Thursday, September 8, 2016

Best Wishes to the 2016 UNA Election Candidates

On a university campus September is really the start of the new year, not January.  It’s the same for our local residents’ association, the UNA as well.  This is when the election for the new crop of Directors is held.  Folks have come back from vacations or have returned from their natal homes to pick up their Canadian lives.  It’s a time of beginnings.  Not so for me; at least, not in terms of the UNA at any rate.  I am not running for reelection.

Four years ago I was successfully elected along side of Richard Alexander and Shoahung Wu.  We ran on a pro-democracy ticket and promised to clean out the cobwebs of secret closed door meetings, lack of UBC administrative respect of resident concerns, and well - just make things a better place all round.  Shaohung soon resigned.  Then Richard and I parted ways on our sense of what consisted open democratic and transparent political processes.  I have always been, and plan to continue to be, a person who believes in open participatory democracy.  I don’t believe that the UNA should be operated as a business. I do believe that the UNA should act as an advocate for all sectors of our residential community. [click here for a more detailed review]

Pierre Trudeau once said: "Être votre voisin, c'est comme dormir avec un éléphant; quelque douce et placide que soit la bête, on subit chacun de ses mouvements et de ses grognements." That is "when your neighbour is so powerful its like sleeping with an elephant; no matter how friendly and nice he is, you feel every twitch and grunt." That's what it's like to be a UNA Director in the context of UBC's Administrative rule over our area.  UBC has tried to be friendly and kind. We've seen lots of communication improvements.  But the reality is we're like a mouse in the bed with an elephant and if we don't keep our eyes open we'll get squashed.

After four years of trying to keep one's eyes open but still getting bounced around the proverbial bed I realize that I have to leave this relationship.  It would be one thing if enough of the other mice were willing to help out, but somehow we've parted ways and most of the others have found a way to sleep soundly as the elephant tosses and turns in it's sleep.  The fact that one mouse thinks the others are fooling themselves doesn't really help the situation. So it's time to pack one's bags, move out, and find new adventures elsewhere.

Best wishes to the candidates running for resident director in the year's elections.  I trust that your expectations will match the situation you are entering into.  If you are untroubled by the elephant in the bed then I am sure you will likely not even notice it, or perhaps, you will take some kind of delight in the attention the elephant will shower upon you from time to time.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Surveys, Noise, and the UNA's April Board Meeting

On the agenda for the UNA Board meeting of April 12 is one major item that has dogged the UNA for nearly half a decade: disruptive noise caused by a poorly thought out playground installation in Iona Green.  I'll sadly have to miss the discussion and debate of this meeting.  I'll be away at a research meeting focused on collaborative research partnerships between Universities and Indigenous communities.

If I were at the meeting I would be voting to remove the playground installation in Iona Green.  I suspect that the motion will pass with most other directors voting to keep the playground as it is. I have some comments below related to the meeting package.

My first comment is a general note on the interpretative weight given to two surveys in the materials prepared by UNA staff as part of their recommendations to the Board (one on Iona Playground Noise and the other on Hawthorn Car-rental disruptors).  In the Iona Playground Noise survey it is commented that the UNA staff took an objective position and that while the majority of people said nothing the outcome of the survey is seen as a strong expression of community sentiment (at least it was in the board package that I received).  However, in terms of the quantitatively larger number of people who responded to the car-rental disruption issue the staff report says that the results are not sufficiently representative so that therefore no decision can be made. 

My point here is that we can’t have it both ways. Either both results of the online community consultations are considered  reasonable expressions of community sentiment or both are considered statistically insufficient. 42 folks responded to the noise and 121 respond to the car-rental issue.  Yet the car rental consultation is considered not statistically relevant and the noise respondents are taken to be a fair assessment of community voices. 

More embarrassing for the analysis is that no open call online survey can be considered statistically significant (in terms of representing a population)  unless one has a clearly defined and managed sampling method. By their very nature these kinds of open participation consultation surveys can only give an indication of sentiment.  Dismissal of the car-rental survey results is based on a fallacious logic as is the acceptance of the majority view expressed in the noise survey.  Ultimately this is pseudoscience and we should do our best to avoid it.

