Civic elections likely won’t attract parents
A man calling himself a Doukhobor threatened on the afternoon of December 31 to burn school trustee Sharon Gregson to death. Staff at the Vancouver school board called her to warn her of the phoned death threat. She was in Langley, and her children were in Vancouver, home alone.
"This is a perfect example of the impact of having a family and being in politics," a shaken Gregson told the Georgia Straight by cellphone as she hurried home, just a few hours after she spoke with the Straight on parenting and politics. "Once you're in the public eye, this kind of stuff happens."
Gregson is one of the city's few elected officials with dependent children. She was elected two years ago, when the youngest of her four kids were 10 and 13. Vancouver can be so rough on young families, Gregson said, because parents' voices are absent from civic politics. "If you're a parent with young kids, it's almost impossible to be in politics."
Late nights, long, unpredictable meetings, and low pay are some of the reasons, Gregson said. The reality is, there will be few parents running for office in the civic elections of 2008, she noted.
As far as could be determined by a Straight survey of politicians, Vancouver's only other elected officials with young children are Gregson's fellow COPE school trustee Allan Wong, whose four kids are aged six to 15; and Vision Vancouver councillor Raymond Louie, who has a two-, an eight-, and a 12-year-old. That's a total of only three officials out of 27 on the city council, school board, and park board.
To Gregson, the deficit of elected young parents–especially mothers–is fundamental to why the city doesn't fix problems such as: difficult-to-board buses; change tables not being required in all washrooms; Vancouver child-care spaces being at crisis levels and, at an average of almost $1,000 per month, too costly for most families; the city's family attractions, such as the Vancouver Aquarium ($19.95 adults; $14.95 youth; $11.95 children) and Science World ($54 per family per visit) being prohibitively expensive; and housing for families becoming increasingly unaffordable.
Civic politics is overdue for a family-friendly overhaul, according to Kennedy Stewart, a professor of public policy at SFU. In 1998, he cowrote a report, Making Local Accountability Work in B.C., for the B.C. Ministry of Municipal Affairs. It recommended that Vancouver city councillors get assistants to help them write their own policy so they'd stop rubber-stamping city staff reports. It also recommended a ward system, so each councillor would represent a specific neighbourhood, enhancing accountability.
Both moves, he said in a phone interview, would make it easier for young parents to represent themselves. He half joked with the Straight that he'll rerelease the report for its 10-year anniversary this year, because nothing has changed.
"Coun. Tim Stevenson once told me that he answers all his own e-mail," Stewart said, noting that Vancouver councillors are the lowest-paid of any major-city councillors in Canada and the only ones with no individual support staff. "How can you decide whether or not you want the RAV [Canada Line] if you're answering all your own e-mails?"
Stewart, who ran as a federal NDP candidate for Vancouver Centre in 2004, also noted that the Greater London Authority in England has just undertaken a family-friendly overhaul, which limited the hours of debates to accommodate parents in the assembly.
NPA councillor Elizabeth Ball told the Straight that parents of grown-up kids are just as effective at advocating for family issues. Ball ran for council in 1991 but wasn't elected. A local daily published a photo of her looking at the results with her then–seven-year-old daughter on her lap.
"A friend of mine told me I looked like I'd won instead of lost," she said. "I was really glad I didn't win. That was the year being a councillor transitioned into being a full-time job. It would have been extremely difficult, and my daughter needed me then."
Her children are now 23 and 25, but Ball said she is always conscious of how her council decisions affect families. "Being a mom is sort of like being disabled," she said. "There's absolutely no supports for women with children anywhere you go. It's still an enormous challenge."
Other civic officials have grown children, including independent park board commissioner Al De Genova. Being a parent still influences the matters he brings forward, he said, such as the under-construction YMCA Nanook Child Care Centre at Clark Drive and East Broadway that "almost died on the vine". He advocated for it, he said, "so 25 kids didn't have to spend their days in dirty diapers in rooming houses".
(De Genova said his eldest daughter, Melissa, 25, told him recently she plans to run for a Vision Vancouver park board seat.)
But from Gregson's perspective, parents of older children are not as in tune with family issues as parents of young children. She said that the fact that so many school trustees are either retired or close to retired means they're not driven to provide for early learning in the same way she is.