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Battle over control of Vancouver community centres headed to court

An unprecedented battle between the city's park board and six resident groups, which have traditionally helped run community centres heads to court Tuesday morning, in a struggle over who really controls the centres.

The injunction hearing comes at the end of months of rancorous debate, which was capped last week when the park board announced it will end its joint operating agreement with the six community-centre associations that filed the lawsuit. This is the first time it has ever ended a partnership.

The conflict started because the board is trying to negotiate a new agreement with the centres on revenue-sharing, programming and access.

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It has detoured at times into debates over whether the dispute is really a case of wealthy neighbourhoods versus poor ones, or a political fight between the ruling Vision Vancouver and opposing Non-Partisan Association. Neither is clear-cut.

Sixteen of the city's 22 centres reached an interim agreement in June and are continuing talks to work out a final new arrangement.

But the six dissident centres are asking for an injunction to stop the use of a new universal access card called OnePass, which the others agreed to try out this year. That card is supposed to give centre users access to every centre on an equal basis as of Sept. 1.

The lawsuit and the park board's decision to end its partnership with the six centre associations has surprised and disheartened many who volunteer or work in the system.

"It's disappointing this is where we find ourselves, that both sides feel they need to escalate it to this point," said Kate Perkins, president of the Grandview community centre association board and chair of the Association Presidents Group. Grandview is one of the centres that has reached an interim deal with the park board.

Ainslie Kwan, the president of the Killarney centre board, one of the six dissidents, said, "It's sad to see that it's come down to this."

Ms. Kwan said she hopes the partnership isn't really dissolved.

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"I don't want that to be my legacy going out as president. But this is what our members are saying we should do."

Park-board commissioner Niki Sharma said the announcement about ending the partnership was difficult.

"But this is something we were forced to do because of the lawsuit. It is not us saying if you don't line up with us, we're kicking you out."

For 40 years, Vancouver's community centres have been run on the unusual model of a joint operating agreement between the board and volunteer associations. Those associations have charged varying membership fees and set their own policies on how they'll serve low-income users. Some centres have also been able to generate significant revenue from the programs their associations put on.

Park-board manager Malcolm Bromley and Vision Vancouver park commissioners have said the goal of a new system is to provide equal access to everyone, as well as spreading out the revenue.

The associations who have refused to participate in the negotiations with the rest of the centres say the push for a new deal seems to be more about taking power, money and community input away from the centres.

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For the public, the fight has been a puzzle.

Some know little about it and care less. More than 40,000 people have accepted a new OnePass card.

Others are outraged by what they fear is a park-board takeover and they pass rumours around that all staff who are current employees of the volunteer associations are going to be fired.

Ms. Sharma said that's not true and that the rumours are just meant to scare people.

On the other side, Ms. Kwan says it's false that the associations have asked in their lawsuit for 50 per cent of the value of the community centres, worth millions of dollars, as Ms. Sharma has been telling people.

"That's information designed to enrage the public," said Ms. Kwan, in just one of the many exchanges that have characterized what is currently the nastiest divorce in the city.

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About the Author
Urban affairs contributor

Frances Bula has written about urban issues and city politics in B.C.’s Vancouver region, covering everything from Downtown Eastside drug addiction to billion-dollar development projects, since 1994. More

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