The Vancouver park board has voted in favour of a controversial plan to revise its operating agreement with community centre associations.
Park board commissioners endorsed the plan in principle at about 3:30 a.m. Tuesday (February 5) and approved a series of recommendations that will see a new agreement implemented by this summer.
The vote followed a special meeting attended by hundreds of residents at the West End Community Centre Monday evening. Over 70 people signed up to address park commissioners, with the majority of speakers opposed to the board’s proposal to change its funding model for 23 community centres across the city.
Non-Partisan Association park board commissioner Melissa De Genova, who along with John Coupar voted against the recommendations, told the Straight by phone that she is “appalled” by the late-night vote, describing the move as “legislation by exhaustion”.
“Vision Vancouver did not feel good about their decision last night, and they wanted to make it in the dark of night with as few people there as possible,” she charged. “It seems to me that at 3:30 in the morning, no one’s maybe thinking at their best, so I’m not sure how we could make such monumental decisions.”
De Genova said she and Coupar moved several unsuccessful motions to adjourn the meeting to hear the remainder of speakers another night.
Vision Vancouver park board commissioner Niki Sharma said facilitated discussions will now be set up with community associations to negotiate the proposed new agreement, and public consultation on the plan will be coordinated.
“I know it was a long night for people,” she said in a phone interview. “We felt it was important that people were asking for more input from the public, so we needed to vote on the public consultation moving forward. People were asking for more discussion on the financial aspects of this model, so we really needed to vote on that and push that forward, and there’ll definitely be more dialogue to come.”
At the centre of concerns voiced by dozens of residents is a financial model proposed by the Vancouver park board to collect revenues generated by the community centre associations through programs and rentals, and distribute the funds to community centres across the city.
According to park board general manager Malcolm Bromley, the revised operating agreement is designed to ensure equitable programming across city neighbourhoods, and to bring in a universal membership system and low-income access card across a network of facilities.
“My reading...is that everybody wants to try and help those people who have a financial challenge, but we do not have one technique to do it,” he said during a presentation to board members. “Our vision, our desire, is to come up with one universal system that’s respectful, that is confidential, that we don’t have to go through a community centre, perhaps talk to your neighbour who’s on the board or to part-time staff and tell them your financial situation.”
Former homeless resident Roland Clarke was one of a handful of residents who spoke in support of the plan.
“If done the right way, and if it’s transparent, and if the communities are spoken to in the right way, I believe that it is for the betterment of the low-income communities, and it’s for the betterment of Vancouver as a whole,” he said.
Ainslie Kwan, president of the Killarney Community Centre Association, stated in an interview with the Straight that a group of six centres that formed in opposition to the board's proposed new funding model have always supported accepting low-income leisure access cards as part of a joint operating agreement. She noted her centre does offer subsidized programs for low-income residents.
Other speakers at the special meeting raised concerns with the park board's process and what they called a lack of public consultation on the proposed agreement, while some spoke about the importance of maintaining programs that are run by volunteers or funded directly by community centre associations.
“The park board cannot possibly take an increased role in oversight in hiring, in programming these things that were outlined in the presentation, and not have it cost more money,” Lisa Patterson, who described herself as a big user of community centres, told the board. “You don’t seem to understand, the associations work for free, and they do it gladly for their individual communities. I don’t see how they’d be willing to continue under this new agreement.”
“Volunteers and others give time, some people give money, some people give a lot of money, some people can only afford a little bit of money, and some people give land,” said West End resident Eleanor Hadley. “Now all these things will dry up if parks board puts their hands on the donations that some community centres get more than others.”
Jesse Johl, president of the Riley Park Hillcrest Community Association, told the board that a community centre is "just that: community".
"When you start ripping the hearts out of every community centre in this city and telling them they're greedy, they're selfish, they don't want to share, you are insulting hundreds, if not thousands of volunteers, who over the many, many decades...put in their time and effort," he said.
According to Bromley, the revised agreement will not affect fundraising or the ability of community associations to apply for grants. Surpluses generated by community associations to date, totaling $13 million, will not be affected. The board has said $1 million in new annual funding will be invested across the system “to address infrastructure inequities”. Sharma also maintained that the board will “maintain a strong volunteer base” under the new agreement.
The recommendations approved by the park board endorsed in principle the key elements for the proposed partnership agreement, directed staff to complete negotiations with community centres and implement a new agreement by July 1, and called for consultation to be initiated across the city on the framework.