"Reason is always a kind of brute force; those who appeal to the head rather than the heart, however pallid and polite, are necessarily men of violence. We speak of 'touching' a man's heart, but we can do nothing to his head but hit it." --G.K. Chesterton

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Griping about GVRD governance

Ok, so here's what bugs me about the way the GVRD (aka Metro Vancouver) governance system works. 1. A candidate gets elected to a local council and is soon sworn in, pledging to do what's best for his or her community. 2. A few of those councillors and mayors are then selected by their councils to represent their community on the GVRD board of directors, where they are then sworn in, pledging to do what's best for Metro.
See the problem? You can't serve two masters. It's as simple as that. Yet, that's what's being asked of Metro directors. Not only are they not directly accountable to any electorate, they also find themselves in situations where, if they're doing what's best for Metro, they might not be doing what's best for the community that elected them.
This is why I tabled a Notice of Motion at last night's council meeting (seconded by Councillor Asmundson), seeking council backing to ask the provincial government to review GVRD governance. My motion follows a similar one passed last month at the BC Chamber of Commerce AGM.
You will find the text of my Notion of Motion below, as well as the background paper from the Victoria Chamber which explains the BC Chamber's motion.
I expect that Coquitlam council will deal with this issue at its next meeting.


Whereas concerns about the democratic accountability of the Board of Directors of the Greater Vancouver Regional District (Metro Vancouver) have arisen involving board members’ twofold roles as, first, politicians directly elected to serve their communities on local councils and, second, as representatives who are later selected by their respective councils to sit on the GVRD board; and

Whereas, at its May 2014 AGM, the B.C. Chamber of Commerce, citing issues related to the need for increased accountability and better local decision-making at the regional-government level, called on the provincial government to conduct an independent study of urban and rural regional governance models to identify best practices and efficiencies and determine the feasibility of implementing those in B.C.

Therefore, be it resolved, that Coquitlam Council call on the provincial government to conduct a study of regional governance models, not only to identify best practices and efficiencies but also to increase democratic accountability, so as to determine the feasibility of implementing these goals in B.C..; and that Council’s resolution be forwarded to the next meeting of the Union of B.C. Municipalities for its consideration and endorsement.

Here is the text from the Victoria Proposed Policy Resolution that was adopted during the BC Chamber AGM in May 2014. The final version of the policy statement is currently being edited, but this is the resolution as it was passed.


