Erin Airton interview with Councillor Andrea Reimer

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andrea reimerI caught up with Andrea Reimer, a first-termer on Vancouver’s City Council after much phone tag. She’s pretty busy! Andrea is a former school trustee and has a long history of dedicated involvement in environment and social justice issues.

What do you see as the two biggest issues facing the City of Vancouver?

Just two?

Ok, then. Three. Let’s do three for you.

Well homelessness is the first one. That and housing. It is really impossible to separate one from the other. Without affordable housing, we will have homelessness. We cannot solve one without solving the other.

The second is municipal financing. I’m a policy wonk who knows about the constitution and the demands on modern cities are just so much greater than anyone thought when the constitution was first drafted in 1867. The way we fund cities is a problem. The Federal and Provincial governments fund infrastructure but then leave the cities to fund operations. We can generate about 8% of tax revenue but we’re directly responsible for 60% of services. And that doesn’t including housing, mental illness... areas that other governments are responsible for but may not deliver as they should be.

A good example is say you wanted to put a tax on coffee cups. Coffee cups are a big problem here in Vancouver, but may not be in Williams Lake. We have to ask the province for the tax to put in place. Fiscal tools that are available to European cities and American cities are not available in cities in Canada.

And the third?

Environment is the other. Those are three very large issues where I would hope to see outcomes for us.

Do you see issues in the City of Vancouver being different than those in the rest of Metro Vancouver?

These issues are chronic in the various regions and acute in Vancouver. Every area faces these issues but they are heighted and worse in the City of Vancouver. Vancouver is the collector and the focus for the region. We have the worst housing, the worst transportation. Vancouver is a dense city and so the problems are magnified. We are be the focal point in region – both for services and for the people looking to access those services.

When you look forward two to three years, what do you want to have achieved in your time on Council?

I would love to see 100% of our street homeless at least in emergency shelters...maybe transition housing. That is probably too ambitious. You may know that I was homeless and I literally feel their pain when I meet someone.

If we can get halfway there, we will have pulled off a miracle.

We are about a quarter of the way there now. The first thing we did was getting all the right people at the table. But that will only take us so far. There are resources in the pipe from the province that will help us get further. We also needed to get mental health to the table. Now VCH (Vancouver Coastal Health) is working hard to align mental health services. The next big role will be to help people making transition from supportive housing into permanent housing. We need different people at the table for each step – shelter, transition/supportive housing and then finally permanent housing.

There is a lot we need to do. This is the difficulty in prioritizing government.

I’d like to see the green pieces included. Transportation is the big one – we need to have way more people walking, riding their bikes and using transit. Maybe some pilot projects around water use, waste and energy, too.

The good news is that other governments have money looking to invest in these issues right now.

What worries you most about this council term?

The Olympics, probably – and the Village more specifically. There is a lot of risk tied up for Vancouver on it. Not just financial, but reputational risk on the Olympics. It’s got to be done extremely well.

And built onto that is that whatever led to the failure on Olympic Village, which is something we’re still dealing with – that process, there is a fear that it was a systemic problem of bad decisions. What else went wrong that we don’t know?

What has surprised you the most so far?

I’m a bit surprised that I can’t use my Iphone (laughs) due to the security issues.

I guess I am surprised by the sheer size of the city...it is somewhat breathtaking. A billion dollar budget -I can conceptualize that of course, the school board budget was half a billion dollars.

It’s almost like a giant bowl of spaghetti- the complexity of it is overwhelming. Just following the various strands, where they start. Where they come from...

Another thing was that the committees of city council aren’t really committees in the traditional sense, they are committees of the whole. Many people don’t know that you can’t just come to talk to city council. You can come to a committee meeting, and get on the agenda, but not the council. When the British devolved from a monarchy to something more democratic, these committee structures are an artefact of that time. And compared to a monarchy, there were democratic. But when you hold them up to the US or other republican democracies, they are quite archaic.

The process isn’t accessible and even people who are really knowledgeable aren’t really sure how it works.

Is the lack of an opposition for Vision a problem in keeping united around a common vision?

Well, Suzanne (Anton) is a pretty spirited opposition in herself. Ellen (Woodworth) and David (Cadman) are an opposition in their own way on specific issues that are important to them. The citizens are active and the media. It’s always a saw off having a large opposition, the last council, which was 6-5, was quite acrimonious and perhaps took longer to get things done. How do I think it the large council will serve democracy? Citizens and media can really play a role - it doesn’t need to be always a partisan opposition. What is important is that there is access. If we are accessible, then the media and the public can watch dog us.

Looking back over your personal political career, what are you most proud of?

It was never meant to be a career (laughs).

I’m most proud of my work, so far, at the School Board around the budget process and changing it from an acrimonious process, where everyone was shooting inwards to something else.

There was a lack of resources but we really made a united effort to have better use of the dollars by principals, teachers, and parents working together. We also had a strong advocacy campaign for more funding from the province. It wasn’t single handed, but I’m proud of that.

In your opinion, what aspect of Vancouver is head and shoulders above the rest?

The people. It really is. I’m sitting here looking at the North Shore Mountains and I’m reminded how we are so endowed with natural resources. But it is the people who have chosen to live here that make it great. We have these incredible people who are full of ideas about sustainability and democracy.

What we can accomplish together is an amazing thought.

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