Text of WEN letter to Mayor/Council about WEMAC Committee report on West End priorities (Oct 6)

Below is the text of a letter sent to Mayor and Council on October 6, 2011, for presentation at a Planning and Environment Committee meeting where speakers had a chance to address the Mayor’s motion to direct staff resources to review and identify options for implementation of the West End Mayor’s Advisory Committee (WEMAC) report. The Council will hear more input from WEMAC members and make a decision at a later day (to be confirmed). 

October 6, 2011

His Worship Mayor Gregor Robertson & Councillors

City ofVancouver

453 West 12th Avenue

Vancouver, B.C. V5Y 1V4

RE: PENV Committee (Oct. 6), Motion on “West End Mayor’s Advisory Committee (WEMAC) Community Priorities Survey” and Referral to Staff for Implementation

Dear Mayor Robertson and City ofVancouverCouncillors:

A motion is before you today to request that staff review and report back on options for implementing the recommendations from the survey on community priorities as outlined in the West End Mayor’s Advisory Committee’s interim report. We believe that the Council should receive that interim report for information and provide it to staff as resource material for the upcoming West End community planning process, but ask that WEMAC’s recommendations specific to the West End not be pursued further at this time. Below we explain why.

Going back to its origins, we recall that on July 8, 2010, Council established WEMAC to “pilot an innovative engagement approach that can be evaluated as a potential interim measure for all communities waiting for official planning processes to be initiated.” This was important as a pilot not just for the West End, but for all of Vancouver. Thus, today’s discussion about WEMAC, its performance, and its outcomes, are important for the whole City, and perhaps we can all learn something from the past 15 months.

On July 8 last year, several citizens expressed concerns to Council about problems with the committee’s terms of the reference, the composition, and the lack of community input into its formation. They asked for more time to resolve the issues, but were refused. Nevertheless, residents can only assume that the Mayor and Council were acting in good faith, in an attempt to respond to concerns in the neighbourhood about a series of major spot rezonings, the impacts of development pressures, and the need for the predictability and certainty provided under a comprehensive community plan.

By majority vote, council endorsed creation of the Mayor’s committee and it went ahead. Citizens, including our group, West End Neighbours, tried to keep an open mind about the work of the committee and the opportunity to guide the future of the West End in a positive way. But the past year has raised many concerns, some of which I will outline below.

The first official WEMAC “activity” was developing and maintaining a list of community priorities for the West End. Please note that to our knowledge, no meetings were held with the community to establish this list of priorities. Also note that none of WEMAC’s meetings were even held in the West End. The sole means of attaining input from residents on community priorities appears to have been the survey conducted in June 2011, and released as a report in July. Since this survey is the basis of WEMAC’s work, it deserves careful scrutiny. I will return to this below.

The second WEMAC activity was to meet with developers proposing re-zonings in the West End to “ensure these proposals are informed by current community priorities.” WEMAC did meet with developers, but we note that these meetings took place prior to WEMAC’s completion of the survey on community priorities. How, therefore, could WEMAC have used these private meetings to inform developers of community priorities? On this matter, WEN believes that in the future, meetings with developers may be a role best fulfilled by the City’s professional planning staff working in the public interest.

The third activity of WEMAC was to “provide advice to the Mayor’s Office on further initiatives to increase linkages between the West End and City in relation to development and policy.” We presume that this “advice” is essentially the 23 recommendations referred to in the motion before you today. We note that WEMAC was focused on the West End, entirely directed by the Mayor’s office, and that the report is addressed only to the Mayor. But the implications of this motion today are that City Council as a whole essentially receive the report and allocate City staff time and resources (taxpayer money) to do more with it. Some of the report’s recommendations relate to citywide processes. So by today’s motion, the entire City Council becomes accountable for scrutinizing details relating to WEMAC.

As mentioned, the basis for WEMAC’s recommendations appears to be mainly the community survey. We note that the committee chose to set aside the findings of the City’s own taxpayer-funded, professionally implemented June 2010 report, titled “West End Discussion on Community Needs and Affordable Housing Community Discussion Summary Report.” One of this report’s key messages with respect to planning issues is that “there should not be any more site specific rezoning until a comprehensive community plan is developed and the public should be more involved in the planning process.”

