Last weeks column for 24Hrs Vancouver: ‘Hump’ clear cut could be tipping point
Sorry for failing to post this my friends, an oversight on my part now that this weeks column will be out shortly.
When it comes to civic affairs, the big city politics in Vancouver and Surrey often dominate the news, leaving smaller municipalities largely exempt from public scrutiny. Yet small city politics are no less compelling.
Welcome to White Rock, the city by the sea with a municipal hall that keeps residents on their toes. With a population of just over 19,000 in an area of 5.13 kilometres, White Rock has been giving Vancouver competition when it comes to controversy.
A series of decisions made by the mayor and council since January have highlighted what happens when the public is left out of the process.
It began with the removal of the public question period that followed council meetings that I touched on in a recent column. A move decried by many as disrespectful of the voting public, council refused to budge despite significant protest.
Just a few weeks later in March, trouble surfaced once again when the city announced it was discontinuing garbage collection for multi-family units, leaving thousands of owners scrambling to find private collection. Now referred to as “garbage-gate,” the city made the decision in a closed-door meeting without public consultation, and that left residents outraged. But again, despite significant — and loud — public backlash, council refused to budge.
Resentment has been brewing in this small city, in particular because Mayor Wayne Baldwin had listed open communication and respect for the public as values on his personal website. Residents felt anything but respected in both decisions.
After two significant public backlashes received negative press in a short time span, one would think White Rock council would take notice that residents want greater transparency and consultation on civic matters.
However, just a few weeks ago, residents were shocked to discover the hill on Marine drive known as “The Hump” had been nearly clear cut of trees. Public consultation? None.
A small notice of work posted on the city site May 4 went unnoticed by residents, who were again outraged at being left out of the process. In a twist of irony, the city did ask for public feedback on their new Urban Forest Management Plan — just days after this hillside was cut.
Baldwin recently admitted to local press the city should have done more to inform residents prior to the removals. But has the city learned a lesson?
In an email to me, he detailed three upcoming public forums and said a city committee “has started to meet to prepare suggestions on how we can improve our public engagement processes and information publication.”
It’s a start — transparency and accountability are essential to engaging residents in civic process. White Rock voters will be watching, and so am I.
As I am limited by column space, here are the full responses from the three members of council who responded to the following questions:
1) Please advise if council has come to an alternate solution for public discussion- is there a new process in place? ( council removed the public question period at the end of council meetings, the mayor told local news he would find an alternative forum)
2) With respect to public consultation on issues that impact residents, is there anything the city has learned from the response to the above issues? Moving forward,what does council plan to do differently to engage the public in the process?
Mayor Wayne Baldwin:
“Thank you for the opportunity to comment, although I really would have preferred a bit more time to respond.
The City is undertaking a number of service initiatives in the upcoming months and is conducting a series of public information meetings to get public input on each.
On June 16, there is a public information meeting on the acquisition of our privately owned water utility.
On June 24 there is a public forum on our Urban Forest Management Plan.
On June 30 there is a community forum on our single family garbage, recycling, and organics collection.
In addition to the foregoing, we had a community forum on Sunday May 24 for the kick off of our Official Community Plan Review. All residents have an opportunity to participate in this by filling out the form in person or on line. It is available on the City’s website.
As part of the process there will be multiple public meetings and public hearings over the next year or more.
Further to the above , a Council Committee has started to meet to prepare suggestions on how we can improve our public engagement processes and information publication.”
Councillor Helen Fathers:
“There is no formal process in place to offset the elimination of question period , however we do have 3 upcoming community public forums to discuss very important issues for White Rock.
June 16 : Epcor water and the possible acquisition
June 24: Urban Trees
June 30: Single Family waste
At the last External Communication community, (Councillors Fathers, Knight and Sinclair) discussed at length The City’s communication , press releases , involvement of Council as a governing body and many more topics, I believe our job is to involve the public at all times. The less “In camera” and “planning sessions” that we can limit the better, as both of these types of meetings exclude the public. ”
Councillor Dave Chesney:
“Councillor Helen Fathers and myself have now hosted 4 monthly community conversations at the White Rock library.
The meetings have been very well attended and will continue on the first Saturday of every month.
Unfortunately due to her duties with managing the farmers market in White Rock, councillor Fathers will not be available for summer months, but I will continue to listen to and engage our community.
The mayor and the other members of council have chosen to not participate. I am not aware-of the city’s creation of said new methods of engaging the community.”
The remaining council members did not respond to request for comment.