Friday, May 4, 2018

One Step Forward, Ten Steps Back

Closed Session. That is phrase that will become more and more common in the UNA Board vocabulary. It's a shame given that even the UBC Board of Governors, famous for their secrecy these past few years, has turned a new leaf and is busy revamping governance structures in order to be more open, democratic, and transparent.  The UNA, however, is going the other direction and has decided to close the door on transparency by closing 50% of the board's meetings.

The UNA Board had this to report on their closed meeting policy in April:
A quick note on the closed meetings. We have identified six this year, but may not need all. They are placeholders to ensure the time is in everyone’s calendar if we need them. The number of closed meetings will vary from year to year depending on the need.   The criteria for what is discussed in a closed meeting and what is discussed in an open meeting has not changed. Those criteria are consistent with those of similar organizations. The value of closed meetings is to provide a space to exchange a number of ideas and options on potentially sensitive issues prior to public discussions. It encourages a better idea exchange in a way that doesn’t risk adversely affecting external parties.    We remain committed to reporting on decisions made and outlining the issues that were on the table.  
It is nice that they "remain committed to reporting on decisions made" in closed sessions. But that really misses the point. So far one of the primary "sensitive" items they felt the need to discus in private was a strategic plan.  A secret discussion that has resulted in the spending of thousands of dollars for yet another consultant close friend of UBC.  It's wonderful that the UNA will bring the spending decision to their public meeting but I suspect the board will simply rubber stamp an expensive strategic plan consultant contract and the process that led to this decision will remain clouded in secrecy. Any rationale for the expensive project will reflect an agreed upon script that will paper over any of the diverse perspectives that should properly be heard in public session.

Democracy requires a willingness to be subjected to the public gaze.  No amount of hiding in private removes that obligation. If our directors feel constrained to speak publicly, if they are uncomfortable expressing themselves in front of an audience, then they really have no place in public governance. 

In 2012 when I ran for election to the UNA Board I did so on a platform of democratic reform.  When we were elected we had high hopes for change. Yet very quickly democratic reform was thwarted by foot-dragging on the part of appointed directors and UNA staff.

In 2014 when I ran for reelection I did so in alliance with Alain Craigie, again on a democratic reform platform.  But by then the forces of open governance were weakening.  Attempts to open committees to public scrutiny kept getting shutdown. 

In 2016 with a new slate of resident directors in control (I did not run for reelection, deciding instead to run for election to the UBC Board of Governors) the standing committees were essentially shelved and today we are in the situation in which 50% of the Board meetings are held behind closed doors.

What a sorry state of affairs. Despite that brief glimmer of openings 6 years ago the situation in the UNA has in fact become far more restrictive, far more opaque. The model that is being held up as the exemplar is an old fashion corporate board.  More than ever we need to clean house and reform the UNA.

The UNA has failed as a municipal-like body (much of the current communications from the UNA has actually dropped that descriptor).  As the service levy crisis created by UBC's sweetheart deal with Metro Vancouver years ago is compounded by the added impact of the fire service fee download the fiscal solvency of the UNA is even more in question. UNA residents need real effective local government. We've gone past the point of tinker with structures and overpaid consultants reports. We need real change that brings in responsible government in our community.  

Sunday, April 8, 2018

UBC Stadium Planning

UBC is moving along in planning the stadium neighbourhood. The early phase of planning consisted of setting guiding principles. The second phase is moving toward generating detailed planning options.  As part of this process planners organized an ideas workshop this weekend. They gathered together a group of intersted people (athletes, residents, academic & recreational stakeholders, and a lot of Campus Community Planning staff and consultants) to talk ideas.

The format was set up with a 4 hour window of opportunity. The session was opened with the requisite speech from the AVP Planning,  Micheal White and mc'd by coordinating planner Neal LaMontagne.  Following which three themed presentations were given (1) how we live (2) how we move (3) how we care.  The three presentations were set up to provide guidance for the table discussions that were to follow.  Over all it was a nicely organized event which allowed for some engaged discussion giving a feeling of inclusion for those in attendance.

Feeling warm and fuzzy about a process, though, doesn't mean much in the long run.  Yes, it's great to have the design experts invite folks to come in to talk about planning issues.  For one thing it helps to dissipate potential opposition in the long run by including potential critics in the ongoing design.  Second it creates the potential for planers to forge personal links with potential influence shapers in the various communities. This doesn't close off opposition, but it does mitigate potential glitches in planning down the road. It also allows the planners to be able to show how they have engaged various publics which has the advantage (for power elites) to diminish opposition that might arise latter by pointing to these engaging and inclusive feeling events.

Then there is the way that these processes are already delimited by a series of terms of reference that keep the focus on warm and fuzzy sounding goals (while excluding any discussion of fundamental issues).  Planners can rightly say that the decisions about whether or not to build in this area is not up to them - that's already been decided outside this process.  They can say discussion of how the revenue might be used that is raised is outside this process.  They can also say that discussion of questions like density are outside this process.  The end result becomes limited to simply how do 'we' build the nicest hyper-urban space we can in the Stadium Neighbourhood.

Note that even in the area's geographical placeholder -Stadium Neighbourhood- is an embedded and unquestionable fact: this is about a stadium and how to fund it's reconstruction.  The underlying and motivating program of UBC Athletics "Game Plan" is not up for discussion - it is both discursively and procedurally embedded outside of the possibility of fundamental debate, revision, or redesign. The stadium is a given and all else clicks into place behind it.

The result will, I am sure, meet planing goals: public input will have been solicited, various participants will have felt included, profit margins will continue to be maximized, a massive hyper-urban space will be created, and at the center of it will be a big sports facility.   All this will be accompanied by exciting artistic renderings with a host of superlative adjectives that will define the development as an exciting, engaging, livable, world class, festival of opportunity bringing together a diversity of ages, peoples, uses, and practices with an exciting plaza filled with sustainable opportunities in the heart of UBC's exciting new community.

My tweets from workshop (in reverse chronological order).

  1. Ok, why do so many people here at workshop think there should be rain protection in the design of stadium place? Enjoy it folks!
  2. It was good until they said doing this would embody being a thunderbird.
  3. Sweet statement from an athlete talking about linking botanical garden and stadium ... very nice.
  4. People often misunderstand what a summary is: it’s not a point by point review of the past hour’s discussion.
  5. The world through eyes of the team - “everyone wants to come see us play and build community”
  6. Treacle is just that. Even if it comes from an athlete. Plaza, plaza, plaza.
  7. Homecoming toasted as a reason to build a plaza in Stadium Place - really. Talk on care as important focusing on the stadium.
  8. About 50 folks in attendance. 1/5 U30. 2/5 40+. Maybe 1/5 staff & consultants. 1/5+ residents
  9. Not just football, broad field sport representation
  10. Strong representation from football team at stadium place community plan workshop. Guess they feel they have a vested interest.