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Vancouver council spent 153 days, 474.3 hours in meetings this year

‘Council gets a lot of criticism for long meetings. Is that warranted? Yes’
Councillors Michael Wiebe, Sarah Kirby-Yung and their nine other colleagues spent 153 days and 474.3 hours in meetings this year.
The good news for a weary Vancouver city council as they close out their last full calendar year before next fall’s election is they didn’t spend as much time in meetings in 2021 than in the record-breaking year of 2020.

The 474.3 hours logged this year was fewer than the 549.5 in 2020 and the 498.5 in 2019, according to data provided to Vancouver Is Awesome from the city’s communications department.

The bad news for the 11 politicians is they spent 153 days in meetings this year, which was four more than 2020 and 34 more than in 2019.

The days and hours logged in 2018 totalled 94 and 380.75 respectively, but most of that was accumulated by the former Vision Vancouver council, which left office after the current group was inaugurated in November 2018.

However, the Vision council didn’t have to contend with a pandemic, which caused millions of dollars in lost revenue to the city, temporary layoffs and the need for Mayor Kennedy Stewart to declare a state of emergency.

Hours logged by the current council relate to all public and in-camera meetings, which include hearings and committee and special meetings related to COVID-19. Since the pandemic was declared in March 2020, council has also allowed citizens to phone in to a meeting rather than attend city hall.

The hours logged this year suggests the mayor and councillors are getting more efficient with their time. But when compared to the 101 days and 334.5 hours recorded by the Vision council in their last full year in office in 2017, they are still spending considerable time conducting council business.

The hours don't include time Stewart and councillors spent at regional (Metro Vancouver, TransLink), provincial (Union of B.C. Municipalities) or federal meetings (Federation of Canadian Municipalities).

Stewart and councillors are paid an annual salary, but also earn more money when attending, for example, a Metro Vancouver meeting as a director.

According to the city's website, the mayor's salary this year was $174,258. Councillors' base salary was $86,266, with additional income of $1,162 per month when in the acting mayor role or $3,195 per month when serving as deputy mayor or deputy councillor. All 11 politicians also get a $3,048 annual supplement, transportation allowance and expense budgets.

To understand the reasons for such long hours, Vancouver Is Awesome sent emails Dec. 14 to all 10 councillors for feedback; only councillors Rebecca Bligh, Melissa De Genova and Sarah Kirby-Yung did not respond before this story was posted.

Stewart gave his take in a telephone interview.

Here are their responses:

COPE Coun. Jean Swanson: “The long meetings are caused by not having a limit on speakers which is probably good for democracy and does provide insights into how residents are thinking. And some councillors who talk a lot (not me of course).”

Green Party Coun. Pete Fry: “I believe the circumstances we find ourselves in with virtual meetings and agendas that are weaponized and bifurcated on social media even before we get to debate them is the source of our long meetings. While some councillors may use a disproportionate amount of time speaking or deliberating procedural points of order – others turn council motions and staff reports into calls to action, recruiting legions of speakers that add hours even days to our work. Otherwise, the breadth of member motions, the extent of debate and amendments, the struggle for consensus and thoughtful approach to the business of council are to my mind a sign of good government.”

OneCity Coun. Christine Boyle: “Sometimes our meetings are long because of the amount of time this council spends hearing from the public — and that is an important part of our jobs. But sometimes our meetings are long because of councillors misusing time through unnecessary and performative questions of speakers and staff, grandstanding, calling repeated points of order, and more. This behaviour erodes public trust and wastes valuable staff time and public resources, and the public is right to criticize it. Councillors should be expected to behave better.”

Coun. Lisa Dominato (independent): “As a busy mom of two school-aged daughters, I agree the meetings are long. That said, democracy is messy. The most important thing to me is that council delivers on the priorities identified by residents and businesses. This means having a clear plan of action, prioritizing limited resources and focusing on outcomes.”

TEAM Coun. Colleen Hardwick: “Democracy is messy. So, if that means that council puts in long hours to hear from the public, so be it.  The criticism is only warranted if we don't value our democracy. That said, if the city spent more time collaborating with citizens instead of imposing its agenda on them, public hearings wouldn’t be drawing 100 speakers or more.”

Green Party Coun. Michael Wiebe: “Council gets a lot of criticism for long meetings. Is that warranted? Yes. We play an important role in the length of meetings, yet it’s not always a bad thing. We continue to push the envelope on green buildings and new forms of affordable housing. We also discussed significant new policies to build back better and in turn got to listen to the broader spectrum of the public on how to do it. Technology also played a key role.”

Green Party Coun. Adriane Carr: “Criticism of council’s long meetings is warranted when meetings bog down with countless  points of order, points of procedure, calls to review the tape, challenges to the chair and last-minute poorly-written amendments that haven’t been checked by staff. However, long meetings that result because of our response to COVID with virtual and hybrid meetings, creating some technical problems and longer speakers’ lists, should not be criticized. Enabling people to call in rather than sit for hours and days at city hall is far better for democracy.”

When told of the 474.3 hours logged this year, the mayor described it as “a staggering amount of time.”

“Now in that though, we've had a lot more public input, a lot more people phoning in with our new system — so that's valuable, and I wouldn't change that,” Stewart said.

“But I think the number of private members’ motions have been pretty excessive, and have burned up a lot of that time. I think at our upcoming Jan. 25 meeting, there's going to be something like 12 private members’ motions, you know, and it's just like, really?”

The civic election is in October 2022, but council’s last public meeting will be held in July.

The Broadway Plan and Vancouver Plan will go before council before next summer, with both documents likely to inspire dozens, if not hundreds of citizens to provide input at city hall or over the phone.

Which means...more long hours.