15 February 2013

Old Vision Vancouver hands raging over park board mess

Just so you know: a battle has been raging for the past couple of weeks in the back rooms of Vancouver’s governing party. A number of old Vision Vancouver hands are livid over the damage being caused to the party’s reputation particularly among its own supporters by the park board’s assault on community centres and the blow back in the community.

There is no clear winner yet on that one although there has been movement.

This week, Vision board member Maria Dobrinskaya, appearing in her regular city hall panel slot on CBC Radio’s The Early Edition, conceded that the shenanigans of the past few months have been destructive to whatever good will existed between community centre volunteer boards and the Vision-dominated park board.

This week, too, a senior Vision insider at city hall made this observation: the attempt by the park board to control revenues raised by those volunteer boards and manage programs at their centres was never part of Vision’s election platform. This was: Over the next three years, the Vision Vancouver park board will “focus on making programs affordable for everyone by introducing a pilot program of specific free-of-charge family days at recreation facilities and ensuring that the universal Flexipass and Leisure Access Cards are honoured at all Park Board facilities.”

Most, if not all, of the community centre boards are already willing to negotiate these conditions; it wasn’t necessary to threaten to wipe them off the face of the earth. But that’s what happened when Vision threw the first punch. Here is how Trout Lake Community Centre board president Kate Perkins saw it unfold. She is one of the most onside with the park board’s desire to renegotiate the 40-year-old joint operating agreement (JOA).
But first a bit of background. Rewriting the JOA has been on the agenda of the past few park boards. Vision operatives have been dealing with the matter for the past five years, increasingly annoyed at the surpluses building up in the coffers of some community centres while others went wanting
But the matter never got tackled. Until now.

Which brings us to this process and the first punch. Park board general manager Malcolm Bromley arranged to meet with the presidents of the community centres last February to see, as Perkins says, “if we could land on something” that would work.

But that cordial atmosphere abruptly ended when Bromley disappeared only to return with an ultimatum. “This is the deal” Perkins recalls him saying, and adding, “We hope you’ll be part of it. If not, we’ll find someone else” and replace your board. It was non-negotiable.

The “deal” meant the community centre boards would lose control over programming and revenues.
You can imagine how that went down. But the park board seemed unmoved by the building anger. And as Perkins says, when you “start getting (the more moderate) Dunbar, False Creek and Trout Lake boards angry, you’ve done something terribly wrong.”

In January, community centre boards asked for a facilitator. Bromley responded with a demand the negotiations be settled in three weeks. Perkins and the rest rejected that as unreasonable.

Then followed the ridiculous nine-hour park board meeting at the West End Community Centre that ran until 3:30 in the morning. It only served to inflame the public against the park board even more. In spite of that, the position of Bromley and the rest continued to shift as more community centres agreed to come to the table with the offer of a mediator or facilitator to help move things along.

Where we are at right now is a bit of a pause for most community boards while a mediator or facilitator is being sought and approved. The issue of controlling revenues and programming is still the most contentious. Meanwhile, the most determined community boards are boycotting the process and using some of their surplus funds to launch a campaign and build public support against the park board.

As for Vision Vancouver, the internal dispute continues. Even the most adamant Vision soldier will say they are doing the right thing, knowing full well the process has been deplorable and the whole exercise is costing them politically.


14 February 2013

‘Have-not’ community has idea to solve Vancouver park board saga

Sure, it’s down at the bottom on Vancouver park board’s “have-not” list, and yes, it’s all for a little more equality between community centres.

But the Marpole-Oakridge Community Centre, the centre in Vancouver’s poorest neighbourhood according to a city ranking, still isn’t a big fan of the park board’s proposal to collect all the revenue and redistribute it to level the playing field.

Instead, Marpole’s community association president Danny Yu is looking for a way forward with an idea for an alternative financial model – a middle ground that’s been largely absent from the saga between the board and the city’s 23 centres as they negotiate a new operating agreement.

Yu suggests a taxing model where the board and associations come up with a formula where a percentage of revenue would go to the board based on size, programs or usage.

The current model, where the associations don’t give up any revenue to the park board despite getting the buildings rent free, isn’t working perfectly, Yu said.

“If you have a store in a shopping mall, you pay rent,” he offered as a comparison to his proposal. “That leaves a little bit for volunteers to continue to provide good programming, and the park board gets their money.”

A similar idea was rejected about two years ago at an Association Presidents Group (APG) meeting, he said, but it will likely be more palatable since the board’s proposal to control all the revenue. Former park board commissioner Stuart Mackinnon proposed a similar idea in a recent blog post.

Both APG chair Kate Perkins of Trout Lake and park board commissioner Niki Sharma did not want to discuss potential funding models as the matter will be negotiated at the bargaining table.

“All ideas will be welcomed at the table. We will take a look to see what works to meet the goals of better equity and access,” Sharma said in an email.

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09 February 2013

What is the ultimate purpose of life?

"What is the ultimate purpose of life? It is to give. Start giving. See the joy of giving."
Narayanan Krishnan

08 February 2013

Is it time to phase out Vision's Penny?

There is at least one penny a growing number of people in Vancouver would be happy to see taken out of circulation. That would be Penny Ballem, Vancouver's city manager.

Vancouver Vision operatives insist it's nothing but NPA political blarney to believe that the whole mismanaged assault by the Vancouver park board on the city's community centre volunteer boards of directors is being driven by Ballem.

Her Vision Vancouver political masters may eventually pay the price for this appalling behaviour. But community centre board members from across the city note it was Ballem who kept turning up like the proverbial bad penny when she joined her direct report, park board general manager Malcolm Bromley, in a series of meetings a few months back. Community centre presidents and their boards were told the park board would, in a new Joint Operating Agreement, be taking control of all community centre revenues. And that was "non-negotiable."

