Letter to City Council: Democracy and remote Public Hearings during COVID-19 emergency

The following letter went to Vancouver City Council on April 13, 2020, regarding fundamental topics of democracy in the context of plans to shift to electronic Public Hearings.

April 13, 2020
City of Vancouver Council

Dear Mayor Kennedy Stewart and Councillors,

Re: Remote Public Hearings during COVID-19 Emergency

The Coalition of Vancouver Neighbourhoods (CVN) acknowledges that Council requires emergency powers to deal with emergency issues in emergency situations. However, we strongly challenge whether most, if not all, issues requiring a public hearing are, in fact, emergency issues. And we have stated those concerns in an earlier letter (April 5/20).

What this letter addresses, for the record, are our deeper concerns around Democracy itself, and the notion of public hearings as a part of that system of governing. A simple definition of democracy: government in which supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them or their elected representatives.

City Halls and Council chambers were created so that government business could be conducted in plain sight, before the public, transparently. Not secretly, not in back rooms, out in the open. It gives citizens the opportunity to see their government in action. It builds public trust.

Public hearings are a way for the public to express their opinion on important issues that Council is deliberating. At the best of times, this process is educational to both parties, and is useful in making important decisions. It is an important element, but not the only one, in the process of public engagement. And there is a value in its face-to-face discussions.

When contemplating changes to this part of our governing process, even for emergency situations, care must be taken to retain that transparency, that trust. What is currently being proposed will seriously challenge both the transparency and the trust. Our understanding of the current options for citizen participation in public hearings being proposed by staff, and our concerns:

1. In-person procedure at City Hall

a. Speak in Council chambers to faceless Councillors in an empty room; receive audio questions from Councillors. Mayor and Council are remote for health and safety issues. You are, in effect, risking your life to participate in this democratic process.
b. Wait to speak in the room outside of Chambers, physical distancing, and limited numbers. Or downstairs, again, physical distancing, limited numbers.
c. If too many speakers, line up outside, 2 meters apart, masked up, around the building or down the block, as necessary. Remember, while Mayor, Council, staff, and all other presenters/participants, save the City Clerk in Chambers, are firmly and comfortably ensconced at their offices or in their Dining Rooms.

2. Online connection with Mayor and Council (and other presenters/participants?)

a. An exclusionary method, as it assumes all interested parties, who do not or cannot for various reasons, face the current challenges of not self-isolating during a pandemic, are either possessing of the needed technology, or are well versed in the use of said technology.
b. Speakers are required to sign away their privacy rights in order to participate(see 3b below).
c. Staff should be showing a speaker’s presentation slides online.
d. Text of proposed amendments should be clearly shown on Council Chambers screen and online.
e. Staff has indicated they have no interest in any methods of verifying the identity or location of speakers; leaves this option open to corruption by non-citizens and outside interest groups.
f. Incredible lack of detail available for exactly how this is going to work.

3. Speaking to Council over a telephone line

a. Talk about impersonal communications.
b. The speaker must give their consent to the collection, use, and disclosure of their personal information, to be stored on servers in the United States, and which may be accessed in the U.S. or internationally. Many will be reluctant to do so.
c. No details on how this works, as there will have to be a lineup, if more than one caller; how are you notified of your turn; sitting on hold for hours (?);
d. Again, no visual connection to whom you are talking.
e. Staff has indicated they have no interest in any methods of verifying the identity or location of speakers; leaves this option open to corruption by non-citizens and outside interest groups.

General comments on these options:

  • They are all seriously problematic, as indicated above.
  • They all provide impediments to a best option for communicating between citizens and their elected representatives: the ‘normal’ public hearing, held during ‘normal’ times with no health or safety issues.
  • The technological ‘solutions’ are open to corruption, mechanical failures, and verification issues.
  • Council should request staff to respond to these concerns (and any additional Council may have) and address possible mitigating actions.
  • Does staff have any examples of precedents for their, or any other, proposals? How were they evaluated? How will staff address privacy concerns involved in this process?
  • How will staff/Council measure the success or failure of what is being proposed?
  • All these solutions fail to build community, are individual-based and anti-group.
  • Do they improve the democratic process in their proposed form?

We are not against examining advances in the way public hearings may be conducted. But we want to stress the importance of careful consideration and discussion around the ways and means of accomplishing those advancements. This process ought to include fulsome public participation up front, as well as Council debate. During an emergency pandemic is not the appropriate time to be experimenting with major changes to public processes required under the Vancouver Charter.

City staff’s current approach, of presenting a process without allowing for discussion or debate, engenders distrust, at a time when the City needs the full confidence of its residents in its management of the true emergency issues it is confronting.

We think that in a democracy that’s the least we can expect from our elected representatives.


Larry Benge, Dorothy Barkley

On behalf of the Coalition of Vancouver Neighbourhoods

Member Groups of the Coalition of Vancouver Neighbourhoods

Arbutus Ridge Community Association
Arbutus Ridge/ Kerrisdale/ Shaughnessy Visions
Cedar Cottage Area Neighbours
Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council
Dunbar Residents Association
Fairview/South Granville Action Committee
False Creek Residents Association
Grandview Woodland Area Council
Granville-Burrard Residents & Business Assoc.
Greater Yaletown Community Association
Joyce Area Residents
Kitsilano-Arbutus Residents Association
Kits Point Residents Association
Marpole Residents Coalition
Norquay Residents
NW Point Grey Home Owners Association
Oakridge Langara Area Residents
Residents Association Mount Pleasant
Riley Park/South Cambie Visions
Shaughnessy Heights Property Owners Association
Strathcona Residents Association
Upper Kitsilano Residents Association
West End Neighbours Society
West Kitsilano Residents Association
West Point Grey Residents Association