Alexa Loo is a former Olympic athlete and current city councillor who has witnessed a pull-and-tug over the maximum size of houses on Richmond farmland. She explains what the root of the issue appears to have been for some people.
Q: I must congratulate you on being newly inaugurated to a second council term. Whose idea was it for the men and the women to take separate oaths of office?
A: What ended up happening is the men ended up sitting on the one side of the room and the women sat on the other side. It just worked out that way. On the women’s side, we even sit in alphabetical order. And that wasn’t planned either.
Q: So is this going to be like a seventh grade dance with the boys on one side and the girls on the other for the next four years?
A: Yes! It is what it is.
Q: On your island, you have something called the agricultural land reserve. About 39 percent of Richmond is farmland. Why were some councillors concerned about how long that would last?
A: There had never been a cap or a limit on the size of house that you could have on agricultural land. House sizes started to get bigger. There were starting to become applications for things as big as 40,000 square feet. You can put a skating rink in 40,000 square feet.
Q: In a meeting, your council decided to put a cap on the size of a house on farmland to around 11,000 square feet. I don’t know a lot about farming, but I’m assuming that with my bedroom, my children’s bedroom, my tractor’s bedroom, my wheat thresher’s bedroom, and the bedroom for my livestock–even with bunk beds I’d be pushing it with 11,000 square feet.
A: Well, a wheat thresher is so big, you can’t even drive it on a standard road, so–
Q: I would need a really big bedroom is what you’re saying?
A: You would. There’s a whole bunch of rules that still protect the farmland, so at some point, does it matter if they have a three-car garage or a four-car garage? Does it matter if you have six bedrooms or five bedrooms? Why is it anybody else’s business what they’re doing?
Q: The fact is some people were unhappy with the limit. They thought 11,000 square feet were way too many–
A: And there’s a lot of people that don’t want a proliferation of South Asian people living on farmland.
Q: Their outrage was specifically aimed at limiting a racial or ethnic group from building these houses?
A: Typically those are the people building it. It’s easy to go after the size and shape of things if you know it’s gonna stick it to that group, I think.
Q: You referred in council meetings to the “good old boys” and fairness. Why in the meeting did you couch your language like that?
A: Because standing up at a council meeting and calling other people racist is a bold and dangerous move. Throwing names around like that–we’re not allowed to call people names.
Q: Were there any other councillors who felt the way you did about the racial aspect?
A: Oh, everybody’s well aware of it. The 23,000 square foot house that had been built, it had been built by a Caucasian person in Richmond. And he had a bowling alley in it. So when people are like, “what do you need a big house for?” He needs a bowling alley, apparently. But nobody seemed to have a big problem with it. They were more in awe at the time. But now if somebody else builds one, there’s a problem around it.
Andrea Reimer has been a councilor since 2008 and has witnessed a significant rise in points of order at her council meetings. We talk about why that is, as well as why some speakers acknowledge indigenous territory.
Q: In the Vancouver council meetings, I noticed a lot of people acknowledge that you are on native territory. Are you obligated to do that?
A: We have a formal protocol that the chair of the meeting needs to acknowledge we are on the unseated homelands. But it’s up to each speaker to decide how they want to engage with that. It would be a rule for the mayor or myself when I’m chairing. For Vancouverites, though, who come to speak to council, it’s totally up to them. Many people do make that acknowledgement.
Q: You posted this last year:
Is blood sugar any different now than it was when you got on council in 2008?
A: The main goal of the chair is to get people out of that room by 3:30 in the afternoon. If they don’t, we hit the low blood sugar zone. We do have a brand new council member who just joined us in October who has introduced some activities such as slapping desks. We see that in our parliament–I don’t know if you guys do that in your national government. But we generally don’t do that at municipal council because we’re sitting maybe ten feet away from each other at most. We don’t really need to slap tables to signal that we’re happy or unhappy with something!
Q: I have not seen a city council raise the volume of points of order that I see in Vancouver. Why do you think that is?
A: On my first term of office, 2008-2011, I think we might have had one point of order in the entire three-year period. Then one of the individuals was elected and suddenly we skyrocketed up in number. And then another one, Councilor [Melissa] De Genova, got elected in 2014 and she can do that many before lunch in some meetings. So I think it’s just, different councilors have different styles. Your president’s really into Twitter. We have a councilor who’s really into points of order.
