July 16 GPC Summary & Observations

The meeting started off well on Thursday (agenda here), but it then got frustrating and tiresome once Council (in their Governance & Priorities format) started sliding off topic and speaking around issues instead of to the immediate items at the table. Mind you, their doing so was also fascinating in the sense that it made me reflect on why I was reacting to them the way I did and why it was that I was getting frustrated and confused instead of just tweeting everything.

I realized that it has to do with process. 

Where I am equipped to tweet out presentations and discussion that occurs based on information that is available in the meeting agenda package, I am not necessarily equipped to tweet about other issues, implications and complicating variables because I have not been provided/acquired with necessary context ahead of time –  context that is being shared by those speaking at the Council table.

So why does that matter? They are council and it is their job to be discussing critical and fundamental issues of how our community functions and making decisions. Why do I need to know everything as well? Well. This unequal distribution and faulty management of knowledge is not just an issue for me, it is also an issue for you because every system needs checks and balances. And for a system of checks and balances to work, an even playing field (e.g., equitable access to information) is required.

Where I recognize that local government is horrendously complex, the workload of our Mayor, Councillors and staff with the City of Victoria is varied and deep, and the majority of folks who follow local politics tend to do so on an issue specific basis (e.g., JSB, gardening, cycling etc) I still think that all issues need to be treated fairly and for that to happen a consistent process is required at the Council table – which is to say, a consistent process is required for managing issues onto and off of the table as well because it is important to know where something comes from and where it goes.

This isn’t to say that small issues (a new crosswalk) should get as much attention as big issues (Johnson Street bridge) but it is to say, that if anyone wants to go and find out everything related to a particular issue, this should be easy to do.

But it isn’t.

And it isn’t because of multiple evolving stakeholders, differing abilities and preferences of stakeholders, different technology used by stakeholders, and a differential willingness to communicate by stakeholders as well. The fact that the City’s website is a big old mess and the Citizen engagement arm deploys a disconnected amalgam of “engagement tools” certainly doesn’t help provide any sort of comprehensive record or narrative for any particular issue.

Speaking of which, did you know that the city’s website cost $72,850 to maintain in 2014? Not build, maintain!

Which is to say, trying to both follow and understand the City, what the Council does and why, and then what happens after Council decisions are made, is hard work. But I’ve enjoyed doing it because I’ve learned a lot!

Here is the meeting video from Thursday’s 5 hour meeting.

Johnson Street Bridge – 3rd Quarter Update

This item was both interesting and frustrating. Frustrating because honestly, no one needs to hear Council continue to moan about the project and whine about how unhappy they are with the state of things, especially since they are the decision makers and IT IS THEIR FAULT (other than Lucas and Loveday of course). When it came time to call the question in the vote of whether or not to approve an additional $2.5 million to the project budget, Mayor Helps even called it the “unhappy motion” which then received unanimous approval from Council.

The new project budget is: $96.854 million (see staff report).

In thanking Huggett for his update, Helps also had this to say:

Bad News Tweet

Why the dominance of such basic emotions on a mechanical issue? Particularly given the cost categories associated with the bridge.

JSB Costs Categories

Emotional temperaments is not one of them.

If they turned these emotions to practical knowledge, intelligence and insight then I think  staff and Mr. Huggett (JSB Project Director) would take Council more seriously in relation to the project and maybe even educate them more on what is actually going on (providing they actually want to know more of course). Instead, the presentation from Huggett was just your basic formal professional “straight shooter” white guy presentation on the current status of the project construction project (ppt here) on “I’m just trying to build the world class bridge you told me to build”.

Nothing of any real detail was discussed. And I mention this because f you really want to restrain costs (as Council says they do), don’t you need to know where costs come from? Related to this, did you know that Huggett was paid $123,126.61 in 2014 through his company JR Huggett (see page 54). Where Council continues to bitch and moan (they honestly do – other than Thornton-Joe who suggested that people would have been ok with a super expensive bridge so long as Council had been upfront about it) their actions on Thursday just read as disingenuous.

