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Could District of North Vancouver have a residents’ assembly?

Council is also considering online tools in an effort to improve public engagement
Mayor Mike Little votes to approve a controversial supportive housing development on Keith Road in February. | Screenshot via District of North Vancouver council video

Distinguishing between the loudest and the most representative voices in the room during public hearings has come up again and again as a challenge in the District of North Vancouver.

That’s why council heard from experts at the Renovate the Public Hearing project during a workshop on Monday. Ultimately, council accepted the presentation for information and expressed enthusiasm for a final report in June.

In their presentation, representatives from the Renovate team outlined the results of consultation with municipal leaders and staff, as well as members of the public.

Feedback showed that people think it’s important to hear from the public on land-use decisions.

There was also consensus on the challenges of public hearings. Decision makers didn’t always feel they were getting information at the right time to make a project better, and sometimes there are risks – especially for non-profits – of financial loss if projects are rejected aafter a public hearing, according to the presentation.

Other key themes mentioned include having democratic dialogue throughout rather than just commenting toward the end of the process, as well as boosting the participation of all demographics, especially Indigenous individuals.

To gauge how public engagement could be improved, Renovate is watching how alternative models are playing out in real time.

In New Westminster, the municipality uses an online tool to gather feedback on a project before an application's third reading. According to Renovate, this gives shift workers or people with caregiving responsibilities a chance to chime in, and removes the unpredictability of how long it might take to participate.

Over in Gibsons, council has formed a residents’ assembly. A pool of 275 applicants was whittled down to 25 participants, with the help of an algorithm that determines a demographically representative sample. The assembly gathers to learn about a project, deliberate different options and trade-offs, and finally make recommendations to council.

Based on the high level of engagement, Gibsons is considering having the assembly stay as an advisory body moving forward.

Councillors supportive of tools to increase public engagement

Over the past 10-15 years, it’s been harder to get information out to the community, and interest has waned as well, said Coun Lisa Muri.

“I’m in favour being able to attract people online to take part in the process,” she said. “We’ve seen developers stack public hearings for years. We had one hearing where every single person that spoke was connected to the development industry.

“I think there’s a lot of work to do in regards to giving democracy back to our community, and not taking it away, which is what I think the province has done,” Muri said, referring to Bill 44, which bans most public hearings for residential projects.

Coun. Catherine Pope said council still wants to make sure the public is heard.

“We’ve got to also ensure that it’s inclusive, reflects the broader community and not just the people who have shown up for public hearings in the past,” she said.

Council wants to increase participation, especially since voter turnout in the last civic election was a meagre 23 per cent, said Coun. Herman Mah.

“When I looked at your presentation on the residents’ assembly model, it does seem like a big commitment. You talk about five sessions, six hours per day,” he said.

"At the same time, I know that a lot of people have busy lives now as it is…. Sometimes people just want to send a simple email. I get phone calls, or I get a request to meet with people in the community,” Mah said.

“I think that’s still an element of engagement that we don’t necessarily want to lose out on.”

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