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Municipal Politics

The Vancouver Park Board Isn’t Dead Yet

Ken Sim wants to kill the elected body. But the commissioners aren’t going quietly.

Jen St. Denis 13 Dec 2023The Tyee

Jen St. Denis is a reporter with The Tyee covering civic issues. Find her on Twitter @JenStDen.

[Update: On Wednesday, Dec. 13, ABC councillors — who hold a majority — voted to approve Mayor Ken Sim's motion to ask the province to amend the Vancouver Charter to allow the city to remove the elected park board.]

It’s a dark December Monday night at the Vancouver Park Board’s 1960s-era headquarters, located at the entrance to the city’s famous Stanley Park.

Inside the wood-panelled building, the seven members of the elected park board sit around a round table. Speakers are lined up to ask the board to save the beloved pond in their South Vancouver park and reject a proposal to turn the pond into a natural wetland.

In the end, the commissioners vote to save the Memorial South Park pond and other water features like it. It might seem a small issue, but wrapped up in the decision are questions about climate change, water use and social equity as Vancouver’s summers get hotter and drier.

Later in the meeting, the board will hear a dire report on the state of the city’s iconic Kitsilano Pool, which was heavily damaged by winter storms in 2022 and is now considered to be at the end of its life. The oceanside pool is vulnerable to the more frequent atmospheric rivers, storm surges and sea level rise the B.C. coast expects in the coming years.

“I love the park board,” former commissioner Sarah Blyth says as she watches residents, including a 15-year-old high school student, making the case to keep the pond. She says it’s the level of democracy that often feels closest to the everyday concerns of residents.

But tonight tensions are simmering around the big round table.

Mayor Ken Sim has vowed to put an end to the elected body, and Blyth and eight other former commissioners have shown up to support the four park board commissioners who are fighting to keep it. Three of those commissioners are from Sim’s own ABC party, making this an especially bitter conflict.

Vancouver is the only city in Canada with an elected park board, and there’s been a continuing discussion about whether it’s necessary to have an elected board or if the responsibilities should be folded into city council to save resources and money.

But while Sim included a promise to get rid of the elected park board in 2018, when he lost to Kennedy Stewart, it wasn’t in the ABC platform when he ran and won in 2022.

On Dec. 6, Sim suddenly announced plans to ask the provincial government to amend the Vancouver Charter to allow city council to end the elected park board. That motion will be introduced at council Wednesday.

Two young people dressed in black hold cardboard signs that say 'Keep the parks board' and 'We don’t trust you Ken.'
Two supporters of the elected park board attend a public meeting Monday. Photo for The Tyee by Jen St. Denis.

Many critics say the way he’s trying to make this huge change is undemocratic. If Sim really wants to change the current system, they say, his party should campaign on the issue in the next election, or hold a referendum so voters can have their say.

“You had more public input on a pond than a system of government,” former parks commissioner Donna Morgan (1993-96) told ABC commissioner Jaspreet Virdi after the Monday night meeting.

The question remains: why did the mayor suddenly decide to use political capital and council time to end an elected body his party supposedly controlled?

Here’s what we know so far about the behind the scenes manoeuvring that led to the split.

A Tuesday night in December

According to the three ABC commissioners who have now split with the party, tensions among the six ABC commissioners had been growing for months. The seventh commissioner, Tom Digby, ran with the Green Party.

Laura Christensen, Brennan Bastyovanszky and Scott Jensen, who oppose Sim’s plan, say they disagreed with Virdi, Angela Haer and Marie-Claire Howard on three big issues: the timeline for the removal of a bike lane on Stanley Park Drive, the location of a new synthetic turf field and the election of the board chair.

Virdi, Howard and Haer did not respond to The Tyee’s requests for an interview to respond to Christensen, Bastyovanszky and Jensen’s interpretation of events.

One lane of Stanley Park Drive had been made into a bike lane during the COVID-19 pandemic to give residents more options for getting outdoors, but after drivers complained, ABC campaigned on removing the bike lane.

Christensen, who is a civil engineer, said she raised concerns about the proposed timeline to remove the lane.

“It was a big opening of disagreement amongst the commissioners,” Christensen told The Tyee. “Ken [Sim] felt very strongly that we needed to remove the bike lane completely.”

Christensen said she, Bastyovanszky and Jensen were in favour of options presented by parks staff “to include some sections of the bike lane that would improve pedestrian safety and would not impact traffic.”

“To us, it seemed like a really great option, because the campaign promise was to end the temporary bike lane and put in a permanent one, and that was what I campaigned on.”

Despite her misgivings, Christensen said, she and the five other ABC commissioners voted to remove the lane in the winter of 2022, promising a new bike lane would be in place the following spring.

That new bike lane is still not in place.

An ABC promise to install a synthetic turf field for field hockey at Moberly Park was another divisive issue. Christensen, Bastyovanszky and Jensen say they couldn’t understand why ABC was so focused on placing the turf field at Moberly Park, a smaller park in a residential family neighbourhood right next to an elementary school.

The three commissioners say they believe nearby Oak Park or Churchill Park would be better options and anticipated that the neighbours of Moberly Park would be upset about the bright evening field lights across from their homes. At a May 29 board meeting, they and Digby voted to ask parks staff to do community consultations before approving the Moberly field.

Christensen said she continues to be perplexed by ABC’s push to locate the turf field in Moberly Park when Oak Park is flat and larger, has more parking and is located next to a community centre.

During the Monday night meeting, commissioner Virdi said Christensen, Bastyovanszky and Jensen’s no vote on the Moberly Park turf field plan was a sign that the park board was broken — because, he said, a large number of supporters had showed up to support a turf field for Moberly.

