04 October 2017

How a Green Dealt With Holding the Balance of Power

A look at the voting record of former Vancouver Green Party trustee Janet Fraser and how critics and observers interpreted those votes.

By Katie Hyslop Today | TheTyee.ca 04/10/17
 Katie Hyslop is The Tyee’s education and youth reporter. Find her previous stories here.

Smaller political parties are frequently maligned in Canadian politics for “splitting the vote” and working against the interests of the mainstream parties.
The federal NDP and the BC Green Party are often criticized for taking voters away from more broadly established parties seen as more likely to form a government.

But while many fret over the trustworthiness of the BC Green Party and the long-term sustainability of the Green-NDP governing alliance in B.C., a much more politically fraught drama involving a Green holding the balance of power has already played out on the Vancouver School Board.

From 2014 to 2016, political newcomer and sole Green Party trustee Janet Fraser held the deciding vote between two politically powerful and often bitterly opposed parties on the Vancouver School Board, where the Non-Partisan Association and Vision Vancouver had four trustees each.

Much hay has been made over Fraser’s voting record, in particular her support of two NPA school board chairs after Vision Vancouver trustee Patti Bacchus’ eight-year reign as chair. Fraser voted to shut down public school closure consultations before they had begun, and she was the deciding vote in two school district budgets, one of which cut programs, jobs and student supports, while the other broke the law by refusing to balance the district budget.
Both parties on the board cast Fraser as rooting for the other side when her vote opposed — and often defeated — their own.
“Being relatively inexperienced and an intellectually strong person, I think she was trying to be fair and not be partisan towards one party or another, I’ve got to give her that,” said Fraser Ballantyne, a former NPA trustee who sat on the board with Fraser and is also running for school board again in the upcoming byelection.

“But her political alignment seemed to be with Vision. And I would almost call it a Vision-Green alliance in some respects.”

Even Fraser’s former fellow Green Party candidate spoke out against her, while a Green Party member painted her as an example of how the party is “not necessarily progressive.”

But no one has calculated her voting record, and with Fraser again running for the school board in the upcoming Oct. 14 byelection, we thought it worth exploring how and why she voted as she did during her brief two-year term before the whole board was fired by the Ministry of Education in October 2016.

Looking at the record

For the purposes of calculating Fraser’s votes in nearly 50 board meetings, we separated them into four categories: votes that aligned with NPA; votes that aligned with Vision; unanimous and/or votes where representatives of all three parties voted together; and unclear, when a vote happened but who voted and how wasn’t disclosed.

Votes on meeting and agenda structure, as well as accepting previous meetings’ minutes, were always unanimous and therefore not counted.

In total, Fraser voted with Vision Vancouver trustees 39 times. Her votes aligned with the NPA 26 times.

The most surprising result was the 181 votes that were either unanimous or involved all three parties voting the same way. Only six votes were unclear, though it’s worth mentioning the ballots for chair votes are secret and other than Fraser, who publicly disclosed how she voted, we can only assume trustees voted along party lines.

Sometimes these votes made a huge difference, the chair and budget votes in particular. Fraser supported a budget in 2015 that closed two adult education centres and ended the adult education program for youth at the South Hill Education Centre. The following year she refused to pass a budget that would have cut $24 million from the district, a move widely believed to be the reason the board was fired six months later.

Others were seemingly less significant. Over the course of three meetings in the spring of 2015, Fraser’s votes aligned with the NPA trustees five times to alter or send to the board’s planning and facilities committee a Vision-proposed, non-binding statement for the board to send to the province in support of government meeting their own 2020 deadline for seismically upgrading all B.C. schools.

But in the sixth vote, after the statement had returned from committee, Fraser voted the same as Vision trustees in favour of a statement very similar to the original version.

“The point of going to committee is that all stakeholders can have their input on the question before the board,” Fraser said in an interview with The Tyee, referring to the district’s employee association representatives who attend the planning and facilities committee meetings.

“I think in this instance I felt it would be helpful to have the stakeholder’s input. I think I was pretty sure what it would be, but even so have that opportunity for them to speak before it came back to the board for the final vote.”

Vision trustee Bacchus had a different take on Fraser’s motives: “In some cases there was a perception of someone bring[ing] forward a motion, a motion to refer [to committee] can be a way to get it off of the table,” Bacchus said.

Accusations of flip-flopping

Despite the very public rancour between the parties both during and after their time on the board, none of the former trustees The Tyee spoke to was surprised by the voting tally.

“There were certainly a lot of issues that were easier to deal with than some,” said Ballantyne of the majority unanimous or multi-party consensus votes. “We all had the intent that we tried to do the best we can for kids, and I think that’s where our decisions landed.”

Both the former Vision and NPA trustees expressed some frustration over Fraser’s unpredictability.
“I just don’t trust her now, personally,” said Ballantyne, adding an acknowledgement of the pressure she faced as the deciding voter. “She flips and flops and thinks in the moment, and I’m not sure if she’s thinking with her brain or if she’s thinking with her heart.”

“She kept her cards very close to her chest,” said Bacchus, alleging Fraser’s unpredictability added to district staff’s stress and was a factor in subsequent bullying allegations from staff against the board.
“It was very difficult. She didn’t seem interested in sitting down [prior to meetings] and saying here's how we’re going to get this passed. We wouldn’t really know until we were at the vote, which way she was going.”

For her part Fraser rejects the idea that she voted “with” any particular party, or on a left-right political continuum. Nor did she campaign on a promise to align with any other party. Instead she says every decision made was done with the six guiding values of the Green Party in mind: social justice, ecological wisdom, sustainability, non-violence, participatory democracy and respect for diversity.

“I was elected as myself, and I voted as I believed best,” she said. Fraser kept a blog during her time as trustee to help explain the reasoning behind each vote she cast, which can still be read here.
How partisan former board trustees feel about the votes of a fellow former trustee from another party is one thing. How did parents feel about Fraser’s voting record?

Farah Shroff, an associate professor at UBC’s medical school, was also vice-chair and acting chair of Vancouver’s District Parent Advisory Council when Fraser was a trustee. Shroff had briefly met Fraser as a fellow elected DPAC representative before Fraser left to run as a trustee, and they later worked together when Fraser became the board liaison at DPAC meetings.

While acknowledging that Fraser “upset a lot of people” by using her position to decide who become chair of the board, Shroff said Fraser struck her as “very hardworking, and she always knew the issues and did her homework.”

“I felt like Janet was always on the ball for what her background to the issues were, and whatever way she chose to vote was based on some information that she had gathered,” said Shroff, adding Fraser rarely missed a DPAC or board meeting.

“It wasn’t flippant, it wasn’t just some ideological thing. Which, unfortunately, I would have to say some of her [board] colleagues voted that way, with knee-jerk, political responses.”

Now back on the campaign trail, Fraser says she learned a lot in her two years as a trustee about how a board works and how to work collaboratively and respectfully with her fellow trustees and district staff. Fraser’s name appears once in the Worksafe BC report on bullying allegations against the board, and not at all in the board-commissioned Goldner report.

The Green Party candidate says she’s received mostly positive feedback from the public about her time on the board. But her biggest hurdle so far hasn’t been explaining her record.

“There’s a bit of a challenge getting the word out that there’s a byelection going on,” she said.  [Tyee]