Vancouver City Council needs to turn down the political rhetoric, and turn up the results
Every local columnist and media outlet covering the city beat will soon be giving you their views on the first year of Vision Vancouver's government. Our marketing department located on the 27th floor of CityCaucus Tower thought it would be smart if we were the first out of the gate.
Over the past month we surveyed numerous CityCaucus.com staffers – from our CFO, our Vice-President of Business Development, our media monitors, researchers and all the way down to Filipé our parking lot attendant, to get their views on how civic leaders and public service staff across Canada are doing.
We are pleased to provide our readers with the 1st Annual Civic Council Report Card. This is a comprehesive review of the work of Mayor Gregor Robertson and his team, their policies and initiatives, and the performance of other council members, select staff and media, as well as other Canadian city mayors.
We are encouraging our readers to weigh in and give their own rating and critique ours. Now, here is CityCaucus.com's Report Card, beginning our grades for Vancouver city council in several different categories.
Vision Vancouver Council: On the Issues
Openness and Transparency: D
When it came to the introduction of the controversial HEAT shelters, most decisions were made in the backrooms. Local residents were ridiculed by some elected officials for voicing concerns over increased public disorder in their back lanes and parks. Vision also used a backroom process to develop their new "Green City" plan which was presented to Vancouver residents as a fait accompli. Requests to access information at City Hall by CityCaucus.com have been met with countless delays, and exorbitant fees. When we did receive information via the FOI process, most of the material was heavily censored.
Additional Comments: With only one member of the opposition, Vision should realize they can't run City Hall with an iron fist and should allow a few voices of dissent. Facilitating freedom of information requests would be a good first start.
Fiscal Accountability: D+
The first decision of the new Vision Vancouver council was to hold a lavish $85,000 inaugural bash with friends and insiders. This was followed by their second decision to fire the former City Manager Judy Rogers and pay her over half a million dollars in severance. They also decided to take on the full financial risk to complete the Olympic Village project as well as forge ahead with the construction of social housing units valued at $800,000 per unit. When they weren't spending $850,000 on lavish renovations to the City Hall chamber and foyer, Vision was purchasing blocks of tickets to attend numerous Olympic Games events. The City Manager should be credited for trying to reign in some spending, but most of her efforts to date have been demonstrated as being nothing more than smoke and mirrors.
Additional Comments: The Vancouver Services Review was a good first step at reducing city spending, but more needs to be done to control overall discretionary expenditures.
Environmental Stewardship: C-
Despite their well-meaning policy direction to build the world's "greenest" city, to date most of the work has resulted in an elaborate public relations exercise. Symbolic gestures like their backyard chicken policy and a costly community garden stranded on City Hall's front lawn only made Vancouver more skeptical about council's direction on this file. The mayor's greenest city advisory group met only in secret and provided no record of their work. The final "plan" rolled out by the Mayor looked like an elaborate press release with holes large enough to drive a diesel truck through. Instead of reducing carbon, Vancouver seems on course for getting an Oscar for best actor in a green role.
Additional Comments: Being green, means acting green. You can gain a letter grade by immediately moving to use the power of zoning to drive your green agenda. People need to change more than their lightbulbs, they also need to change their lifestyle.
Open Source City: B
This will impress techies and data junkies more than anyone else, but the city has taken the right step in the direction of making their data more widely available for third parties to access. Some cynics suggest that it is the most elaborate voter mapping program launched by a civic party, to the advantage of the incumbents. The reality is that anyone with the knowledge and resources could put the data to use, regardless of partisan stripes.
Both the NPA and Vision Vancouver made the reduction of political rhetoric and partisanship a campaign issue. Vision, with its large council majority, instead of being less partisan conduct themselves like a spoilt child when it comes to defending their dominance in city council chambers. If not impugning the previous council directly, the Mayor's office devotes itself to smearing opponents either directly or through their supporters.
Mayor Gregor Robertson gets a pass
If not stirring any controversy is the only measure of his leadership at City Hall, then Gregor Robertson would be an off-the-charts success. If Robertson had only been judged by his one biggest political gamble - the closure of a lane on Burrard Bridge - he would also be deemed a huge success. If were only so. The Mayor's critics accuse him of living in a "bubble" and being a "flake," however, those definitions are too simplistic to have any real meaning. Robertson's refusal to meet with Suzanne Anton for even 5 minutes demonstrates a petty side to him which few people see on the nightly news. The telegenic Mayor has the opportunity with his massive majority and cohesive caucus to implement an aggressive and activist agenda. However, to date there has been no substance to show for his efforts.
Gregor's drive to make it back to Victoria one day is likely clouding his day-to-day decision-making process and preventing some really innovative policy ideas from coming forward. His choice of cabinet members was surprising in that he gave some of his senior caucus members many of the more junior roles. His appointment of Geoff Meggs and Michael Magee does demonstrate that he understands the role of his lieutenants; Magee is a social enterprise true believer, and Meggs is a stalwart labour operative. Both are cunning players who provide a much-needed crusty shell for the Mayor's soft, mushy middle.
