Now that's journalism - 1973 Vancouver City Hall profiled

Post by Mike Klassen in

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JournalismI'm not sure how many of you are aware of a nifty feature that Google has been working on for the past several months, which "OCRs" (stands for optical character recognition) scanned documents in order to allow the words within (PDF) documents to be searchable.

The City of Vancouver often scans letters for circulation, and now when we post a copy Google has a look at it, turning it from a bitmapped image to searchable text. UBC's Alumni Chronicle keeps a scanned set of old editions going back seven decades of the magazine online, and they too are being penetrated by Google's voracious bots.

This is how I stumbled upon a fascinating profile of the TEAM city council circa 1973, done by the Vancouver Sun's city hall reporter of the day Hall Lieren. Lieren's writing is so sharp, it makes you long for the days when this kind of journalism was commonplace. Certainly I cannot think of anyone covering Vancouver City Hall today or in the past decade who writes with this kind of depth and insight.

I took some time this evening to pull the text of Hall Lieren's story to share it with our readers at CityCaucus.com. Given that OCR is still prone to glitches, I may have missed a spelling or punctuation error in the text that follows - if necessary, you can reference the original edition here. We often hear from some that Vancouver needs another TEAM-style government, courageous, progressive, intellectual and fiscally smart (which is to say not at all like the council sitting at the moment).

I also find it interesting that Lieren pulls no punches in describing the NPA of the day as a bunch of pachyderms out of step with the changing times. Lieren also spends a lot of time zeroing in on Alderman Fritz Bower (who went on to become City Manager) and my friend Setty Pendakur. Pendakur's brassy no-bullshit style (which remains an adorable part of his personality) only kept him on council for one term, but given the accomplishments of his TEAM colleagues, there's no reason to apologize for the brief stay.

What's also appealing is that the article was published (for a UBC readership, who for the most part were more progressive politically) six months into TEAM's term, where they had the mayor and eight seats on council, as well as majorities on School and Park Board. The lament at the time was, will they get anything done? TEAM went on to be the single most influential government the city had ever seen until then, and possibly since.

For a reflection upon the work of TEAM from SFU's Paradise Makers' series, read this post by Stephen Rees. What follows now is the entire text of Hall Lieren's story on TEAM for the UBC Alumni Chronicle, Summer 1973 edition.

bowers-pendakur

Academics in Power: New Faces In Vancouver’s City Hall

by Hall Leiren (originally published UBC Alumni Chronicle, Summer 1973)

For those who lie awake nights worrying about such things, the University of B.C. faculty have not seized power at Vancouver city hall.

It only seems that way.

But with the array of academic brainpower lighting the red-leather and oak panel council chamber at Twelfth and Cambie the casual observer could be forgiven for believing the philosopher kings had taken charge in “Narcissus on the Pacific”.

The thought of so many quiz givers, used to exercising powers of life and death (almost) over students, under one roof is unnerving. But on closer acquaintance they turn out to be human after all. Vancouver may even prosper under them. It will certainly survive them.

The onslaught of academics, as most Vancouverites know now, occurred last December 14 when The Electors’ Action Movement (TEAM) kicked the props from under the long entrenched Civic Non-Partisan Association, an organization that seemed part Colonel Blimp and part Attila the Hun. TEAM captured city council (nine of 11 seats), the school board and park board. While the park board failed to elect any university academics two were elected to the nine-member school board, mathematics professor Peter Bullen and English professor Elliott Gose.

But it was on the 11-member city council that the academics from UBC made the greatest inroads, outnumbering even those traditional political activists, the lawyers, by four to three.

Someone suggested at the time that the election marked a switch in the focus of local political power from the Terminal City Club to the UBC Faculty Club. It wasn’t that at all, of course, but the phrase was certainly indicative of the direction of change in civic politics.

First came Walter Hardwick, BA’54, MA’58, UBC professor of geography, who led the aldermanic poll. Voted in for his third two-year term he topped even that redoubtable socialist and political brawler, Harry Rankin, BA ’49, LLB ’SO. At times pedantic, generally cool even when baited, Hardwick is the most professorial of the lot. He is not above hectoring his council colleagues in the manner of a patient but exasperated school master explaining to a class of slow learners. Hand on hip, he stands in the Diefenbaker style as if massaging a troublesome kidney.

Ald. Fritz Bowers, professor of electrical engineering, together with Hardwick and Ald. Jack Volrich, BA’50, LLB’51, forms the pillars on which Mayor Art Phillips’ (BCom’53) administration rests, with more or less security depending on what issue is being voted.

