04 October 2017

How a Green Dealt With Holding the Balance of Power

A look at the voting record of former Vancouver Green Party trustee Janet Fraser and how critics and observers interpreted those votes.

By Katie Hyslop Today | TheTyee.ca 04/10/17
 Katie Hyslop is The Tyee’s education and youth reporter. Find her previous stories here.

Smaller political parties are frequently maligned in Canadian politics for “splitting the vote” and working against the interests of the mainstream parties.
The federal NDP and the BC Green Party are often criticized for taking voters away from more broadly established parties seen as more likely to form a government.

But while many fret over the trustworthiness of the BC Green Party and the long-term sustainability of the Green-NDP governing alliance in B.C., a much more politically fraught drama involving a Green holding the balance of power has already played out on the Vancouver School Board.

From 2014 to 2016, political newcomer and sole Green Party trustee Janet Fraser held the deciding vote between two politically powerful and often bitterly opposed parties on the Vancouver School Board, where the Non-Partisan Association and Vision Vancouver had four trustees each.

Much hay has been made over Fraser’s voting record, in particular her support of two NPA school board chairs after Vision Vancouver trustee Patti Bacchus’ eight-year reign as chair. Fraser voted to shut down public school closure consultations before they had begun, and she was the deciding vote in two school district budgets, one of which cut programs, jobs and student supports, while the other broke the law by refusing to balance the district budget.
Both parties on the board cast Fraser as rooting for the other side when her vote opposed — and often defeated — their own.
“Being relatively inexperienced and an intellectually strong person, I think she was trying to be fair and not be partisan towards one party or another, I’ve got to give her that,” said Fraser Ballantyne, a former NPA trustee who sat on the board with Fraser and is also running for school board again in the upcoming byelection.

“But her political alignment seemed to be with Vision. And I would almost call it a Vision-Green alliance in some respects.”

Even Fraser’s former fellow Green Party candidate spoke out against her, while a Green Party member painted her as an example of how the party is “not necessarily progressive.”

But no one has calculated her voting record, and with Fraser again running for the school board in the upcoming Oct. 14 byelection, we thought it worth exploring how and why she voted as she did during her brief two-year term before the whole board was fired by the Ministry of Education in October 2016.

Looking at the record

For the purposes of calculating Fraser’s votes in nearly 50 board meetings, we separated them into four categories: votes that aligned with NPA; votes that aligned with Vision; unanimous and/or votes where representatives of all three parties voted together; and unclear, when a vote happened but who voted and how wasn’t disclosed.

Votes on meeting and agenda structure, as well as accepting previous meetings’ minutes, were always unanimous and therefore not counted.

In total, Fraser voted with Vision Vancouver trustees 39 times. Her votes aligned with the NPA 26 times.

The most surprising result was the 181 votes that were either unanimous or involved all three parties voting the same way. Only six votes were unclear, though it’s worth mentioning the ballots for chair votes are secret and other than Fraser, who publicly disclosed how she voted, we can only assume trustees voted along party lines.

Sometimes these votes made a huge difference, the chair and budget votes in particular. Fraser supported a budget in 2015 that closed two adult education centres and ended the adult education program for youth at the South Hill Education Centre. The following year she refused to pass a budget that would have cut $24 million from the district, a move widely believed to be the reason the board was fired six months later.

Others were seemingly less significant. Over the course of three meetings in the spring of 2015, Fraser’s votes aligned with the NPA trustees five times to alter or send to the board’s planning and facilities committee a Vision-proposed, non-binding statement for the board to send to the province in support of government meeting their own 2020 deadline for seismically upgrading all B.C. schools.

But in the sixth vote, after the statement had returned from committee, Fraser voted the same as Vision trustees in favour of a statement very similar to the original version.

“The point of going to committee is that all stakeholders can have their input on the question before the board,” Fraser said in an interview with The Tyee, referring to the district’s employee association representatives who attend the planning and facilities committee meetings.

