British Columbia

We looked at every motion put forward by a Vancouver councillor this term. Here's what we found

CBC News has done an analysis of every motion put forward by Vancouver councillors and Mayor Kennedy Stewart since they were elected, and found 313 separate motions of substance — an all-time record for any Vancouver council in modern history.

Sheer number of motions caused issues for effective implementation, admitted councillors

Kennedy Stewart pictured here in the centre with all Vancouver councillors in 2018. (City of Vancouver)

How have the last four years of politics at Vancouver council been different? For some, it can be summed up with a single word.

"This council has been far too chaotic," said Coun. Christine Boyle.

As council wraps up meetings in the next week before suspending political activities until October's municipal election, CBC News has done an analysis of every motion put forward by councillors and Mayor Kennedy Stewart since they were elected.

It revealed 313 separate motions of substance, an all-time record for any Vancouver council in modern history. 

Not only is that a 73 per cent increase from the previous council that served from 2014-2018, but it dwarfed any other Metro Vancouver council surveyed. 

When asked about the pace of motions, councillors have individually defended the number of motions they have brought forward to try and improve the city. 

"Sometimes it works really well to make sure more people have their voices heard," said Boyle. 

At the same time, they've often acknowledged that the collective number of motions has made it hard for city government to have a clear direction. 

"Everyone comes in with priorities," said Coun. Rebecca Bligh, who put forward just 11 motions on her own, the fewest on council. 

"But how are you working with others? What we're seeing right now is a real stall, a stress, a toll on our staff ... having to navigate that process without any direction from council." 

Minority council dynamics

To many, the reason for all the motions can mostly be attributed to the nature of this council. 

For most of Vancouver's history, only one political party has held power at city hall at any time. But in 2018, voters chose a minority council for the first time since 1984. 

It left four different groups — that have subsequently splintered into six — with different ideas for how the city should be run, all believing that motions are the best option for moving their preferred policy forward. 

"We could respond strategically at the caucus level before we did it at the council level," said Gord Price, who served as a councillor from 1986-2002. 

"When you don't have a majority and a lot of individuals and parties, then each of them has to more or less do that same kind of thing to get the same effect."

In many Metro Vancouver municipalities, council creates a list of strategic priorities at the start of their term, informs staff of their choices, and then receives reports in the years following that act on those wishes, which are then voted on by council after debate and amendments. 

That happened to some extent in Vancouver, with council passing wide-reaching motions on a city-wide plan and climate emergency early on.

But in the years since, many councillors have put forward multiple motions on housing (68 motions), climate (26 motions) or transportation issues (24 motions), dozens of which ask staff to study an issue, or to incorporate new policies into an existing one passed by a previous council.

In isolation, the motions can be defended as trying to accelerate needed action on important issues.

"My big concern about the Vancouver plan from the beginning was that it would delay the action that we knew needed to happen, and that we knew residents support it already," said Boyle. 

Collectively, it has often led to overlapping studies and priorities, which staff say often need to be reconciled. 

"It has them, I think, oftentimes feeling like they are going in every which direction to try and achieve something, and not feeling like they're getting very far," said Bligh. 

Exacerbating this was a large departure of senior leadership responsible for interpreting new motions: in 2020 and 2021 Vancouver saw the departure of its city manager, chief planner, chief of development and chief of licensing, among other positions. 

Lobbying motions good? 

While motions asking staff to study an issue are the most common, 99 motions could best be described as advocacy or lobbying motions: issues that were legally out of Vancouver's jurisdiction to control. 

They can often be divisive — both because of the issue being debated, and the argument that it's not necessary. But some argue they're necessary. 

"A lobbying motion by council is a way to give folks another step, another source of visibility for their issue, possibly more media attention, and another ally," wrote Jean Swanson, who submitted 36 of those motions, in an emailed statement to CBC.

"Besides, senior government decisions have a huge impact on what happens in the city. For example, if welfare and disability rates were high enough to pay rent and eat, the city could eliminate or reduce a lot of  work and expenditures on homelessness, social housing, food, services, etc."

At the same time, much like motions asking staff to do work, advocacy motions can be a case of diminishing returns. 

"If you're another level of government, if you're getting … 100 motions from a council, it kind of cheapens all of them, right?" said Andrea Reimer, who served as a councillor from 2008-2018.

"If you're strategic and focused on what you're advocating on, they can help amplify. But if sending a raft of new motions every meeting, it can give the impression that you're avoiding the things you're there to do in favour of trying to drive from the back seat." 

What comes next?

In the last 18 months, the pace of motions from this council has slowed, and many councillors say they have become more strategic about what issues to advocate through individual motions.

"In retrospect I wish we had taken a more discerning view of what work plans may have been inherited from the previous councils and possibly deprecated or at least reconciled some of them with the new direction of the new council," said Pete Fry. 

Bligh said that at the start "there might have been a lot more tolerance for motions" but council has since settled into a better groove. 

"I think we did a pretty good job going through COVID, and I think we pivoted in many ways that were completely unplanned for, and we still governed and we still did the job that we were supposed to do."

Mayor Stewart and all 10 councillors are seeking re-election (with Coun. Colleen Hardwick challenging Stewart for mayor). Historically in B.C., approximately 80 per cent of local politicians who seek re-election win. 

Most on council hope that if the council table looks the same after October, the pace of motions won't be. 

"If the majority of this council come back in the next council, I do hope we can sit down and figure out how we work together in a more collaborative and more efficient way," said Boyle.

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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