Six stories at Vancouver City Hall in 2021 that set the table for a looming election

Civic politics mostly flew below the radar because of the pandemic, but that will change in 2022

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      The race is already on. Last April, there were already three putative challengers for mayor of Vancouver—John Coupar, Ken Sim, and Mark Marissen—18 months before the next civic election. And rumours abound that three high-profile women—Coun. Adriane Carr, Coun. Jean Swanson, and Coun. Colleen Hardwick—might also enter the race.

      Then there's the potential mayoral candidate with the most social-media followers, former MP Jody Wilson-Raybould, waiting in the wings, though she seems to have sworn off electoral politics for now. The former vice chair of the Vancouver police board, businessman Barj Dhahan, is another name to consider.

      If even half of these people end up on the ballot, it's going to be a wild ride on the way to voting day on October 15.

      With that in mind, here are our choices for the six most significant political stories of the year from Vancouver City Hall.

      You can be sure that Kennedy Stewart's new party won't be named "Cronies of the Mayor".

      Mayor to form his own party

      Mayor Kennedy Stewart revealed before Christmas that he plans to run with a slate of candidates for city council in the hope of securing a majority in the next election.

      This move will boost his fundraising capacity just when he needs it the most and help boost his appeal to diverse communities, given the likely makeup of the slate.

      Along with the boots-on-the-ground support of the labour movement, this new party could prove pivotal in helping the mayor retain his job. And it just might stem the growth of the pesky Greens, who went from one member of council, Adriane Carr, to three in the 2018 election.

      Goodman Commercial principals Cynthia Jagger and Mark Goodman gave the thumb's-up to council's decision to promote more rental housing development in commercial zones.

      Secured Rental Policy

      On December 14, all members of Vancouver council except for Coun. Colleen Hardwick voted in favour of amending zoning schedules to allow for more six-storey, mixed-use rental buildings along commercial streets.

      From Stewart’s perspective, this will help blunt Progress Vancouver mayoral challenger Mark Marissen’s frequent complaints that he hasn’t done enough to promote more rental housing. In 2018, tenants were a critical part of Stewart’s election efforts—and Stewart must keep them onside if he wants to avoid being a one-term mayor.

      “This policy checks all the boxes,” wrote commercial realtors Mark Goodman and Cynthia Jagger in the Goodman Report. “It offers assistance with meeting affordable housing targets and climate goals, speeding up permit times for rental, and shifting land use from low-density with few families to higher-density with new neighbours, shops and access to transit.”

      But it could also lead to another escalation in land prices, which will bring higher property taxes to commercial tenants.

      If the feds grant an exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, police will no longer arrest people for possession of illicit street drugs.

      City requests drug-law exemption

      On May 28, the City of Vancouver filed its formal request to the federal government for a citywide exemption from Section 56(1) of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. This would have the effect of decriminalizing possession of illegal street drugs within the city’s boundaries.

      “A central goal of decriminalization is to reduce the risks and harms that are associated with the stigmatization and marginalization of people who use drugs (PWUD),” the city stated in its submission. “This exemption represents an opportunity to better the health outcomes for people who use drugs by reducing the impacts of drug law enforcement for simple possession, reducing stigma and promoting access to life-saving health services.”

      Then, in October, city council voted to support an application for a similar exemption for the Drug User Liberation Front so it could provide tested drugs in Vancouver.

      To date, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos has not acted on those requests, even though a record number of illicit-drug overdoses occurred in B.C. in October. More than 200 people died that month, and in the first 10 months of 2021, B.C. eclipsed its previous annual record.

      Here's the political significance: Mayor Kennedy Stewart can say he's doing something about the overdose crisis in the next election campaign, even if the federal Liberal government does nothing to make this a reality.

      Sarah Kirby-Yung was one of three councillors who said goodbye to the NPA in 2021.

      NPA implosion

      Vancouver’s centre-right party is starting to resemble the Agatha Christie novel And Then There Were None.

      In April, the NPA lost three of its councillors (Lisa Dominato, Colleen Hardwick, and Sarah Kirby-Yung) and all three of its school trustees after the board anointed park commissioner John Coupar as the 2022 mayoral candidate.

      That left a rump of three in caucus: Coupar, Coun. Melissa De Genova, and park commissioner Tricia Barker.

      De Genova attended Marissen’s campaign launch along with Dominato and Kirby-Yung. This suggests that De Genova might be next to bolt the NPA, just like her father, former park commissioner Al De Genova, did after many years in office.

      The NPA is not only doing its best impression of one of Christie's most famous mysteries. The grand old party of Vancouver politics is also looking the character in Monty Python and the Holy Grail who keeps declaring to the cart master, “I’m not dead”.

      Coun. Colleen Hardwick wants nothing to do with the NPA, A Better City, or Progress Vancouver.

      Proliferation of parties

      The balkanization of Vancouver politics continued this year with the fracturing of the old NPA coalition into a growing number of parties. In addition to Marissen’s development-friendly Progress Vancouver, former NPA mayoral candidate Ken Sim is leading the NIMBYish A Better City. And Hardwick is the de facto leader of the even more NIMBYish TEAM for a Livable Vancouver.

      As of this writing, Progress Vancouver has 590 Twitter followers. A Better City has 420 Twitter followers. And TEAM for a Livable Vancouver has just nine Twitter followers.

      It’s hardly a sign that they’re setting Vancouver’s political house on fire—at least not yet. But hey, there are still more than nine months until voting day.

      With an election year looming, most Vancouver incumbents were in no mood to rile the Vancouver police at budget time.
      Charlie Smith

      Election budget

      The Vancouver Police Department and Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services received what they wanted, enabling Stewart to go before voters next October with a message that he’s on the side of public safety. Plus, he covered his tracks on the climate by persuading a majority to approve a new environmental levy to raise $100 million over 10 years to pay for the climate plan.

      Stewart had earlier voted with centre-right councillors to defeat a parking tax that would have funded climate actions.

      But the overall tax increase of 6.35 percent in the recent budget provides ammunition for his centre-right opponents, most of whom don’t want to narrow the role of police, which might actually save the city some money.

      In a November presentation to a legislative committee, B.C. Human Rights Commissioner Kasari Govender laid out a road map for dramatic reforms to policing, including “de-tasking”. (She didn’t use the word “defund”.)

      Did this landmark document have any measurable effect on council and the mayor, a self-described police reformer, as they head into an election year?

      Nope. The last thing most of them want is to turn the influential police union against them in the months leading up to voting day.