British Columbia·Analysis

English Bay beach controversy restarts debate over who drives the bus at city hall

It's customary for councillors to avoid public criticism of city employees, no matter how senior, but a couple of them have made their frustration known on a number of occasions.

While Vancouver has almost a brand new council, nearly all of the city's senior staff remain in place

The City of Vancouver is seeking expressions of interest for initial work on a master plan "to identify key improvements needed to four existing parks and adjacent street networks along the West End Neighbourhood waterfront." (City of Vancouver)

Sometimes — most of the time, actually — an individual political debate is a proxy for a larger conflict. 

Such is the case with a master plan for Vancouver's English Bay: a conflict arose last weekend on whether council and park board should have separately signed off on starting a new planning process for the area, but in reality it was part of a broader debate over how much influence staff has versus politicians. 

But let's back up.

Earlier this month, the City of Vancouver asked companies to put in bids for a "master plan" to upgrade the park and beach space from Burrard Bridge to Stanley Park. 

The park board passed a spending plan last year which set aside money to begin that project, along with 58 others. But commissioners and councillors cried foul they weren't specifically briefed on the project before staff put the wheels in motion. 

"I think that there needs to be more checks and balances in this process for sure," said Coun. Pete Fry. 

In the end, park board general manager Malcolm Bromley acknowledged they should have told commissioners when the request went public. A motion to put the project on hold was defeated and the controversy of the week concluded. 

But the broader debate — whether unelected officials drive too much of the agenda in Vancouver's civic politics — is likely to continue. 

In 2013, Vancouver's council passed a new West End Community plan, which called for an upgrade to English Bay Beach and Sunset Beach. (Peter Scobie/CBC)

No turnover in senior staff

While Vancouver has a new mayor and 80 per cent new council, nearly all of the city's senior staff have so far remained in place. They continue to carry out the motions passed by this government and policies approved by the previous one.  

Even at the highest levels, city employees aren't political appointees and while Gregor Robertson made headlines a decade ago for dismissing the city manager in his first week in office, senior administrators in most cities tend to serve for many years under multiple governments. 

In addition, new Mayor Kennedy Stewart was generally complimentary of the way Vancouver was run under Robertson, so the lack of turnover isn't a huge surprise. 

However, those frustrated with the city's overall political direction are increasingly arguing that bureaucrats are having too much sway in the early days of this minority council. 

"The buck stops with the politicians, and when staff behave in a way that usurps or goes past the abilities of those elected to do their jobs properly, it's embarrassing," said former councillor George Affleck.

"It makes people angry. It makes people distrust government, and I think that this needs to stop."

It's customary for councillors to avoid public criticism of city employees, no matter how senior, but a couple of them have made their frustration known on a number of occasions. 


House of Cards or Parks and Rec? 

However, a majority of council seem satisfied with the current arrangement, while emphasizing the need for more consultation as they develop new policies, including a citywide plan

"We've made it clear that as a new council ... we're all interested in more collaborative and participatory approaches to how we plan our public spaces," said Fry. 

Former councillor Andrea Reimer argues that it's incumbent on councillors to request additional briefings if they want more information on topics, while understanding the nature of municipal government. 

"Council is more like a board than like a parliament or a legislature. So their job is to provide governance and oversight, but it's actually staff that run the city. So there has to be an effective partnership," she said. 

And when that partnership sometimes has tension, she argues those on the sidelines sometimes make mountains out of molehills.

"People's most common interaction with government is through Netflix or different movies that they've seen ... and all the excitement of a House of Cards or a West Wing, that is not a municipal government," she said.

"You're dealing primarily with issues like sewage and water and streets and transportation and dog waste ... I think if you watch Parks and Recreation you might have a better sense of, maybe not the tone of the average government, but the structure." 

Perhaps. But regardless of what TV show is your comparison, there are always people in the audience who want a different plot.


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