British Columbia

Vancouver council faces criticism for slow response in COVID-19 recovery

Last month a Vancouver council meeting featured someone flushing a toilet because they forgot to mute their call — and some might argue it's been a metaphor for the city's political drive since.

The city moved quickly in declaring an emergency — but has gone slower in opening up patios and roads

Mayor Kennedy Stewart holds a virtual council meeting after declaring a state of emergency at city hall in Vancouver on March 19. Some argue the city has been slow in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic ever since. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Last month a Vancouver council meeting featured someone flushing a toilet because they forgot to mute their call — and some might argue it's been a metaphor for the city's political drive since.

After moving quickly in calling an emergency over COVID-19 and shutting down dine-in service restaurants, Vancouver has moved slowly compared to many other cities when it comes to high-profile recovery actions.

Work on expanding patio spaces is starting to move forward after weeks of discussion. A motion to be more aggressive in converting road space to pedestrians and cyclists was delayed another two weeks because council was unable to finish its agenda after 20-plus hours of meetings last Tuesday and Wednesday — a situation one councillor called "embarrassing." 

Cities have fewer tools than other levels of government to enact change — but, regardless, in the past week there's been a noticeable uptick in criticism of Vancouver's city hall.

"I don't think we are moving quickly enough," said Coun. Sarah Kirby-Yung. 

"I think that the mayor was overly concerned with the financial health of the city … I think that it's been a tenuous approach, and I think that we need to rebalance that and learn to be nimble and learn to be quick and responsive." 

Coun. Sarah Kirby-Yung says the city has focused too much on its internal finances at the expense of a quick response to help businesses. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Dusk-till-dawn deliberations

Green Party Coun. Adriane Carr argues the city "has been moving fast" on some issues, including how it realigned street use on Beach Avenue and quietly modified curb space around businesses in several other parts of the city

But she also admits that Vancouver's never-ending council meetings — where amendments, breaks for legal advice and technical snafus have resulted in dusk-till-dawn deliberations — can slow down the pace.

"We have extraordinarily, actually, unconscionably long meetings that seem to take forever. When you sit in council for 13 hours, I don't think that's good for anyone," she said. 

"We need some way to move forward in a more focused and a faster acting fashion."

To that end, council has created a separate committee to discuss how it's responding to COVID-19. In theory, it will allow councillors to hash out motions before they arrive at a formal council meeting.

"We won't have amendments on the fly coming up as much," said Carr. 

"This is a big opportunity for us to be able to work more collaboratively and more thoughtfully in terms of ... coming forward or a set of recommendations and working the kinks out beforehand."

Coun. Adriane Carr is hopeful a new committee will resolve some of the problems council has had with meetings going late into the evening. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Minority council

When Vancouver elected a new city government in 2018, it was the first time since 1986 that no political party gained a majority of seats on council.

Kirby-Yung argues councillors will have to be less partisan if they want to achieve their shared goal of accelerating Vancouver's economic response to COVID-19. 

"It's not about the mayor," said Kirby-Yung. 

"He certainly has a lot more access to staff and a lot more resources at his disposal in his office, but at the end of the day he's only one vote."

Meanwhile, the next council meeting will see a motion from Christine Boyle on making it legal to drink in city parks and beaches. 

It's another issue that likely will require more meetings and more motions before it comes to fruition, due to the complicated nature of jurisdictions between the city and its independent Park Board, along with vague language in the Vancouver Charter.

"If you think that there is something that council isn't moving on fast enough, speak up about it," said Kirby-Yung.

"This is a moment in time where we have a chance to actually create a better normal."

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