If we want a proper, reliable survey then we need to set up a rigorous sampling method. As a testing the waters mechanism online consultation tools help provide some information that can assist us in making our individual, and ultimately Board, decisions. But it is important that we are all clear on what is being said in these matters.  The two consultation surveys presented side by side provide empirical evidence that the data (and really, it isn’t data but ineffectively gathered opinions) are being interpreted in a way that is consistent with specific underlying assumptions: (1) to keep the playground and (2) to do nothing with Car2Go. 

If I were present here is how I would vote on the matters presented and why.

B:2 – vote against the motion. The committee of reverends (who represent the theological interests) were rather disingenuous with their involvement in this entire process from the bible quote about children they shared at the latest public consultation and earlier in the process with their eager desire to make as much money as possible in the Theological Precinct and thus squeeze as much density as they could out of the area with little concern to the long term implications.  UBC Planning facilitated this and the result is a very poorly designed area on Iona Green that is a noise chamber no matter how it is configured.  Despite the planning process prior to the set up of the playground the outcome has not been positive. Just because there was widespread discussion previously doesn’t mean the decision is a correct one in hindsight.  It would seem that a great deal of support for the playground comes from residents at some remove from the ill effects of the noise (not all, just it would appear most). This is an issue that has polarized residents in the area and that polarization has been facilitated by the UNA’s initially dismissive attitude to those making complaints about the noise and then the inability of the Board to make an early clear and decisive decision.  From discussions (what has been said and how it has been said) I will assume that the majority of the board will vote to keep the playground in place.  This is a situation in which I think that what may well be an unpopular decision is in fact the correct decision: Vote to remove the playground.

In the event the playground does stay then there needs to be a more concerted program to manage and create positive community engagement in this area.  

The other issues on the agenda are, well actually, there really aren't any other items on the agenda. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Fire Service Costs Download - 1million dollars on the way.

Dear Neighbours,

As you will learn in today's Campus Resident the provincial government will be downloading over the course of two years about 1million dollars for fire protection services.  The cost is based upon the provinces idea that all residents should pay about $100 per capita and that the cost of fire services is based upon a 1995 Vancouver/BC agreement that sets the costs of fire services west of Blanca at 1/20th of Vancouver's total fire costs - with no reference to the actual cost of local fires services.

It is not yet clear whether the downloaded costs will be applied to the rural tax assessment or as an invoice directly to UBC.  No matter which way it comes there is to be no net increase in the amount property owners pay in their combined rural taxes and UBC service levies. ALso irrespective of the mechanisms of the download the net effect on the UNA budget will also be the same.  If the fires service download is applied to the rural tax then the service levies will be lower.  If the charge is applied to the UNA budget then the UNA will have to find a way to pay for it.

As you will read the Chair of the UNA in concert with UBC have developed a plan to cover these costs over the next few years.  In the short term there are reserve funds and other payments that can be either forgiven, ignored, or reduced. In the long term this puts the UNA in an unsustainable fiscal situation.  As I have stated in this blog before it is an untenable situation to be charged with running municipal services but have no capacity to actually set the tax rates that are to pay for these services.

Perhaps we can muddle through the fire services download.  But this is just the start of the provinces downloading of costs that are (in truth) not really the responsibility of residents. Waiting int he wings are the costs of the very expensive RCMP station (about 2million) and the road maintenance and  management costs (about 500K+/-).  Both of these are also being paid by the province who insists that the taxes they received are insufficient to pay for the actual costs of these services.

A big part of this issue is that the university's share is being paid by the province and that province is looking for ways to reduce their costs.  Given the fact that the LNG gold boom wasn't (and likely won't be) a big pay out and the fact that the province was actually relying upon it they are scrambling to find places to cut.  We in the UNA are seen as a fat cow easily picked off.