“I think in this instance I felt it would be helpful to have the stakeholder’s input. I think I was pretty sure what it would be, but even so have that opportunity for them to speak before it came back to the board for the final vote.”

Vision trustee Bacchus had a different take on Fraser’s motives: “In some cases there was a perception of someone bring[ing] forward a motion, a motion to refer [to committee] can be a way to get it off of the table,” Bacchus said.

Accusations of flip-flopping

Despite the very public rancour between the parties both during and after their time on the board, none of the former trustees The Tyee spoke to was surprised by the voting tally.

“There were certainly a lot of issues that were easier to deal with than some,” said Ballantyne of the majority unanimous or multi-party consensus votes. “We all had the intent that we tried to do the best we can for kids, and I think that’s where our decisions landed.”

Both the former Vision and NPA trustees expressed some frustration over Fraser’s unpredictability.
“I just don’t trust her now, personally,” said Ballantyne, adding an acknowledgement of the pressure she faced as the deciding voter. “She flips and flops and thinks in the moment, and I’m not sure if she’s thinking with her brain or if she’s thinking with her heart.”

“She kept her cards very close to her chest,” said Bacchus, alleging Fraser’s unpredictability added to district staff’s stress and was a factor in subsequent bullying allegations from staff against the board.
“It was very difficult. She didn’t seem interested in sitting down [prior to meetings] and saying here's how we’re going to get this passed. We wouldn’t really know until we were at the vote, which way she was going.”

For her part Fraser rejects the idea that she voted “with” any particular party, or on a left-right political continuum. Nor did she campaign on a promise to align with any other party. Instead she says every decision made was done with the six guiding values of the Green Party in mind: social justice, ecological wisdom, sustainability, non-violence, participatory democracy and respect for diversity.

“I was elected as myself, and I voted as I believed best,” she said. Fraser kept a blog during her time as trustee to help explain the reasoning behind each vote she cast, which can still be read here.
How partisan former board trustees feel about the votes of a fellow former trustee from another party is one thing. How did parents feel about Fraser’s voting record?

Farah Shroff, an associate professor at UBC’s medical school, was also vice-chair and acting chair of Vancouver’s District Parent Advisory Council when Fraser was a trustee. Shroff had briefly met Fraser as a fellow elected DPAC representative before Fraser left to run as a trustee, and they later worked together when Fraser became the board liaison at DPAC meetings.

While acknowledging that Fraser “upset a lot of people” by using her position to decide who become chair of the board, Shroff said Fraser struck her as “very hardworking, and she always knew the issues and did her homework.”

“I felt like Janet was always on the ball for what her background to the issues were, and whatever way she chose to vote was based on some information that she had gathered,” said Shroff, adding Fraser rarely missed a DPAC or board meeting.

“It wasn’t flippant, it wasn’t just some ideological thing. Which, unfortunately, I would have to say some of her [board] colleagues voted that way, with knee-jerk, political responses.”

Now back on the campaign trail, Fraser says she learned a lot in her two years as a trustee about how a board works and how to work collaboratively and respectfully with her fellow trustees and district staff. Fraser’s name appears once in the Worksafe BC report on bullying allegations against the board, and not at all in the board-commissioned Goldner report.

The Green Party candidate says she’s received mostly positive feedback from the public about her time on the board. But her biggest hurdle so far hasn’t been explaining her record.

“There’s a bit of a challenge getting the word out that there’s a byelection going on,” she said.  [Tyee]

