What makes for effective consultation debated

City of Richmond has online forums and public open houses but is there enough dialogue and meaningful input?

When and how does the Richmond city council choose to conduct public consultation and when does it choose to push new bylaws through with no open houses and online forums, but only a public hearing, as required by provincial law?

The matter appears to be discretionary.

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For instance, council is not moving ahead with consultation on banning unlicensed short-term rentals, but will conduct broad consultations on restricting house sizes on farmland.

“You don’t have to go further than campaign contributions to see why this is a queasy issue,” said Coun. Carol Day, on the matter of farm mega  mansions.

Day, who has rarely inched away from supporting broader public consultation, especially on development applications, did just that when she wanted to put a rush on restricting mega mansions on farms.

“When something has been beat to death, like these homes on farmland, do we really need six open houses on that? I don’t see the need,” said Day.

Another issue is how consultation takes place.

Realtor and community activist Lyn Terborg says the City of Richmond’s public consultation process is flawed and requires more opportunities for back-and-forth dialogue between citizens, city planners, outside experts and councillors.

Terborg, who in 2015 formed Richmond’s first ratepayers’ group in the Steveston neighbourhood of Westwind to pressure the city to terminate land-use contracts — and thus three-storey homes — believes the most recent round of public consultation — on house setbacks (size) and green space (landscaping) — is tedious for a regular citizen to follow.

“The city is asking the community to participate, but we don’t seem to have the ability to contribute to policy,” said Terborg.

“These open houses are static presentations; a display board with a staff member. You can’t possibly go into a public house and assess the technical information,” said Terborg.

She suggests more opportunities for dialogue and having third-party experts weigh in at such forums. As well, she would like the city to open up a comments section at LetsTalkRichmond.ca for people to discuss ideas.

Terborg also argues many consultations have decisions that are pre-determined by city staff.

Additionally, Terborg said councillors should be present at open houses. As it stands, it is council policy they not show up to such meetings, instead relying on staff to relay residents’ comments to them, in a report to council.

After the 2014 election, newly-elected Coun. Alexa Loo and Day did show up to some open houses.

“They had the (guts) to go out there, but got their wrists slapped,” said Terborg.

Veteran Coun. Bill McNulty said it is council policy for councillors not to show up at open houses, as expressing their opinions would influence the public.

When asked why a councillor cannot just show up to an open house and listen, as Loo did in 2015 during the LUC consultations, McNulty said it is “difficult to dispel wearing two hats” and “we have to be careful because we walk a fine line.”

As for when council decides to conduct consultation, McNulty said it is discretionary.

“I figured we already got lots of feedback” on illegal hotels, he said.

But, “we heard some” feedback on farm mansions, “but not as widespread as you may have thought,” said McNulty.

He noted the city conducts many open houses that facilitate dialogue, such as the ongoing tree protection bylaw sessions.

Day said, for the most part, she now agrees with staying clear of public open houses, however, she readily admits it is difficult to walk such a fine line, as she recently visited an open house on housing.

Furthermore, she openly states her opinions, even as consultation is ongoing.

UPCOMING OPEN HOUSES

House massing open houses:

- Cambie Community Centre Feb.16, 6 - 8 p.m.

- Thompson Community Centre Feb. 23, 6 - 8 p.m.

Tree protection bylaw open houses:

- Cambie Community Centre Feb. 23, 6-8 p.m.

- Hamilton Community Centre March 23, 6 - 8 p.m.

House size on farmland

-Richmond City Hall March 2, evening (tentative)

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