Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Enhancing Democratic Processes: a discussion paper

The following discussion paper was prepared for the UNA Board by Menzies and distributed February 24th, 2014.  This 'draft' discussion paper is designed as an invitation to our community to begin the realistic and proactive conversation on enhancing democratic practices.  Over the next few weeks and months I hope that our community will pick up this discussion.  Please add comments on this blog, email me directly, or join in one of the planned open discussions that I trust will be put on by the UNA over the next little while.


At its most simplistic democracy is the rule of the people by the people. Nothing however is simple.  There are many gradients of democratic practice. There is a range of governance systems that claim to be democratic.  Most people consider the principle of democracy an essential part of effective decision-making and good governance. While there may be a diversity of perspectives as to what is most democratic the following three key ideas are commonly considered central to democratic practice:  open, participatory, and representative.

Open:  governance structures need to be open and obvious in how they work to be democratic.  There should be no ‘blackbox’ portion where the ways and means of decision-making are obscured to the public of account.
Participatory: governance structures require mechanisms that allow the public to participate in the function of governance.  The more democratic a governance system is the more broad based public participation is encouraged and facilitated.
Representative: governance structures needs to be set up so that the diversity of the public is effectively represented.  The more democratic a system is the more it encourages a diversity of perspective and the peaceful co-existence of a diverse public.  Representation is considered the most robust when it occurs through direct participation or through direct suffrage. 

The UNA should strive toward achieving the most open, participatory, and representative democratic governance system that is possible.  This discussion paper outlines some of the legal constraints we face, identifies several operational protocols that constrains democratic practice, and offers some solutions for the short, medium, and long term.

The purpose of this document is to layout a framework for enhanced community discussions on enhancing the democratic practices and capacities of the UNA.  Enhanced Democracy Discussions could form the keystone subject for an upcoming Listen In session.

Legal Constraints on the UNA’s Democratic Practice

The UNA is the municipal-like body for residents in the University Neighbourhoods Area of UBC.  While we have a fairly robust service delivery side to our organization our democratic structures can benefit by improvement.

The UNA is formally established as a registered society under the BC Societies Act. This act established the legal framework within which are actions as a society are governed.  Our ability to act is further defined through a legal contract between UBC, referred to as the University Neighbour’s Agreement, 2008 (UNA2008), and ourselves. 

The Societies Act of BC allows for a society to determine the powers of its directors.  These powers can entitle a director “to do one or both of participate in and vote at a meeting of directors” (Society Act[RSBC 1996] Chapter 433. Clause:25.1(1)).  That is a society can, under the Societies Act of BC, have directors who are entitled to participate without a vote and directors who are entitled to participate with a vote at a meeting of directors. 

The UNA2008 further defines the composition of the UNA Board through a direct stipulation that  “UBC may nominate up to ten persons who will be entitled to become Members of the UNA, and at all times, at least 2 such nominees (in addition to the rights and obligations normally held by Members) will be Directors of the UNA” (Section 3.3(c)). There is no explicit statement in the UNA2008 that these Directors must be entitled to vote.  However, the UNA2008 does provide a mechanism for UBC to terminate the agreement “In the event UBC concludes that the UNA: … (d) has prevented or taken steps to ensure that UBC’s nominees are unable to be Members of the UNA.”  Thus, the UNA is obligated under the provisions of our contract with UBC to have two UBC appointed directors but there is no explicit requirement that these directors be entitled to vote, only that the UNA not prevent them from being members of the UNA.

One further important point regarding governance is referenced in the UNA2008.  That is, that “The UNA will: … (b) promote informed decision-making and good governance” (Section 3.6).  Good governance could reasonably be understood as effective democratic practices.

The UNA Bylaws themselves, do not mention informed decision-making or good-governance.  Rather, the purpose of the UNA is defined in our bylaws in terms of promoting a distinctive university town, to promote, develop and deliver services, to operate and maintain properties, to receive funds from UBC, and to promote, in the conduct of business and work of the Association, qualities of good neighbours, including civility, fairness, good faith, respect and understanding (paraphrased from section 2 of the UNA Bylaws).  One might reasonable extend the ideas of civility, fairness, good faith, and respect as a rationale foundation for effective democratic practices.  However, our bylaws are silent on the question of full and effective democratic purpose leaving that to our members to refine and develop.

Operational Protocols that Constrain Democratic Openness

Over the past two years the UNA has moved forward in opening open internal decision-making processes.  Two key democratic improvements have been the setting up of the Listen In series of public town hall meetings and the advance posting of standing committee agendas online for public review.  More could be done.

Currently all standing committees meet in private.  The rationale for holding the standing committees in private is that it allows for a frank and thorough discussion.  A further set of pragmatic arguments for holding standing committees in private is that (1) it would necessitate shifting the meeting of the committees out of the UNA Board room to accommodate a potential audience, (2) it is unlikely many people would attend, and (3) of those who would attend it may well be restricted to members of the press. 

I am not convinced that these concerns are reasonable ones for restricting the openness of UNA governance practices. 

Short Term Solutions

1.     Greater procedural openness can be achieved by shifting the Operations & Sustainability and Governance Standing Committees into a public forum.   This would simply require a motion of the board.  
2.     Provide short summaries of key items under discussion at the standing committees and the board, with an invitation to comment, in the weekly email blasts, on the UNA facebook page, and on the UNA twitter feed. This provides the double service of notifying residents of matters under discussion and providing an opportunity for input. Currently the notifications of the meetings are put out via email, facebook, and twitter, but a resident would need to pour over a detailed meeting package to find the various items.
3.     Negotiate a working agreement with appointed Directors in which they would voluntarily restrict their voting to financial matters items.  This would not remove a capacity to participate but would be a step toward more democratic representation on matters that directly affect residents.  According to at least one former UNA Chair, UBC and AMS appointed Directors have in the past agreed to such an arrangement that would voluntarily restrict their voting capacities. This would help ensure a more representative democratic practice. Decisions would thus be made by those directly elected by residents.

Medium Term Solutions

1.     Prepare a bylaw change resolution for the fall 2014 AGM that would define appointed directors as having the capacity to participate without the capacity to vote.
2.     Prepare a bylaw change that would remove the formula for determining when a new elected director position is created.  This would allow the UNA to determine the most appropriate size of a governing council free from the imposed housing development formula.  The formula was reasonable when the community was small.  However, the situation has changed and given the complexity of our community and the need to establish reasonable and effective democratic representation the number of elected UNA Directors should be established by the UNA, not a one size fits all formula.
3.     As part of a renegotiated University Neighbours’ Agreement move to the elimination of appointed directors.

Long Term Solutions

1.     Establish a residents’ assembly to consider and recommend democratic governance options for our community.
2.     Establish real, effective, local democratic governance.

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