29 September 2017

Vancouver park index aims to improve mental health: UBC study

 Researchers map quality and accessibility of parks in Vancouver

By: Wanyee Li   Metro Published on Thu Sep 28 2017
More than four in five residents in the Lower Mainland live within 400 metres of a public park and that’s good for mental health in the region, according to a new UBC study.
Researchers already know that spending time in nature lowers stress and improves mood in the short term, but this study focuses on the benefits of long-term exposure to natural spaces. UBC PhD candidate Emily Ruger mapped out 200 parks in the Vancouver area and found that the majority of residents are a short walk away from a park.
“About 85 per cent of postal codes were within 400 metres of public green space. That’s really good,” she said.
Ruger, who studies at UBC's School of Population and Public Health, also ranked those green spaces according to accessibility, form, presence, and quality. She says the index will give policymakers detailed information about what is missing from parks that rank low. For the most part, entry fees and lack of playgrounds or sport fields will hurt a park’s performance in the index, she said.
"What they need to know is specifically how many trees, how far from a park, and what types of features at a park are linked to mental health benefits so they can work to provide those.” 
Ruger has completed the first step – the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index was recently published in the journal Environmental Research. Now, she is overlaying survey data from the Canadian Community Health Survey of Mental Health on top of the map.
The last step will be to overlay PharmaNet data on where anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medication is prescribed on the map as well.
Those two data sets will help Ruger see the detailed relationship between mental health and continued access to parks.  
Ruger is also working on creating an interactive version of the index where people can look up their postal code and see how the quality of parks in their neighbourhood compares.
So far, the index shows there is little difference between the Lower Mainland’s rich and poor neighbourhoods.
"I picked 100 parks from high-income neighbourhoods and 100 from low-income neighbourhoods and there wasn’t any significant difference, which is really nice to see,” she said.
“It’s something we should be proud of.”

27 September 2017

Balloon ban not such a blowhard idea

— Westender 
 POP! There goes that idea. Last week, a proposed balloon ban for Vancouver parks and community centres was defeated by a vote of 5-2. Green commissioner Stuart Mackinnon was the man behind the motion. Mackinnon’s concern was environmental, citing health hazards for animals in the air, ocean and on land.

Before it was defeated, the motion blew up into a crazy amount of coverage, which resulted in parental outrage, tired cries of “No Fun City” and general mockery on social media and talk radio.
Balloon artists and birthday clowns took action, leading to a balloon animal-making protest outside of the Trout Lake Community Centre, as well as clowns showing up at the park board vote (which means it’s entirely possible that the motion was voted down because the park board was simply scared shitless.)

If you’ve read this column before, you probably won’t be too blown away to discover what side of the balloon battle I fall on. Put it this way: who are we to put our kids’ temporary enjoyment in the form of a damn balloon animal ahead of the potential death of an actual animal?

Look, you’re human, you’ve probably had a helium balloon get away on you. Chances are, your reaction was to watch the balloon climb to dizzying heights and then shrug it off. What can you do? But heads up, butterfingers, what goes up must come down, and chances are your balloon ended up either in a tree or the ocean.

According to Mackinnon, wherever deflated balloons land, they can be mistaken for food by birds, dolphins and other creatures, which means they can choke to death on your balloon. Remember that the next time your kid demands that Sponge Bob helium balloon: you could be killing a dolphin. Nice one.

Balloon clowns will argue (and really, who wants to get in an argument with a clown?) that many no longer use helium or Mylar (the shiny material used for most helium balloons). Instead, socially conscious clowns now favour biodegradable latex.

If you’ve ever taken a stroll down certain trails in Stanley Park, though, you’ll know that it takes a long time for latex to break down. That time gap is still a problem for animals. (Also, fair warning: what that person in the bushes is blowing is NOT a balloon animal!)

Another argument is that our city has bigger issues to deal with than park rangers chasing after kids with balloons; like, for instance, human health risks surrounding discarded needles in public spaces. Fair point, so deal with that, too.

And so the balloon ban motion has burst, but let’s hope the floataway from all of this inflated attention is public awareness: we are all now fully aware that those shiny, happy balloons are in fact an environmental menace. And that's no clowning around.

© 2017 Vancouver Westender

21 September 2017

Helping the Burrard Inlet ecosystem: salt marsh in New Brighton Park already attracting juvenile salmon and rich marine life

Vancouver Park Board
Media advisory
Sept 21, 2017

A new tidal wetland in New Brighton Park in east Vancouver has been created to improve access to nature for park visitors, and provide habitat for fish, birds and other wildlife. Salmon fry have already been swimming in the marsh.

