‘When you doubt the data, abstain’: Statement by Clr Colleen Hardwick

Some crucial votes are coming up over the next two days at Vancouver City Council, July 20 and 21, 2021. Then comes the two-month summer break for Council. We have received this following statement from Councillor Colleen Hardwick and decided to publish it. She is being targeted and criticized from various sides in various media for her decision to abstain on a number Council votes and decisions over the past year. A number of weeks ago she sent her opinion to the chief editor of the Vancouver Sun. Other members on Council have had their opinions published there. Clr Hardwick received absolutely no response. Therefore, as alternative media, we feel it is crucial to make her explanation available to the public this way. Full text follows.

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When you doubt the data, abstain

By Colleen Hardwick

When you doubt, abstain.
(Ambrose Bierce, American journalist, 1842-1914)
Read more at https://www.brainyquote.com/topics/abstain-quotes

As a Vancouver City Councillor, I’m often asked to vote on issues before I can get answers to my questions about them.

And that’s why I abstain – not to avoid taking a position but because I have doubts and cannot make an informed and reasoned decision.

Does it drive some in the media and elsewhere to distraction?  You bet. 

But when one votes, there is the choice to vote in favour/support/approve, to vote in opposition/against/deny – or to abstain.  In Robert’s Rules of Order, used in most meetings, to abstain is to not vote at all. 

Why abstain?

The main reason not to vote, or abstain, is because you have not received adequate information to inform your decision one way or another.

[Oddly, under the Vancouver Charter, the provincial legislation governing our city, a vote in abstention is considered a vote in favour. If there is a tie, an abstention is treated as a vote in favour, rather than being excluded from the vote, as it would be under Roberts’ Rules.  When the City Clerk reads out the results of a vote, an abstention would be treated as “none voting in opposition.”]

So, for example, when I ask city staff questions that they do not answer, I have insufficient information to make a decision.

The vast majority of my abstentions have involved rezoning applications.  Each rezoning application that relies on the Housing Vancouver Strategy for its policy precedent and justification begs the fundamental question for me: where is the data supporting this policy? 

I have repeatedly questioned the veracity of the Housing Vancouver Strategy on which all rezoning applications seen by City Council are based.  (January 29, 2019February 26, 2019; October 22, 2019).  I have been told that the housing “targets” are “aspirational” and, by implication, not evidence-based.

In May 2020, I drafted a Member’s Motion called “Recalibrating the Housing Vancouver Strategy Post COVID-19”.  At that point, I was able to arrange a 90 minute Zoom call with the Director of Planning and Head of Housing Policy and Regulation together with several academics, including UBC professor emeritus geographer David Ley; geography and environment professor John Rose, and urban planner and director of Simon Fraser University’s City Program Andy Yan.

During that call, we itemized the housing data needed to create an accurate picture of the state of housing in the city, including the secondary rental market, short-term rentals, international student impact, existing zoned capacity, and housing production in the pipeline. 

After that call, I amended my motion to integrate the details of our conversation, including direction to staff to provide a memo with attached datasets by the end of July. The motion passed with none in opposition, but ironically with two abstentions, namely by Mayor Kennedy Stewart and Councillor Christine Boyle.

On July 31, 2020, Council received a  “memo” with the Staff’s response, presenting its “findings” but with no data attached.  I emailed immediately in disappointment at receiving a PDF report with no data, and followed up with a memo, compiled with my academic colleagues, that critiqued the “findings” line by line.

Again, I requested the data. We received another response from the City Manager without data.  I asked again. No data. Next, I asked on the record under Enquiries and New business in Council on September 15, 2020.  Then, another email from the City Manager with a memo from the Director of Planning – no data.  Then I tried a call with the Mayor and Chief of Staff. 

The Mayor indicated that his team had reviewed our memo response and would press forward with Staff.  Next, I briefed the Acting City Manager. Then, well into the new year, I made another enquiry to Council  about the missing Housing Vancouver Data.  Now, we have a new Director of Planning. Still no data.

A year later, we continue to make decisions based on aspiration rather than evidence. In computer science, garbage in, garbage out (GIGO) is the concept that nonsense input data (garbage) produces nonsense output. Such is the case with the Housing Vancouver Strategy. I cannot in good conscience vote in favour of rezoning applications based on fundamentally flawed policy. That is why I abstain.

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One thought on “‘When you doubt the data, abstain’: Statement by Clr Colleen Hardwick

  1. There seems to be a total disrespect for the elected representatives of Vancouver city Hall. Are other Councillors feeling the same way? Could you find out? Or does the “party” system preclude that?

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