The Straight Slate for the 2011 municipal elections across Metro Vancouver
Local governments have the capacity to create havoc in our lives. To illustrate this point, we’ll bring you some examples involving people at the Georgia Straight. Consider it a microcosm of what is occurring on a citywide basis.
Vancouver city staff harmed one employee’s quality of life by instructing her landlord to tear up a food garden on a boulevard outside her house, even though it was supported by a majority of the neighbours. Why? Because a single nonresident landlord in the area filed numerous complaints.
Another staffer’s tranquil home life was ruined when Vancouver city council approved a massive rezoning application across the street. It was recommended by the planning department against the wishes of virtually everyone in his neighbourhood. Residents sat night after night through a marathon public hearing, pleading for adjustments. The Vision Vancouver–controlled majority on council didn’t make a single amendment. The prevailing view was that senior staff—not concerned residents—knew what was best for his neighbourhood.
Not long ago, the circulation department at the Straight was knocked for a loop when the city’s engineering department launched a sneak attack early one Thursday morning. City trucks scooped up hundreds of downtown newspaper boxes without consultation with publishers. This was two days before the Occupy Vancouver encampment was set to begin. Not only was this theft of boxes probably illegal under Canada’s Constitution, it was also incredibly inconvenient for employees of local publishing companies.
These examples lead us to believe that there are many people across the Vancouver feeling somewhat besieged by city hall. Look no further than the Olympic Village, where low-income residents are being hammered by large utility-fee increases imposed suddenly and without consultation.
Here’s another example of city hall’s influence on our lives: reporters sometimes have to wait many hours to get official comment on a city-staff report going to council. This is because of a gag order imposed on the bureaucracy by the current municipal regime. This policy costs our company time and undermines our productivity.
On the positive side, several Straight staff members are delighted with separated bike lanes downtown and on the Burrard Bridge. While they’re feeling a great sense of relief, some employees who drive are exasperated by what’s happened to Hornby Street. The debate within our office mirrors discussions taking place across the city.
Many Straight employees were excited by the city-initiated Summer Live concerts in Stanley Park this past July, which showcased local artists and musicians. It was a monumental success. Several staff members say they personally like Mayor Gregor Robertson. They’re happy that Vision Vancouver has maintained arts-funding levels, unlike the B.C. Liberal government in Victoria. Some also applaud Vision Vancouver and COPE politicians for standing up to the provincial government and voting against a new downtown casino. They’re baffled by NPA mayoral candidate Suzanne Anton’s position, which appeared to be both for and against the casino.
Housing is a big concern across the city and within our company. There has been a noticeable drop in street homelessness since Vision Vancouver was elected in 2008. Despite this, some Straight staffers have privately declared that they won’t vote for Vision Vancouver politicians because of a perception that they’re in the back pocket of the development industry. And they’re not happy about the demolition of the Pantages Theatre and affordable housing at the Little Mountain housing project.
Then there’s the riot. Yes, that riot. NPA and Vision politicians both tried to ride Canucks fever to their political advantage. Both thought it would help the city economy to invite the bridge-and-tunnel crowd into the downtown core to spend their money on food, booze, taxis, and who knows what else.
Politicians and senior bureaucrats will never admit publicly that they also wanted to suck up to the CBC, which wanted to show Vancouverites celebrating in the streets every time the Canucks scored a goal. So they all agreed to put up the JumboTrons—“dumbotrons”, in the words of independent mayoral candidate Darrell Zimmerman. And the presence of the dumbotrons, combined with massive overcrowding downtown, led directly to a riot. Property damage, policing costs, and court time will add up into the millions.
Somebody on council should have said “no” to the dumbotrons at some point along the way. But nobody did because they believed it was political suicide to get in the way of Stanley Cup celebrations. This suggests a need for new blood on council.
Civic bureaucrats have responded to the riot by concluding that any event—be it Occupy Vancouver, a Grey Cup celebration, or the Symphony of Fire—justifies a crackdown on the distribution of newspapers downtown. City officials also won’t acknowledge their role in creating the conditions for the last riot, even though it’s obvious to many of us who work at the Georgia Straight.
Of course, our experience is not the whole story. It’s just a slice of what’s gone on in Vancouver over the past three years. There have been high points and low points. Much of what has taken place can be linked to Mayor Gregor Robertson’s party, Vision Vancouver, making too many promises in the last election. They were going to be good money managers and they said they would listen to neighbourhoods. They were going to try to keep the Mount Pleasant outdoor pool open and they maintained that they would keep a lid on property taxes. They would eliminate street homelessness and create the greenest city in the world.
But when the Vision-controlled council shifted part of the tax load from business to residential properties—and then refused to raise homeowners’ taxes significantly—it faced a cash crunch. That led to the closure of the children’s farmyard at Stanley Park and new fees for toddlers who use park-board pools and ice rinks. Forget about the Mount Pleasant pool. That pledge ended up on the scrap heap.
In the city’s mad rush for money, it accelerated the rezoning of land, leading to a backlash in various neighbourhoods. The city had to fund the wage increases agreed to by the previous council. Collecting community-amenity contributions from developers for higher densities fattened the treasury in the absence of sizable tax hikes.
Now, Vision Vancouver politicians are asking the public to trust them again with absolute control over city council and the park board. A key issue for us is the balance of power between city hall and residents. It’s out of whack right now. The NPA’s solution, for the most part, involves giving senior staff even more latitude to determine what’s best for the rest of us. It strikes us that we need more control over the senior staff, not less. Like Vision in 2008, the NPA is now making excessive promises, including a new streetcar, while promising to keep spending at the rate of inflation.
All parties have a few candidates with the intellect and backbone to confront senior staff when they’re on the wrong track. These politicians need encouragement to do this more often.
Council must view itself as the board of directors for the entire city. Under this arrangement, the shareholders are the citizens, not the senior staff. In these tough economic times, we need more independent thinkers who understand that the role of council is to go beyond being a cheerleader for senior bureaucrats. Councillors must be watchdogs over staff as well as guardians of the public interest.
We kept that in mind with our recommendations in this year’s edition of the Straight Slate. We’ve included a category called “worth considering” in case you can’t stomach voting for any of those on our recommended list.
We’re calling for a minority government in Vancouver because we’ve had enough of one party controlling council and park board for the past generation. That’s gone on long enough. As an example of how party politics has contaminated this city, look no further than a questionnaire that we sent to all council candidates. Vision Vancouver returned a bulk response, suggesting that every single candidate has an identical opinion on every single question. No wonder Vision politicians are sometimes criticized for voting like sheep. Keep in mind that several NPA candidates didn’t respond at all to our survey.