In 1966, the B.C. government established the regional district concept of local government in hopes of dealing with problems that transcended traditional municipal boundaries. These regional governments operate throughout the province as a local form of government, governed by the Local Government Act. Prior to the introduction of regional districts, land use and planning were done directly by the Province, whereas local services (such as fire protection and water management) were provided by independently incorporated improvement districts or municipalities under contract with the Province.
Today, there are 162 municipalities in B.C., plus 27 regional districts. Most regional districts inhabit primarily unincorporated rural areas (electoral areas). However, some urban areas, which have been deemed regionally unregulated because of numerous neighbouring municipalities, have become dependent on regional districts for certain regional responsibilities. In the Greater Victoria area alone, there are 13 municipalities with one encompassing Capital Regional District (CRD), serving a population of over 350,000. In the Lower Mainland the regional district, Metro Vancouver (Metro) represents 24 members including 22 municipalities, one electoral area, and one treaty First Nation and serves a population of 2.3 million.
The purpose of regional districts is three-fold: they are regional governments that deliver regional services; they are inter-municipal and provide a political and administrative framework for the delivery of services on a partnership basis; and they can offer local government services for unincorporated areas.
The CRD and Metro are both somewhat considered regional district anomalies because of their highly-populated urban areas. In these two districts, the regional governments primarily provide fully regional services like water supply and air quality management. In contrast, less populated regional districts are more focused on providing local services like planning, and fire protection. While both the CRD and Metro share regional problems, the province deals them with quite differently. Most notably, accessing capital and transportation management are two key issues handled legislatively in a different way from one another.
In 1988, the legislature adopted the Greater Vancouver Transportation Authority Act, which was the result of extensive negotiations between the province and the regional district. This was significant in a number of respects: it gave the GVRD new powers in transit, major roads, air care and Transportation Demand Management; and provided revenue sources to match. Significantly, it removed hospital financing as a regional district responsibility as one of the swaps necessary to achieve a balanced and mutually acceptable package. In contrast, the CRD, which is experiencing significant transportation challenges, has no governing transportation body overlooking the region.
The Municipal Finance Authority Act was created in 1971 and took advantage of the emergence of regional districts and mandated that all municipalities - with the exception of the City of Vancouver and special boards - had to borrow through their regional districts. This allowed local governments, through their regional districts, to pool their assets and borrowing requests and collectively approach the marketplace producing benefits in lower borrowing costs. Thus, while the CRD’s primary city, Victoria, must borrow money through its regional district, Metro’s primary city, Vancouver, is not mandated to do the same.
Metro’s unique agreements with the province have allowed some of its main issues to be somewhat mitigated. Particular areas of BC have grown and will continue to grow at unprecedented rates since the establishment of regional districts, including the CRD, Regional District of Central Okanagan, Regional District of Nanaimo, and Regional District of Fraser-Fort George. As these urbanized regions escalate, they may also benefit from similar agreements that the province holds with Metro.
A continuing concern of many residents in urban areas is the question of representation on regional district boards. Residents of electoral areas elect a representative to sit on the regional district board. Meanwhile, representation of municipal areas on the district’s Board of Directors is supposedly ensured by directors who are members of municipal council and appointed by their councils for terms of three years. In other words, municipal voters have no direct voice in deciding which of their elected representatives will be on their regional district’s Board of Directors.
A recent example of this need for increased accountability and better local decision-making is the concern over the proposed property tax increases outlined by BC Transit and the Victoria Regional Transit Commission in the coming years, echoing the concerns raised in the lower mainland over tax increases by Translink in 2010. While other regions are also experiencing unsustainable increases, the CRD’s example illustrates the problem most vividly. As published, the increases reflect a more than doubling of the property tax portion from just over $60 million in 2009/10 to over $113 million in 2015/16, increases that will hit businesses in the region particularly hard.
While the business community supports the goals of public transportation and the principles of sustainability, there are significant concerns that such increases are financially unsustainable. This most recent example continues to call for the formation of a regional transportation authority, one that encompasses all transportation modes and provides for increased accountability and local decision-making.
It appears the regional governance model does not serve the majority of districts well. The fine- tuning of the regional governance structure to meet the needs of particular areas is too short term an approach and longer-term solutions are required. The solution also needs to address the different issues and concerns facing both rural and urban regional districts. The regions need to be treated fairly and appropriately and review of this important governing body and its role is needed.
That the provincial government conduct an independent study of urban and rural regional governance models to identify best practices and efficiencies and determine the feasibility of implementing those in B.C.

Kiddie play areas should be dog-free

Spirit Square (photo from bynettconstruction.com)
The City of Coquitlam has rules and regulations protecting sensitive habitat from dogs, but there's nothing stopping dog owners from letting their pets run rampant over the city's kiddie play areas, with the pets pooping and peeing as they go. And, of course, leaving a mess and a potential health hazard in their wake.
Even the most responsible dog owner, who dutifully scoops up his pet's doggy-doo, can't possibly remove the film of stinky residue that's left behind. Moreover, there's no clean-up possible when a dog does Number One.
A dog doing its business isn't much of a problem when it takes place in a big forested park or wide-open median. But when the dirty business takes place in a pocket park, like the highly used Spirit Square adjacent to the Glen Pine Pavilion, it's a significant issue.
Go there most any morning and you'll see all sorts of dogs running around, doing their morning business. And go there in the evening, and you'll see all sorts of young families whose children are running and rolling around on the grass. Something doesn't add up.
That's why I raised the issue at the end of Council in Committee yesterday afternoon. And I'm very pleased to report that, as a first step, council agreed that the City should begin posting signs around Spirit Square informing dog owners that the park is a children's play area and that they shouldn't let their pets dirty it.
I will watch to see how this trial works out. Down the road, we may want to look at bylaw banning dogs from pocket parks, children's play areas, and maybe even sports fields. Several communities in North America (Raleigh, North Carolina, for example) have instituted such rules, and I'm thinking that Coquitlam might want to, as well.
UPDATE: Here's a link to a Tri-Cities NOW story about this issue.
FURTHER UPDATE (July 2): The City has now installed signs on Spirit Square, asking the public to keep their dogs out of the area. Here's a photo of one of the signs:

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

On second thought, NO

UPDATE: At its June 16 meeting, Coquitlam Council voted unanimously to, "Request the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure to clarify their [sic] position publicly regarding a potential connection between the South Fraser Perimeter Road and Highway 1 at the Port Mann Bridge; and 2. Take no action on City of New Westminster's request to support a new connection between SFPR and Highway 1/Port Mann Bridge until the Province responds to Council's request; and 3. Direct staff to forward a copy of the council report [upon which recommendations 1 and 2 were based] to the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure, City of Surrey and City of New Westminster."
Significantly, that staff report concluded by declaring that an SFPR-Port Mann connection "does little to improve street connectivity in areas in the region where it is most needed....[and that the project] has little, if any merit..." In addition, both Mayor Richard Stewart and Councillor Brent Asmundson said that the presentation made to council last week by the visiting New West politician was very misleading. I agree.

There's a story in today's Tri-Cities Now about a visit to Council on Monday by a delegation from the City of New Westminster. The story notes that the delegation asked for Coquitlam's support of New West's bid to push for a direct connection from the new South Fraser Perimeter Road to the Port Mann Bridge at a cost of up to $400 million.
South Fraser Perimeter Road (green), with current access points (blue).
Currently, the SFPR runs under the bridge but does not connect to it. New West would like the connectiion added, though, because it believes such a link would reduce traffic travelling across the Pattullo Bridge.
The New West delegation provided us with some seemingly common-sense arguments favouring the connection, and so New West's presentation ended with a feeling that Coquitlam would support the Royal City. There was no formal declaration or motion to that effect, though. 
And that turned out to be a good thing because, shortly after the crew from New West left the building, our staff started doing some digging and came up with a 2013 study, that was conducted by the Delcan group for the provincial Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure, in response to New West's belated push for an SFPR-Port Mann connection. Significantly, that study painted an entirely different picture from that sketched by the New West delegation.
Here are some key quotations from Delcan's 2013 study:
1.1 Background  
A study conducted in 2001 (South Fraser Perimeter Road Planning and Preliminary Design Study - Associated Engineering) examined the feasibility of a connection between the South Fraser Perimeter Road and Highway 1 at 152 Street as an alternate to the connection at 176 Street / Highway 15.  The study concluded that such a connection to Highway 1 at 152 Street was not preferred due to the serious community severance impacts, significant community displacement issues, traffic capacity and operational shortfalls, noise impacts, as well as others issues.  
With the nearly completed construction of the South Fraser Perimeter Road, the City of New Westminster has questioned if providing a direct connection between the South Fraser Perimeter Road and Highway 1 at the Port Mann Bridge could divert traffic away from the Pattullo or Alex Fraser Bridges.  The City of New Westminster has thus requested the BC Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure to re-examine the feasibility of this connection.  ...

The study then re-evaluated the information and came to the same conclusions as the 2001 study had: 

....In summary, providing a connection between the SFPR and Highway 1 at the Port Mann Bridge involves high implementation costs, significant community impacts, and only results in minor diversion from the Pattullo Bridge.  Furthermore, a significantly low benefit cost ratio of 0.25 indicates that the proposed connection would yield no value to the region. 