Is that being harsh?

Picking up on my theme of the difficulty of table transparency in terms of trying to track and reveal what knowledge and context is currently at the council table, is the issue of the “disaster” Johnson Street Bridge replacement project being dealt with at such a basic level by Council at the public council table simply because they’re afraid of revealing discussed incamera? Related to this, are the public emotions just for show? I noticed that there weren’t any news cameras at the meeting yesterday – perhaps they’re sick of the game, or they just didn’t know the meeting was happening.

Speaking of which, it sounds though there may be some JSB related updates coming forward to Council in late August.  Somewhat related to this, I must admit that I was amused when the City Manager revealed that a “notebook” is kept on lessons learned from the Johnson street bridge and that every time Council provides direction on the bridge, these comments are heard loud and clear and written in the notebook. Anyone want to FOI this with me?

Thornton-Joe did a good job of asking about consultation and notification of downtown businesses who are/may be impacted by continued and delayed construction of the Johnson Street Bridge (lots of vacancies down that way no?). She was told that the City is always working on new ways of communicating about the bridge and that an “interdisciplinary team” has been pulled together to help mitigate community impacts of an extended construction schedule. In particular, the need to maintain a reasonable appearance for Victoria tourists was highlighted, that and JSB site safety.

Looking forward, I do know that back in January there were promises made for community engagement related to the bridge and I know that yesterday we heard again of community engagement promises related to the bridge. I guess they are still waiting for something to communicate because they are still waiting for the steel. And this was something I wondered about yesterday after the City Manager said this:

No JSB Alternatives

All and all, there was a lot of talk yesterday about the steel and Mr. Huggett in particular spoke of the many complexities in the steel fabrication process:

  • how there are many issues of non-conformance being caught by team of inspectors in the Chinese plant;
  • how better communication is needed by engineers in New York and welders in China (perhaps to catch or mitigate instances of non-conformance by better communicating welding standards?);
  • how once the steel is welded it will need to be painted and the paint shop wont be operational until the end of the year;
  • how once it is painted all bridge components will need to be dismantled and shipped on a barge over to Canada;
  • how Huggett still needs to decide if he wants to freight the steel from Vancouver or just barge it all the way to Victoria;
  • how once the steel gets here, it hopefully isn’t damaged because the city has to pay for the steel prior to it being shipped (even though the steel is the responsibility of the PCL contractors);
  • how once the steel is determined to be ok, then the pieces need to be put together and hopefully fit with a hole in the ground and that this fit is a “matter of millimetres”.

One other interesting thing yesterday, was when Madoff spoke up to say, she wasn’t going to speak, but she had to because she’s been offended by statements from Loveday on how “as a member of the public, he’d felt mislead [about the bridge] by city communications”. She spoke passionately to how every decisions and every choice she made related to the new bridge was made on the best information they had available at the time.

To which I ask, shouldn’t our councillors be able to tell the difference between good and bad info?  What is their value to our community, now and into the future if they cannot?

Looking forward we the city of Victoria can anticipate:

JSB Mediation

Related to this Huggett spoke of how 50% of his time is spent preparing for mediation (that will occur in December) and advised Council that he is only able to provide incamera updates on the mediation process. And in response to questions from Loveday for ballpark estimates on total project costs, Huggett said he can only provides these incamera as well.

Mind you, Huggett also spoke during the meeting of “needing to protect a $100,000,000 bridge” and that in order to protect this bridge he would need a $300,000,000 fender so that the bridge does not get damaged by 6 tonne barges and ships travelling at the speed of 5 knots as they head up into the Gorge (upper harbour).

So my guess is that we have at least $7 more million to look forward before the bridge is finally complete. And these additional cost requests will come forward in chunks (as promised by Huggett because costs are always changing as the project changes) through to eventual bridge completion – with it currently scheduled to open to traffic in spring of 2017 and then be fully open by fall of 2017 (which I assume means completion of public realm and special pedestrian and bike pathway).

