver, I want to make sure that we take everybody into account when we’re making decisions.”
But the pace of change means we may not see improvement for months. And the biggest issues that York faced last week are still missing from council’s to-do list — an accurate scheduled time for speakers and consistently accessible meeting chambers.
York is a participation advocate who works to inspire community activism, but the inefficient proceedings make it difficult for her to bring people on board.
“Many people may not always choose to be part of the democratic process… so when people do make the effort, and they face barriers, like not having interpretation or access to the gallery, it’s really a deterrent.”
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