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.