Vancouver park board provides a memorable night of entertainment
When tourists visit Stanley Park, their first stop is often the Vancouver aquarium.
I, on the other hand, prefer the entertainment offered at the Vancouver park-board meetings, which are held in a building at the north end of Beach Avenue.
It's too bad that these events aren't televised on Shaw TV—or even on the Internet. That's because these political slugfests are usually far more lively and authentic than those dreary council meetings at 12th and Cambie, where everyone appears to have rehearsed their lines before opening their mouths.
Last night, I wasn't disappointed. The meeting began with a serious issue: a vote on Telus's plan to install three electric-vehicle charging stations attached to cellular towers along Beach Avenue.
For turning over space in existing parking lots for these structures, Telus will pay $11,500 per site per year over five years. Then there will be a 10-percent rate hike in each of three subsequent five-year terms.
The first five speakers from the gallery were wildly enthusiastic about this idea. Linda Nowlan of World Wildlife Fund Canada—and also a member of the Vancouver's Greenest City Action Team—told commissioners that her organization's chief concern is reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.
"I'm very proud of Vancouver's goal to be the greenest city in the world by 2020," she said. "This fits in very well with that goal. I can see it fits in well with the park board's plans. And it fits in very well with WWF's global goal, which is to do a complete switch to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050."
Chris Hill, president of the nonprofit organization Electric Mobility Canada, had similar laudatory comments.
"This proposal by Telus offers an attractive solution that Electric Mobility Canada supports to assist potential EV [electric-vehicle] users in their choice to use electric vehicles, and it demonstrates Vancouver's commitment to being the greenest city in the world," he said.
Jim Perkins of Metro Vancouver (also vice chair of Electric Mobility Canada), John Stonier of the Vancouver Electric Vehicle Association, and Car 2 Go's location manager, David Holzer, all chimed in with more support for the idea.
At this point, I wondered what had happened to all the political fireworks that normally characterize park-board meetings. Everything was so civil and so reasonable.
Then Beach Avenue resident and former park-board candidate Jamie Lee Hamilton took her turn at the microphone. She injected some controversy by accusing the previous speakers of advancing the interests of the electric-vehicle industry, but never once mentioning cellphone towers, which are part of the proposal.
"People are very offended that we're giving away more of our premier beachland to private interests," she claimed. "If Telus wants to put cellphone towers up, find private property to do it. Why do we have to keep turning over our public lands?"
(Later in the meeting, Vision Vancouver commissioner Niki Sharma said that it was parking-lot space, not beaches, that were being used for the towers.)
But this wasn't Hamilton's only objection. She cited a British study questioning emissions from electric vehicles over their lifetime. She also urged commissioners to read a new book called Green Illusions by scholar Ozzie Zehner, which raises uncomfortable criticisms about how environmentally friendly electric cars really are.
"As a resident of the West End, I don't want my elected park board inviting more cars into the really...dense neighbourhood," Hamilton said.
The following speaker, Michael Meszaros, pointed out that electrical-vehicle manufacturers use different standards. "So to put a EV station in at this point, though it sounds great, might be too early," he said. "Maybe next year or the year after would be better when there's actually a standard that all the cars are using."
At that point, Meszaros suddenly got militant, alleging that cellphone towers kill people. "I'm a victim of a cell tower," he claimed. "I live near one. After four years, my life was ruined."
He didn't elaborate on this declaration, nor did the commissioners stop to ask him how his life was ruined.
Meszaros next alleged that children would be at risk inside the vehicles while parents were having them charged. He added that the cellphone towers also posed a threat to West End seniors and people living with HIV and heart disease.
"I have three papers here—I can leave them if you want—showing recent studies that long-term radiation is harmful to our thyroids, our health," Meszaros stated. "This is why half the population is forecasted to have cancer before they die. If you were living here 40 years ago, that wasn't the case."
He dismissed any studies to the contrary, saying they only focus on short-term effects of radiation and deal only with healthy people. As Meszaros walked back to his seat, former commissioner Tim Louis, who was waiting to speak to the next item on the agenda, told him that he offered a good presentation to the board.
Commissioners approve staff recommendation
After listening to the public comments, NPA commissioner John Couper proposed three amendments: that power costs not be borne by the board, that the poles be unobtrusive, and that the stations must be compliant with the latest standards.
Then, I was shocked out of my torpor by a loud voice in my ear—it was 90-year-old park-board watchdog Eleanor Hadley, shouting from the gallery that the whole episode "conflicts with the park board's mandate".
"This motion is out of order," Hadley said in a voice that shook the room. "I am a Vancouver citizen. I care. You don't care about Stanley Park."
At that point, she was shushed by the staff and the debate continued, punctured at other times by Hadley's objections.
This was the park board I knew and loved covering on a regular basis before I became editor of the Straight in 2005.
In the end, the Vision majority supported the first amendment, but voted down the other two. Vision's Trevor Loke explained that "nonobtrusive" was a subjective word, which was one of his concerns.
After dispensing with Coupar's amendments, the Vision and NPA commissioners voted unanimously in favour of the staff recommendation to allow electric-vehicle charging stations and cellphone towers be permitted on park land.
None of them addressed any of the points raised by Meszaros about potential health effects of cellphone towers.
The main course: free sandwiches
The colourful discussion over cellphone towers and electric-vehicle recharging stations was a mere hors d'oeuvre compared to the main course: a one-hour debate over whether or not commissioners and staff should receive taxpayer-financed sandwiches and vegetable snacks.
Donning her populist hat, NPA commissioner Melissa De Genova introduced a motion to "immediately cease the practice of ordering food and beverages for staff briefings".
In her preamble, De Genova pointed out that the park board has cut park maintenance and 900 hours from community centres.
