Vancouver's post of ‘Director of Planning’ has become 'merely a facade', argues architect/planner Robert Chester
On January 31 of this year, City of Vancouver announced the dismissal of its Director of Planning, but it did not announce a Council-appointed successor. The ‘Director of Planning’ is a statutory position, or post, under the Vancouver Charter — legislation that establishes the City of Vancouver. Weeks after, on February 29, 2012 Council, in-camera, appointed Kent Munro, Assistant Director, to the position of Director of Planning on an interim basis, but by then the post had stood vacant for a considerable period of time. While the legal authority for administrating the Zoning Bylaw and issuing development permits rests solely in the Director of Planning post, during the weeks in question, the work of issuing development permits under the Zoning Bylaw somehow continued on as a managerial process carried out by the City’s corporate staff, regardless of authority.
It is a wonder that council would have gone ahead and decided to dismiss the Director of Planning without appointing a replacement to facilitate legitimate operation of the Zoning Bylaw. Questions about the legal implications for development permits issued in the absence of an appointed Director of Planning will inevitably arise now, although they will surely get sorted out in the end. The bigger concern however is what this omission reveals about our civic government.
It appears that city staff, in the absence of an appointed Director of Planning, just went ahead anyway and assumed the task of administrating the Zoning Bylaw as if the post of Director of Planning were redundant. Some might go further and suggest that for years Community Services staff have by their own volition been acting in place of the Director of Planning. They have therein constructed a de-facto ‘Director-of-Planning-functional-authority’ amongst staff for the purposes of administrating the Zoning Bylaw. That such a constructed ‘authority’ had already existed would explain why everything continued on, business as usual, after the Director of Planning post suddenly became vacant.
Clearly, council and the City Manager mistakenly believe that the authority of the Director of Planning can be claimed by, and distributed amongst staff bureaucrats, even though there is no mechanism for this in the bylaws.
Time to reform the role of DoP?
Admittedly, the volume of development permits processed annually is far too big of a task for one person to review them all. For this reason Directors of Planning (when there is one) typically assign the work of reviewing applications to their own nominees, and it is the Director of Planning’s authority to do so. However when this occurs it is critical that the Director of Planning sets out the principles being applied to all decisions, and monitors the processes in order to retain sole authority and maintain personal responsibility.
It’s not entirely surprising that a Director of Planning could stand by and let others take over authority, when one realizes that this position has a multitude of other responsibilities in addition to the duty to administrate development permits – which is probably the least sexy of all of them.
Over the years, the Zoning Bylaw has become increasingly complex and arguably beyond reasonable comprehension by anyone, including city council, the City Manager and possibly even the previous Director of Planning. The Zoning Bylaw has become largely obscure and now represents an administrative make-work scheme within the bureaucracy, which elevates the status of administrative managers, serves the bureaucrats, and leaves city council in the dark. This does not serve the community.
For sustainability, resources must be focussed on serving the community and not on serving government.
A responsible and fair government is the most efficient and effective government, and promotes a moral society that may then flourish. Alarmingly, there appears to be no one taking ultimate responsibility for administrating the Zoning Bylaw. A danger exists that when misuse of authority is tolerated in an organization, it has a tendency to become rife throughout.
Reinstate the powers of the DoP
It is now incumbent upon City of Vancouver Council to instate a permanent Director of Planning, with the full autonomous authority that’s necessary to validate integrity of the post.
One might wonder whether our current elected representatives have the capacity to understand the principles underlying the authority and responsibility of the statutory post of Director of Planning. We must also ask whether our city will in the future ever be graced by a Director of Planning who will take on the responsibility of commanding the vested authority. The next Director of Planning would do well to recognize it as a power that can be wielded to hold on to continued employment.
– post by Robert Chester