Vancouver park commissioners voted 4-3 Monday night to unlock $20,000 to seek independent legal advice on whether the board would be successful in quashing Mayor Ken Sim’s move to abolish the elected body.
The motion introduced by the Green Party’s Tom Digby was in response to Sim’s announcement in December 2023 that he was beginning the process to abolish the board and bring parks and recreation under the control of city council.
“This is our opportunity here to stand up for ourselves and make it clear to Vancouverites that we intend to defend this elected park board for all the values that it brings to us,” said Digby, whose motion was supported by former ABC Vancouver commissioners Laura Christensen, Scott Jensen and Brennan Bastyovanszky.
The motion included an amendment from Bastyovanszky to have whichever law firm is hired to also provide a legal opinion on whether Sim’s move — which was supported by all seven ABC councillors in a December council vote — violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“That's an important one,” said Bastyovanszky, who is chair of the board. “This would set a terrifying precedent across the country where votes don't matter — where no matter how many people come out, their voice can be snuffed out at any point if someone in power doesn't like what they hear.”
ABC commissioners Jas Virdi, Angela Haer and Marie-Claire Howard opposed Digby’s request for legal counsel, arguing it was a waste of taxpayers’ money. Haer also suggested the board could end up spending a lot more money than $20,000 — “maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars” — if a legal case begins.
Haer: “Where’s all that money going to come from?”
Digby: "I'm expecting that the mayor will, in his good sense, withdraw the motion [before legal fees mount] and then we're all good.”
Haer: “It's wishful thinking.”
Digby said the $20,000 will come from the park board general manager’s budget. He suggested the board might not have to spend the whole amount, and possibly only a fraction of the sum.
“You can often bring an application for $2,500 at B.C. Supreme Court,” said Digby, who is an intellectual property lawyer. “So I mean you could simply get your advice and go for it.”
All three ABC commissioners, who have sided with the mayor since he announced his intention to abolish the board, argued the less costly route to seek a legal opinion would be via the board’s integrity commissioner, Lisa Southern, who also serves in the same role for the city.
Digby and his supporters said Southern rules on conduct of commissioners and is not mandated to provide legal opinions for an elected body. It was not clarified by park board staff during debate whether Southern could provide a legal opinion.
The debate was spirited at times, with Howard referring to the elected body as a “lame duck” — a comment that caused board chair Bastyovanszky to caution the commissioner “to be respectful in your words.”
Howard is a volunteer of the transition team the mayor has created to bring parks and recreation under control of city council. However, the team cannot complete its work until the provincial government agrees to amend the Vancouver Charter.
The government first wants the city to clarify questions over land ownership, the future of workers at the park board and consult with the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh nations.
Premier David Eby has not pushed back against the mayor’s request, but has told reporters it is not his government’s top priority.
Also, only the Musqueam has publicly stated its support for the transition, with the Squamish and Tsleil-Waututhremaining neutral; so far, the two nations have only agreed to meet with the provincial government to discuss the city’s proposed amendments and how they relate to the Provincial Declaration Act.
'Don't fall down dead'
Digby made it clear at Monday’s meeting that he wasn’t willing to give up on the fight to preserve an elected body that was first created in 1890 — a fight a couple dozen former park commissioners have joined in a campaign to stop the board’s abolition.
“I have a principle in life that I don't fall down dead until I've been shot,” he said. “And contrary to some of my peers, I get the sense around the table that they're willing to fall down dead before the shot is even fired.”
Digby and more than 100 people gathered at a town hall meeting Feb. 1 at city hall, where all but one of the speakers opposed the mayor’s move. The meeting was organized by Green Party councillors Pete Fry and Adriane Carr, along with OneCity’s Christine Boyle, who voted against abolition of the board.
On Wednesday, council is scheduled to hear from staff on next steps on Sim’s proposal, which he has argued will fix “a broken system.”