She also bluntly stated that she objected to "spending thousands of dollars eating on the taxpayers' dime".
"We have made several cuts and efficiencies to our parks facilities and staff," she said. "Now it's time for us to take a look inside to the board and look at areas we can cut back. And catered briefings for commissioners is one area that that can be achieved."
Many years ago, then-COPE commissioner Tim Louis introduced a motion ending catered meals with drinks for commissioners and staff at board meetings. De Genova said the optics of "catered briefings" are "awful".
She also alleged that commissioners sometimes take leftover food home with them.
Louis then went to the microphone to offer his support for the NPA commissioner's motion.
"Look after the pennies, and the dollars will look after themselves," he told the board. "Many years ago, the park board cut out catered park-board dinners. They didn't replace that perk—park-board dinners—with a different perk, catered sandwiches. They didn't replace the large perk with a smaller perk."
Tim Louis shows his fiscally conservative side at the park board.
Louis added that the decision wasn't made because of costs. "They made the decision because it was the right thing to do."
More importantly, he said that by approving De Genova's motion, it will make it easier for commissioners to advocate on behalf of the park board the next time they were at Vancouver City Hall.
Vision commissioners didn't agree with Louis's argument. Aaron Jasper pointed out that in the old days, Louis's motion addressed a "full-on, hot catered meal prior to every park-board meeting up in the cafeteria with an open bar".
Louis agreed with Jasper's characterization, but added that the elimination of that "very large perk" wasn't accompanied by the replacement with a "medium perk".
"The question isn't the size," Louis replied. "The question is the concept. Are you opposed to perks for politicians? Are you fiscally conservative?"
Park-board chair Sarah Blyth questioned Louis's capacity to empathize with low-income people like herself. She noted that she is a single mother with a part-time job in addition to her political role.
"I run from my work sometimes to go get my son, and then I run to bring my son somewhere else," Blyth said. "I'm a park commissioner because I love being a commissioner. There is sometimes...really literally one plate of vegetables and one plate of grapes. I am just wondering if you can identify with that."
Sarah Blyth talks about poverty.
Louis said it that it sounded to him as though Blyth was almost as busy as he is.
"When I was on the park board, I was working poor," he added. "I set up my law firm with no line of credit, no money in the bank, and waited for the phone to ring. I came down to park-board meetings and lived as you do on a park-board salary—a very small salary. A perk is a perk."
The next speaker, Hamilton, said that she normally agrees with Louis on issues, but took exception to his position opposing sandwiches and vegetables for commissioners.
Hamilton said that when Louis was on the board, Vancouver was a more affordable city.
"It's very difficult to run for political office if you don't have some perks, okay, if you want to call it that," she stated.
In addition, she said that the food allows people to think properly. "If you're going hungry because you can't afford money out of your $1,200 a month salary that you get, I think that's being a bit unfair to people."
Hamilton claimed that the $2,000 in annual savings wouldn't cover the cost of replacing any lost services. But killing free sandwiches could undermine democracy, she maintained.
"It's going to exclude poor people from our political process and not running for political office," she alleged.
De Genova then looked right at Hamilton and asked her if she thinks employers should provide lunch because people are there for eight hours a day—even if they might be hungry at noon and they might be working poor.
Hamilton said that employers should do this if they can.
De Genova later fired back by asking Hamilton if she would prefer more hours at Hastings Community Centre or money going to pay for food at briefings with staff.
"I don't think it has to be an either-or situation," Hamilton replied.
During the debate, Jasper accused De Genova of not doing her homework and engaging in grandstanding. "It shows perhaps not a lot of political experience," he said.
I was intrigued by Jasper's attempts to disparage De Genova. In this regard, he was living up to his reputation as Vision's enforcer on the board.
Aaron Jasper slams Melissa De Genova's motion.
Vision's Constance Barnes then accused De Genova of not dealing with this issue in the budget debate.
"I find it actually quite shameful that it has come to the board," Barnes said, adding that it didn't need to come into the public arena like this.
Constance Barnes says she thinks the NPA motion is "shameful".
De Genova said that she was not bringing forward the motion for political purposes.
"I just think right now that when we're in such a difficult position with staff hours and we're making cuts and we're in a position that the park board has never been in before with budget shortfalls," she stated. "We need to look inside and right now, we're telling the communities that we're going to be making cuts to them and we haven't made a single cut ourselves."
Melissa De Genova defends her motion.
De Genova didn't persuade the Vision majority, who all voted to keep the catered sandwiches and vegetables.
That prompted this final retort from the NPA commissioner: "This motion had no political sentiment. In fact, that's one of the reasons I'm so happy that former commissioner Louis came out. I'm sorry that my colleagues are so embarrassed by this because they obviously want to keep the perks for themselves. So I will say that I won't be eating at any of the staff briefings. I would just like to put that out and state that for the public record."
From the gallery, an approving Eleanor Hadley finally cracked a smile, saying: "Good for you."
But Vision wouldn't give up on the matter. When I returned to the office and opened up my email, there was a message from Jasper:
As per Ministry of Labour Employment Standards Act:
An employee must not work more than five hours in a row without a 30-minute unpaid meal break. An employee who is required to work or be available for work during a meal break must be paid for the meal break.
Employers are not required to provide coffee breaks.
Democracy is alive and well in Vancouver—and it's too bad that it's not broadcast on the Internet for everyone to see.
Somehow, I suspect that we haven't heard the end of this debate over catered sandwiches. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if the B.C. Liberal MLA for Vancouver–False Creek, Mary McNeil, slips something about it into one of her pamphlets going out during the 2013 provincial election—particularly if her NDP opponent turns out to be Constance Barnes.
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.