As we have seen, allowing politicians to adjudicate on new billboard applications can be, well, problematic. That’s why City Council is setting up a new citizen-led Sign Variance Committee to make sound decisions based on planning principles rather than personal preferences (or lobbying, or campaign contributions, or any of the other complicating factors of politics).
On Thursday night, City staff held a voluntary information session for potential applicants, helpfully clarifying a lot of the details that aren’t fully explained online. Two dozen people came out (including me), which would have been more encouraging if all but one hadn’t been men (including me).
Applications are due at 4:30 p.m. on Thursday, February 11, so there’s still time to get your name in. Committee members will get $250 per meeting attended, and it’s expected that the committee will meet monthly, so if you’re an urban policy wonk (and, for goodness sake, why are you reading this if you’re not?), it should sound like a pretty sweet gig. Read on for details.
Though the particular procedural rules have yet to be drafted, the Sign Variance Committee (SVC) will be more or less modelled on the Commmittee of Adjustment, Licensing Tribunal, and Property Standards Committee — quasi-judicial bodies consisting of citizens appointed by Council that meet on a regular basis to arbitrate on matters of contention. The SVC, as its name implies, will be ruling on requests for variances to the Sign By-law, or in other words, whether to grant permission to erect a sign that minorly deviates from the provisions of the bylaw. In the case of first-party (business identification) signs, the SVC will serve as the body to which decisions of the Chief Building Official can be appealed; in the case of third-party (billboard) signs, the SVC will be the primary decision-making entity. (Council has, however, reserved for itself the right to “reconsider” the SVC’s decisions in those cases where it feels the committee should have refused a variance that it ultimately approved.)
The current volume of third-party variance requests is 120–150 a year, so although no one knows what to expect under the new system, the intention is for the five-member panel to meet monthly; meetings will be held at City Hall during the day, with the length of the meeting dependent on the number of applications being heard. The City is looking for people with a “broad knowledge” in the areas of “law, planning, architecture,” and/or — and this is where your ears should perk up — “citizen advocacy.”
(Check “yes” or “no.”)
But when the enabling bylaw was making its way through Council, Adam Vaughan — who chairs the Civic Appointments Committee that will select the SVC’s members — also slipped in some wording to exclude the people they don’t want: namely, ad industry lackeys. You are not allowed to be part of the Sign Variance Committee if you’re “an owner, employee or agent of an advertising agency, communications or media relations agency” or if you’re “an employee, agent or owner of a business which owns, controls or has shares in a media outlet.” So — unlike certain committees — don’t expect a solid bloc of Spacing editors on this one.
What if, however, your relationship with the media isn’t really described by any of the above? Say, you’re a contributor to a blog or a freelancer for a newspaper? City staff suggest you be “up front” about this in the Conflicts of Interest section of the application by describing the relationship and the remote possibility of a potential conflict; the Civic Appointments Committee is really only looking to weed out people who might have consistent conflicts, but it’s better to let them know about your situation than not.
Members’ appointments will officially wrap up when the current term of Council does (November 30, 2010) but will realistically be extended until a new batch of applicants has been solicited the following spring. Committee members are free to re-apply next year, and Council will probably want about half of them to stick around.
Jonathan Goldsbie has been tracking variances for years as part of the Toronto Public Space Committee‘s Billboard Battalion but would happily relinquish that role in order to sit on the Sign Variance Committee.