If it has ever been said about any member of the council that he has a computer for a mind it must have been Bowers. As soon as he came on council he began to dazzle his less mathematically-inclined colleagues with the speed with which he calculated mills, percentages and outstanding debt. Then they found out that Bowers did indeed carry a computer around. But it was in his pocket, not his head. One of those magic little boxes that fit in the hand and on which you can multiply, square root and raise to the nth power until you blow your mind. After that there was no more talk about Bowers’ computer mind.

Planning professor Setty Pendakur, MSC’58, barely squeaked into his council seat after a couple of vote recounts, winning narrowly over restauranteur and ex-policeman Don Bellamy. A volatile, outspoken maverick, he takes delight in puncturing aldermanic pomposities – yes, readers, they are still with us – with cutting, colourful language. He described a fellow TEAM alderman in conversation once as: “An empty tin can floating on a sea of bullshit.”

That piquant and devastating commentator on events, Sun columnist Allan Fotheringham (BA ’54), think Pendakur does too much talking at times. “He is a worthy successor, although giving away 200 pounds or so, in the loneliness-of-the-long-distance-speaker sweepstakes headed by Halford Wilson. ”

Dr. William Gibson, BA’33, chairman and professor of the history of medicine and science and unsuccessful TEAM mayoral candidate in 1970, makes up the fourth in council’s academic quartet. He has yet to show his mettle in council. Some say he hasn’t the brawling instinct of the true politician and is more temperamentally suited to behind-the-scenes persuasion. Certainly he gives an impression of being too nice a guy for the political rough-housing a local politician has to join in. One of his colleagues claims in fact that Gibson went into it because all his heroes in the history of medicine devoted part of their lives to public service through politics. His passions, if that is the right word, are libraries and parks.

These four, all newcomers on council except Hardwick, represent the academic Mafia from UBC that has supposedly taken over at city hall. The feelings of the alleged mafiosi themselves are a little different. “There is no UBC master plan to take over the city,” quipped Hardwick.

In fact they all say they were unacquainted with each other before going into politics and even now do not mix socially. Since in the absence of evidence to the contrary even politicians must occasionally be taken at their word, that leaves little grounds to suspect any conspiracy.

Bowers says that if one wanted to make a case for the existence of a supposed power group on council it would probably be easier to prove a plot by the B.C. Bar Association, with three members, to take power. “I think the lawyers are a great deal more similar in outlook as a group than the academics,” he said.

Bowers points out that he himself is an engineer specializing in the rather esoteric field of radio astronomy. Gibson is a physician with his main interests in the field of mental health. Hardwick is a geographer specializing in urban planning. Pendakur is an engineer with interests in traffic and planning. Dr. Bullen is a mathematician and Dr. Gose an English professor specializing in 19th century literature. “It is quite conceivable that if we had not got into politics we would never even have met each other,” Bowers said.

However, despite such professed differences, the council represents, in broad terms, the new breed of politicians coming to the fore in Canadian cities. Canadians are revolting against the kind of old-style politics that was represented here by the NPA, which perceived the duty of local government to consist in the main of expediting the desires of the business and real estate interests. Anyone who feels documentation of such a statement is necessary has only to pick up the newspapers and start flipping backwards.

The new kind of politician is committed to social change, to involving people as much as possible in the process of government, to giving people control over their neighbourhoods, to demanding a greater degree of social responsibility on the part of business. They are concerned about things that up until now have only been felt in the guts rather than articulated: the whole question of growth and how to manage it; concern for the environment; concern for cities, their effect on people, and how they may live and how to avoid them being destroyed. They tend to believe, for example, that a boulevard of trees is more important than increased traffic capacity on a street, that an old neighbourhood may often be a much better thing than a row of clean, neat and sterile apartment blocks.

Generally the new council is in philosophic agreement with this kind of urban thinking. The test will be whether or not they have the political will to implement the kind of changes that will bring these ideas to reality.

However, there is no question that the general attitude of council, and this includes not only the academics but other members as well, is radically different from what prevailed in the reign of the NPA pachyderms. There is a willingness to listen, to look at new evidence, and even to admit mistakes, qualities that are presumed to be the hallmark of the academic.

Despite the gut feeling in the community that TEAM somehow represents UBC Inc., the organization, which ran its first civic candidates in 1968, has a rather polyglot parentage.

Those who shared the black bread of civic political impotence in the hard old days when the organization was forming included the present Senator Ed Lawson, with his powerful connections in labour movement; Bill Bellman, former president of CHQM Radio; Art Phillips, then known mainly as a one-time campaign manager for Environment Minister Jack Davis; Gowan Guest, a successful lawyer, prominent Conservative, and onetime executive assistant to Prime Minister John Diefenbaker; and architect Geoffrey Massey. Businessman Allan McGavin, the former Chancellor of UBC, and present chairman of the board of governors, attended some of the meetings at which the party’s foundations were laid.

