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'Off the rails': Burnaby staff say council can't ban controversial voting process

One city councillor expressed concerns that 52 individuals ordered almost 45,000 ballots to oppose using parkland for an organic waste facility. The whole voting process cost a total of almost $60,000.
During a controversial voting period, Burnaby residents ordered ballots for the 'alternative approvals process' to hand out in community campaigns. Photo Lauren Vanderdeen/Burnaby Now

Burnaby staff are telling city council that it isn’t possible to ban a controversial voting process that got council in hot water earlier this year.

In March, council attempted to remove dedicated parkland at Fraser Foreshore Park to make way for a compost facility via a little-used voting method called the “alternative approval process.”

Dedicated parkland, which is land preserved as park in perpetuity by public vote, can only be removed (or “undedicated”) through public approval by referendum or AAP.

The issue and process generated significant public outcry and the project was ultimately cancelled. The city is currently looking for another location for the compost facility.

After the AAP’s cancellation, Coun. Sav Dhaliwal asked staff whether Burnaby could officially remove the option to use the AAP to undedicate parkland. That would mean the only method to remove parkland would be through referendum, in which residents are asked a yes-or-no question.

The AAP vote requires only those opposed to an issue to submit a ballot to the city. For the Fraser Foreshore AAP, residents would have needed to submit 16,250 ballots for the issue to be marked as “significant” and move to referendum.

But in a staff presentation to council on May 8, corporate officer and director of legislative services Nikki Best said it is not possible to include a provision that would require the use of a referendum or prohibit the use of an AAP.

“The legislation (in the Community Charter) specifically provides that either elector approval option may be used,” Best wrote in a staff report.

City solicitor May Leung echoed that statement to council: “The opportunity (to prohibit using AAPs for parkland undedication) does not exist.”

Dhaliwal questioned whether staff had consulted the province on whether it was possible to create a bylaw to ban the use of AAPs for parks.

Leung said she would provide a memo to council with more information on the issue. The NOW has also reached out to the province for clarity.

Still, council does not have to use AAPs when they need public approval, according to Best.

“No policy is required to prevent any future AAPs from happening because council is the authority on the process available to them,” Best told council.

Best’s report said council could approve a motion stating that referendums are the preferred option if it wants to consider undedicating parkland.

“Although not binding on future councils, this resolution would be persuasive as council’s position on the matter and (would) need to be taken into consideration in any future process where removal of park dedication is contemplated.”

Burnaby’s AAP by the numbers

Best also provided an account of the financial cost and process of the Fraser Foreshore AAP, in an “effort of transparency and information for the public, for council and for staff” to “close the book on the AAP.”

The city says it received a total of 1,142 unverified ballots opposing the parkland undedication by March 20 when council cancelled the AAP.

Residents opposed to the issue also began a campaign to ask the city to print large batches of ballots to be handed out (many requested 1,000 ballots at a time).

The report said the “overwhelming number of requests” was “unforeseeable and unprecedented.”

The city said 52 individuals requested a total of 44,600 bulk-order ballots for residents within the first three weeks of holding the AAP.

The total cost of printing the ballots (46,900 ballots for residents, 6,000 for non-resident property owners and 40,000 return envelopes) was $15,438.

The total cost of the AAP, including process planning, printing, advertising in the Burnaby NOW newspaper, legal advice and review, and translation of the ballots into six languages, was $34,951.09, plus $24,330.92 in staff labour.

Staff recommended if the city holds an AAP or referendum again, that council request a “comprehensive budget,” including a comparative analysis between AAPs and referendums.

Councillor concerned with bulk orders

Dhaliwal expressed concern about the bulk-ordered ballots.

“Any voting generally is supposed to be a ‘one person, one vote,’” he said at council, asking staff why residents were allowed to order mass quantities.

Best said the public began requesting ballot forms “as soon as the AAP process started” to use in door-knocking campaigns and community events, “which is completely within their rights.” She added people could have also photocopied the form to provide to others.

The ballot form was available online for people to print out at home as well.

“What we heard from the public was that it was not accessible for them to be able to print their own forms or have their own postage mail envelopes, so that is why legislative services provided that service,” Best said.

But Dhaliwal still expressed suspicion.

“Why wouldn’t it be sort of common sense to say, ‘No, you’re not really keeping the purity of the voting process,’ if you’re handing out these ballots. … We need to know that, yes, you are (voting) willingly, not because somebody is coming to say, ‘Here (is a ballot).’”

He emphasized that 52 people picked up almost 45,000 ballots.

“I think that’s where things really went off the rails,” and said he did not think it was not a good decision by staff.

Electronic signatures in the future

Burnaby’s AAP attempt only accepted physical ballots, not digital, although two other cities undergoing AAPs at the time both allowed scanned signatures.

Ballots and stamped envelopes were available for pickup at Burnaby’s four libraries and city hall.

Staff recommended council begin a process to allow electronic signatures for future public engagement. The city currently does not have an e-signature policy.

In the report, Best wrote, “(Identity) verification is required to ensure the submissions of responses could be counted and verified, by providing essential personal information, which is also required under general elections.”

“It is important to note that general practice for municipalities that routinely offer AAPs who do not expect to receive 10 per cent of opposition votes are not required to verify the responses and do not have verification methods planned in their responses,” wrote Best in the report, adding that because this was Burnaby’s first AAP, legislative services staff “planned for the scenario where the number of response forms would require identity verification.”

In March, the NOW reached out to the City of Courtenay and the City of Prince George, which both accepted scanned AAP ballots earlier this year.

Courtenay’s manager of legislative, Adriana Proton, wrote, “A scanned signature offers sufficient evidence of identity and can be compared to signature on ID if needed.”

Similarly, Prince George accepted scanned hand-signed ballot forms, which could be submitted by fax or email as a PDF attachment, according to senior communications advisor Mike Lee.

Best told council the electronic signature policy could be used in a variety of instances in city operations.

She noted provincial changes to the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act came into effect on Feb. 1 this year, which required the city “to do privacy impact assessments every time we collect personal information,” like signatures.