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Voters deserve referendum on abolishing Vancouver Park Board, critics say

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Critics are slamming Mayor Ken Sim's surprise push to abolish the Vancouver Park Board as haphazard and undemocratic, arguing voters deserve to decide the fate of the elected body in a referendum.

While the mayor and council lack the authority to abolish the park board on their own, Sim announced Wednesday that he's bringing forward a motion asking the B.C. government to amend the Vancouver Charter and remove the requirement to maintain the board.

Given that voters have been electing park board commissioners for more then 130 years, some city councillors believe such a drastic change should be decided directly by the electorate.

"When you put citizens in charge of electing a body, I don't think you get rid of it by a stroke of a pen," said Coun. Adriane Carr of the Green Party. "I think you have to go through due process."

Christine Boyle, the city's lone OneCity councillor, agreed. She also suggested Sim – whose motion goes before council next week – was rushing a plan ahead without doing the "informed work" such a major upheaval demands.

"To be bringing forward a motion with so little notice for council, so little notice for the park board or the public, after a wishy-washy commitment in the campaign, I think it's really concerning," Boyle said.

Sim initially promised to abolish the Vancouver Park Board and bring its responsibilities under the umbrella of city council while running for mayor last year – but walked back that pledge, instead promising his ABC party would work to fix the board instead.

At his announcement Wednesday, Sim noted that he did, in one interview during the campaign, indicate he would take the issue to the province if attempts to address the park board's problems were unsuccessful.

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

Less than two weeks ago, Vancouver's auditor general released a performance audit of the park board that found it "did not operate an effective framework for achieving revenue-related objectives for its revenue-generating assets and services."

Park board vice-chair Brennan Bastyovansky said staff quickly approved all of the recommendations made in that audit. It's unclear why the board has not been given time to implement those changes.

Sim was also asked why he wasn't waiting for the next election, when he could run on a clear promise to dissolve the board, but cited dying trees in Stanley Park as an example of why "our parks can't wait another three years."

It was recently revealed some 160,000 trees must be removed from the park due to an infestation of hemlock looper moths.

Carr noted the infestation has been blamed on the extreme drought municipalities across Metro Vancouver have faced due to climate change – and called Sim's suggestion that the park board is somehow responsible absurd.

"He doesn't get biology," Carr said. "He doesn't get climate change."

A 2022 survey found approximately half of Vancouver residents would support doing away with the park board, which is the only elected body of its kind in a major Canadian city.

The first park board was appointed by council in 1888 with a mandate of "providing recreation and leisure for the citizens of Vancouver," according to an illustrated history produced by the city. Officiating the opening of Stanley Park – on land that had just been set aside by the federal government – was one of the board's first duties.

The first elected commissioners were voted in two years later.

Carr argued Vancouver's parks and beaches are some of the key reasons that tourists flock to the city each year, and suggested the park board's cultivation and management of those natural features justifies its existence.

"To have community control, through an elected process, to make sure that park system is a world-class system, I don't think you throw that out," she said. "I think you're getting rid of something that is unique and beautiful about Vancouver, and that the citizens love."

With files from CTV News Vancouver's Lisa Steacy

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