For the first two years since Kennedy Stewart was elected mayor, the council got along, for the most part.
There was significantly less partisan bickering than occurred in the old days when NPA councillor George Affleck and Vision Vancouver’s Andrea Reimer would consistently throw shade at one another.
Sure, the current crop has had their differences, but it’s usually been over policies and not so much over personality.
Some politicians have objected to NPA councillor Colleen Hardwick’s populism and periodic opposition to densification. Others have been irritated by Green councillor Michael Wiebe’s occasional willingness to side with the mayor rather than with members of his own party on densification.
And at times, some might have felt that certain councillors were showboating for the media by introducing so many motions.
But for the most part, the public discourse has been civil. Chalk that up in part to Mayor Kennedy Stewart’s willingness at the start of his term to at least try to get along with everyone.
So what’s in store for the coming year? As the clock ticks closer to the next election in 2022, expect more partisanship in the council chamber as various parties and politicians scurry to position themselves for that race.
In late September, Stewart fired one of the first salvos with a news release accusing the NPA of killing the Making HOME pilot program. It came after NPA politicians refused to approve his amendment to a motion by one of their own, Coun. Lisa Dominato.
Then he launched an online campaign asking people to sign up in support of more multi-unit housing. This is a common tactic, enabling politicians or parties to harvest email addresses that can be targeted with future messages as voting day approaches.
The divide expanded with the 2021 capital and operating budget.
It remains to be seen whether the wily Stewart and his chief of staff, Neil Monckton, will be able to beat back future challenges by others who covet his job.
It’s hard enough to get elected as an independent, which Stewart managed to do in 2018. To do it a second time would be truly remarkable.
In light of this, it would be shocking if Stewart didn’t get more political in 2021 as he lays a foundation for his reelection campaign.
With all of that in mind, here are four predictions in connection with Vancouver civic politics in 2021.
Michael Wiebe will not survive court challenge
It’s perilous to predict the outcome of court cases. However, in this instance, Coun. Michael Wiebe has made several claims in two affidavits and one public statement that he’s hoping will save himself from being forced out of office.
His problem began on June 5, when the Straight published an exclusive story that he had voted on motions on May 13 and May 27 in favour of a program to grant temporary patio permits to restaurant owners. Wiebe is the owner-operator of Eight 1/2 Restaurant Lounge, which was one of the first group of establishments whose applications were approved by the city.
The Straight’s story outlined how this could be problematic under the Vancouver Charter, as his duty to city residents may have collided with his private interest as a restaurant owner. And it motivated nonpractising lawyer Mike Redmond to file a conflict-of-interest complaint against Wiebe.
The mayor then appointed municipal lawyer Ray Young to conduct an investigation. And Young determined in a 14-page report that Wiebe is disqualified from holding office because he violated the Vancouver Charter’s conflict-of-interest sections.
However, council did not exercise its power under the Vancouver Charter to force Wiebe to vacate his office. This was despite Young’s conclusion that it would be “appropriate” for Wiebe to resign.
Council’s failure to act led a group of Vancouver residents, including Redmond, to file a petition in B.C. Supreme Court seeking a judicial order requiring Wiebe’s resignation.
On the surface, it looks like the Green councillor’s goose is cooked. After all, Young is one of the country’s most respected experts on municipal law—a subject that he taught at the UBC law school for a decade.
And if Wiebe is forced to resign, the NPA could conceivably win a by-election, giving it a fifth seat on council. If they were to bring forward measures supported by former NPAer Rebecca Bligh, they could drive the agenda over the final two years of Stewart's term and even force changes on the board appointments to Metro Vancouver.
But Wiebe has come up with several defences. First off, he has maintained in his only public statement that if he has made any error, it was “inadvertent”.
He has also claimed that he acted in “good faith”.
Under Section 145.3 (1) of the Vancouver Charter, a politician doesn’t have to resign from Vancouver council if “the contravention was done inadvertently or because of an error in judgment made in good faith”.
Secondly, Wiebe swore in his affidavit that in advance of the May 13 vote, the mayor’s office asked him to second the motion on his behalf on the temporary patio program.
“My business interests were public and were well known to my fellow councillors and the Mayor,” Wiebe stated in the November 17 affidavit. “This was a further indication to me that my participation was appropriate. No one suggested to me at the time that was not the case.”
Stewart’s office told the Straight in September that it never advised Wiebe on whether he was in a conflict of interest.
But if it’s true that the mayor’s office asked him to second a motion on patio permits, Wiebe might have reasonably concluded that it was okay for him to participate in the debate. After all, the mayor was an academic expert in municipal governance before becoming a politician.
In addition, Wiebe also claimed in his affidavit that he was given advice on this matter by city manager Sadhu Johnston.
However, this particular allegation is shrouded in contradiction—and could be enough to sink him. That’s because a judge might conclude that Wiebe hasn’t come to the table with clean hands.
In his first affidavit, Wiebe swore that in the “time frame” around April 28, he spoke to Johnston on the telephone about the “subject of conflict” in connection with voting on the temporary patio program.
“He confirmed that the subject matter of the May 13, 2020 vote was of general application and did not confer a particular benefit on any one user, or group of users, consistent with past advice to me,” Wiebe stated in this affidavit.
But in a subsequent affidavit sworn in December, Wiebe conceded that Johnston did not agree with the Green councillor’s framing of this issue.
