The ”UniverCity” lands are part of an undemocratic system that needs reform, according to candidates for the area’s elected representative.
Four new contenders are challenging the incumbent director Maria Harris on the issue of governance of Electoral Area A – a scattered set of regions around Vancouver that are not part of any municipality.
They include the University Endowment Lands and the University of British Columbia, commonly called the “UniverCity”. Area A also includes the Barnston Island, Howe Sound and Indian Arm communities.
The candidates are hoping to win votes in the Nov. 19 election and become the only elected official representing the UniverCity.
Over 11,000 people live in the area. Candidate Scott Andrews thinks the term “city” should be taken more literally, especially considering the population is expected to reach 24,000 by 2020.
The problem, says Harris, is that it is not within the director’s power to change governance.
“Does the director have influence? Yes. Do they have authority? No. If they tell you ‘I plan to change governance,’ I defy anybody in this role of doing anything other than exerting an influence,” he said.
The Director of Electoral Area A sits on the Board of Metro Vancouver, alongside 36 other mayors and councilors for the region. The vote of each member is weighted according to the population of their region, meaning that Area A’s vote is worth just 0.5% of the total.
“We need an open, active and inclusive conversation on governance.” said UBC political science student Spencer Rasmussen, who has been following the issue for several years.
”All voices need to be heard, and all voices need to hear each other,” he added. “The Area A candidates need to think about how they will ensure that conversation takes place.”
Getting a say on transit
The current structure of Area A affects many areas of life for students and residents. With no council or mayor, they are not represented on TransLink, despite UBC being the second-busiest transport hub in Metro Vancouver.
“Other municipalities are essentially allowed to make decisions for transit that’s relevant to UBC,” said Alexandria Mitchell, a candidate for director who is making transit her top priority.
Listen: Mitchell: 43,200 trips down the Broadway corridor every day (3:29)
If the UniverCity were to become a municipality, a vote on TransLink would be automatically granted. However, students not living on campus, and thus those using transit the most, would not be eligible to vote.
At the last election in 2008, less than a thousand of a possible 9000 votes were cast in the vote for the director, and only around 250 of them came from the student population.
Ruling over the land
The non-student residents of the UniverCity are represented by the University Neighbourhood Association (UNA), which advises UBC’s Board of Governors, but does not hold a seat. The Board of Governors is made up of both elected representatives from the student, faculty and employee populations; and members appointed by the province.
[pullquote]Some say the UBC Board of Governors is like a 19th century monarchy; they own the land, they develop the land and that’s terrible[/pullquote]The UNA has control over issues such as parking and noise in the non-student residences, but conflicts have arisen since the 2008 election over control of land use and development.
In the summer of 2010, the province took the power of land use planning on campus away from Metro Vancouver and gave it to the provincial government’s Ministry of Community, Sport and Cultural Development. This increased UBC’s power to make decisions about development .
“Some say the UBC Board of Governors is like a 19th century monarchy; they own the land, they develop the land and that’s terrible,” said candidate Andrews, who is running with the intent of transforming the area into a municipality.
The decision to place a hospice near the South Campus residences caused many to question the value of the quasi-municipal UNA structure. The hospice was planned by UBC before consultation with residents, and the predominantly Asian community living next door opposed it on cultural grounds.
Writing in May 2011 in The Campus Resident, a newspaper for those living at UniverCity, Hawthorn Place resident Greg Feldman called for a review of the local governance system.
“The controversy emerged from the absence of a process for resolving local differences that we can proudly call democratic,” he said.
“This statement is no indictment against the UNA, but only a sign that its weak position relative to UBC should inspire us to strengthen it into a more robust body for local governance.”
Time for change
At an all candidates meeting for director at Westbrook Village on Nov. 10, most contenders advocated for a change to the governance system of Electoral Area A and its knock-on effects for the relationship between UBC and UniverCity residents.
The incumbent Harris is instead focusing her work on transit and building relationships on the Metro Vancouver Board. She thinks less drastic solutions to the governance problem can be sought.
“Residents should have a determining say [in development planning]. There are a variety of routes we could use to reach this goal. [For example] UBC makes a plan, and then an independent locally-elected body approves it,” she said.
“I’m not ready at this time to endorse a particular route; I don’t think it’s wise.”
The obligation to conduct a governance review rests with the provincial Minister of Community, Sport and Cultural Development, and would be expected to take two years.
Directors serve three-year terms, which candidates agree is not long enough to completely overhaul the governance system.