Rating Vancouver City Council Performances
In terms of the Mayor and individual councillors in Vancouver, we have also rated each of them based upon their ability to get ahead of issues, their skill at handling the media spotlight (or not), and their personal style. Here now is our reviews of Vancouver's city councillors:
Suzanne Anton (C-): It's hard when you are the lone opposition member of council, yet Anton has rarely shown the drive it takes to keep the government accountable. She has not made the transition from government to opposition very well. She rarely brings forward motions to council that make Vision squirm or get any media attention. Anton rails against council's rules of order, where she most often loses against the majority, and it makes her look petty. To have any impact during her second year in opposition, Anton must stake her ground and use her considerable base of support to bring more issues into the public spotlight.
David "Carbon" Cadman (F): Cadman often seems like he's stuck in a previous era of limitless government spending. Earth to David – there's a recession on. David preaches environmental sustainability, yet he racks up thousands of Aeroplan miles jetsetting around the world on the taxpayer's dime. His cozy relationship with Vision has led to his COPE party obtaining rump status in the Chamber. His ICLEI video tape which appeared to be filmed in the basement of City Hall was a sheer embarrassment to both him and his party. Thanks to his hubris, we don't have high hopes for an improvement from Cadman in 2010.
George Chow (C-): This veteran councillor is almost never heard in council. He may be working hard behind the scenes, but he has an invisible public profile. Chow is on-balance perhaps the most likable member of city council, and likely a reliable go-to guy for Vancouver's large Chinese population. But Chow had to be persuaded to run for a second term, and one has the feeling that he's already in retirement mode.
Heather Deal (C): Another veteran councillor who hasn't reached her potential in government. Although she handled the Burrard Bridge trial relatively well, Mayor Robertson has given her too many junior assignments given her level of expertise. She also remained silent as Council made serious cuts to the arts budget, a file that she once championed. While gregarious and fun in person, Deal also can be a loose cannon on the deck of the SS Vision. Her email banter revealed in FOIs shows at times a lack of maturity for the job.
Kerry Jang (F): Appointed as the Minister of Social and Community Services in Vancouver, he has been an unmitigated disaster. His handling of the HEAT shelters was nothing short of calamitous and he has now been sidelined by Mayor Robertson. He's faced a real steep learning curve and Vision has paid the political price as a result. Jang gets deducted further marks for his regularly shilling for NDP compadres, and ignoring the damage this does to his colleagues who at least try to maintain non-partisan appearances when asking for Provincial and Federal program support.
Raymond Louie (C): As Chair of Vancouver's budget, he has openly admitted on numerous occasions that he is not in the loop on major decisions. He was completely unaware that he voted to support $850,000 of renovations to City Hall and was blindsided by a massive shortfall in the police budget. He has a lot of potential, if only his former leadership rival would give him a bit of room to grow. Louie is also docked marks for stubbornly refusing to release his donor information from his mayoralty bid. Technically he didn't have to, but it was a huge contradiction from his previous piety about donor disclosure, and voters saw that.
Geoff 'Mayor' Meggs (B+): By far the most intelligent, articulate and media savvy city councillor. He knows the importance of keeping the team together and has worked tirelessly behind the scenes with the Mayor's office staff to keep the Vision agenda from falling apart at the seams. He isn't called Mayor Geoff Meggs without a reason. He's going places.
Andrea Reimer (B-): She introduced the backyard chickens motion and took a carbon-laden trip overseas, but Andrea is still a CityCaucus.com favourite. She's tough, but also understands the importance of balancing environmental concerns with the ability of taxpayers to finance it. A potential leadership candidate one day if she can lose the chip on her shoulder earned during her previous life as a homeless youth.
Tim Stevenson (B): As a three-term councillor, Tim understands that he shouldn't take politics too seriously. He's made some shrewd moves by canceling his trip to San Francisco before it became too much of an issue. By keeping a low profile and letting his colleagues do all the heavy lifting, he gets a high rating from our panel of judges. Stevenson has also done a good job promoting the sustainability file around water.
Ellen Woodsworth (C+): The soft-spoken councillor hasn't made much of an impression over the last 12 months with the exception of her odd performance at the recent anti-HST rally (she apparently was heard chanting "no GST" rather than "no HST"). Woodsworth came out strong on changes to the dated municipal elections act, and also questioned whether City staff and councillors should be shelling out thousands for Olympic tickets. Unlike her COPE colleague, Woodsworth is more pragmatic in her approach, but is still likely to get steamrolled in the next civic election as she was in 2005.
Park Board & School Board, cuz someone should talk about 'em
Apart from the controversies stirred after Labour Day on both the Vancouver Park Board (resignation of Susan Mundick) and the Vancouver School Board (allowing Olympic protestors to use school facilities) neither group has raised as much as a feint pulse in the public mind.