As an attachment, Wiebe included a September 21 email from Johnston in which the city manager stated he has no recollection of that discussion.
“If you had raised with me any concern about your ability to participate in the Council meeting on the issue of patios and licensing, which I do not recall, my invariable practice in responding to Councillors who have concerns about conflict of interest is that they must satisfy themselves about their ability to take part in Council discussion and voting, and seek legal advice to assist them,” Johnston wrote.
Moreover this second affidavit included a revealing June 10 email from Iain Dixon in the City of Vancouver law department, also as an attachment.
“The Law Department has not been consulted with respect to whether he is in a conflict or not but we do have some concerns that he may be,” Dixon wrote to Johnston, copied to director of legal services Francie Connell. “If we were consulted our normal practice would be to suggest that he obtains outside legal advice.”
Three days after Young’s report was filed, Johnston announced his resignation as city manager, citing a need to spend more time with his family.
Johnston has never confirmed that he advised Wiebe that it was okay to vote on temporary patios because they were a “citywide” issue.
If it were a citywide concern, councillors are not in a conflict of interest under the Vancouver Charter.
Young’s report bluntly stated that the temporary-patio permit program was not citywide in nature. That’s because only about 10 percent of restaurants and bars had qualified by July 24. Plus, they had to qualify under provincial rules.
“Therefore,” Young wrote, “this pecuniary interest cannot be considered a pecuniary interest in common with the electors of the city in general.”
In a July 13 email, Wiebe informed Young he was told in the council chamber that he was not in conflict in connection with the votes in question.
Young then asked Wiebe by email who provided him with advice in the council chamber. In addition, Young asked on what date or dates was this advice given in the council chamber, as well as the nature of that advice.
According to Young’s report, Wiebe did not reply.
But now Wiebe is suggesting he was given this advice by Johnston over the phone, something that Johnston has denied recalling.
Even though Johnston has insisted he has no recollection of this, Wiebe can still claim that if there was an error, it was inadvertent and committed in good faith.
That could be based on the request from the mayor’s office for Wiebe to second the motion.
This just might be enough to save his bacon. But on balance, it’s not looking good because Johnston’s emails blatantly contradict a statement by Wiebe in his November 17 affidavit filed before the courts.
That’s why I’m betting that Wiebe won’t be on council by the end of 2021.
The NPA will continue as the NPA
The NPA’s elected politicians have periodically tried to distance themselves from the party’s board of directors, which is in the control of right wingers. But both groups want to keep their mitts on the brand, which has been electing politicians in Vancouver since the 1930s.
Anytime an NPA politician has left the party and run on their own or with a new group, they’ve been slaughtered. Councillors Melissa De Genova, Lisa Dominato, Colleen Hardwick, and Sarah Kirby-Yung aren’t going to willingly walk away, at least not in 2021. They might in 2022 if the right-wing board refuses to nominate them, but not before then.
As a result, the public will continue to read stories about NPA directors and NPA elected officials not getting along, and nothing will change.
If I’m right with my prediction about Wiebe—and he is bounced out of office—count on the NPA board to nominate a hard right-winger to run in a by-election.
If that happens, the NPA will likely be defeated as the Greens, OneCity, and the mayor’s office work cooperatively to ensure they retain control over Vancouver City Hall.
That would sow even more dissension in the NPA ranks as the party prepares for the 2022 election.
Paul Mochrie will be new city manager
Earlier this year, the city announced that deputy city manager Paul Mochrie will be the acting city manager if Sadhu Johnston’s successor isn’t named by the time he leaves in January. It’s very unlikely that the council will want to do anything too disruptive—like bringing in a new city manager from outside the organization—in the midst of a pandemic.
In January, the city named Karen Levitt as a second deputy city manager, which was kind of peculiar, given that Mochrie had been in this position since 2015.
But if it was part of a grander succession plan, it starts to make sense, with Mochrie being groomed to take over Johnston’s position.
It’s conceivable that Johnston, who hails from Chicago, might be in line for a position in the Joe Biden administration. Mochrie and Levitt have complementary skills.
Mochrie has vast experience dealing with human resources, including with the city’s unions, and he has dealt closely with planning, licences, permits, and the fire department. Levitt came up through finance and has considerable economic expertise.
The city’s contracts with Canadian Union of Public Employees locals expired a year ago, so it’s a no-brainer that Mochrie will continue playing a significant role in dealing with this situation in the future. From council’s perspective, that might be best done with him in the role of city manager.
No civic workers’ strike in 2021
Unions representing civic workers have been without a contract for a year. And relations between CUPE Local 15 and the City of Vancouver became tense this year over delays in reopening library branches and community centres.
That’s normally a recipe for job action. But the city is broke and CUPE B.C. has many battles on its hands with other public bodies that have found themselves in the red as a result of the pandemic.
Strikes are expensive for unions. And in the current fiscal environment, city officials might be happy if workers set up picket lines, which would save a massive amount of money in payroll expenses.
My bet is that CUPE will hold its fire in 2021. Then if the city doesn’t come forward with a reasonable offer, it will pull the trigger in 2022, thereby ramping up pressure on politicians just as they’re seeking reelection.
That's because there’s nothing like rotting garbage in the streets in the midst of a political campaign to get the attention of city councillors.More