British Columbia·Analysis

Quantity over quality? Vancouver council sees surge of motions — along with long, contentious debates

In the five months since they were sworn in, there have been 51 motions put forward by councillors, compared to just 18 motions in the first five months of the last council's term.   

Differing political perspectives are creating marathon meetings

Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart, centre, with his council. No single political party has a majority. (City of Vancouver)

When Vancouver voters decided last election to create a minority council with no party holding the balance of power — for the first time in 30 years — the advantages seemed clear.

"We have to work together to come up with solutions that work. And that's a beautiful thing," said Pete Fry after the first full council meeting last November.

But with so many different perspectives on council and no majority, meetings can go deep into the evening.

In the five months since they were sworn in, there have been 51 motions put forward by councillors, compared to just 18 motions in the first five months of the last council's term.   

"It's an exciting process, but it's tedious and we recognize that," said Fry.

He still believes the minority council is "a beautiful thing." But he also recognizes that a more efficient approach has benefits. 

"I guess it's a really Canadian kind of approach, but we're trying to be so polite and thoughtful, that we end up belabouring these motions and twisting them by just amending them ... not just killing the motion outright," he said.   

"I think we're getting to a point where it's not about being mean, it's about being efficient." 

Five minutes, not three

That's part of the reason council started a pilot project to streamline meetings. 

For the next two months, members of the public will only have three minutes to speak on items instead of five, with the same time reduction for councillors who want to questions speakers. 

In addition, all motions put forward by councillors will have a scheduled time frame when the public can weigh in. 

"That's enabled us to get through the agenda more quickly, but it also means people that are coming to speak to council are waiting less," said Coun. Sarah Kirby-Yung, who helped spearhead the pilot. 

Fry is also optimistic about the changes.

"We heard that loud and clear from lots of folks that it's really frustrating to speak to council because there's no certainty as to when they're going to be able to speak," he said.

"We're trying to fix that."

Policy or politics?

However, Kirby-Yung said that reforms to the schedule will only deliver so much efficiency, and that it's up to councillors to consider their motions more carefully. 

"Some of these motions that we've gotten have been more political in nature," she said.

"We have a council that comes from different backgrounds. That's not a bad thing ... but I think if we bring motions forward they should be brought forward, from my view, as policy alternatives or policy solutions — not just for headlines."

That's an implied criticism of Coun. Jean Swanson of the Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE) who has put forward 12 motions thus far — including one that would have suspended the Rental 100 program. That was referred to staff last week after hours of often Byzantine procedural debate, centred around the fact that staff were already reviewing the program. 

But councillors Colleen Hardwick and Melissa De Genova, elected with Kirby-Yung on the Non-Partisan Association (NPA) banner last election, have also put forward several motions that could be described as politically pointed and unlikely to gain the support of a majority of councillors.

"Some of the meetings become long, and the council debate becomes long, if those motions aren't perhaps as thoroughly researched as they could be," argued Kirby-Yung. 

So are motions on hot-button issues merely pandering to supporters without any realistic chance of approval? 

Wherever you stand, if you're going to city hall to watch a council meeting to its conclusion, expect to sit for a while.  

About the Author

Justin McElroy

@j_mcelroy

Justin is the Municipal Affairs Reporter for CBC Vancouver, covering local political stories throughout British Columbia.

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