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COVER STORY: Inside the North Shore's community associations
Residents’ associations have long been a fixture on the North Shore, with records of ratepayers’ groups and neighbourhood steering committee meetings dating back to the era of incorporation.
They’re at the very grassroots of the political landscape, serving as both a community sounding board and political springboard for more than a few careers in public life.
But an in-camera vote of the District of North Vancouver council to cancel its oversight of the 18 community groups operating in the district has caused some in-fighting and worry among members.
From 1995 until just recently, the district had a policy of only recognizing those community associations which met eight specific criteria. Those criteria were that the community association; have a mandate that includes improving the quality of life in the neighbourhood, open its membership to all persons living in the area, register with district council the names and phone numbers of all officers and directors, communicate with its members regularly, advertise and hold annual general meetings, post written guidelines for how residents might bring concerns to the association and guidelines on how the association’s records are kept, and finally, that district council would inform the association if any other group sharing the same geographical area was making a presentation to council.
For their troubles, those groups meeting the criteria were welcome to a bit of money under the district’s Healthy Neighbourhood Funding policy. For now, that $5,000 fund remains. Yet with no criteria for eligibility, how the district’s Sustainable Community Development Department will dole it out remains unclear.
Be that as it may, the bigger issue at stake, say many of the more established associations, is the loss of oversight.
“There is no incentive now for anyone to do things properly,” says Lynn Valley Community Association president Eric Miura. Founded in 1911, the 101-year-old LVCA is one of the most influential associations in the district and has long been a model for new neighbourhood group upstarts.
“But now what they have said is, ‘We don’t recognize any of them any more.’”
In its defence, the district says it undertook the recent review of its policy on community associations partly because it knew its criteria were not being met by many of its officially recognized groups anyway.
“In the review of it, half of the community associations weren’t meeting the criteria that we had set up,” explained district chief administrative officer David Stuart, when the decision by council to scrap its oversight was made public at the last council meeting before the summer break, on July 23.
“We experienced situations where there were complaints about one community association, whether they were meeting that criteria or not, and we really had no ability to really determine if in fact, for example, the community association was regularly communicating with members, how they were actually maintaining their records.”
But community association leaders like Miura say a better response to the problem from the district would have been to enforce the criteria it claimed to be upholding, rather than scrap it altogether when they found it wasn’t being met.
In fact, the LVCA was one of a handful of community associations that asked the district to review its policies on community associations because they felt the neighbourhood-sounding-board model was being co-opted by vocal NIMBY minorities and small single-interest groups claiming to represent whole communities without any popular mandate to do so.
“This is the opposite of what we were asking for,” Miura says. “There’s no benefit now in being a well-organized organization and it’s really watering down the community communication.”
Capilano Gateway Association chair Doug Curran agrees that something needed to be done to clean up the district’s dealings with community associations, but says deregulation isn’t the answer.
“We had a situation where positions were being advanced to DNV [District of North Vancouver] council on community association letterhead that had never been part of discussions in the community and, in fact, in some cases went directly against the expressed desires of the majority,” Curran says. “We are undermining the very democratic rights of our community.”
For that, some community organizers blame one community group in particular, the Federation of North Vancouver Community Associations, saying it has tainted the neighbourhood-association model by inserting itself into local politics between the community associations and the district.
In fact, the impetus for the district’s review of its community association policy came at least in part from one group’s desire to unseat FONVCA.
“Council was made aware of a new community association which appears to have emerged as the result of some dissatisfaction with the operation of an existing association,” district staff wrote in their policy review report released July 23. “As a result, a review of the district’s policy was deemed to be appropriate.”
Founded in 1993, FONVCA was to be a kind of community association for community association members, but some members have since fallen out with the umbrella group and now claim FONVCA acts as an unelected “shadow council.”
It doesn’t help those optics, perhaps, that the group meets in district hall chambers and did work with the district to develop the original community association policy.
But those are hardly evidence of ambitious political maneuvering.
While the three FONVCA members The Outlook spoke with declined to be quoted on behalf of the organization, they did say that FONVCA has never positioned itself as a go-between for district hall and the other community associations, and has certainly never tried to police the other associations — although many of those who cry “shadow council,” they say, often turn around and expect them to do just that.
But FONVCA maintains it has no power over its members and represents no one group or issue, serving only as a discussion board for things affecting all community associations in the district.
Elaine Grenon, board member with the Capilano Gateway Association, disagrees.
“It’s dangerous to have something like FONVCA that’s self-governing without any oversight,” Grenon says. “It’s supposed to be the meeting place for community associations that meet the criteria that were set out by the DNV, but it’s dysfunctional because nobody in DNV was ensuring the people that sat around that table were appropriately reflecting the desires and wishes of the communities they were living in. Some of them didn’t have regular meetings and some of them were only interested in the single-family residents that lived in their community and not the apartment renters, townhouses, businesses and that sort of thing.”
Neither the governments of West Vancouver nor the City of North Vancouver engage or even recognize their many community associations, a fact the district drew attention to when reviewing its policy.
And it’s an arrangement that seems to work, as long as no one group appears to represent all others.
Longtime Ambleside and Dundarave Ratepayers’ Association organizer Carolanne Reynolds says it’s natural to look to some of the larger West Van groups like the British Properties Area Homeowners Association with envy. Democracy is, after all, power in numbers.
“Obviously some are going to be tempted to exaggerate their numbers, but we’re all aware of that. And I don’t think that’s a reason to be Draconian about their qualifications,” Reynolds says, explaining she doesn’t think there’s a need for formal government engagement with the groups.
If municipal governments would just allow members of different community groups to join those committees that are making decisions affecting their neighbourhoods, Reynolds says, then residents of even small community-association neighbourhoods could enjoy greater representation.
“I have been urging for many, many years that at least two different community associations have representatives on district committees because very often a lot of these committees will make a decision that’s very focused on themselves,” Reynolds says. “[Community association members] are not experts, but they are sensitive to their pockets being picked. The only two things are: Is this going to raise my taxes? And how much will it affect my neighbourhood?”
But those are matters over which no two individuals, let alone communities, have ever found perfectly harmonious middle ground. “History tells us that democracy is a struggle which is not always organized, efficient, or pretty,” North Van district staff wrote in the opening of their policy review. “The nature of community associations should prove no different.”