Meeting With Citizens’ Assembly Chair

I had a long and useful meeting with Rachel Magnusson, chair of the GW Citizen’s Assembly over lunch yesterday. My general impression is that she is beginning to understand the complexity of the job to be done, and that she has finally caught up on much of the history of opposition  to the Plan.  She seems genuine and appears to want to do the best she can.

I told her that I wasn’t going to spend more time in existential angst over the format of the Assembly; I don’t like what we have, but I recognize it is what we have and no changes to the overall design will be forthcoming in the near future.  I explained that I thought the only way forward now was political, and that I will be spending the next few months trying to change the makeup of the City Council in the expectation that the Plan process could still be turned around at that point, given the extensive delays to date. In the meantime, I will watch the evolution of the Assembly with enormous interest and if it can be made better than it is right now, then I will be happy to help.

We had a long and, I think, productive discussion on how dissenting opinions would be heard by the Assembly.  My opening opinion was that if it is like the five minutes we get to “talk” with City Council post facto on major issues, then it will be worse than useless.  There ought to be proper debate about alternatives. She agreed, and we put together the beginnings of a list of “non-establishment” people who should be invited to talk with the Assembly (Condon, Wozny, Villegaz, Sarkissian, Murphy, etc)

I stressed the need for data-based evidence behind the Planners’  density and population requirements, noting that the obvious arbitrariness of the 2013 land-use density plan had caused immense mistrust.  We need to be shown why our neighbourhood needs to change before we start discussing the how of the change.

I asked what was to be the relationship of the Assembly to the sub-areas and the relevant land-use workshops.  That appeared to be a tricky question for Rachel and she was reluctant to go into details.  However, she suggested that the Planners would be conducting the sub-area workshops separately and apart from the Assembly.  The Assembly would be dealing with matters of a higher-plane apparently (concepts, that sort of thing). Results from the sub-area workshops would be fed back into the Assembly by the Planners.

That was exactly as I had feared and I told her my own opinion was that I wouldn’t trust the Planners to manage the sub-area workshops without some Assembly oversight; that I feared their “workshops” would be Open Houses on their favoured plan with yellow stickies for comments.  This led to a good discussion on workshop types (I quite like the world café style) and the use of multiple options for debate rather than just a single imposed “choice.”

We discussed the Assembly’s Final Report, and the requirement that City Council must formally receive it, along with any Minority Reports that may come out of the Assembly. This is to avoid the Assembly’s recommendations being buried somewhere within the depths of a Planner’s Final Report.  She seemed to think that was OK.

She asked whether I thought there were any major blank spots in the Community Plan’s coverage.  I mentioned the development of the Venables Greenway as an area that needs looking at; and the area west of Commercial, the low-rise apartment zone that is left out of the plan altogether, and which will simply be renovicted wholesale in the next ten years or so.  This is Grandview’s affordable district, but it won’t be for long unless we get imaginative and somehow incentivize the property owners to renovate and improve without gentrifying the rents and displacing the current residents.  Somebody must have some ideas.

In wider terms, we discussed the potential re-establishment of local planning advisory bodies (along the lines of the existing Community Visions Committees in some neighbourhoods) and perhaps an independent city-funded Office of Neighbourhood Engagement.

I asked her to suggest to Planning that publication of the revised $275,000 budget would help ease the mistrust that hangs over the process today.  She said she would see what she could do.

I didn’t get the impression that anything dramatic was going to happen in the next short while.  The “invitation” deadline is July 31st, and then they have to play the lottery, so it will be sometime in August before the make up of the Assembly is known,  In the meanwhile, she said they are working on drafting agendas for the learning sessions.  She said, they are also trying to meet as many people and groups as possible (such as this lunch) to sound out opinions.

It was a worthwhile meeting, though I have to say that these kind of sounding-out meetings would have been a lot more valuable earlier this year before the Terms of Reference were imposed on us.  Perhaps at that time we could have made the adjustments necessary to get more of us onside.  Now, these sessions seem more like a belated attempt to reach out to the oppositional elements in the neighbourhood, to explain past decisions that will not be altered rather than to find common ground.

As I made claer to the Chair, if there is any way I can help make the Assembly better than it is today, I will.  But I am still of the opinion that politics is the key, and the primary aim must be to ensure the current Vision administration is reduced to a mimority (at best) after the November elections, and that a majority of newly elected Councilors will insist on a better more democratic and a more community-based conclusion to this exercise.

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