Democracy can be messy.
I’ve been told that a few times from various members of this current city council when asked to respond to criticism that they take too long to reach a decision, or spend too many hours on a topic that is driven by idealism rather than pragmatism.
But how to explain what happened Thursday in the council chamber?
Was that really democracy in action?
I’m referring to the Broadway Plan debate.
A couple of councillors I spoke to prior to the meeting’s start time at 3 p.m. were fairly confident council — after an hour dinner break at 5 p.m. — would get through all 40-plus amendments to the plan by 10 p.m.
That, unfortunately, didn't happen.
In a word — not mine — chaos.
'Just a little bit alarmed'
Coun. Melissa De Genova was accused at being at the centre of it after she introduced a series of amendments related to affordable home ownership, eliminating the two-tower per block rule and including a development site for a Safeway on West Fourth Avenue that is outside the boundaries of the plan.
De Genova also requested a section of Main Street be zoned to allow buildings up to 14 storeys for businesses such as the Goh Ballet Academy, whose owners want to develop their property instead of being forced to close or relocate.
Providing more green space was another request.
But it was De Genova’s push for the inclusion of the Safeway site in the plan that riled Mayor Kennedy Stewart.
“I'm just a little bit alarmed,” the mayor said. “We have a 500-block plan in front of us that has gone through years of consulting, with dozens and dozens of people that came out to many nights of public hearing, and I find it alarming that we just tack something this big onto the end of it.”
Added Stewart: “There is a process that the director of planning has said that these owners of this site have known about for a long time. So let's try to focus on the plan that we've got in front of us, which is enormous.”
'Nobody needs a lecture'
Then Coun. Rebecca Bligh spoke.
“I'm just going to basically reiterate what the mayor has shared, and I'm also feeling quite alarmed that we have been at this for four hours and we're on one councillor’s amendments,” Bligh said.
“It's not personal to councillor De Genova by any stretch, but I think we just have to recognize that we're at risk of not even finishing this item tonight, if we continue this way. So nobody needs a lecture but the growing anxiety in me is that this is going to go on and on.”
Added Bligh: “So I would just like to call attention to council on the fact that we're at seven o'clock and we've got 40 amendments to go through.”
'How chaotic we are'
Four minutes later, it was Coun. Christine Boyle’s turn.
“I'm just going to reiterate what councillor Bligh said: we're hours in [to this meeting] and there are many amendments to come,” Boyle said.
“They've been circulated weeks in advance and staff have done an incredible amount of time. The public is watching and I am deeply concerned with how chaotic we are. So I hope we can focus to get this done today. I'm having a really hard time with the chaos that's been involved in some pretty major decisions here on the fly.”
Coun. Adriane Carr, who was chairing the meeting, responded to Boyle’s comments, saying “I’m doing my best to keep chaos under control.”
Boyle: “Sorry, that was not a comment on you. I appreciate the chairing.”
Carr: “Thank you, councillor Boyle. Councillor De Genova?”
De Genova: “Are we speaking about the amendment, or chaos?”
Carr: “We are not speaking about a previous comment by a councillor, we're speaking about your amendment on the floor.”
De Genova: “Am I only allowed to speak to my amendment, or I’m I also allowed to speak to chaos?”
On it went until Coun. Sarah Kirby-Yung urged those involved to “dispense with the sidebar commentary,” which led to De Genova doing her best to explain the reason for her amendments.
“I am making decisions based on public feedback, based on consultation, based on our staff’s expert opinions,” she said, before spending some of the rest of the meeting accusing other councillors of introducing amendments that were either frivolous or already being taken on by staff.
None of the other councillors' amendments were ruled out of order.
My purpose in spending six hours tuned in to the council debate was to report whether the plan was going to get the green light, or be sent back to staff, as Coun. Colleen Hardwick recommended via a news release she circulated prior to the meeting.
Instead, I can report the meeting will reconvene June 22 because De Genova and Hardwick didn't want to continue debate past 10 p.m.
I can also report that city staff are remarkably patient.
Some of the amendments passed so far include:
• Renter protections, including tenants displaced being able to return to a new rental unit at a 20 per cent discount to citywide average market rents or at the tenant’s current rent, whichever is less.
• Adding a protected bike lane along Broadway.
• Allowing more towers on a block than originally designated in the plan.
• Consider using timber and building to “passive house” standards in new construction.
• Consult with Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh nations and incorporate values, history and art in the public realm.
• Work with the school board and the provincial government to prioritize new schools and expansion of schools in anticipation of increased population in the corridor.
• Conduct an operational review of Vancouver Fire Rescue Services to understand future staff required and new firehalls built to accommodate population growth.
One other thing to report is that while democracy can be messy, it gets even messier in an election year.