Vancouver park board has a lot to learn about enhancing media access
It's sometimes said that local government is the most democratic form of politics because it's closest to the people.
Whoever believes that old saying has probably never been to the Vancouver park board.
Tonight, I drove down to the commissioners meeting in Stanley Park with two major objectives.
I was hoping to cover the debate over the future of golf courses. I also wanted to write about a motion dealing with disinfection systems for local pools.
One irritant about covering the park board is the parking fees. Unlike Metro Vancouver's boardroom or Vancouver city council, the park board is quite inaccessible by transit.
It costs $3 per hour to park near the board office, so if the meeting drags on, it can get expensive. The staff will give members of the media parking passes if they ask. But on a busy night like tonight, my car was so far from the board office that I was not in the mood to spend more time hoofing it back and forth, only to miss some of the discussions. I've left the last two meetings before they ended because my car would have been towed.
That's a fairly minor frustration compared to the other barriers this evening inhibiting proper media coverage.
When I arrived, the room was jammed to such a level that someone should have called the fire marshal's office.
The media table was occupied by some people who were not reporters. And journalists were sitting on the floor. Some members of the public were seated against the far wall.
There was no way of setting up a laptop, let alone finding a decent space to jot down notes. I can't ever recall seeing a park board meeting with this many people in the room. Of course, there was no loudspeaker in the hall for people outside of the room.
The park board has moved the committee meeting ahead of the regular board meeting. This means that the agenda is longer, which attracts a larger audience and contributes to overcrowding.
I was also thrown a curveball when the board moved the discussion on swimming pools to the committee. I had arrived expecting to be in the middle of public presentations on golf courses. But lo and behold, I had been sideswiped by the switcheroo, leaving me unable to properly report on the possibility of commissioners spending millions of dollars on pools.
Surely, the commissioners could have made this decision early enough to post on the agenda on the board's website. But they obviously didn't think this was worth doing.
I happen to like using a Flip camera to record politicians' debates. The sound quality is good and it gives visitors to Straight.com an opportunity to hear unfiltered discussions between their elected representatives.
But prior to tonight's meeting, the staff had jammed an extra row of seats at the front to accommodate the crowd. This meant there was very little room for me to manoeuvre with my video camera to record discussions.
Unlike city council, the park board has never put a camera in the room and posted videotaped debates on the Internet for voters to see. If there had been a camera like the one that exists in the council chamber, I would have been able to track the debate from my office and arrive on time for the swimming-pool discussion.
At one point, the park board's general manager, Malcolm Bromley, told me that I wasn't allowed to move around to record the discussion. He said there's a rule that a person can't get closer than two feet from commissioners to videotape. But I couldn't stay more than two feet away because the extra row of seats created too small of a space between the gallery and the board table.
In effect, the park-board boss was telling me that I couldn't capture what commissioners Aaron Jasper and John Coupar were saying, based on where they were sitting.
I was furious because I felt it was a violation of my constitutional right to freedom of the media under Section 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. I muttered under my breath to the park board's communications manager, Joyce Courtney, that this was "horseshit", which was perhaps a little intemperate on my part.
It's not the first time that senior park staff have demonstrated a lack of concern about the constitutional right to freedom of expression. Prior to the referendum on the harmonized sales tax, the park board's managers wouldn't permit canvassers registered with Elections B.C. to sit quietly in community centres and collect signatures. (That was overturned after the Straight wrote a story about this.)
At the time, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association interpreted this fiat to be a clear violation of the charter right to freedom of expression. The president, Robert Holmes, and the executive director, David Eby, based their conclusion on rulings from the Supreme Court of Canada.
I wonder if the B.C. Civil Liberties Association might feel that the general manager's refusal to allow me to videotape part of the commissioners' discussion violated my charter right under Section 2(b).
I left the room to cool down, knowing that probably none of the commissioners or the senior staff were aware of the three major Supreme Court of Canada rulings dealing with freedom of expression. If they're curious, they can send me an email and I'll provide the links.
One of the people in the room, Raymond Tomlin, later told me that Bromley asked Courtney who my editor was. Little did the general manager know I am the editor of the Georgia Straight, so any complaints would have to be directed to me.
When I returned to the meeting, I mentioned to Coupar that the general manager was preventing me from videotaping what he had to say.
Bromley suddenly became more gracious. He said I could walk to the back of the room to videotape people who were speaking to the board.
But I realized that this still wouldn't enable me to move laterally in front of the board to record debates between commissioners.
The real problem was the extra row of seats. They were necessary on this evening because the Vision-controlled board had dropped a bombshell about reviewing golf courses. This came shortly after the Vision mayor, Gregor Robertson, expressed an openness to developing housing on the Langara links.
Another problem is the shape of the table in the park boardroom. It's round, so the commissioners sit in a circle. Some have their backs to the audience, preventing people in the gallery from videotaping what they have to say.
The media table is off by the window, making it impossible to see the faces of some commissioners at certain times.
This barrier doesn't exist at Vancouver City Hall, where all the politicians' faces can be seen from the media table.
In the hallway, I asked Courtney if she could give a demonstration of where I could walk inside the boardroom to record commissioners' debates. She kept repeating that the general manager said it was okay for me to use my video camera. She wouldn't walk into the room with me to let me have a demonstration.
Courtney also claimed that I sat at the board table. I never once plopped myself in a chair. However, I was crouched down near the table, mainly because there was no room for me to move backward.
The end result of Bromley's directive was that I couldn't move laterally to record the discussion. And the seat that I was given in the gallery made it impossible to properly videotape Coupar and Jasper.
On the upside, Comm. Sarah Blyth managed to get me a seat at the media table after I brought some of my concerns to her attention.
However, this problem with videotaping will persist because commissioners and senior staff at the park board have not given sufficient thought to how to enhance public access to debates in an era when average people have the ability to videotape what's said and post the footage online.
Bromley was paid $216,989 last year. I would argue that for this wage, the public should expect him to be able to organize a meeting in accordance with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
If the general manager takes exception to that final comment, he's welcome to send a complaint to the editor.
Better yet, Bromley could fill in the comment form below and offer a vision for how he plans to make it easier for any member of the public to videotape commissioners at their regularly scheduled board meetings.
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.