The WEMAC survey appears to have serious flaws in design, implementation, and analysis. The ways in which results of the WEMAC survey are presented create many questions. For example, survey responses were weighted, but the report explains no methodology. And there is an apparent disconnect between the numerical responses and the hundreds of free-form comments requesting preservation of West End character and livability. Some obvious problems in the survey design were in wording or in response formats – for example allowing three responses all to be listed as “most important.” These types of concerns call into question the reliability of the survey results. In future, we believe that the city’s professional staff and consultants should be responsible for these types of surveys to ensure that the results accurately represent the objectives of the community.

Regarding the operation of the committee, we have many concerns. For example, agendas and minutes were sometimes published late. Meetings not held in the West End, making it difficult for interested residents to attend. On one occasion a WEMAC meeting was abruptly “closed” to the public after fifteen minutes, and in fact, that occasion was in violation of the Vancouver Charter. WEMAC meetings allowed citizens only to observe. Citizens or groups were not given an opportunity to make presentations, and in fact, some requests to do so were rejected. If WEMAC did hold any meetings with community, service, or business groups, the results of these discussions have not been publicly documented.

Early this year, WEMAC issued a public “Statement on 1401 Comox Demolition,” endorsing the impending demolition of St. John’s Church. The issuance of this statement was unfortunate, and to many members of the community, hurtful. Why did WEMAC members feel the need to comment on this demolition, and under what authority? The answers are not clear, but WEMAC’s stance suggested an on-going involvement with the architect, the developer, and with the details of the development at this specific site. WEMAC’s statement that the demolition would be “a step forward to improve the health and safety of our community” ignores the events leading up to the demolition, the negative impacts of this demolition activity, and the resulting damage to neighbourhood character.

Now, we return to the motion before you today requesting that “staff review and report back on options for implementing the recommendations from the survey on community priorities as outlined in WEMAC’s interim report.” We note that at the time of its formation, WEMAC was described as being responsible for certain activities prior to a formal planning process being undertaken for the West End. Fortunately, in July 2011, City Council committed funding and staff resources for a community planning process for the West End.

WEN recognizes that this request for staff to explore the recommendations of the WEMAC report is not actually a confirmation that these recommendations will be implemented. But directing staff in such a manner provides some level of Council endorsement for these priorities and recommendations. We believe that such an endorsement would be more appropriate following meaningful consultation with the community — consultation that is directed by City staff in an objective and transparent manner.

WEN believes that community engagement means people working together collaboratively, through inspired action and learning, to create and realize bold visions for a common future. The West End needs meaningful consultation with residents to help create a community plan that reflects the objectives of the neighbourhood. Many residents are appreciative that Council has authorized a new and formal planning process, and that the process is expected to be underway soon. We question whether it makes sense to use scarce staff resources to explore implementation options of the WEMAC recommendations when staff are poised to embark on an $800,000 planning process for the West End.

Trust and transparency are key concerns of residents. Consultation can only be meaningful when those consulted believe they are being provided accurate information, that their input is respected, and that the consulting body is committed to finding the best solutions. What residents saw in WEMAC was a group of individuals selected by politicians to meet developers. Developers have the most to gain from conclusions that support development. WEMAC is not a substitute for a community planning process and the committee did not conduct itself in a manner that engaged residents in a transparent manner. Further, the one survey opportunity provided did not create data that is reliable enough for use in guiding future decision-making. Rather, the result suggests a symbolic effort at consultation, not a framework for the constructive exchange of ideas and information.

In conclusion, for these reasons described above, and because a formal community planning process has now been approved for the West End, it is WEN’s opinion that WEMAC’s interim report should be received by Council for information and provided to staff as resource material for the West End community planning process. WEN asks that WEMAC’s recommendations specific to the West End not be pursued further at this time.

Sincerely,

President, West End Neighbours (WEN)
info@WestEndNeighbours.ca

West End Neighbours is a group of volunteers dedicated to preserving the quality of life for all West End residents and the distinct, diverse character of the neighbourhood. Our mandate is premised on a petition now with more than 12,000 signatures – a petition calling for “no rezoning without a comprehensive plan.”

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