Changes to public hearing procedures proposed at Vancouver City Hall

Proposed amendments to public hearing procedures going before city council next week have one city hall watchdog concerned about what he says could result in a negative impact on the process.

An administrative report scheduled to go before council on February 28 proposes that a new section on public hearings be incorporated into a council procedure bylaw.

That section would include provisions such as posting public comments and information about public hearings on the city website on the Friday preceding the hearing, and restricting a speaker’s time limit to five minutes, with one chance to speak per person.

City of Vancouver spokesperson Wendy Stewart said the proposed bylaw amendments would formalize what were previously informal rules, such as the five-minute time limit for speakers.

“They’re trying to formalize it, make sure obviously that everyone has an opportunity, and just trying to clarify,” she told the Straight by phone.

The administrative report indicates that “public hearing procedures have historically simply been communicated verbally, hearing to hearing”.

But CityHallWatch.ca coordinator Randy Helten argued that some of the provisions outlined in the report could translate to fewer speakers and shorter hearings.

“It’s just a little bit of sugar-coating and spin,” he told the Straight by phone.

“They’re trying to make it look like it’s going to improve democracy and accessibility, but some of these could actually be used to keep people out.”

Helten is particularly concerned about what he said “appears to be an efficiency measure” to allow council members to miss parts of public hearings and still be able to vote on a bylaw.

“I think council needs to ask how this can be abused, and to address that,” he said.

The provision Helten is concerned about states that council members who are not present for part of a one-day public hearing, or for part of the last day of a continuing hearing, or council members who miss part of a public hearing which lasts longer than one day, may only vote on a motion if they receive a public hearing summary report before the meeting or during a ten-minute recess.

Helten said that while a quorum of six people would be required for a meeting, he’s concerned that councillors could miss a major portion of a hearing.

“You could have five of the councillors miss most of a public hearing if it goes more than one night, and then get a ten-minute briefing by a member of staff, which of course will not convey all the facts," he said. "So a councillor could then do a ten-minute catch up and vote on it. So that could be a little bit of abuse, and it prevents the public from being confident that the entire city council who is voting is hearing their opinion.”

Helten noted he is happy to see the city talking about better use of its website to provide information to the public, and improvements to the registration system for speakers.

“That kind of stuff would be much appreciated,” he said.

Helten said he hopes to raise his concerns at city council next week. The full administrative report can be viewed on the City of Vancouver’s website.

