10/04/2012 04:55 EDT | Updated 12/04/2012 05:12 EST

Vision Vancouver's Public Engagement Paradox


I've got an idea - let's add the expression "civic engagement" to Vancouver's newspeak dictionary. "Newspeak" is the term George Orwell first coined in his novel 1984. In Orwell's tale newspeak is used by a totalitarian regime to discourage independent thinking. Today, newspeak is employed by political strategists and marketers of all stripes. Expressions like "downsize" (fire) and "pre-owned" (used) are widely employed examples of modern newspeak.

We've heard the discussion about how Vancouverites suffer from a reported epidemic of loneliness and isolation. This notion (of which I am a firm skeptic) has triggered a policy initiative from Vancouver's ruling Vision party.

The Vancouver Foundation -- who coincidentally now manage a $1 million green fund on behalf of the city -- created the "lonely city" survey that just happens to dovetail with a Vision Vancouver campaign promise to help us love thy neighbours, and watch more council meetings.

So what does civic engagement, newly defined by Vision's master strategists, actually mean? Sadly for Vancouver, it already equals less access to city hall, reduced citizen involvement in shaping our city, and a top-down approach to decision-making.

Look no further than Wednesday's approval of a citywide policy to rezone single-family neighbourhoods -- important details of the plan were posted with only three days notice before the meeting.

So why is this happening if Vision promises the opposite?

My first supposition is that Vision Vancouver does not have public engagement in their DNA. The political organization is tightly controlled from the top by Mayor Gregor Robertson's main political adviser and chief of staff Mike Magee. After a promising start where Vision held a wide open candidate selection process in 2008, the party left the choice of their 2011 candidates to their backroom boys. In the age of the Internet, where political organizations all vie to be seen as the most open and progressive, Vision became more opaque.

But how the party conducts its internal matters pales in comparison to the ways Vision have stymied public input into government. Today, there is no longer any debate at city council. We only hear the statement of positions and little else. A five-minute time limit rule has been wielded like an axe by Vision to slam the door on questions from the opposition. There are memorable examples from the last council -- Coun. Suzanne Anton was routinely silenced during council meetings.


Another example of how Vision proposes to "improve" engagement is this week's proposal to reduce annual budget consultations to every third year. What government wouldn't love that? And even if you were an armchair auditor who wanted to raise questions about city spending -- such as travel costs by council -- good luck finding any data.

The detailed annual budget books have not been prepared since Vision took office in 2008. The public is expected to glean information from vague PowerPoint documents.

Even NPA Coun. George Affleck regularly remarks that he is not provided these financial figures in spite of repeated requests.

Back in the early 1970s, the TEAM government under newly elected Mayor Art Phillips altered council meeting schedules outside of business hours to improve access between the public and their elected reps. Since Vision took office the number of public meetings have been reduced, and the number of behind closed door in-camera meetings have skyrocketed.

Meetings are hardly convenient for most people to attend anyway; if a council decision is suitably controversial, prepare to dig in for several hours before speaking to council.

Want to do some research before you address city council? Well, a botched $3 million revamp of the city's website made it a whole lot tougher. Months after its official launch, council meeting schedules and reports are not even integrated into the new site. Want to search for a report? Count on the web link to it being broken thanks to this costly mess.


If you are bold enough to actually attend a meeting to challenge Vision's agenda, be sure to bring a thick skin. Many will remember the derisive "f&^king hacks" remark muttered by Mayor Gregor during the last council.

Vision Coun. Andrea Reimer possibly one-upped the mayor earlier this year when she looked up a speaker's LinkedIn profile during his dissertation to council, and suggested a job he once held coloured his views. It was appallingly rude, but the councillor thought the speaker's personal dossier was germane to council's discussion, and even mocked him for not updating his online profile.

Because of these reasons and others, you can hardly blame the public for tuning out of what happens in the council chamber. Vision Vancouver has a solution however, and it's to strike another action committee. Reimer tabled a motion to "[increase] literacy on, and engagement with, municipal government processes and budgeting". In other words, they've helped you tune out what council is doing, so they're going to try to woo you back.

A cynical political manoeuvre? In my view, yes, but I am impressed by the sheer brazenness of it. My guess is that George Orwell would be as well.

While it is possible that Vision Vancouver craves more public feedback, their conduct in the council chambers proves that they only listen to those who agree with them. That's the damnedest thing about democracy however, not everyone agrees with you.

Do we need more civic engagement? Probably not as much as we need a city council who actually listens to the public they serve.