How Sam Sullivan thinks we should rebuild city hall

The former Vancouver mayor wants to see the legislative and judicial functions at city hall separated

September 22, 2016

By Max Fawcett / Photo: Carlo Ricci

Sam Sullivan remembers it like it happened yesterday. It was the late ’90s and the former mayor and current BC Liberal MLA was a rookie city councillor. After gathering data that showed the public was broadly supportive of so-called neighbourhood centres—pockets of density along major arterial roads—the city embarked on pilot projects in Dunbar and Kensington–Cedar Cottage to find out where residents wanted their neighborhood centres to be located. That, Sullivan says, was where it all went sideways. “Residents said, ‘You don’t understand. We think the neigbhourhood centres are good for their neighbourhoods, but not our neighbourhood. In fact, we want to down-zone.’ We lost more than a thousand units of housing on our very first attempt to densify.”

That setback shaped Sullivan’s aborted term as the mayor of Vancouver, one that saw him push for more density on the basis of both its ecological and economic merits. Ironically, the EcoDensity Charter was passed by city council just two days after he was deposed by fellow NPA member Peter Ladner in an internal vote before the 2008 election. But EcoDensity didn’t exactly spell the end for the single-family home, and in the years that have followed, Sullivan never stopped believing in his vision—or the willingness of Vancouverites to support it if given a chance. “My belief is that the citizens of Vancouver are very comfortable with density,” he says. “It’s just that the system is designed to magnify the voices of those who are naturally opposed to it.”

That’s why he’s now pitching a major change to that system’s design, one that would see the legislative and judicial functions at city hall separated from each other. As it stands, city council does both, a vestige of the Baldwin Act of 1849 (which laid the legal groundwork for cities in Canada). He’s not the only one who finds the arrangement unusual either. “It is the weirdest thing in the world that councils sit as a policy-making body in the day, and people will come and make presentations to them on that basis,” says Vision Vancouver councillor Andrea Reimer. “But then, at night, they come and it’s the same people sitting there, and suddenly we’re a regulatory body.”

That dissonance, she says, can create confusion among members of the public—and cynicism about the decision-making process. “It would be like if an MLA was suddenly the judge in a court case enacting the law that they just passed last week. That’s weird, right?” Sullivan thinks the two jobs should be split apart, with councillors like Reimer setting the policy direction and an independent judicial body charged with enforcing it. “The council should have the role of determining where we’re going, what the vision is and what we want from our city,” he says. “As to the details, a judge would be able to take the description from council and interpret it in reality.”

According to Sullivan, the current arrangement makes the urgent conversation around development in Vancouver impossible to navigate. “Right now,” he says, “it’s easy to bully the council.” And he’s not alone in thinking this. Beau Jarvis, a local developer who’s been the target of disgruntled residents, says the city is stuck in what he calls the “paradox of planning”—that the people who are most likely to come out to public meetings and be vocal about planning decisions are the ones least likely to be affected by them over the long run. It’s older residents—“people who don’t have kids in the house any more, people who are retired”—who have the time to show up, he says, whereas young parents and busy professionals do not.

Sullivan knows his idea won’t be popular with everyone, and that it could easily alienate both his current colleagues in the BC Liberal caucus and his former ones at city hall. But he isn’t exactly a stranger to controversy, and he’s spent much of his career fighting on behalf of his vision for Vancouver’s future. Max Cameron, a political science professor at UBC, thinks Sullivan is uniquely poised to bring this particular idea forward: “He’s been the mayor, he knows what city government is like, and now he’s an MLA. I would think that a creative idea from Sam could well get the ear of the premier and the cabinet.”

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