More public awareness and scrutiny is often needed to understand who is supporting a rezoning at a public hearing. How often do the people who make written or oral submissions to City Council in support of a rezoning have undeclared direct or indirect pecuniary interests in a project being approved? Quite often, perhaps.
As one current example, it has been brought to our attention that persons with a direct connection with Concord Pacific comprise the majority of the people who wrote City Council so far in support (see PDF) of the Marine Gardens (455 Southwest Marine Drive) rezoning Public Hearing on Tuesday, February 24. Eleven of the 20 support letters are from employees working for Prompton Real Estate Services (www.prompton.com), which is an agent for Concord Pacific. Prompton also currently manages the rental units at Marine Gardens, and we have heard reports of bullying tactics from the proponent, pressuring current renters not to oppose the rezoning. For more information on the Public Hearing click here, and for a video interview with a current resident about what is about to be lost if the plan goes ahead, click here.
Of the 20 support letters as of 20-Feb-2015 ..
- 11 writers can be traced directly back to Prompton, the agent for Concord Pacific (proponent). (A few mention that they they work in real estate or property industries, but none of them directly mention any connection to Prompton or Concord Pacific.)
- 2 writers indicate that they work in the real estate or property industry.
- Only one writer indicates being a resident of the affected property.
- So from this sample of 20, 11 persons have a close employment connection with the proponent, and least two others are in the same industry. This totals 13, or 65% of the support letters.
- The content of the letters indicates a solid knowledge of City priorities and policies, formats are quite similar, and they appear to spread out their topics of the selling points of the rezoning.
- Even the clustered timing of several of the e-mails suggests some kind of coordinated messaging.
- Updated: Meanwhile — as of the day of the Public Hearing, a writer in opposition to the rezoning has reported that the Clerk’s office has failed to post their letters online and that this alone should have the Public Hearing declared invalid.
The minutes of a typical public hearing simply summarize the final numbers of letters (and speakers), something like this Public Hearing on 7-Feb-2015:
Summary of Correspondence (example from 7-Feb)
The following correspondence was received since it was referred to public hearing and prior to the close of the speakers list:
• 11 emails and letters in support
• 6 emails and letters in opposition
DISCUSSION: While City officials sometimes explain that the numbers of speakers and letters are NOT considered a voting process or popularity contest, these numbers do have some significance. They tell part of the story of the public process and are the most obvious sign of “public” input. Also, when casting their votes members of City Council often justify their support for a controversial rezoning by referring to the support it received. So as this example of Marine Gardens shows, there is a need to look beyond the surface and beyond the numbers to who is behind them, and consider whether there are vested interests, direct interest, or pecuniary interests involved. When people with a close connection with a proponent write letters like these, how much coordination is going on behind the scenes? Are they requested, pressured, enticed, or rewarded for their efforts? Some of the writers indicate the desire to live in the development once built. Do they get deals for having supported the project?
SOLUTIONS? Here are some ideas to increase the transparency of the support for a particular policy or rezoning.
- Developer voluntarily declares at the public hearing which speakers and/or writers have a direct or indirect connection with the proponent (employee of the proponent, subsidiary, architect or related contractor)
- Developer explains to City Council what actions they have taken to build support for the project, including the hiring of marketers, holding of meetings (public and invitation only), coaching, coordination of messaging, offering of incentives, etc.
- If the developer doesn’t proactively offer the information, perhaps shrewd members of City Council can find ways to ask the right questions and read between the lines.
- It would be a bonus for the public and a sign of good will if every developer asking for a rezoning were to include in their presentation a report of their donations to each civic party and/or elected official in the past one, two, or three elections. This would help put the relationship between the donors and the elected in context. Updated: For example, Concord Pacific connections (Terry Hui companies) gave Vision Vancouver $66,800 (Source – Vancouver Sun) in the 2014 civic election.
Below is a list of the Prompton agents who wrote letters of support for the rezoning. They are all listed publicly on city website as supporting the Concord Pacific rezoning, and on the company website site as members of the company: http://www.prompton.com/about-us/the-team/
Letters in support of the rezoning, as of February 20, 2015:
- A. Collins (Prompton marketing manager)
- R. Hermuller (Prompton sales associate)
- S. Pouttu (Prompton sales associate)
- A. Leong (Prompton sales associate)
- J. Kuse (Prompton property manager)
- T. Wray (Prompton sales associate)
- S. Man (Prmpton sales associate)
- A. Shi (Prompton account services representative)
- A. Ho (Prompton aenior account liason)
- J.e Thomas (Prompton leasing representative)
- W. Brown (Prompton property manager)
And here are some of the reasons they so strongly support Concord Pacific’s proposal:
- New density key to reduce carbon footprint
- Daycare facilities
- Money going to waterfront park
- Transit oriented growth
- Missed MC2 development and want to get in this time
- Vancouver 2020 greenest city action plan
- Units at Marine Gardens are “no longer suitable for anyone to live in. Conditions of building are extremely poor and it must be torn down.”
- Developer is granting money to affordable housing
- Clients want to live here
- Wants to help own child acquire a condo there
- Good location, access to public transit. Looking forward to moving there
- Plan to live there
- Greener future and transit friently development near transit
- Generous replacement program
- Low income rental shortage. Rebuilding 70 units
- Reallocaton allotment is generous. unprecedented
- Rental building, daycare centres
FOR FURTHER RESEARCH AND READING…
The City of Vancouver is quite open about who can send in comments on a Public Hearing.
“Members of the public can present their comments or concerns about a proposed zoning bylaw change.”
“All submitted comments will be distributed to Council and posted on the City’s website, provided that the comments:
Identify the author by name (if the author is not identified, the comments will not be circulated nor posted to the website)”
The City’s Corporate Communications office kindly confirmed the following today.
Identification of individuals for Public Hearings is governed by the City of Vancouver’s Procedure By-law 9756 (section 18).
- Procedure By-law 9756 Section 18. 4 says “all persons who deem themselves to be affected by the proposed by-law……may apply to the City Clerk to speak at the public hearing and, submit public comments to the City Clerk…..”
- Section 18.11 requires a name be put on public comments to have them included in the public hearing.
- Section 18.12 provides for the City Clerk to remove contact or personal information from those comments (e.g. email or residential address), although not the person’s name.
CityHallWatch’s interpretation of this is as follows:
- Are these the only requirements (i.e., just provide a name, and no other information is required)? YES, THAT’S IT.
- Is there no need to be a citizen of Vancouver, a resident of Vancouver? NO.
- Or even a citizen or resident of Canada? NO.
- Is there no need to provide a street address? NO NEED.
- Does the City actually do anything to verify whether or not an e-mail sender is a real person who exists in the universe? NO
Final thoughts — it would be interesting to compare Vancouver’s system to best practices for public input on rezonings in Canada or the world….