Given that I have only 10 minutes to strike oil, this attempt to move Council will have to be trimmed some.  Boring or not here is my script for tonight:

Delegation Speech,  Abbotsford Council          images-50

Over the years I have attended many Council meetings and Public Hearings, and am convinced there are some things that should be changed in how City Hall interacts with the general public.

It’s often said that there is no point in trying to engage with staff or council.  The perception is that decisions are made behind closed doors, and that the public part is there only for show.  We saw a pretty obvious case of bias when Art Villa wanted to change his bingo hall to a casino.  City Hall allowed him to serve food and drinks,in the foyer of this auditorium, to his people, many of whom were delivered in two large tour buses,  

The doors to the auditorium were kept firmly locked against residents who’d come out for the public hearing.  Doors were unlocked only when Mr. Villa’s team was ready to work the crowd, handing out buttons and pamphlets and high pressure sales pitches, to achieve the desired “Yes” to casino gambling.

Many of those ‘yes’ people were from out of town, so I wondered why they were given time to draw the hearing out to one o’clock in the morning.

Occasionally it’s been refreshing to see Council make a decision that appears to be a reversal of an expected outcome, based on a genuine consideration of the public’s voice.

But the very process, prior to a Public Hearing is fundamentally flawed.

The perception of bias is more than imaginary, given that proponents of developments, requiring by-law amendments, are given lots of time behind the scenes to bring their project to fruition.  Of course that would be necessary, but once a project that impacts on the lives of other people is ready for a vote of Council, there should also be a period of time during which the public too is provided with information, and time to ask questions and consult with staff.

Currently the City follows rules set out by the Province, so I would ask you to work towards making improvements at the Provincial level, as well as adapting the time allotted for consulting and informing the public, as much as is possible within the current rules.

Once a project is deemed ready to go, a first and second reading is done at the same time. So in practical terms there is only one reading.  It’s just a legal fiction to call it first and second reading.

Notice of that first reading appears on the City web-page late Friday afternoon, for a meeting to be held three days hence,…… the weekend in between, and City Hall closed.  For those who work, that may leave essentially no time to make enquiries about the first reading of a proposed by-law change.

So after first and second reading are done, in one sentence, a Public Hearing can be set for the next meeting, two weeks down the road.

Post-cards are printed at City Hall and at present need only be sent to properties within 100 metres around the subject property.  That distance should be increased to 1,000 metres, given that the impact of a new development extends far beyond a few telephone poles.   Staff say they can drop the postcards into the City’s own mailbox by end of day Tuesday.  Then the cards can arrive as early as Wednesday, but more likely on Thursday. Actually, those postcards might arrive Friday or even into the following week.

So the best scenario has cards arriving within 13 days, 4 of which are weekend days, when no city workers are on hand to answer questions.

Local newspaper ads also inform about Public Hearings in 3 consecutive editions, beginning at 10 days before the Hearing. 

I’ve delivered quite a lot of notices to homes, for a variety of causes, and noticed  lots of places wherethat newspaper goes straight into the garbage or recycle bin. So not everyone gets their information from the local paper.

When the public asks you for information to which they have a right, you say they may have to wait 30 business days, which translates into 40 days, and the City  for a variety of reasons can stretch that time out even longer.   The FOI might be almost useless once you’ve redacted enough important information, but useful or not, you grant yourself a leisurely 40 days, or more, to answer Freedom of Information requests from the public.

But you think it unnecessary for the tax-paying public to have even remotely the same amount of time granted them, to learn about and engage with you, on issues that might alter their entire lives. Re-zoning that may affect properties worth hundreds of thousands of dollars are not deemed worthy of more than a paltry few advance days notice.

Just to do this 10 minute delegation this evening, I had to submit my request a full 10 days in advance. Forget about time allowed for mail delivery.  10 days, and nothing less!  Property owners might get 10……… to 0 days notice,…….. about vitally important zoning changes.

Public Hearings are possibly the only opportunity that ordinary people have to plead their case, for, or against by-law amendments.  In fact, so little time is given for public awareness that Hearings can come and go while people are gone on short holidays.  Ten days is not enough time.  It is not a fair or reasonable time-frame.

Should the working public be treated with such disdain?

Sometimes proponents of change have little regard for how their plans might hurt others. But it is for Council to consider every side of every proposal before them, and make wise decisions, on our behalf. Most people trust that you will take care of them, so they can tend to their jobs and homes and families,…. go about their business. It’s not unusual for people to hold down two jobs, just to make ends meet. They don’t have the time or strength to keep an eye on any level of government. But when there is a Public Hearing that impacts on their lives, the tax-paying public has to be given way more consideration.  Council needs to hear, and listen to people they are elected to serve, and incorporate their will, as well as a developers, when decisions must be made on complex issues.

I submit to you that this should be a MINIMUM time allotment so the public has a fair shot at meaningful engagement.  1st and 2nd readings have to be real readings, …..separated by the two weeks between regular council meetings.  Postcards get mailed out after the second reading if the proposal advances to a Public Hearing.  That hearing should then be set for no earlier than 30 days in the future, along with  a re-zoning proposal sign to be posted for those same 30 days on the subject property.

While this will slow up developers for a few weeks, their plans can’t be allowed to overrule the needs of existing residents.  Decisions made by mayor and council have the potential to affect the value of resident’s property, where their children go to school, what the quality of life will be for families, and sometimes whether people move out of town.

With almost no warning about a proposed development, affected residents are at a distinct disadvantage, when suddenly faced with important news that comes to them via a small postcard in the mail. 

With the current ten day notice system there are inadequate business days to contact staff or council.  Too little time to reasonably find out what is coming, and what the impact will be to a neighbourhood.

Unlike the developer there is almost no time to analyze or talk things over with city staff or neighbours.  By the time anything gets to a Public Hearing council is most likely to be positive about the proposal and vote in it’s favour.  So with mere days, working people have the yeomen’s task of reversing what might already be a done deal in the minds of their municipal leaders.

Please make the process leading up to a Public Hearing, open, honest and fair, and ensure a reasonable, adequate time frame is in place so that both the proponent of a by-law change, and the public who will have to live with the impact of that proposed change are equipped to argue their case.