Letter to Council: Electronic Council Meetings and Public Hearings during COVID-19 Emergency

This letter went out to Vancouver Mayor and Council on April 5, 2020, regarding Council discussions about possible significant changes to meetings and Public Hearings.

April 5, 2020

City of Vancouver Council
Dear Mayor Kennedy Stewart and Councillors,

Re: Electronic Council Meetings and Public Hearings during COVID-19 Emergency

The Coalition of Vancouver Neighbourhoods (CVN) would like to thank Council for not referring the rezoning reports to Public Hearings at the March 31, 2020 Special Council Meeting.

However, some other issues arising from that meeting are cause for our concern.

  • While we recognize the need for special powers for the City under a state of emergency, as recently provided under BC ministry order, we remain of the opinion that these should be used judiciously for emergency purposes to deal with COVID-19. Only the most urgent of business should be undertaken at this time under emergency order, not business as usual.
  • Public Hearings for rezonings do not meet the test for emergency powers and are not covered by current provisions under the BC Order M083. This deals with “Vancouver Council or body” meetings, not Public Hearings .
  • The City Manager advised Council at the meeting that staff are in discussions with the province to expand the provisions of the emergency order to include Public Hearings.
  • Council was advised that staff, without debate, would be establishing procedures for electronic Council meetings and Public Hearings, However, it is Council who has to approve the Procedure Bylaw, so it is Council who will have input into and approve any emergency procedures as well.
  • The public should also be consulted and have input into any proposed procedures for this emergency.
  • The City Manager also advised that Public Hearing referrals should continue. It was suggested that the ‘non-controversial’ rezonings would come forward to Public Hearing first and the  ‘controversial’ rezonings would come later. Exactly how and who would determine what is ‘controversial’ or not, or when the issue would come forward, was not stated. It is not appropriate to make referrals to Public Hearings at this time of crisis when the public cannot be effectively engaged.

Public hearings require full public involvement. There is no clear indication when the restrictions on public assembly will be lifted. If the restrictions remain for more than a couple of months, this can always be revisited.

This is especially important for rezonings of a controversial nature, such as the 28 storeys at the former Denny’s site, Birch and Broadway that is to be considered for referral to Public Hearing at the April 14 Council Meeting.  This should definitely not be going forward under emergency powers.

In addition to withholding non-emergency issues and Public Hearings during the COVID-19 crisis, the public notification process for development should not be disregarded.

On the City’s website there is notification that onsite signs for development will not be provided. We are alarmed that development is proceeding without proper onsite notification signs for the general public to be aware of what is proposed. The demise of the print version of the Vancouver Courier further undermines this situation.

We appreciate the challenges that arise with this crisis. However, emergency powers should be used judiciously for emergency purposes and not for the convenience of pushing through project development without proper process.

We implore Council to not delegate its powers to staff to implement emergency procedures for non-emergency business that would further weaken the democratic process.  The COVID-19 emergency powers should not be used to carry on business as usual without proper public process as required under the Vancouver Charter at a time when the public is struggling with a pandemic.

Larry Benge, Dorothy Barkley