More recently, on Tuesday evening while Green Party Coun. Adriane Carr was sitting in a public hearing at city hall regarding a contentious West End development, her cell phone rang. It was Ballem. Carr would get back to her at the next beak.

It turns out that on Monday, Carr, following city council procedure, filed a notice of motion to ask staff essentially this: given the park board's intention to take over the revenues of community centres which would most likely dampen future fundraising efforts by community center volunteer boards, what was the city's estimation of the funding shortfall this would create for the park board? And, given that the park board is a department of the city from whence it receives its budget, what contingency plan does the city have to make up for that funding shortfall?

A reasonable request based on a reasonable assumption, no?

But it's also reasonable to assume we will never find out. Because according to Carr what Ballem phoned to say was this: Carr's notice of motion would never see the light of day. Carr says she was told that her motion asking for information could jeopardize the "negotiations" now going on between the park board and the community centres.

When I emailed Ballem and asked about her extraordinary move to muzzle an elected representative, her communications machinery spit out an elaborate "no comment."

Incidentally, the public hearing Carr was sitting through Tuesday night under city hall rules ended at 11 p.m.. It would continue at a later date to hear the rest of the 50 or so speakers. (The rule says hearings must end at 10 p.m. but can, with a unanimous vote of council, be extended by one hour.)
Nothing so civilized was contemplated across town the night before. That's when 74 people lined up to speak in a packed room at the West End Community Centre. This was at an "emergency meeting" called for by what is an increasingly inept and disrespectful park board to hear from the public on the board's plan to have their way with community centre funds. For decades, these funds had been left in the hands of volunteer boards to be used for everything from renovations to the creation of new facilities. That was ending.

The approximately 30 pages of material for the meeting was not available until 11 that morning, which meant that most board members who work for a living didn't see it until an hour or so before the meeting started.

As you may already know, the meeting started at 6:30 p.m. and clattered on for nine hours, which made it 3:30 in the morning with members of the dwindling audience repeatedly asking for an adjournment only to be rebuffed.

It finally reached a sorry state of frustration because of the lateness of the hour and the vast majority of the speakers opposing what the park board was up to, frequently pointing out significant errors in the material being presented. I was long gone by the time the Vision majority blithely passed the motions to support what they had intended to do all along and cops had to be called in to restrain those who were left.

This passes for what Vision Vancouver calls citizen engagement.


02 February 2013

Vision pokes hornet's nest at community centres

 It is hard to imagine just how much political trouble Vision Vancouver is in right now. The pushback over its attempt to put its hands into the pockets of the city's community centres makes past protests over spot zoning or the imposition of homeless shelters relatively insignificant annoyances.
Let me explain why by first telling you a story. In 1934, 22 neighbours around East Hastings near the PNE each put 50 cents in the pot to come up with $11 dollars. That was the amount they needed to register a society for the purpose of protecting their park from the encroaching exhibition.
The neighbours then went to the park board of the day and asked for money to help develop public tennis courts and a lawn bowling facility.

The park board said: We don't have any money but you go right ahead and raise the funds on your own. Which they did. That small group of volunteers would grow to become the Hastings Community Association, which was frequently required to be self-reliant in meeting neighbourhood needs.

That story is not unlike any number of inspirational stories generations of volunteers, who have served on the boards of Vancouver's community centres, have woven into their cultural history.
To my knowledge, none of the Vision Vancouver park commissioners - who form a majority on the board and are central to the attack community centres now feel they are under - has ever served on a community centre board.

What is worse, they fail to grasp just how disrespectful, how insensitive, how politically threatening their actions are. They most certainly must be unaware of the damage they are causing themselves as they spill the political capital that Vision has accumulated while in power.

What is most appalling is the strategy being employed to roll out Vision's new policy. We are told it will bring "equity" to all centres, rich or poor, East Side or West Side, and the people who chose to access the facilities. None of the centres, by the way, has a problem with that. It is about who controls the money that has community centre boards more than twitchy.

When was the last time you saw a government introduce a new policy where an elected official hasn't been front and centre to either cut the ribbon or take the heat?

Yet what do we see here? On Tuesday night at the Kerrisdale Community Centre meeting, while a couple of Vision Park commissioners pasted themselves against the wall and refused to speak (except to the media) and city communications bureaucrats scurried about, it was park board manager Malcolm Bromley who took to the stage to be booed by the packed room and two other spaces that were quickly set up to handle the overflow crowd of about 400.

In fact, for virtually all of the past briefing meetings with community centre boards, park commissioners have been told not to attend. It has been Bromley and, usually, city manager Penny Ballem. When the NPA's Melissa De Genova tuned up at one briefing the board invited her to, Bromley turned on his heel and walked out.

This is one reason why Hastings Community Association president Eric Harms is just one of many who say this whole attempt to get control of the community centre funds is a conspiracy being driven by the city manager: "When Malcolm Bromley speaks you can see Penny Ballem's lips moving."

Of course it would be naïve to think Ballem would do anything of this magnitude without support from the mayor's office. But the tone at the top around that joint always has our mayor heavily insulated against criticism.

With six full-time city staff apparently attached to this strategy, is it any wonder that a few of the community centres have decided, for better or worse, on funding a public relations campaign of their own?

This is particularly understandable when the park board's idea of communications has included installing locked glass bulletin boards in community centres where they alone control the content of the messages and they hold the keys. How smart is that? How smart is any of this?


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.