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Vancouver park commissioners split on mayor's move to abolish board

Commissioner Brennan Bastyovanszky: "It's a bad thing for the city — it's an erosion of democracy."
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Mayor Ken Sim was joined at city hall Wednesday by three of the seven park board commissioners whose jobs could be lost if the mayor is successful in abolishing the board. Angela Haer, Jas Virdi and Marie-Claire Howard support Sim’s decision.

Park board commissioners are split on Mayor Ken Sim’s move to begin the process to abolish the seven-member board, which includes six of his own ABC Vancouver party members.

Three ABC commissioners — Angela Haer, Jas Virdi and Marie-Claire Howard — attended a city hall news conference Wednesday where Sim confirmed media reports that he wants to dissolve the board.

“I am actually feeling really good,” Howard told reporters. “We were elected democratically to look after the parks and recreation facilities of Vancouver. And I fundamentally believe the decision that we're making today is the right one for the people of Vancouver.”

At the same time, ABC commissioner Laura Christensen posted a message Wednesday morning on the X social media platform saying she and fellow ABC commissioners Scott Jensen and Brennan Bastyovanszky “have been removed from ABC.”

Christensen’s message included a screen shot of an email received from Trevor Ford, the mayor’s chief of staff, two hours before Sim’s news conference.

It said: “We will move forward with the park board transition team without you three as you have chosen not support the mayor on the folding of the park board. I thank you for your service to date, and I wish you the best of luck going forward. There is no need for any of you to attend the press conference this morning, nor attend any future transitional planning meetings around the park board, as well.”

A second post from Christensen indicated it was “the first communication I’ve had from the party on this topic and I have never been asked my opinion on folding the PB.”

As Glacier Media reported prior to the news conference, Sim told reporters he will introduce a motion at the Dec. 13 council meeting that seeks to abolish the board.

For his move to be successful, Sim has to first get approval from council — which he will likely get because his party holds the majority — before having the provincial government amend the Vancouver Charter.

Sim said his office has been in discussions with the province about his wish and believes it will take six months to put council in control.

“We have a pretty positive working relationship with the province, they've been great partners,” he said. “And it's been our experience that they want to do what's best for the City of Vancouver.”

The B.C. Ministry of Municipal Affairs said in an email Wednesday that “this is a decision for Vancouver city council. We will take the necessary steps to implement the decision of their elected city council.”

'It's not about the people'

The mayor said his decision was not a criticism of the seven park board commissioners, which include Green Party member Tom Digby.

“We're talking about a structural issue here,” he said. “We committed to the public that we're going to try to fix it. We had elected a supermajority in that chamber. We can't fix it. It's not about the people. It's about the structure, and no amount of tinkering with that current structure is going to fix it.”

Some examples he provided of what he described as a "broken system" include the facade of the Vancouver Aquatic Centre falling off, a jurisdictional dispute over a water pipe at Spanish Banks and issues related to getting the Stanley Park train operating for the holiday season.

He also suggested the fact one in four trees in Stanley Park was dead was the park board's fault — to which Green Party Coun. Adriane Carr told reporters after the news conference that Sim didn't know what he was talking about.

"He doesn't get biology, he doesn't get climate change," Carr said. "Those trees, which are primarily Hemlock trees, died because of a looper moth infestation, which was created by the extreme drought that we have faced, which is due to climate change."

Honda Celebration of Light

ABC Coun. Sarah Kirby-Yung, a former park commissioner, provided more examples of the concerns of having two separately elected bodies.

"If you are an event or a festival like the Honda Celebration of Light, or grassroots organizations that are looking to put on fun outdoor events or music events in your parks, you now have to go to two separate bodies to get different sets of permits," she said.

"If you're Mobi bikeshare, and you're working to provide active transportation in our city, you have to have two different sets of contracts and legal agreements and work through two different processes and go to two different sets of meetings in order to sight your stations."

The mayor's goal, he said, is to align the management structure for parks and recreation services under one agency, which would be city council. He pointed out that’s “how it's done in literally every single city across North America,” with the exception of Minneapolis.

“And I'm assuming the reason for that is every other city in North America has figured out that this just doesn't work,” he said, claiming his move “will yield millions of dollars” in savings.

“This change will ensure that our parks and recreation facilities finally get the care and attention that they deserve, that they can be restored to the gems that they once were."

'Council's fault'

Bastyovanszky said he learned of Sim’s decision via ABC colleague Christensen’s post on X.

“It’s a bad thing for the city — it’s an erosion of democracy,” he said. “You've got these elected officials that are being removed from office without any discussion in some sort of backroom-like deal just so the mayor can centralize power.”

He said the premise Sim is basing the board’s abolition on is false — and that the reason parks, facilities and other services need more work is because city council hasn’t properly funded the park board.

“The park board is underfunded by $20 million, which is actually council's fault,” Bastyovanszky said.

“For them to cut funding over the last couple of years for our infrastructure and then say, ‘Oh, it's not working’…it's just a continuation of that erosion of the separation that has been in place between parks and city for 135 years.”

He said Sim and councillors were elected largely to tackle the housing crisis and address public safety.

“For them to not be successful at making the progress that they thought they would in the first year to then come on to try and take on parks — so they have at least some good news stories — is just disingenuous,” he said.

Bastyovanszky said he, Christensen and Jensen will now serve as independent commissioners and plan to be on the job until the 2026 election.

At the Dec. 11 park board meeting, he and the non-ABC commissioners will direct staff to send a letter to council and Premier David Eby to dismiss or oppose the mayor’s wish to abolish the board.

He also plans to be one of the many speakers expected at the Dec. 13 council meeting to oppose the mayor’s move and is encouraging others in the city to do the same.

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OneCity Coun. Christine Boyle with Green Party councillors Adriane Carr and Pete Fry at city hall Wednesday. Photo Mike Howell

Budget distraction

OneCity Coun. Christine Boyle suggested the controversy connected to abolishing the park board was done as a distraction to the ABC Vancouver-led council having to increase property taxes again for 2024; a decision on the budget is expected the day before Sim introduces his motion to abolish the board.

Boyle echoed Bastyovanszky's comments regarding the chronic underfunding of the park board.

"One of the big challenges for the park board is that they have been underfunded by council after council, including this current council," she said. "That's not the fault of an elected park board."

Former Vision Vancouver park board commissioner Aaron Jasper said he will be among the speakers to council at the Dec. 13 meeting.

"If it's an issue of maintaining the assets, the parks and the community centres, then the mayor only needs to look in the mirror and look at his own actions," Jasper said.

"They're having budget discussions. So I'd say, if we want to improve the services and the quality of our parks, the way to do that is not to dismantle our democratic institutions."

Jasper said the proper way to decide if the board should stay is to hold a referendum during the civic election in 2026.

mhowell@glaciermedia.ca

X/@Howellings