A Letter From Mark Vulliamy, Feb 11, 2013
As someone who has been on both sides of this divide (working in community centres for over 20 years and in Park Board management for 10+) and who has studied the history of our recreation system, I am following this issue with interest and trepidation.
Senior Park Board managers have never had much understanding or regard for the joint-operating relationship with associations. And now the institutional memory of the Board is shorter than it has ever been, with the longest serving Director in that position for just over five years. Furthermore, no current Commissioner has ever served on a community association Board, which provided in the past the training wheels of many Commissioners, Councillors and even MLAs. As a result, some important historical information has not surfaced in the debate on this issue.
First, it was community associations, and not the Park Board, which in the late 1940s put the first of Vancouvers community centres on the ground. Strong support came from the Provincial Education ministry, the UBC School of Social Work and the Community Chest (later United Way). Park Board was only peripherally involved as the responsible agency for the land upon which the centres were built.
The assumption at the time was that the centres could be operated entirely on a cost-recovery basis. When it was realized, after the pioneer Centres opened, that they could not function on this basis, the first joint operating agreement was negotiated in 1950.
This original one-page JOA, which was later expanded, stipulated that Park Board would control the overall policy governing the operation of the building. This agreement came with a financial inducement: a revenue sharing arrangement whereby the association would pay $5000 towards the estimated $13,000 annual operating costs for each centre and the Park Board would cover the balance.
Then as now the associations saw the terms imposed by Park Board as an assault upon their autonomy. There were serious conflicts over the purpose and priorities of the centres. The Board saw the centres primarily as a means to extend its summer playground program through the winter months. The associations had a more complex vision (though not by any means a consistently held one) including elements of art & culture, social work, town planning, community education and better living in general.
Park Board changed its legal name from the Board of Parks to the Board of Parks and Recreation in the mid-1950s, in large part because it had inherited responsibility for these new services.
After a few years the annual charge to the associations was dropped; the Board continued to cover the core costs and the associations were allowed to retain all revenues generated through programming the centres. There was little incentive for the Board to collect and account for money from the associations when any surplus so generated would go to City general revenue.
That the community centre associations have stayed exceptionally prominent in community centre operation is in large part and ironically due to the quasi-independence of the Park Board (the only elected one in Canada). Nowhere else will you find non-profit groups able to generate and retain income from public recreation facilities, and with such extensive engagement in setting programming priorities. But this arrangement has fostered an exceptional capacity to respond to local community needs and preferences.
Fast forward to current day. The Park Board's independence from the City is now more quasi than ever before. As well, managers coming into the system from elsewhere are perplexed by how things are arranged in Vancouver. Not surprisingly, their impulse is to try to normalize the situation. This means greater centralization in order to achieve managerial control.
Before 60 plus years of evolution are tossed aside, the Board and its managers need to take a closer look at how the joint-operating arrangement came to be and, more critically, to understand the strengths and benefits of the Vancouver way. There is a lot of baby about to be tossed with the bathwater.
And there is considerable bathwater as well. The current JOA has been frozen in time since 1979. It needs badly to be updated and the Board will have to be forceful in making this happen, since reaching consensus with all associations is likely not possible. Above all, it will take a much deeper understanding of the merits and weaknesses of what is in place than what has been manifest to date. To do this process right is also going to take longer than the timeframe allotted in the PB motion.