The Vancouver Park Board and Port of Vancouver, in consultation with Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations, have worked together on this unique project to improve the health of Burrard Inlet.

Native plants, including 25,000 salt marsh plugs, over 800 trees, and 3,500 shrubs have been planted in the newly constructed wetland. These will benefit a broad range of species such as songbirds, raptors, and native bees.

Media are invited to learn more at a celebration event hosted by the Port of Vancouver:

·         When: 11am Thursday  September 21, 2017
·         Where: New Brighton Park, 3201 New Brighton Road
·         Who: Park Board Chair Michael Wiebe, VP of Port Infrastructure Cliff Stewart, representatives
                    from Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Wauthuth First Nations, invited guests
·         What: Celebration followed by media tour of salt marsh led by First Nations biologist
Parking available adjacent to the park on New Brighton Road or in the parking lot at the corner          of New Brighton Road and Commissioner Street*

Loss of tidal wetlands from Coal Harbour to Second Narrows has impacted fish and wildlife. The creation of a salt marsh is also part of the restoration of Hastings Creek through Hastings Park.

Salt marshes prevent coastal erosion and reduce flooding and act as nurseries and refuges for many species of marine animals, and protect water quality by filtering runoff.
The Park Board is working on similar biodiversity projects elsewhere such as restoring a historical stream through Volunteer and Tatlow parks on the citys west side. Construction is expected to begin next summer.

These initiatives support the Park Boards Biodiversity Strategy to improve ecosystems throughout the city.

Media contact:

19 September 2017

Balloon ban motion defeated by Vancouver Park Board

Majority felt the proposal, which received national attention, was too far reaching with not enough study

By Justin McElroy, CBC News Posted: Sep 19, 2017 5:56 AM PT

The Vancouver Park Board has deflated a proposal to ban balloons in all city parks.
In a 5-2 vote, commissioners rejected the motion, which had gained national attention since it was introduced last week.

Green Party Park Board Commissioner Stuart Mackinnon, who introduced the motion, said its most important effect would be to let people know the environmental hazards of balloons.

"We really need some education about this. Do people really understand the consequences of their actions when they have helium balloons, when you leave balloons in the park, when you have water balloons and they explode?" he said.

"Responsible people put their trash into buckets, but not everyone does that, and these are very serious consequences for our wildlife."

The Canadian Paediatric Society agreed in 2012 that balloons are the most common non-food item children choke on. Balloons have also been blamed for power outages in B.C. after they have become entangled in power lines, including a power outage for much of Granville Island during the Fringe Festival earlier this month.

But aside from Mackinnon and the other Green Party commissioner, the Park Board ultimately felt education was a better idea than prohibition.

"There is a general consensus that we do not want to use ranger time on this and I agree that nobody wants to be policing children and anything like that," said commissioner Catherine Evans.

Other board members expressed concern community centres and restaurants that operate on Park Board land hadn't been consulted, and that park rangers had better things to do with their time, including cleaning up used needles.

There was also an amendment to the motion so it would only apply to helium balloons, but that failed by a 4-3 margin.  ​

'I'm very surprised by the attention'

After the motion was revealed, it gained significant attention and provoked a protest by clowns — a development Mackinnon said caught him by surprise.

"I'm very surprised by the attention. I thought this would be a little motion, I would be labelled no fun Mackinnon, and we would move on," he said.

Despite the failed motion, he's heartened by the public debate it produced.

"I am pleased that we had this conversation," he said to commissioners, minutes before his motion failed.

But he predicted it wouldn't be the last time a balloon ban would come up at the park board table.

"We will have to change the way we act, whether it's now or later. The time is coming when our world is becoming filled with toxic things that are killing it.

"While the earth will go on forever, we may not."

(c) CBC 2017