There was, of course, also a heavy involvement of UBC types, with particularly strong participation from the School of Community and Regional Planning.

Dr. Peter Oberlander, director of the School of Community and Regional Planning currently on leave as Secretary to the Ministry of Urban Affairs, elected to school board in 1968 along with Bullen, participated in the founding of the party. SO did acting director of the School of Planning Brahm Wiseman, associate professor of planning Bob Collier and assistant political science professor Paul Tennant. Walter Hardwick and his brother David, a UBC associate professor of pathology, were also actively involved.

“The party represented what you might call a perfect marriage,” recalled Pendakur, who also was in from almost the beginning. “ A perfect marriage that saw the UBC Faculty Club joined to the Terminal City Club. The academics going to bed with the liberal business elite.”

For reasons no one can really seem to explain it was the academics rather than the businessmen, however, who came to the forefront as candidates for election.

Dr. Bullen, himself a member of the New Democratic Party, speculates that one of the reasons for this reluctance on the part of businessmen may have been that they felt queazy about being associated too openly with an organization that included, and still does, some fairly radical NDPers.

Certainly there doesn’t seem to have been any great push on to get academics involved. On the contrary, according to Bowers, the TEAM nominating committee has always been nervous about the high proportion of professors whose names seem to be put forward. He said that he himself was given only half-hearted encouragement when he told the party organization he wanted to run for alderman in 1972.

This may well stem from the kind of flimsy folk wisdom cultivated by the old NPA (the present organization now claims to be the “new” NPA ) that all academics are slightly looney and certainly an irresponsible lot. If once they got their hands on the till it would spell ruin for all.

In fact, among the heavy thinkers of the NPA it was an article of dogma that the word “academic” was never mentioned in polite company unless prefixed with a pejorative adjective. The constant references by the faithful were to “woolly-headed” academics, “airy-fairy’’ academics, “irresponsible” academics, “impractical” academics, and other less polite terms.

Bowers said the last election in particular proved that academics are, despite local superstitions, highly electable. “This never fails to surprise the backroom boys,” he said. “It was particularly so in the last election but it happened in 1968 and 1970 too.”

The quartet has arrived at city hall by various routes.

Bowers and Gibson lay little claim to any romance to the story of how they became involved. In Bower’s case it was simply a matter of being told at one point that if he had so many gripe she should run for office and do something about them. He did. Gibson said he got involved mainly to promote parks and libraries, the first as an aid to mental health and the second as an aid to education.

Hardwick and Pendakur romanticize their entry somewhat in the “years of struggle” mode. They speak of the urban guerrilla days in Vancouver’s freeway and urban renewal battles of the 1960’s. They nostalgically recall how they suffered the revenge of their abused stomachs as they travelled the rubber chicken circuit of Rotary, Kiwanis and Junior Chamber of Commerce luncheons, railing against what in those days seemed the inevitability of radial freeways and planning madness, out to accommodate machines at the expense of man.

The common thread however, seems to be that they got involved more by accident than design in running for office. “In my own case what happened was that when the nominating committee in 1968 started looking around for candidates there just wasn’t anybody who wanted to take it on and I more or less fell in because I felt we had to run somebody,” said Hardwick.

Desire to escape the so-called Ivory Tower seems to have played only a negligible part. “We are for good or ill all of us very practical academics,” said Pendakur. They see their involvement springing from the very practical consideration that their time schedules, along with such people as lawyers and businessmen, are flexible.

Bowers is the only one confessing to feeling a certain relief in the change from campus to city hall.

Bowers - whom Fotheringham characterizes as “the real surprise of the new council, extra solid, the common-sense ballast among the academic utopianism" – says it gives him a sense of “dealing with the real world, of having a chance to put your ideas into practice instead of just talking. It is a very nice relief from the endless debate and petty politics that go on in university politics and never accomplishes anything”.

One senses at times, however, a certain smugness among them, a feeling-justified that their intellectual equipment is considerably above the average. “The bureaucrats know they cannot snow us,” one commented.

The harsh fact, of course, is that the average bureaucrat when threatened can outsnow a Saskatchewan blizzard.

Already there are signs the soft nose of innocence has come up against the hard fist of reality. Frustration is felt in varying degrees by aldermen, who feel things are stuck or not moving fast enough in this or that area. In fact, Bowers went so far recently as to say, much to the mayor’s dismay, that if as little is accomplished in the next year by council as has been accomplished in the first five months the whole crew deserves to be thrown out in the next election.

