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Mayor Ken Sim moving forward with plan to abolish Vancouver's park board

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Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim is moving to abolish the city's park board – the only elected body of its kind in Canada.

At a news conference Wednesday, Sim said he will be bringing a motion to council that will start the process by asking for a change to the Vancouver Charter, the provincial law that governs how the city operates. The motion will ask the province to "eliminate" the requirement for an elected park board, Sim said.

"Today, we are going to take the long-overdue step that will ensure that our parks and recreational facilities are able to serve our community to their fullest potential. It's vitally important, at this moment in time, that we take bold action to elevate the care of these essential spaces and bring a new level of accountability," he said.

"The system is broken and no amount of tweaking will fix it," he added.

He noted that in all other cities in Canada – and all but one in North America – the management of the municipal parks and recreation facilities is the responsibility of city council.

Coun. Sarah Kirby-Yung, a member of Sim's ABC party and a former park board commissioner, said she has seen the "structural issues" that come from having two separate elected bodies making decisions when it comes to parks and recreation.

"I believe that this is the right thing to do. It will remove redundancies and allow for more effective delivery of services," she said.

PARK BOARD HISTORY

The Vancouver Park Board was formed in the late 19th century with the primary purpose of managing Stanley Park, which was considered an area of military significance.

“They applied to the federal government to get hold of what had been a military reserve declared by the British Navy,” said Michael Kluckner, president of the Vancouver Historical Society.

“They get that in 1888 and they’re looking at a way to manage it and so they decide to set up a park board.”

At the time, the city’s population was around 5,000. As the city grew, so did the park board’s role in managing more parks providing recreational activities for working- and middle-class families.

From legalizing drinking in parks and beaches to outlining proper swimwear at public pools, the board’s influence has been felt throughout the city.

Kluckner says the board played a pivotal role in shaping some of the city’s most iconic landmarks, such as VanDusen Botanical Garden and English Bay.

“They managed to do a tremendous amount of work about getting the houses off the water side of English Bay in the West End,” said Kluckner. “There were a lot of houses and shacks there, and Jonathan Rogers had a vision that this should be park land, so a lot of what we have with Vancouver today is because the efforts of people like him and his colleagues on the park board.”

Kluckner believes Vancouver was one of just two cities with an elected park board in North America, the other being Minneapolis.

MAYOR'S ABOLITION PLANS

Six of seven board commissioners were elected as members of Sim's ABC party. Only three of them were present at the news conference and only three of them will be helping with the transition plan.

"I do want to give a special shout-out to them," Sim said. "They are literally putting the city's interests and the interests of our parks and recreational facilities above their personal interests."

Asked whether the other three have been dropped from the party, Sim said no, adding that he did not think it would be "productive" for them to be there during an "emotional" time.

When Sim first announced his 2022 mayoral campaign, he promised to abolish the Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation and bring its responsibilities under the umbrella of city council.

He later backed off of that pledge, promising his party would try to fix the park board instead.

Challenged on the fact that Wednesday's announcement represented a reversal of what he told voters during the campaign, he said it was not – pointing to a specific interview where he said he would go to the province if efforts to fix the board were not successful.

"I would say, basically, we're doing exactly what we said," he told reporters.

"The voters elected us to make decisions and so that's what we're doing," he added.

Asked why he was not waiting for a re-election campaign to put this plan forward, Sim cited dying trees in Stanley Park and crumbling community centres as two examples of why "our parks can't wait another three years."

Sim said the timeline for the transition is unclear, but that he expects the province to be able to amend the Vancouver Charter within six months. 

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