The fundamental source of costs in fire, policing, and roads are all tied to UBC's corporate plans and Metro Vancouver's Pacific Spirit Park. Even at full building out there will still be more than double the population attending and working at UBC then will live in the UNA.  The primary policing problems in our neighbourhood come from on campus issues and, even more pressing during the long summer, are the activities at Wreck Beach and Pacific Spirit Park that occupy a large number of RCMP officers. The province appears to be more concerned with grabbing a cash windfall than it seems to care about the actual implications of it's decisions.

But this is also a great opportunity for change.  In the short term the outrageous and poorly justified $600,000+ fee that the UNA is forced to pay to UBC Athletics should be stopped immediately.  Second the over the top landscaping charges compelled upon the UNA by UBC Properties Trust should be paid by UBCPT themselves since it is essentially a marketing program and not an ecologically sound or sustainable current practice. Finally it may well make sense to shift the operations and management of the new community centre to UBC Recreation to operate and manage which would remove the need for the UNA to have to pay for this overbuilt facility.

Ultimately what is needed is a change to the way taxation works in the UNA area.  Over the next three years as the fiscal implications start to hit home we need to be provided with the serious opportunity to discuss how best to amalgamate with the City of Vancouver. If we are going to have to pay for these services we might as well get the real benefits of responsible government.

Monday, February 29, 2016

UNA Fiscal Crisis Looming

For most residents of the university neighbourhoods everything (well, most things) seems fine.  We have a reasonable fire and police department both fairly nearby. Our roads, aside from some concerns over speed and traffic flows, are fairly safe and in good repair.  So why worry about any of this?

There are, of course, the usual litany of complaints that this blog has recorded over a good many years. These complaints all boil down to one thing: we lack real, effective, democratic control over our own community.  But, why rock the boat if things are going along fine?  That has been the so-called voice of realists over the past decade or so. "Hey," they say, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Well it seems like the system may well be broke. Literally, as in no cash to do all the great things the UNA is supposed to do.

The situation has been developing slowing over the past couple of years.  The key problem is the way in which public funds for managing our municipal-like services are collected.  As a bit of a back ground.

(1) in the mid-1990s a deal was struck with the regional district to set the maximum property tax equivalent to the Vancouver residential mill rate.
(2) all properties in the university development area pay provincial rural tax that includes a transit levy, K-12 education funding, and a basic rural mill rate.
(3) the difference between the Vancouver residential mill rate and the rural property tax is called the UBC Service Levy and is collected by UBC.
(4) the UBC Service Levy is what is used to pay for all of the municipal-like services provided in the university housing development area.
(5) and the fiscal crunch is that the Vancouver mill rate has been dropping over the past few years while the rural rate has been increasing over the same period.  The result is that the UNA's funds are actually reducing relative to the services that the UNA is being called upon to provide.

So that's the back ground.  It's a bad enough situation by itself. But there are a host of other xxxxxxxxx  xxxxxs that I can't talk about because I have been silenced by a confidentiality blanket.

This space is where I would have talked for about three paragraphs about a set of new issues.  But I can't say anything about them because I have been placed in a situation in which I am compelled to be complicit with something I find ethically galling.  In fact I will likely be criticized for saying as much as I have said already. However, it has become clear that the problem here at UBC is that the senior administrators have run this place like their own private fiefdom and use secrecy as a tool of governance. Some people feel a sense of self-importance when included in a special secret. Others of us feel used.

Despite how many 'collaborative' or 'consultative' meetings UBC holds with residents or the UNA the fact remains we have no decision making authority. We are essentially taxed without us having any real, effective, or democratic representation.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

New Year's Greetings and Old Year Review

I greet this year knowing that my second term as a UNA Director is coming to a close.  Three and a half years on the Board.  It's a rather short time yet it feels like so long ago when Richard, Shoahong, and I were first elected in 2012.  I recall the excitement we felt on winning election - we really thought that we would make a change.  I can only speak for myself but it would seem to me that we have accomplished none of the goals that we started with.

