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Burnaby mayor vows never to use controversial voting process again

After public outcry surrounding a little-used voting method called an “alternative approval process,” some on Burnaby city council say they will never attempt it again.

Burnaby Mayor Mike Hurley says the city should never again use the voting process by which it attempted to remove parkland for industrial use.

The city attempted to hold a type of public voting called an “alternative approval process” (AAP) to remove 21 acres of dedicated parkland at Fraser Foreshore Park to make way for a green recycling and organic waste processing facility.

But after significant public opposition, city council cancelled the process in a special council meeting on March 20.

“As long as I’m around here, we will never attempt to use that AAP process again,” Mayor Mike Hurley told media after the special council meeting.

The AAP is a means for local governments to “test the waters” on a bylaw that requires elector approval to be passed.

Only voters opposed to the bylaw are required to send in ballots, and those who don’t vote are counted as in-favour. A city needs 10 per cent of its voters to oppose an issue in order to halt the project or send it to a referendum.

Many Burnaby residents expressed concerns about the transparency and accessibility of the process, especially for removing parkland.

Burnaby resident and prominent waterways advocate, environmentalist Mark Angelo noted Fraser Foreshore Park was originally protected by a referendum, which garnered more than 90 per cent approval.

“You’d think that any changes to that would also require a vote,” Angelo said in a statement before the AAP was cancelled. He called the AAP an “unwieldy process,” noting it required more than 16,000 people to learn about the issue and complete forms to oppose removing the parkland.

“That’s a really tough threshold to meet.”

Since March 2, when the AAP launched, Burnaby received a total of 1,131 resident forms and 11 non-resident property forms by noon on March 20 when the AAP was cancelled, according to the city’s public affairs officer Cole Wagner. If the AAP had gone ahead, opponents would have needed 16,250 ballots cast to halt the project.

Wagner noted the forms were not reviewed by staff to ensure their eligibility and said staff will destroy all forms received due to the process cancellation.

This was Burnaby’s first attempt at holding an AAP.

Along with the mayor, at least one councillor vowed to never use the process again.

Coun. Sav Dhaliwal suggested council commit to never having an AAP again and only using referendums for park un-dedication.

“Had I foreseen how this (AAP) was going to ... divide the community, how this was going to put our staff at risk — a lot of people were upset,” Dhaliwal said at the meeting.

“They thought we were going to just sneak in the middle of the night and just do it. That was never the intent,” he said.

He added: “I would also ask council to ask our staff to see that in the future – any future councils, not just this, others – can never attempt to do this. They should do (this through) referendum.”

What’s the purpose of an AAP?

Cities have two options to get elector approval on issues like taking out large loans, extending municipal boundaries or removing dedicated parkland: referendum or AAP.

AAPs, which were called counter-petitions before 2003, are generally cheaper and quicker than referendums, according to a provincial guidance document for local governments.

The threshold needed for successful opposition was raised from five per cent of the electorate to 10 per cent in 2003.

The Burnaby NOW surveyed five neighbouring municipalities, Surrey, Richmond, Coquitlam, New Westminster and Port Moody, to find out how they had used the AAP.

Vancouver is governed by its own charter, separate from other B.C. municipalities, and does not use the AAP.

The survey showed that it’s unusual for AAPs to be successfully opposed.

Out of the surveyed cities, there were 22 AAPs held in four of the municipalities.

Port Moody has never held an AAP, according to city spokesperson Natasha Vander Wal.

Surrey has used the process 11 times between 2008 and 2017. New West has done five; Richmond, four; and Coquitlam has done two.

None of the AAPs drew enough opposition to stop a bylaw.

Two surveyed AAPs received notable opposition, but did not meet even five per cent of the 10 per cent threshold needed to halt the bylaw. Most AAPs surveyed saw little, if any, opposition.

One controversial AAP in Surrey in 2017 saw 3.67 per cent of the electorate oppose undedicating four acres of Hawthorne Rotary Park to make way for a road project.

In New West in 2012, an AAP saw 4.84 per cent voter opposition to a proposal to borrow up to $59 million for capital works including the Anvil Centre office tower.

The next most AAP ballots cast was 41 in New West in 2019, or 0.08 per cent of the electorate.

One example of an AAP successfully opposed was in West Kelowna in 2016, where residents successfully petitioned to stop the city from borrowing $11 million for a new city hall.

Size of parkland

Of the 22 AAPs reviewed in neighbouring cities, 16 dealt with removing dedicated parkland.

Burnaby’s AAP was the second largest section of park up for removal, at 21 acres.

The only AAP to consider a larger section of park was in Surrey in 2011, which was to re-dedicate 32 acres at Sunnyside Acres from designated “park” to “urban forest park” – that is, the land was kept as park.

In 2015, Surrey undedicated 9.57 acres, as it had been “inadvertently” dedicated, and the city had to follow an “administrative ‘housekeeping’ process.”

The next highest acreage considered by an AAP was four acres. Ten AAPs were for undedicating parkland under one acre in size.

Data note: Data from the City of Surrey is incomplete, as the city could not provide complete records before deadline.

📣 SOUND OFF: What do you think about the use of the alternative approval process, or AAP, in Burnaby? Send us a letter.