JSB Question I Would Have Asked if I Were on Council

Given all the trouble with the steel and given all the trouble with producing steel that is appropriate for the complex bridge design, might it be possible to provide the shop in China with a basic bridge design (tried and true from elsewhere) and have them just make steel for a basic bridge instead? Because at least then, I’d imagine that there would be less risk involved in the actual bridge construction once the steel finally shows up.

Mayor Task Force on Housing Affordability

It seemed like the spirit of my lengthy write up resonated and Councillors Madoff, Young and Alto did a solid job of questioning the suite of recommendations that came forward from this task force. It was interesting to hear during the meeting, that a late template report was only added to the agenda (on wednesday) after the new Director of Planning made it clear that solving the affordability crisis requires more than just a few brain storming sessions from a small group of people. The resolution passed on Thursday was:

That the Committee:

1. Receive the suite of recommendations in Appendix A in its entirety;

2. Direct staff to consider the actions contained therein to form the basis of a comprehensive Municipal Housing Strategy with an aim to supporting implementation during the timeline laid out; and

3. That staff report back to Council with a draft Municipal Housing Strategy in September 2015.

Related to this, the City Manager spoke of how a report on the newly proposed real estate arm for the City will be coming forward in August – should be interesting.

Notable Bits of Discussion from Thursday

Councillor Young as the lone vote of opposition, spoke of his concerns for how the housing task force recommendations seemed like an effort to take tax revenue from one group (property owners) and redirect it (e.g., to those who need affordable housing).  In response to this, Councillor Alto chuckled and said “well of course we are, that is why a number of us are here on Council”.

Mayor Helps spoke of how the task force process was “clunky” and that lessons have been learned and will be applied to both the Economic Development Task force (which is reporting back in the fall) and any future task forces that are struck. In particular, an indirect commitment seemed to be made to making sure that a community representative is selected for any future task force so as to guarantee a neighbourhood voice, especially as it pertains to issues with immediate neighbourhood impact.

What to look forward to in the future?

Helps requested that there be two 4-hour workshops held in September for Council to work through additional research from staff on what needs to be done to operationalize the suggested recommendations from the task force. A significant amount of time was spent on Thursday on just what this report back would consist of – where Madoff requested a SWOT analysis of each item and had the support of the new Planning Director, Mayor Helps was more inclined to defend the necessity to retain every recommendations.

She did so because as she and Isitt claimed, each recommendation was planned to work in a sequence with others and each recommendation has already been carefully scrutinized by staff. Based on my understanding of the task force to date mind you, and based on my write up of the task force from earlier this week I don’t believe either of them one bit.

The process was clunky and the follow up will be clunky as well.

Where I’m sure Helps envisioned her select task force as being perfectly equipped to bring all all relevant affordable housing best practices and community voices to the table (because she picked them after all) the dominant message at the Council table on Thursday was that a lot of staff work and community consultation are required to fully understand possible implications of all these recommendations before anything will happen. Which is good.

Mind you, I would argue that it would have been faster (given the crisis of affordable housing you know) had a proper task force been struck in the first place and actual staff discussion and community consultation happened as part of the whole damn thing. Sure, that would have met more time spent on the front end, but that would have saved all this back-pedalling time that is happening now.

Action Plan for Housing Supports & City Services

Mr. Woodland came to the table and read through a careful and deliberate presentation on this very complex issue. As noted in the staff report, the recommendations that were passed by committee with Councillor Young as the lone voice of opposition was:

That Council:

1. Receive the July 10, 2015 Status Report – Action Plan for Housing, Supports and City Services for Sheltering in City Parks; and

2. Approve the following Action Plan recommendations: a. Temporary Housing Initiative 2(a) – Increase Emergency Shelter Spaces i. Adjust the City’s advocacy focus as follows:

  • Request the Province of British Columbia and BC Housing to provide more funding for rent supplements in the City of Victoria to secure permanent housing for people currently housed in emergency shelters or transitional/supportive housing. b. Temporary Housing Initiative 2(b) – Clarifying Roles in Micro-Housing i. The City’s role in the development of a micro-housing village is to:
  • Advise on land use, building construction and fire safety regulations;
  • Advise on municipal servicing requirements and community standards;
  • Process any required applications for land use, building construction or site preparation approvals;
  • Consider any applications for financial support in relation to the development or implementation of the village; and
  • Consider entering into agreements to enable the operation of the village. ii. Micro-Housing Victoria’s Role in developing a micro-housing village is to:
  • Build a community of interest and organizational capacity to support the village project;
  • Develop site plans, housing unit plans and site servicing plans;
  • Develop operational rules and procedures for the village;
  • Identify and acquire a site for the micro-housing village;
  • Apply for land use, building construction or site servicing approvals;
  • Engage in community consultation to support the project, including required CALUC consultations respecting any land use applications;
  • Acquire the necessary funding to support the development and operation of the village; and
  • • Operate the village in accordance with Micro-Housing Victoria’s rules and procedures, and any agreements with the City or other parties.

c. Temporary Housing Initiative 2(c) – A Designated Sheltering Site in a Park

i. The City’s approach to establish a designated sheltering area in a park is to:

  • Seek a service partner who will manage the operation of the site;
  • Develop a service model and budget with the service partner;
  • Confirm the site location and seek public input on the proposed service model and location;
  • Seek final approval of the service model budget from Council.

d. Operational Initiative 1 – Storage Project for Homeless Persons’ Belongings

i. The City’s approach to establishing a storage facility is to:

  • Continue to work cooperatively with interested service partners to establish the facility in September 2015; and
  • Initiate a proposal call if there is no substantive progress achieved by September 2015.

As you can see, hideously complex and serious. And the discussion on this vast issue was not at all structured on Thursday. Things may have actually made more sense if perhaps Council had worked through the Action Plan itself one box at a time to keep things making sense instead of letting it all get mixed up.

Main things to know going forward

A new group called Micro-Housing Victoria has been incorporated to take charge in developing a new micro-housing village. Here is a recent letter from them to Council. They are different from the group that will need to come forward to manage a permanent space for designated sheltering and it is important to note that staff  seem to be advocating for the use of the tennis courts at Topaz park for this service

What didn’t seem to register on Thursday mind you, was what even seemed to be a preference from Helps for these new sheltering initiatives to be “pilot projects” and for careful attention to be paid on the amount of staff & VicPD time & money spent on sheltering related activities currently and once the micro-housing and designated sheltering are established. So it will be curious to see what comes of that.

Related to this, changes will need to be made to the Parks Regulation bylaw restricting sheltering behaviours in certain parks with the introduction of these new alternatives to sheltering in parks (e.g., micro-housing and designated sheltering). However, from a timing perspective, Loveday made sure to speak to how, these bylaw amendments will only be politically feasible if and when these alternative sheltering location are a success (e.g, so there are fewer people sheltering in parks). Which I suppose makes sense.

Opening Govt St to Pedestrians – Pilot Project

A motion proposing a portion of Government Street be open to pedestrians only as a one-day pilot project. Of note is that a new motion was added to the agenda to replace the old motion. The motion passed was that:

1. Be it resolved that the City of Victoria work in collaboration with the Downtown Victoria Business Association, downtown residents, the Greater Victoria Placemaking Network and other interested stakeholders to convene a “LoveGov” series of pedestrian only Sundays on Government Street including Saturday October 10, one Saturday or Sunday in November, one Saturday or Sunday in January, and culminating in a “LoveGov” wrap up event on Sunday February 14th 2016.

2. Direct staff, working in partnership with the DVBA, Government Street merchants and other stakeholders, to develop a mechanism to evaluate the success of this pilot project. 

Should be fun!

