Vancouver’s neighbourhood-based citizen’s groups, using blogs and other social media tools, are busy rallying locals to attend several city council candidate’s forums scheduled ahead of the Nov. 19 municipal vote.
The Residents Association Mount Pleasant (RAMP) called one of the first meetings for Oct. 26th at south Main Street’s Heritage Hall. The group’s goal is to get council hopefuls to clearly state to what degree, if elected, they will use neighbourhood-level input to guide city planning and land use decisions.
RAMP and Rize
RAMP was formed in response to a July 2010 rezoning application by Rize Alliance Properties. The building proposed by Rize at the corner of Kingsway and East Broadway includes a mix of retail and residential units and would rise to 19 stories at its highest point. Fifteen of the 241 dwellings would be rentals proposed under the city’s Short Term Incentives for Rental program.
The group believes the development threatens the neighbourhood’s current character. On its website and in regular Facebook and Twitter posts, RAMP argues that the project doesn’t fit with the vision that emerged from the 2007-2010 Mount Pleasant community planning program.
“Generations of residents, planners, and politicians have created the current environment in Mount Pleasant,” said Stephen Bohus, RAMP’s director. “Now, an opportunistic developer has come in and they have a different vision: high rises.”
Mount Pleasant residents who attended community consultations held by Rize in March and April 2011 expressed little support for the project. RAMP has gathered nearly 2,000 signatures on a petition opposing it.
The public hearing and council vote on Rize’s rezoning application is unlikely to occur before Nov. 19. Bohus believes the outcry from angry constituents about the project has spooked the election-minded council.
“I don’t think Council will want to look at a public hearing of a few hundred people right before the election” he said. “That’s not a politically expedient thing to do; you don’t want to have a hot potato in your hands.”
Citizens call council candidates on the carpet
RAMP proposed the upcoming all-candidates meeting as a way to force council candidates to take a stance on the Rize project and other development projects across the city that are facing local opposition.
“It’s sort of a litmus test,” said RAMP volunteer Sandeep Johal. “Citizens can really decide who is espousing their values and supporting their communities.”
Other citizen groups have adopted a similar strategy, and a series of all-candidate meetings pack the calendar in the weeks leading up the the 2011 municipal election.
Randy Helten, a candidate for mayor with the Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver, tracks the events on his blog CityHallWatch. He says the pre-election forums grow out of a frustration with the current Vision Vancouver majority on city council. Helten estimates neighbourhood groups have dedicated “tens of thousands of hours” organizing letters, emails and calls to council that are critical of projects in the city planning process, to seemingly little effect.
“Vision Vancouver has absolute power on city council, with 8 of eleven votes,” said Helten. “They vote as a block, with almost no exceptions, against the wishes of the community.”
New media, new activism
The large number of pre-election forums reflects the growth of a relatively new network of citizen bloggers and Internet-savvy neighbourhood-based organizations, according to Helten. He says few such candidate debates occurred before the 2008 election.
In the coming weeks, these groups will use social media tools and other means of Internet-based publication to distribute records of the candidate’s meetings.
“We will be filming, Twittering, and live streaming our event,” said RAMP’s Johal. “It will be right there in black and white. People can see exactly what’s said; it can’t be misinterpreted.”
Johal hopes the records of the candidate’s statements will inspire voters and inform their choices on Nov. 19, an exciting prospect for Helten, as well.
“This election will be really interesting to watch, because it puts the information into the hands of the citizens,” he said. “It’s a new stage in our democratic system here in Vancouver.”