The word “shall” appears 251 times in the revised 2002 Official Community Plan, an average of 2.2 times per page.
But the city is proposing cutting “shall” out of its 2009 version of the plan, replacing it with “may.”
It seems a small change, but it’s significant.
The decision essentially guts the document, which will guide all city development for the next 20 years, said municipal expert Andre Carrel.
The word “shall” appears in the Official Community Plan to detail the types of development that can and cannot happen within city boundaries.
In most cases, the word is used to describe development in and around protected green spaces.
For instance, on page 22 of the plan it states, “The clay cliffs in the immediate area of the Yukon River shall be considered environmentally sensitive and, other than carefully planned trails, shall be kept free from development.”
By inserting the word “may” into sentences like these, council doesn’t have to uphold any of these policies, said Carrel.
“The word ‘may’ means you don’t have to do something if you don’t feel like it,” he said.
“Without the word ‘shall’ the plan essentially becomes a feel-good document. It’s a PR effort to say, ‘Look at all the good things we’re doing.’”
The Municipal Act isn’t clear about what a council is bound to do when it comes to Official Community Plans. Currently, politicians can’t go against the plan, but they’re not obligated to develop what’s laid out in the plan.
Now, the clever tweak to the wording of Whitehorse’s Official Community Plan gives staffers and council “free range” to make development decisions without the fear of contradicting what the plan lays out, said Carrel.
“If there are no ‘shalls’ in the document, there’s nothing left to contradict.”
Carrel, former financial administrator of Dawson City and the first full-time executive director of the Association of Yukon Communities in 1983, has kept tabs on what is happening in the Yukon even though he now calls Terrace, British Columbia, home.
He sees the Official Community Plan process as a sham exercise in community involvement.
“With public hearings, all the city has to do is listen to what is said, it doesn’t mean they have to take that advice and implement it.”
But the city continues to uphold these public sessions as the primary way for citizens to amend and change the planning document, which is rewritten only every five years.
Outside of public hearing sessions, citizens don’t have the ability to amend public spaces in Whitehorse, said senior planner Mike Ellis in a previous interview.
And the city is proposing to remove the referendum policy from the 2009 Official Community Plan, which gives citizens the option to call a vote on any council amendment that will change the designation of greenbelt, environmental protection or park reserve land.
In 2008, the city launched a vigorous legal campaign against a petition that demanded a referendum on protection for the McLean Lake area.
“As a result of the (Marianne Darragh) court case, this policy was deemed illegal so we have to remove it,” said manager of planning services Mike Gau at a council and special management meeting last week.
Removing citizens’ ability to hold referendums is significant, said Carrel.
“The whole thing about elections is that they give people voice,” he said. “With a referendum, a community can say, ‘This is the direction we want to go in.’”
In 1998, changes to the YukonMunicipal Act gave citizens the right to hold referendums and plebiscites.
It was a lengthy process that eventually made the act one of the most progressive in the country, said Carrel.
“Since 1998, only one referendum has been held, so it’s not as though the system is being abused,” he added.
But during the city’s Supreme Court appeal of Darragh’s case this summer, referendums on anything that may have been dealt with through an Official Community Plan public hearing were deemed illegal.
This gives citizens even fewer avenues to hold their government to account, said Carrel.
Contact Vivian Belik at