Socially Responsible Investments and Pension Funds

There was a very brief report from Councillors Loveday and Isitt with support from Mayor Helps with this recommended motion:

That Council:

1. Requests that the Mayor write to the Premier of British Columbia and the Minister of Finance, requesting that the provincial government introduce amendments to the Municipal Finance Authority Act to provide local governments with the autonomy to pursue socially responsible investments and climate action in financial decision-making;

2. Request a report from each of the Municipal Pension Plan and the Municipal Finance Authority detailing the percentage and dollar amount of investments currently held in fossil fuel-related companies or investment products, and options for divesting those assets over the next five, ten and fifteen years;

3. Requests that the Mayor write to the Board of Directors of the Municipal Finance Authority and the BC Investment Management Corporation requesting that these organizations divest from fossil fuels and reinvest in renewable sources of energy, employment and income, in order to give effect to the climate action objectives of the Province of British Columbia and local governments including the City of Victoria.

As per the Strategic Plan Implemetation Plan attached as Appendix A, that Council

1. Refer this item to the next Strategic Plan Quarterly Update on August 20, 2015 and at that time request a report from staff on the implications of adding this Action Item to the strategic plan: Report on the current distribution of the City of Victoria’s investment portfolio and pension funds, and consistency with objective 5 of the Investment Policy (Socially Responsible Investing), and in particular, to report on the percentage and dollar amount of investments currently held in fossil fuel-related companies, and provide advice on options for increasing Socially Responsible Investing.

As expected, Councillor Young was the lone voice of opposition as he spoke with a practical, real world financial experience on how he doesn’t think investment advice is the role of Council and also that this motion of Council’s is  hypocritical. And I must say that I agree with him.

Councillor Overview of Current Issues

Loveday motivated this item by speaking to how, as a new councillor he has found it hard to truly know and understand what all that other Councillors are up so so he brought forth this recommendation for formalized sharing at the Council table.

That each Councillor provide a brief of current issues (or any matter that might be of interest to Council) arising from each Councillor’s liaison neighbourhood and/or City appointments, on a quarterly basis.

Perhaps this will help get more info on the table? Hard to tell though because of how the item came forward and ended up being opposed by Councillor’s Young and Madoff. It should have been simple though. Building off of the theme I brought up at the start of the post, it’s hard to tell what Council does outside of the Council table and it is entirely fair and practical for them to tell us. Damn thing is, is that the uncertain format of this update confused them.

Where Alto had pulled the motion for the purpose of requesting these updates start in October not September (but I don’t think this amendment actually happened) and then occur quarterly as per the motion in the agenda, I don’t believe any firm commitment was made to when these “updates” will actually start. Picking up on a thread I mentioned a few months back on how New Business seems to come directly from Council and not go through staff (like everything else does) this motion could have benefited from a staff review because they could have provided a brief summary on what every other council does.

And what every other Council does is have each member speak regularly on what they got up to as a member of Council that month.

I’m glad the City of Victoria may actually start doing this.

 

Consent agenda

Original proposals from Mayor Helps and Alto were for nearly everything to go on the consent agenda, but the older Councillors made sure to pull off items with potential policy implications (e.g., socially responsible investments) for discussion). Items that went through on the consent agenda included:

Property Use Agreement with DND for USAR Training

A report recommending Committee enter into a three-year agreement with the Ministry of National Defence to allow the City to continue to use training facilities at CFB Esquimalt.

Protection of Biological Diversity of Walbran Valley

A motion requesting the Mayor write a letter to the province in support of protecting the Old Growth Forests of Walbran Valley.

Request to Transport Canada re: Victoria Inner Harbour Airport

A motion requesting that Transport Canada provide a presentation to Committee on the Victoria Inner Harbour Airport.

Closed Business

There were 3 items of closed business on Thursday:

Land / Disposition of Property

–R. Woodland, Director of Legislative & Regulatory Services

Employee Relations – Quarterly Update (Verbal)

–J. Johnson, City Manager

Employee Relations – Exempt Compensation Report

–J. Jenkyns, Deputy City Manager

Postscrip

I must say that I enjoyed sharing the media table with Amy Smart of the Times Colonist on Thursday. Given that I have absolutely no media training, it was good to watch her in action and it was also nice to share the table with someone who also appreciates and enjoys the complexity of local government.

 

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