In short, this study completely rejected New West's idea. With this information now in hand, I feel that Coquitlam Council should not write a letter or pass a motion in support of New West's bid to add what would be a costly, disruptive and, ultimately, almost-useless connection. 

Monday, June 2, 2014

Increasing supply makes housing more affordable

Proposed Miller Avenue quadruplex: Helping on housing affordability.
A week rarely passes without the question of affordable housing being raised somewhere in the Metro Vancouver region. One day, it's a story about the ever-worsening "affordability index." The next, it's news of a court decision involving a City of Vancouver plan to provide incentives for the construction of rental housing. 
The issue is almost always on our minds here in Coquitlam, as we slowly work our way through a process to update our Affordable Housing Strategy. The last public iteration of the plan saw the presentation, in committee, of a draft Housing Affordability paper about a year-and-a-half ago. A good summary of the City's efforts to date can be found by clicking here.
But just because there's no movement on the official housing-affordability-update front doesn't mean that the issue doesn't arise in other forms. At last Monday's council meeting, for example, we were presented with two initiatives that both had the potential to ease the housing-affordability crunch. Both issues received majority support from council, but the sad fact is that both initiatives attracted opposition as well.
Before I describe the specific council issues, I want to share a little bit of background about the political landscape surrounding the "affordable-housing" issue. On one side, we see the interventionists and big spenders who favour strong local government financial action to support market rental housing, not just housing for the hardest cases. On the other side -- my side, in fact -- we have the more market-oriented types who understand that the best way to ease the price crunch for market housing and rents is to increase the supply.
And that brings us to last Monday, when Council was presented with two items which had the potential to increase housing supply, thus lowering the upward pressure on price.
The first dealt with a preliminary report for an application to rezone a residential property at 763 Miller Avenue from RT-1 Two-Family Residential to RT-3 Triplex and Quadruplex Residential. Council was being asked to give the bylaw First Reading and to forward the issue to a Public Hearing.
The proposed development would see the construction of four compact homes on one large residential lot, upon which there is currently a single home. The City allows such densification in this area under its Housing Choices policy, which encourages smart densification because it embodies better land use, is more environmentally friendly and, importantly, provides more opportunity for more people to afford to live in this community. (See the illustration, above, for a view of what the four compact homes would look like.)
Under the terms of the bylaw allowing this, each unit has to be accompanied by a minimum of 1.5 parking spaces. Practically speaking, most Council members also look to the surrounding neighbourhood to ensure that on-street parking is available, as well.
Anyway, last Monday, Council voted 6-1 in favour of moving the matter to a Public Hearing. Ironically, however, the lone vote in opposition came from a Councillor who often speaks very passionately and sincerely in favour of the City taking more action on the housing-affordability front. His vote against the Miller Avenue proposal was based on his concern that not enough parking was being provided. Fair enough. But it seems to me that the very important issue of housing affordability should be a major factor in our thinking on this.
Of course, we'll all be keeping our minds open on the issue as we head into the Public Hearing, and we won't make our final decisions until that hearing ends.
The second issue we dealt with last Monday concerned a text amendment bylaw regarding lot-area calculation. This amendment allows developers to build to the full, allowable density on their properties, and not to be penalized in making that calculation by way of the land they lose in building lanes or roads surrounding their property.
It's a complicated issue, but, in some cases, it might come down to a developer being allowed to build a 22-floor condo tower instead of a 20-floor one, for example. During our discussion of the issue at the fourth-and-final-reading stage, I said I supported the amendment because it would have the beneficial effect of increasing housing supply, thus easing upward price pressure. My comments came in response to one of my council colleagues who complained generally about the way the city deals with high-density developments, but whose comments didn't address what I thought was the most compelling issue in support of the text amendment--how it would have the effect of increasing supply, thereby easing upward pressure on prices.
Ultimately, this motion passed by a 6-1 vote as well, so no damage was done.
My final comment on this is to urge everyone on Council, at City Hall and in the community to take a broad view of the housing-affordability issue, so as to recognize that much can be done without using the heavy and expensive hand of government intervention.