Big room for political bias in selection process for advisory bodies of City Council (via Nomination Sub-Committee)

Heritage CommissionThe City of Vancouver has created over 30 boards, agencies and committees that allow for public participation and input. The purpose of the advisory panels is to “advise Council and City staff.” Citizens can apply for vacant positions on these advisory panels, provided they fulfil a number of eligibility requirements.

How are appointees selected for the advisory panels? Is there potential for political bias in this selection? Can this process be improved to improve the likelihood that the public’s interests will be put above political interests?

The selection process begins when the City advertises and list vacancies on panels (the advisory panels were at some point in the past created by Council).

All of the applications for an advisory panel are first screened by the three-person Nomination Sub-Committee. Membership on this Sub-Committee is approved by the Council majority. Vision Vancouver Councillors have held a majority on the Sub-Committee since December 8, 2008. Current Sub-Committee members are Councillors Andrea Reimer (Vision Vancouver), Tim Stevenson (Vision Vancouver), and Elizabeth Ball (Non Partisan Association). In practice, it comes up with a list appointees to each advisory panel, and then these recommendations are adopted by a majority vote at an in-camera (private) meeting of City Council.

To an outside observer, it certainly looks like political bias (selected people friendly to the dominant regime) could occur. In effect, the party controlling City Council decides who gets on the advisory body, which then provides advice to City Council, which then adopts the “advice” from the advisory body.

The composition of the Nomination Sub-Committee over the last 3 Councils is as follows (blue indicates Vision Vancouver):
nomination subcommittee

Again, in effect, the Council majority can determine which individuals it chooses to provide advice, all with the appearance (on the surface) of having been done objectively. Have party insiders, lobbyists and political donors been appointed to advisory panels in the past? Yes. Could there be a perception that constructive criticism of the City’s policies might be muted as a result of the majorities on advisory panels? Could there be a systemic bias to leave strong, independent voices off panels?

If there is a gender imbalance on the advisory panels, then that would likely be a result of choices by the majority on the Nomination Sub-Committee.

There’s no public oversight over advisory panel appointments.

In the case of the Urban Design Panel, some of the recommendations for vacant positions are made by professional associations (such as the AIBC and BCSLA). However, the terms of reference are made by Council, and it could be a simple change to open up the UDP to a broader range of applicants (for example, to anyone with a professional degree in Engineering, Architecture, Landscape Architecture in order to include retirees, academics and to ensure gender balance).

SOME IDEAS, OPTIONS TO CONSIDER

Is there a better way to select advisory panel members? One option could be a lottery.

Even professional organizations such as the NHL use the lottery for the draft. In the event that the Vancouver Canucks were to miss the Stanley Cup playoffs this year, there is still a chance that the team selects the first, second, or third overall draft pick.

Advisory panels could also be subject to a lottery. Applicants who meet the criteria could be given a fair chance of being selected. A lottery could be used to first pick the women and then the men for each advisory panel. Voila! Gender balance, and less chance of political bias.

By the potential for political bias in selection, the public could be the loser. Perhaps it results in missed opportunities to address citizen concerns during a rigorous policy formulation stage.

Food for thought: What is the probability of improving the advisory panel selection process? Is it greater than the Canucks selecting Auston Matthews first overall?

Another area for future discussion is the role of academics, grassroots organizations and independent groups in formulating City policy (outside the realm of City-run and chosen advisory panels).

As of this writing, the only committee with vacancies is the Election Task Force (applications are due by March 24, 5pm).

References
Mayor Gregor Robertson relies on public relations, but does that add up to real citizen involvement? (Charlie Smith, The Georgia Straight, May 23, 2013)

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