Vancouver city manager Paul Mochrie spoke to media Thursday for the first time since Mayor Ken Sim announced in December 2023 that he wanted to abolish the seven-member elected park board.
Mochrie attended a news conference at city hall with Sim and members of the “transition working group” where he outlined what city staff is doing to address the conditions required for the requested governance change to bring parks and recreation under the control of city council.
The work, he said, includes meeting with provincial government officials regarding the specific changes to the Vancouver Charter. Minister of Municipal Affairs Anne Kang made it clear in a December statement to media that the city has to fulfil certain obligations.
Those obligations involve questions over land ownership, the future of workers at the park board and consultation with the Musqueam Indian Band, Squamish First Nation and Tsleil-Waututh Nation.
The following is a condensed and edited version of some of Mochrie's opening remarks and later responses to reporters.
On the transition:
“We believe that the actual governance transition itself is relatively straightforward.
We're certainly mindful of the comments from Minister Kang in December regarding the council motion. The minister referenced three specific issues of interest. One was engagement with the three nations, which Mayor Sim referenced is underway.
The minister also referenced ownership of land. In that regard, the dissolution of the park board would have no impact. The park board doesn't actually own assets. The assets that are managed currently by park board are owned by the City of Vancouver. Those are parks and facilities."
On the future of workers at the park board:
“That’s a relatively straightforward answer. The park board does not actually employ staff. All of the employees who deliver our parks and recreation services here in the City of Vancouver are actually employed by the city. They're subject to collective agreements or employment contracts that are negotiated by or with the city. We’re certainly in contact with the leadership of the two CUPE locals that represent staff and park board. And there's a shared understanding that our existing collective agreements would not be impacted by a change in governance.”
On whether people will lose their jobs:
“One of the implications of this is clear — the work is not going away. The work that we do in delivering parks and recreation services is essential. It's critical to the public. So there's no shortage of work. We have a lot of vacancies in our organization. I'm confident that we're going to be able to work through any changes in a way that provides opportunities for our existing staff. And, in fact, in many cases may open up new opportunities for that team. That's our expectation.”
On disruption for staff:
“Once the Charter amendment that's been requested by council is enacted by the province and we are in a position to proceed with operational integration of the city and park board organizations, we don't actually expect significant disruption for staff. Where there are changes or impacts to specific roles or teams within either the city or the park board organization, we will be able to manage those through attrition and vacancies.”
On the implications of a Charter change on future use of parks:
“If and when council assumes governance of parks, I know there continues to be significant confusion over this particular point [of the future of parks and their use]. The Charter currently defines three different categories of land that are used for park and recreation purposes in Vancouver. The first is permanent parks. These are parks that are designated by council as permanent. And in this case, there's roughly 100 of those. Any change in that permanent park designation to a different use currently requires a two-thirds majority vote by council and a two-thirds majority vote by park board.”
On the other categories in the Charter that include temporary parks:
“Any change in use of a temporary park is only subject to a decision by council based on a two-thirds majority. Park board does not have any authority with respect to temporary park designations. So in that case, the dissolution of the park board would not change the status quo. There's also a significant number of properties that the public uses as parks but had not actually been designated technically as parks. They are assigned by council to park board for care, custody and management. Except as specifically granted by council, park board has no authority over those properties and no jurisdiction to determine the future use.”
On how a referendum could be tied to abolition of the elected board:
“Removal of the park board from the Vancouver Charter would have an impact in relation to the future use of permanent public parks. And in that respect, that issue was addressed by council in the motion adopted in December. The Charter changes that have been requested of the province would impose a more rigorous threshold for any change in future use, specifically a unanimous vote of council and a public referendum, rather than the two-thirds majority test that exists today. So it is not accurate that the changes requested by council would represent a weakening of those protections.”
On the portfolio of properties that are not designated as permanent parks:
“Council has directed staff to examine the portfolio of properties that are not designated as permanent parks, and report back on opportunities to designate additional permanent parks once the changes are enacted to the Vancouver Charter.”
On consolidating park board and city operations:
“I'm not in a position to provide specifics regarding those integration services or potential benefits. There are many opportunities to consolidate functions, capitalize on efficiencies, leverage specialist expertise, both in the park board organization and on the city side. But it's really important that the implementation of those changes will require close collaboration between city staff and park board staff to determine sequencing, quantify benefits and develop the detailed implementation plans to make sure these changes are implemented properly.”
On whether the provincial government will deal with the requested amendments to the Vancouver Charter this year:
“We're working to provide them with the information they need to make that change as quickly as possible. But the legislative calendar will be determined by them. We are anticipating that this could be done in the spring session. But again, that's a question for the province.” [Editor’s note: Premier David Eby told reporters Thursday that the Charter change wasn’t his government’s top priority. Eby didn’t answer whether it would be dealt with in the spring session of the legislature.]
Sim's office has since responded to Glacier Media, with this emailed statement Friday:
“We appreciate Premier David Eby's acknowledgement of the collaborative effort between the provincial government and the City of Vancouver regarding the park board transition. The provincial government has been a great partner, and we value the continued working relationship.
We understand the importance of having the necessary deliverables in place for this transition to be on the legislative agenda. We remain optimistic about the progress we've made and look forward to further discussions with Premier Eby and his team as we move forward with this important initiative.”
Glacier Media also received an emailed statement Friday from the city's communications department to explain why Steve Jackson, the park board's general manager, was mentioned by the mayor as working with the transition team; the park board voted 4-3 in December to direct staff not to participate in the transition.
"The extent of [Jackson's] involvement with the working group will be determined in the context of direction provided by park board," the city said. "At minimum, we anticipate that there may be some routine information requests as well as updates back to Steve and the park board team regarding the process."