Three and a half years ago the OUR slate claimed that we would bring real and effective community representation into the UNA.  One small idea was that we would open up more of the decision making processes of the UNA to public scrutiny. All these years later we are no closer to a more open democratic process then when we started the process.

I can take some solace that we finally had a Board vote on opening up two of our standing committees to public observation.  However the vote split 3 to 3. Menzies, Cottle, Omassi (AMS appointee) voted in favour.  Zhou, Zhang, Jolie (UBC appointee) voted against. As acting chair Zhou cast the deciding vote against expanding transparency.  Apparently another consulting firm is busy working in the background to prepare a report on how the UNA can be transparent (or perhaps to suggest that the UNA is transparent enough).

What is so complicated about open decision making and transparency?  I will confess to confusion and incomprehension that anyone operating honestly would have any concerns with an audience watching their elected (and some appointed) officials debate, discuss, agree/disagree, and make decisions. What I do understand is that I have failed to carry out my promises to make the UNA a more open and democratic agency.

As I reflect back over my three and a half years as a UNA Director my biggest regret is that I believed the propaganda. That is, I actually believed that the UNA had the potential to be a real municipal-like agency. Even though I have always felt it better that we had an independent municipality here, I did believe what the UNA staff, UBC Administration, and local advocates like Jim Taylor would say: that the UNA had real potential to act as a representative body. I am no longer burdened with that false consciousness today.

There are some very positive aspects of the UNA.  I have had a chance to meet and get to know (at least a little bit) some folks I would not normally interact with.

As a professor I meet students all the time. However, being able to meet with student leadership in an arena that is not directly about student affairs provides a refreshing and different perspective.

As an employee of UBC I occasionally interact with management, but typically on the academic side. Getting a chance to sit at the same table with folks like Ian Burger, Nancy Knight, Andrew Parr, Lisa Colby, and Carole Jolie is really informative.  These are folks who were at one time (or currently are) UBC appointees during my tenure as a Director. They come from all aspects of UBC's middle/upper administrative management.  Their membership on the Board is at the request of UBC.  It is interesting to here the different perspectives of elements of the vast administrative apparatus at UBC. On a personal level I have (for the most part) really enjoyed getting to know these colleagues better.

As a resident community member it's nice to get to know neighbours that one might not meet during the course of our regular day.  For the five elected directors we get a special experience of meeting residents from different social worlds.  This is, I think, the most positive aspect of the UNA experience.  I get an opportunity at least twice a month to meet and learn about my neighbours first hand as we debate community centre policies, discuss volunteer programs, and try and figure out which division of UBC can best answer resident questions.  Though much of what we do takes place behind closed doors, let me assure you it is a very rewarding experience and a privilege to get a chance to better understand the many social worldviews that comprise our residential community.

Recognizing limits and managing expectations is something that (usually) comes with age. When I began this journey my expectations for what I could change clearly exceeded the limitations of the UNA/UBC structure. The UNA is a creation of UBC's BoG and it's development wing. UBC has delegated certain responsibilities and a small bit of authority to the UNA. Effectively the UNA manages two very nice community centres. The UNA is also the conduit though which a portion of resident service levies pass through to pay for services that UBC has committed to manage and deliver.  The UNA is not and can never ever become an effective representative body with real governance capacity.

As will likely become more and more apparent in the near future the UNA has no real control over anything remotely municipal-like.  Half our taxes go to the province directly through rural property taxes (very little of which is controlled or used locally). The calculation for the service levy is outside the control of the UNA and is set by being bench marked to Vancouver's tax rate.  Major municipal services are not actually controlled by the UNA but are either part of Vancouver (Fire Protection, Schools), the province (Policing & roads),  UBC (most community amenities excepting the two UNA community centres), and Metro (waste management rules, water, parks).

I suspect that at some time in the future 5, 10, 15 years from now this area will be part of the City of Vancouver.  The decision won't have come through the UNA - it will be UBC, the Province, and Vancouver that will make that deal.