'It's a mess': Why Vancouver council meetings are seen by some as the most inefficient in Canada

·5 min read
Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart holds a virtual council meeting after declaring a state of emergency at city hall in March 2020.  (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart holds a virtual council meeting after declaring a state of emergency at city hall in March 2020. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

On Tuesday, Vancouver council concluded a public hearing for one individual rezoning for a social housing complex in Kitsilano. It took six days to complete and involved hundreds of speakers, with one meeting ending past midnight.

In the rest of Canada, such a drawn-out process for one item would typically happen once or twice a year.

In Vancouver, it happens every month.

CBC News analyzed the length of city council meetings across Metro Vancouver and found that since the last election, Vancouver averaged more than 15 meetings every year that have required multiple days to complete.

That's more than triple the city council's average in the previous two decades. In addition, Vancouver council has held 80 meetings lasting more than four hours since the start of 2021, more than 600 per cent higher than any other municipality in Metro Vancouver.

Within B.C., the length of Vancouver council meetings can be the butt of jokes from politicians in other municipalities. Recently, a public hearing years in the making for a redevelopment of a Safeway next to the Commercial-Broadway SkyTrain station was delayed until after the election due to council already having too many marathon meetings scheduled in its final months.

And the length of meetings in Vancouver and the length of time it takes council to complete single items have attracted the attention of council watchers outside the province.

"Across the country, Vancouver is the city council you'd least want to be stuck sitting through on any given day," said Brian Kelcey, an urban public policy consultant with experience in Toronto and Winnipeg.

"Vancouver is doing a lot of things that sort of feed the beast and kind of play on every city council's worst instincts … it's a mess, frankly."

Minority council repercussions

The reasons why Vancouver has set a modern record for the length of its meetings are similar to the reasons it's set a modern record for the number of its motions.

In a minority council where no party holds the balance of power (the first time since 1986), it creates a dynamic where more discussion happens around the council table, and there's no guarantee which issues will pass.

"In my first few terms, we had a majority government," said Coun. Adriane Carr, who served under the Vision Vancouver-dominated council from 2011 to 2018.

"They could move everything forward. They wanted to and there tended to be much shorter debate … Under this current council, people have to work together and collaborate to move things through. At [this] council table, there is a lot more listening to each other."

The additional collaboration and motions on the floor add to the time. But so do the number of speakers.

With the fate of each decision less certain in a minority council, many more people show up to city hall (either in person or virtually) to speak on each decision in an attempt to lobby councillors.

"Speaking frankly, there's been some politicization of the process," said Coun. Sarah Kirby-Yung.

"It's not just about voting for the motion. It's about actually activating and working up the public to bring out hoards of speakers … it seems to be an opportunity to rally political bases and to just turn people into numbers."

Carr agreed that hearing from dozens of speakers repeating the same arguments for hours "can be wearing" but defended it as an integral part of the local democratic process.

"When you're elected, you're there at the whim of people. And so I think it's incumbent on you to listen to people," she said.

"Even if, at times, many of the comments are redundant. It still gives you a sense as a councillor of just how strongly people in the public feel about something."

Vancouver governed differently

While the minority council is part of the reason for Vancouver's meetings being different from the rest of the country's, so are the rules around how council is conducted.

Vancouver is the only major city in Canada that allows unlimited and unregistered speakers for every agenda item for both council and committee meetings.

In addition, Vancouver council has fewer committees than any other major Canadian city and doesn't have community committees to deal with some issues on a neighbourhood level, like Toronto, Halifax and Winnipeg.

Finally, in Vancouver, every councillor is elected by voters across the entire city, whereas outside B.C., councillors are elected by neighbourhood.

It means that in the rest of Canada, most agenda items are first brought up at smaller committee meetings, where debate can happen more informally, often separated by neighbourhood.

 

In Vancouver, every item is brought up in a high-pressure meeting with all councillors — all trying to represent the entire city — where the public can speak on every item.

"The Vancouver structure incentivizes having everything — all of the work and all of the noise — happen at the council level," said Kelcey.

"You've also got the very worst case I've ever seen in terms of throwing amendments at everything and asking questions about everything … so it's kind of the perfect storm."

'Running on fumes' 

Many councillors have said that if re-elected this October, they will look for ways to create a more efficient governing system next term.

"I'm pondering to try and figure out some way forward that is better and yet still supports the kind of democratic principles that are so dear to my heart," said Carr, who suggested a limit on motions by councillors or questions that can be asked of speakers as possibilities.

Kirby-Yung said the idea of having more committees had merit. She was also hopeful the citywide Vancouver Plan would help reduce the number of "spot rezonings" that cause individual public hearings and that councillors next term would be more strategic in bringing up motions that would garner more support.

"This council honestly is running on fumes right now. At the end of the term, our meetings have been non-stop," she said.

"I think that is an opportunity and a responsibility to step back and look at how we can do it better."

However, any changes would require a change to the city's procedure bylaw — which, regardless of the council's makeup, would likely mean another marathon meeting.

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