Q: I heard that last year, a lady fainted in your public comment. Is that true?
A: Oh, yeah. We’ve had a few. We’ve had fainting. We had a medical emergency. We had a fire once while I was chairing. I was the only one who didn’t notice it because it was happening behind me!
Q: Has anyone called point of order on that fire?
A: You know, it’s funny. Those were never points of order! We actually completed the council meeting outside. I’m such a stickler for rules because I’d hate for all of the decisions to be overthrown because some procedural breach happens. I made us go outside and formally adjourn the meeting correctly.
Q: During a public hearing about a proposed development in Chinatown, I heard there was some poor behavior. What did you see that concerned you?
A: It sounds like there was some attempts to intimidate [speakers] either verbally or in one case, physically. We definitely heard booing. Probably the most difficult moment for me was we had two members of the Musqueam nation, one of the three indigenous nations, who came up to the microphone to speak and they were booed by a crowd that had used indigenous issues to try and justify their case. It had such a deep-seated disrespect for the issue. I talked to the organizers and they’ve since reached out to the individuals involved on the Musqueam and I understand there has been reparations made. They’ve apologized.
‘Twas the night before Christmas / And throughout City Hall,
Not a mayor was stirring / Nor a council near-brawl.
Public commenters were nestled / All snug in their beds,
While concocting some brand new complaints / In their heads.
When on people’s phones / There arose a loud clatter.
They opened up iTunes / To see what was the matter.
With a square yellow icon / People gave a small nod past,
For they knew what it was: / A brand new podcast.
Yes, my friends, this is a special holiday edition of the City Council Chronicles podcast, covering highlights from our best interviews–including all the gifts, challenges, and vintage audio recordings I’ve offered my guests through the months. This “best of” is available on iTunes, Stitcher, Player FM and right here:
We covered a lot of ground in this interview with Port Moody’s Mike Clay. For instance, where does the mayoral title “Your Worship” come from and does he like to be called that? We also listen to some beautiful music and time travel back to 1913 to reenact a city council meeting.
Q: In Canada, people refer to mayors as “Your Worship.” Where does this term come from?
A: I don’t know. It must come from Old English somewhere. It was probably from the House of Lords or something. I don’t like the term. I don’t like people referring to me that way. The funniest thing that ever happened was I had a conversation with the archbishop one time and he asked how he was supposed to refer to me. I said, “well, you’re supposed to refer to me as Your Worship, but I don’t think we’re going to ask you to do that!”
Q: [Laughs] Is there a more secular term you’d want to be called?
A: In council, I prefer Mr. Mayor or Mayor Clay. Something much simpler and less snooty.
Q: Port Moody started video streaming council meetings while you were mayor. Do you since have any regrets about what you’ve said live on TV?
A: The good thing about capturing people in the moment is it’s raw. It might be emotional but you read council minutes [and] the legislative diaries and stuff, you don’t get any sense for what’s really going on. Without the video in the past, my interactions with different politicians–people say, “I was really fighting for that!” And I think, “I was there. I don’t think you really were.” So it might be interesting for people to say, “yeah, you know what? They really were fighting for it. I watched that on live stream.”
A: I have WARDROBE regrets, but other than that….
Q: [Laughs] What do you think about where council meeting technology is headed?
A: I think there’s opportunities to throw certain things up to a public vote, a mini-referendum. If it’s issues that aren’t life or death–if somebody said, “I think we should paint it blue,” and someone else said, “I think it should be green,” why don’t we throw that out for a public discussion and a vote right there online while we’re doing it? It might not be serious engagement, but if they joined in for that part of the conversation, maybe they’ll hang around for other parts as well.
Q: You do remember our election in 2016 where there was some MINOR propaganda by a FEW million Russian Twitter and Facebook bots. Are you worried the Russians could also hack your insta-polls?
A: Well, for now until we know that we have locked down security, [we’d be] taking it for opinion polling.
Q: Here is something weird I found: in 2013, the centennial of Port Moody, you reenacted the first-ever council meeting from 1913. Whose idea was that?!
A: Wow, I don’t know whose idea it was. I think it was a great idea. It got so funny during the meeting I could barely contain myself from breaking up laughing! It turned out we had some impromptu comedians on our council. How much of it was made-up? Most of it. But it was reflective of the way people think things were in those days.