Comments (10) Add New Comment
Canadian Citizen
I hope they are deducting salaries when not at council meeting in full!
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CityHallWatch Randy
The items in the article are just a few of many potential problems. The text of the amended bylaw creates the potential for abuse by current and future City Councils. See CityHallWatch.ca for more analysis, still progressing.
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Live In The West End
A Public Hearing is an opportunity for a citizen to explain to Council errors in the Staff Report where increasingly citizens concerns are ignored. Often it requires more than five minutes to deliver the message and in the past all municipalities in the province have provided the time necessary for as many five minute sessions as are necessary to communicate those concerns. Some citizens are more comfortable speaking than placing their thoughts on paper and if you speak you know Council are hearing you. Council at the Shannon Mews Public Hearing last year took less than ten minutes to review and consider all written submissions after curtailing the right to speak and that occurred at 2 am. The requirement that you complete your criticism or support of the rezoning request in five minutes is an affront to the public forum process. Vision has delivered a message to the voters of Vancouver, it is get out of our way, we will rezone anything we want and we do not care if 80 or even 90% of the concerns are negative. Staff reports bear the rubber stamp that Vision wants, nothing less will do. The position of Director of Planning in the City of Vancouver is vacant, it is obvious why. One of the duties of Staff is to protect citizens from over zealous politicians, when will we see some serious whistleblowing, properly rewarded and protected from retribution.
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Joe Fortes
Democracy? Open, consulatative, transparent civic government reaching out and including citizens in the future of a great city while destroying the very foundation of what makes it world class.
The more real people find out what is going on in this city the greater the anger of the populace. Those few pulling the strings at 12th and Cambie have staff patting neighbours on the head telling them not to worry assuming he public has no idea what is best for them or their communities. The city as an organization was once one of the best employers in the lower mainland but that is also a thing of the past.
Concerned and well informed citizens rally, write letters, attend public and private meetings and speak at public hearings on behaf of hundreds and sometimes thousands more. Changes to policy and practice seem only to benefit developers in the case of planning and rarely if ever the people. Timing of these changes should be studied also as these items always seem to occur prior to some contentious vote or meeting.
Most councillors appear to have their minds made up long before public hearings, receive staff reports shortly before the vote and rarely listen to all public comments. Those who stand up to this bullying style of politics often suffer verbal abuse from the very elected officials who are there to champion them!
Community groups volunteer thousands of hours and spend countless dollars of their own money to try to protect their neighbourhoods and educate citizens. Much is broken within the workings of our city and few seem prepared to acknowledge this. Policies that remove the people from the process while poliitcal cronies benefit is simply wrong.
When will this abuse of power be corrected. Only when all his subjects realize "the Emperor has no clothes"?
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CityHallWatch Randy
These amendments DO deserve high level of public scrutiny. It IS CLEAR that Vision Vancouver intends to apply the amendments immediately to the Rize Alliance public hearing, which will be in process (proposed amended bylaw text says "This By-law is to come into force and take effect on the date of its enactment.").
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West End Villager
Having five more minutes to speak to council on a rezoning that will affect hundreds if not thousands for generations to come is not superfluous!! I have attended several city council hearings in the past 2 years and it is evident that the majority of councillors (i.e. VV) have their mind made up in favour of the rezoning applicant when they arrive in council chambers. The lack of pertinent questions by councillors to speakers raising compelling and well documented concerns is quite shocking - you'd have to be a fool not to conclude that the matter has already been settled. Public hearings in Vancouver are a veritable charade - councillors do not listen, i.e. with their mind open to changing their point of view when presented with sound and rational evidence by dozens of impacted residents. Residents are experts on the neighbourhoods they live in; they have invested many years of property taxes and community involvement - which developers greatly benefit from - and as such their views should be just as respected and have just as much weight as planners' and developers'.
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Save Vancouver
Under Vision these hearings are just a sham anyway. Now they've vome out in the open to express their impatience and contempt for the populace.

Congratulations for those who elected these toadies for another three years.
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N Jacobs
From Public Hearing Procedures and Amendments to Procedure By-law No. 9756:

"Based on the review, which included past feedback on Vancouver’s processes collected from staff, elected officials and citizens, key recommendations were formulated."

There has been no public process or initiative to collect feedback from citizens re public hearing procedures. Was this supposed “feedback” collected in a systematic or a haphazard way? Has feedback from all sources, including “citizens” been documented, collated, summarized and made available for public scrutiny?

No. These amendments are not only being brought forward with inadequate notice, they lack transparency and accountability in regard to input and--most import of all—consideration of intended or unintended consequences.

It is also being disingenuously spun by the City Administration:

City of Vancouver spokesperson Wendy Stewart said the proposed bylaw amendments would formalize what were previously informal rules, such as the five-minute time limit for speakers.

“They’re trying to formalize it, make sure obviously that everyone has an opportunity, and just trying to clarify,” she told the Straight by phone.

This is disingenuous. The amendments are in fact an attempt to formalize a number of major changes to previously informal rules. The changes would make it feasible for Councillors to be absent from hearings for long periods of time and still vote on proposals. They would limit the length of written submissions that would be accepted, regardless of the complexity of the proposal, and they would eliminate the longstanding practice that speakers who cannot present their information in a 5 minute time slot can complete their presentations after others have had an opportunity to speak.
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Urban_Citizen
Public hearings need to be formatted in a way to allow those affected to share all of their concerns. Not just 5 minutes (verbal) or 1200 words (in writing) of these concerns. This is another example of Vision Vancouver reducing access to the decision-making process at City Hall.
As far as I am aware there has been no citizen consultation on the proposed changes, just as there was no input permitted on changes to Council's meeting schedule.
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N Jacobs
If all of this wasn’t Orwellian enough, the amendments include a classic “Catch 22”. Under “Authority of the Chair,” “ The Chair: (f) despite the provisions of this By-law, may modify the procedures at a public hearing if the Chair determines it is appropriate to do so.”

In other words, this not only has nothing whatsoever to do with “formalizing what were previously informal rules.” On the contrary, it is about giving the chair virtually unlimited powers to revise or invent new rules whenever the chair determines it is appropriate to do so. It doesn’t even require a vote of Council to make up new rules on the fly!
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