Perhaps one of the most important (but least understood) bodies at Vancouver City Hall is the Nomination Sub-Committee. This Sub-Committee decides who is selected (and conversely, not selected) for roles on the City’s various agencies, boards and advisory panels. It is made up of City Councillors.
Readers of this post will realize why this sub-committee merits public scrutiny.
What happens when someone applies for a position to an advisory panel? More often than not, the applications are collected and forwarded to Council’s Nomination Sub-Committee. The applicants are screened and then selected to fill the advisory panel. Finally, the names of the chosen applicants are brought forward at an in-camera meeting of City Council, and the recommended panel members are essentially rubber-stamped.
The names of the Councillors who are set to go on the Nomination Sub-Committee were released as an item on the agenda for the City Council meeting scheduled for Tuesday, December 8, 2020. For the term now ending, the Nomination Sub-Committee comprised of three members, Councillors Boyle, Bligh and Wiebe.
But now, an important change is imminent. The recommendations going before Council would expand the Nomination Sub-Committee to five members, by adding Councillors Hardwick and Swanson. The term of the appointment would last until the next civic election (from January 1, 2021 to November 7, 2022).
While the recommendations for the committee appear to come in the form of a memo from the Mayor, Council would actually be free to amend the appointments in the meeting. However, this doesn’t happen, as the real negotiations happen beforehand, behind closed doors that determine which Councillors fill which slots on all of the various committees of Council and appointments to regional bodies (such as Metro Vancouver Board). The recommendations for the Committees will almost certainly be rubber-stamped at the upcoming Council meeting and adopted on consent.
The City regularly calls for volunteers to fill vacancies in advisory panels. The panels can help shape policy going to Council, and the input of the advisory groups is often sought by staff in reports. If someone is chosen to fill a position at an advisory panel, they have a chance to contribute with their skills, experience and expertise.
For people who are considering running for office, volunteering on an advisory panel can be good experience in learning the ins-and-outs of City Hall, learning to follow the meeting rules of Council, and interacting with staff and elected officials. Participating on an advisory board helps in understanding policy reports and the City’s processes, and also helps pad a “civic CV.” This of course applies to those members of the public who wish to participate and then who are lucky enough to be selected to serve.
There is of course the flip-side of the process, when the majority on the City’s Nomination Sub-Committee passes over (i.e., rejects) applicants, including people who have demonstrated skills in specific areas and who have applied over and over again. Appointments should theoretically be based on merit and not how well someone is connected.
There’s also the situation (very prevalent in the Vision era from 2008 to 2018) when many of the same people kept being reappointed to the same boards, over and over again (without giving the opportunity for new faces and fresh ideas to come to the committees). They’re the questions of partisanship, and the possibility that a ruling majority party would stack committees with members who will agree with the parties policies (and who are sometimes card carrying members of the party), as well as appointing industry insiders. It might be a good idea to apply term limits (which already apply to some committees) more broadly.
It’s sometimes hard to find volunteers to fill some of the committees. The work can be gruelling, with lots of self-sacrifice. Other members of the committee might not be doing the work that was agreed upon. People can burn-out, quit, or just simply get frustrated when hard work goes to waste. They can work tirelessly and have staff and Council ignore their input. There can be a lot of diverging opinions in the room, staff with specific agendas and industries to support and cater to, as well as pressure not to rock the boat with a diverging opinion. Volunteering on an advisory panel is not for faint of heart.
Finally, another question is about all of the other voices in the community not represented on a committee or advisory body. What happens to them?
Hopefully, the expanded Nomination Sub-Committee will be able to rectify some of the shortcomings of the selection process of volunteers for Civic Bodies, Advisory Boards and Panels. There’s still no community input, vote or anything similar to that in the selection of advisory panels, apart from the election cycle that is now once every four years (up from three years, starting in 2014). Without further community input, a rhetorical question can come back to Council when Council says, “We are following the advice of (a certain) civic committee.” The public can respond simply: “Well, yes, you appointed them.”
Would more checks and balances be a good thing for this sub-committee?
Not all appointments go through the Nomination Sub-Committee, it appears that members of the Short Term Rental Working Group were selected by another process.
Here is one egregious example of how things have been manipulated. After heated controversy over developments in the West End, Vision Vancouver then-mayor Gregor Robertson established the Mayor’s West End Community Advisory Committee (nicknamed WEMAC) in 2010, with Vision party Councillors Andrea Reimer and Tim Stevenson as co-chairs. They selected 12 chosen ones from among over 70 applicants through a non-transparent process. Over time it turned out that two members were leading Vision’s secret “West End Caucus,” tasked with drumming up support for the next election, and several others on the committee were friends of Vision and others employed in the development industry. WEMAC did not meet even once in the West End (always at City Hall), and did not actively solicit input from the community. But its recommendations were paraded around as “community support” for the West End Community Plan (2013), which unlocked billions of dollars of development opportunities and profits over the next several years for Vision Vancouver’s donors, and for years its chair Dean Malone continued attending public hearings to speak in favour of major tower developments in his capacity as “former chair” of the committee, which fit right into Vision’s playbook.
Last term, two-thirds of the three-person committee was controlled by Vision Vancouver (Andrea Reimer, Tim Stevenson in 2017 & 2018), so they could always outvote Elizabeth Ball (NPA):