01 February 2013

City must quit making enemies of volunteers

The rhetoric is heating up. Tempers are flaring. There seems to be a showdown shaping up. How did things go so terribly wrong? The battle over control of programming at Vancouver community centres has begun in earnest.

For most community-centre associations, CCAs, the last joint-operating agreements were negotiated 30 years ago. Ever since, the parks board and the centres have been talking about improvements and changes, and ever since there has been mistrust.

When I became a parks board commissioner in 2008, staff told us that this would have to be dealt with during that term. I'm not sure if it was because most commissioners did not understand the issue or because they were afraid of upsetting the community, but not a lot was accomplished. I understood that the status quo was not tenable. I felt that if local associations were not willing to change, that more central management might be necessary.

Since then I have learned a lot. I have learned more about how the CCAs operate. I have learned what they do and why they do it. I have also learned I was not always told all the information I needed to make a good decision. Too many meetings were held behind closed doors and commissioners were told by management not to get involved when involvement was needed.

The CCAs' experience with the board's senior management has not been healthy. Entrenched positions have become the rule.

Enter city manager Penny Ballem, who insisted that all assets belonged to the city and if the CCAs would not voluntarily give them up, they would be dismissed and the assets would be taken. Hardly a good way to instil trust and goodwill.

I believe that community centres are collective assets and belong to everyone. I believe in universal access; that one membership should give you service in all centres. What I don't believe in is a one-size, one-price system. Some facilities have more services than others or offer different levels of service. Some offer services that others do not. Clearly the community knows best what should be offered.

I also believe in shared financial responsibility. Larger centres can rent more and therefore collect more. Destination centres can attract more people. Some centres will be able to make more money than others - but they will also have greater demands on their services and so higher costs.

I think an idea for sharing resources is to have CCAs pay for their use of the facilities and for the utilities they use. Smaller centres pay less, larger ones pay more. The funds from this pool could then offset disparities in programming across the city. Another idea would be to take a percentage of all revenues after expenses generated by CCAs to be put into a fund that would be shared equitably across the system for programming. This has been done successfully in school districts that have a diversity of income neighbourhoods. The key here is to be creative and stop making ultimatums.

The CCAs are loath to hand over revenue they generate as they don't trust the parks board's management. There is no guarantee any moneys taken by the board wouldn't be put into general revenues to cover shortfalls in other areas or used as an excuse for the city to cut further the parks board's budget.
A one-size fits all system will never work in Vancouver because not all community centres are funded the same way. Some receive financing directly from other levels of government. That funding would be put in jeopardy if all moneys were taken by the board.

A system where there were no CCAs would not be able to access provincial and federal grants. A system where local associations could not keep money from rentals and programming would result in fewer facilities and less services.

The CCAs now understand the need for universal access and have agreed to this. They also understand that not all neighbourhoods are the same and are willing to talk about this. Clearly, there has been movement on their side.

The board needs to take a step back and stop trying to make the CCAs into enemies instead of the partners they are. The CCAs have to look at finding ways of making the system work better and fairer. Both sides need to negotiate in good faith and in a clear and transparent manner.

These are not simple matters, but entrenched positions will not help. Let's think outside the box. Let's look at ways of making a system that has been successful for over 50 years even better. Let's work together for a better Vancouver.

Stuart Mackinnon was a Green Party parks board commissioner from 2008 to 2011. He blogs about parks and public-space issues at Betterparks.org.

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