However, this may be the healthy kind of frustration that leads to renewed effort and creativity. One thing is certain. The present council is probably the most maverick Vancouver has had. TEAM is, in theory, a team. In fact, it as aldermen are nine highly individualistic persons, voting their own way on issues instead of adhering to any party discipline.

From the point of view of the man in the mayor’s chair this is undesirable. He is not in control. Certainly, Phillips does not have the kind of control that ex-mayor Tom Campbell exercised. Campbell always knew that when it came to the crunch he could count on having at least six votes of the 11 on council. Phillips can never be sure of mustering a majority and on occasion has been embarrassed to find he couldn’t.

Any one among the Bowers-Hardwick-Volrich triumvirate seems at any one time to be just as much in charge as the mayor. In fact, Fotheringham suggests that Hardwick, because of apparent lack of personal ambition, underestimated his potential to become mayor when he quietly moved aside after Phillips pre-empted the candidacy by declaring his intention to run,some nine months before the TEAM nominating convention.

“One suspects, and one suspects that perhaps Walter suspects, that the somewhat outlandish suggestion early in 1972 by the Vancouver Province editorial page that Hardwick would make the best TEAM choice for mayor was true,” Fotheringham said.

The three are, of course, too loyal - or politically astute - to say anything suggesting the mayor is not calling the shots, but the nuances are there.

Fotheringham’s assessment of Hardwick as a kind of council Hamlet is reflected by Ald. Rankin, who, while conceding that Hardwick is knowledgeable, hardworking and conscientious, also finds him “long on theorizing and short on decisive action.”

Rankin, whose capacity for outrage, real or feigned, is matched only by his power of invective, has strong opinions on the other academics as well.

He finds Pendakur somewhat volatile. “Pendakur is decisive but uninformed on civic matters and not prepared to work hard on civic business,’’ Rankin said. “He is leftish in phraseology.”

Bowers is “decisive, intelligent, conservative, rapidly (filling) the shoes of Earl Adams,” the irascible, tightfisted and reactionary financial watchdog of NPA days.

How effective have these people been so far?

The answer is mixed. They have, of course, only had about six months to master the many intricacies of civic administration and one should not expect miracles in that short a time. On the other hand, many of Vancouver’s problems are vitally important to the future of the city and people today are impatient and won’t allow an alderman the year or more that used to be taken to ease into the job.

Hardwick and Bowers are probably the most effective. Both are experienced and knowledgeable about the city. Bowers, as a newcomer, has already shown as chairman of the finance committee that he has the will to make unpopular decisions. It is not out of the realm of the possible that the Bowers-Hardwick-Volrich troika will emerge openly as the real leadership on council before the next election rolls around.

Pendakur’s effectiveness is hampered by his maverick behaviour, which he says he has no plans to change. “There are some people who interpret the TEAM platform to suit themselves but I’m not one of them”. How effective he will become, in the sense of being on the winning side of things, will depend on how far he is willing to modify this attitude of the outside loner.

Gibson has yet to play a very active role in council debates. He takes little part in debates unless the issue involves parks or libraries. That is not to say those issues are unimportant or that Gibson is not making a contribution in those areas, but an alderman should display wider concerns. It may be, however, that as some observers suggest Gibson’s real strength is his energetic, conciliatory approaches behind the scenes.

A UBC conspiracy to take over the city? If you find one the local politician-academics would like to be the first to be told.

Hall Leiren is city hall reporter for The Sun.

5 Comments

Amazing to think of a time when a pocket calculator was the latest in new technology!

Great read today!

Fascinating, Michael - pithy, and one of the best short form reads this year. Thank you for going to the effort of bringing Mr. Leiren's article to our attention. Ah, for the good old days when aldermen / councillors, and the members of the various City social agencies, could respectfully stake out their own, thoughtful position on "the issues" rather than feel they must adhere to the "political playbook" adopted by a caucus of their peers.

Thanks, Michael. I wish I'd held onto some of these old articles (mind you I was 12 at the time).

Thanks Mike for this snippet back in time. It's still refreshing.

I wish we still had this sort of intelligent reporting and informative insight from our current bunch of civic watchers.

Gawd, even this week I was forwarded a piece of "journalism" describing a civil servant... and the response that was shared to me by people in the know was, and I quote:

----
"From: xxxxxxx
Date: September 17, 2009 4:47:50 AM PDT
To: xxxxxxxxxxxxx
Subject: Re: Article on xxxxx

i told you columnist xxxxxxx xxxx isjust a low level street slut.

I rest my case."

regrd,
xxxxx
---

I'm still chortling heartily after reading the sacharrin laden magazine article.

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