“Didn’t staff say they wanted that in another field though?” former commissioner Aaron Jasper asked, as former commissioners Morgan and John Coupar also lobbed questions at Virdi in an impromptu scrum. “Didn’t your staff do an analysis, and felt that should be in another field?”

Finally, Christensen said, on Nov. 27, she, Bastyovanszky and Jensen voted against ABC’s preferred choice for park board chair, Marie-Claire Howard. Along with the Greens’ Digby, Christensen, Bastyovanszky and Jensen voted to make Bastyovanszky chair.

“We got a lot of pressure to vote for her as chair,” Christensen said.

Christensen, Bastyovanszky and Jensen believe it was after that vote that ABC put their plan into action.

As has been reported by the Vancouver Sun, all six ABC park board commissioners were called to an evening meeting on Dec. 6.

Christensen, Bastyovanszky and Jensen say they weren’t told what the meeting was about, although local media had been reporting leaked information that the park board elimination was coming.

Christensen, who has a five-week-old baby, wasn’t able to attend the meeting in person but expected to be able to join the meeting by phone. But Bastyovanszky and Jensen say the mayor’s chief of staff, Trevor Ford, did not allow that option.

A woman with brown hair cradles a baby.
Park board commissioner Laura Christensen cradles her newborn at a December meeting. Photo for The Tyee by Jen St. Denis.

Bastyovanszky and Jensen say they were told at the meeting about Sim’s plan to announce his motion to eliminate the board the next day, and they had until 8 a.m. to tell the party whether they would support the plan. They were also required to sign non-disclosure agreements that expired the next morning.

“The mayor came in, he spoke for less than five minutes and dropped the bombshell that he was abolishing the park board,” Bastyovanszky said. “He said, ‘Any questions, you can talk to staff,’ and then he just up and walked out.”

On the morning of Dec. 7, Christensen tweeted a photo of the email she had received from Sim’s chief of staff, Ford, despite never receiving the information there was a plan to get rid of the elected park board or the requirement that she declare her support by 8 a.m.

“We will move forward with the Park Board transition team without you three as you have chosen not to support the mayor on the folding of the Park Board,” Ford wrote. “I thank you for your service and wish you the best of luck going forward. There is no need for any of you to attend the press conference this morning nor attend any future transitional planning meetings around park board as well.”

Bastyovanszky says the way Christensen was sidelined was misogynist.

Asked to respond to Christensen, Bartyovanszky and Jensen’s version of events, the mayor’s chief of staff, Ford, told The Tyee: “I have a very different recollection of the events but I do not have any interest in relitigating the past. Instead, we are focused on moving forward with what’s best for Vancouver.”

The mayor’s case

In an interview on CBC’s On the Coast on Dec. 6, Sim listed a number of problems that showed the park board was “broken.” A looper moth infestation in Stanley Park killed “one in four” trees. Last year, a chunk of the aquatic centre fell off, and “you have parents and kids who play at Trout Lake little league who have literally raised their own money so they can improve the playing field for their kids, and they’re being stopped by the park board.”

But current and former park board commissioners say the city either is responsible for much of that facilities maintenance — the aquatic centre and the Stanley Park train are two examples — or has been underfunding parks and recreation.

To back up this claim, Christensen pointed to a slide in a recent parks board report showing that Vancouver parks receive a lower percentage of municipal funding than five other North American cities.

ABC was elected with majorities on council, school board and the park board on a key promise to increase funding for the police — a promise the party has delivered, increasing spending for the Vancouver Police Department by $28.7 million, or 8.3 per cent, last year. This year, the VPD is asking for $36.1 million, an increase of 9.5 per cent.

While ABC campaigned on a promise to not increase taxes, last year property taxes went up by over 10 per cent — a trend that was similar throughout Canadian municipalities — and this year property taxes are estimated to rise by 7.6 per cent. Sim has repeatedly said his business management background will help him to find efficiencies in municipal spending.

Bastyovanszky says he’s skeptical that getting rid of the elected park board will result in savings for taxpayers.

“All the shared services are already aligned — previous governments have already done that,” Bastyovanszky said. “HR, finance, all of those are already shared between the city and parks.”

Without an elected board whose purpose is to safeguard parkland, Bastyovanszky said he’s concerned that Vancouver’s parks could be sold or developed.

“The only thing it's going to allow them to do is strip out park board assets and sell off parts of the park,” Bastyovanszky said. “If they're gonna go this far and surprise everybody, there's only one upside, which is the selling of land.... Then you have to wonder whether or not that's the underlying motive for them to do it.”

Ford is adamant, however, that ABC has no plans to sell off or develop park land.

“There is no plan, nor will there ever be a plan under Mayor Sim, to sell or develop any of our parks for housing,” he told The Tyee.

'I feel sick to my stomach'

At the Wednesday park board meeting, Christensen, Bastyovanszky, Jensen and Digby wanted to send a message — the park board isn’t dead yet. They proposed and approved a motion to write to the province affirming their commitment to keeping the elected body going.

Howard, Haer and Virdi voted no to that motion, with Virdi saying he felt “sick to my stomach” every time he ate the food provided to park board commissioners while they’re sitting through long meetings.

“We go to events and spend taxpayers' money and we get nothing done,” he said.

After the meeting, Morgan, the former park board commissioner, pressed Virdi on whether he would sit on an appointed board. He declined to answer.

* Story updated on Dec. 13 at 11:58 a.m. to correct the result of the park board chair vote on Nov. 27.  [Tyee]

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