Vancouver Park Board: C-
The Vancouver Park Board have been described as among the worst group elected to this commission in a generation. The distractions around Vision Vancouver star candidate Constance Barnes getting liquored up on a public beach, then driving her car into someone's house, haven't helped. Board chair Raj Hundal has tried to stake his turf on the matter of hiring a replacement for Susan Mundick, but he was quickly crushed by the powerful City Manager. Non-Vision commissioners have not done a particularly good job of raising issues in the public mind. Stuart MacKinnon, the lone Green commissioner has an opportunity to really stand out as he doesn't represent traditional city politics (COPE or NPA), but we're still waiting for this to happen. Both Loretta Woodcock and Ian Robertson bring good experience to the commission, but neither have really stood out on the issues.
Vancouver School Board: C+
Over at the Vancouver School Board it has been entirely the Patti Bacchus Show. Bacchus would get a solid B grade from CityCaucus.com for her handling of the school funding issues. What Bacchus lacks is a bedside manner for public life. Judging by her comments on our blog she has a sense of humour, but comes across as a downer in the media. Bacchus and her Vision/COPE colleagues are using the Fraser Institute and BC Liberals as punching bags, not surprising given the huge support given by the BC Teacher's Union. Schools are vital to the future of Vancouver, and bringing partisan politicking into our schools only hurts communities. Just once we'd like to see Vision or COPE push back against the BCTF. While good work is being done by the NPA's Ken Denike and Carol Gibson, they've missed opportunities to take the lead on too many issues. Someone get them a publicist, stat!
Non-Politician Players – Who Makes Our List?
We also established a few extra special categories for Vancouver City Hall which you might also enjoy:
Most influential staffer: Penny Ballem
Second most influential staffer: Patrice Impey, CFO
Most underrated politician: Andrea Reimer
Most overrated politician: David Cadman
Staffer going places: Brent Toderian
Best communicator: Geoff Meggs
Best civic beat reporter: Mike Howell, Vancouver Courier
Most balanced civic columnist: Miro Cernetig, Vancouver Sun
Most knowledgeable civic columnist: Allen Garr
Best mainstream media civic coverage: Vancouver Courier/Georgia Straight (tie)
Most underrated city staffer: Tom Timm, General Manager of Engineering
Biggest political gamble: Burrard Street Bridge lane closure
Biggest waste of money: $850,000 on office renovations (Inauguration party is runner-up)
Smartest hire: BC Liberal candidate Robin Adair
Most likable politician: Tim Stevenson
Most politically savvy: Mike Magee, Chief of Staff to Mayor Robertson
Metro Vancouver Mayors Get the Grade
We have also provided a letter grade rating of some other Canadian Mayors, starting in Metro Vancouver:
Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts (A-): Dianne has not only captured the imagination of Surrey residents, she's also become a media darling. She's tackling issues in Surrey that only a few years ago they were afraid to talk about. She's been the only mayor discussing the issue of regional economic development. She would make for a great chair of Metro Vancouver if Lois Jackson ever resigned.
Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie (C): Malcolm who? Ever since he left his post as the head of TransLink, we almost never hear from Mayor Brodie. Expect his profile will improve as he plays host to tens of thousand of visitors during the upcoming 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games. We'll be keeping an eye on how he handles the costly retrofit of the speed skating oval after the Games.
Coquitlam Mayor Richard Stewart (B-): One of nicest and most genuine mayors in Metro Vancouver, he is quietly helping to change the image of his suburban city. He passed legislation which banned "undesirable" businesses within his community and is trying to get tough on crime. He rarely makes the news, but is clearly working behind the scenes to improve the quality of life of his citizens.
Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan (B+): Corrigan continues to work his magic. He keeps getting elected over and over again because he's a shrewd politician. His handling of the remand centre issue was nothing short of masterful. He's managed to let Vancouver taxpayers take on the burden of creating social housing, while investing his tax dollars in countless (vote getting) community and recreational centres. A few less international junkets and he might just make an A grade next year.
New Westminster Mayor Wayne Wright (C-): Wayne recently made headlines when he announced he was going to take a huge delegation of staff and elected officials to Asia as part of an overseas junket. The three-term mayor seems oblivious the fact that New Westminster's waterfront is decaying and its industrial base is slowly disappearing.
Delta Mayor Lois Jackson (D): Although Lois is the Mayor of Delta, she is better known as the ineffectual Chair of Metro Vancouver. We've consistently called on her to resign that post and hand it over to a Mayor with a much broader view of the region. Let's not forget about her handling of the water filtration fiasco. So far she keeps a tight grip on the reigns of power.
Looking Across Canada
Toronto Mayor David Miller (B-): The garbage strike took a big impact on “Canada’s Mayor.” CUPE rolled the dice and it was Miller that lost. He leaves public office having achieved progress on a number of files. Although Toronto missed their 70% target for garbage diversion, the 50% rate is still rather impressive. His retirement will mean there will be big shoes to fill in terms of lobbying the Feds to grant more power to big cities.
Montreal Mayor Gerard Tremblay (B-): Considered one of the nicest mayors you’ll ever meet. Down to earth, and concerned about livable neighbourhoods. His mishandling of the water contracts issue has resulted in a lot of very cynical Montrealers. The massive infrastructure deficit in his city is a combination of bad planning and underfunding. You can expect he will be departing from his post in the coming weeks as Montrealers head to the polls divided.
Edmonton Mayor Stephen Mandell (A-): Any mayor who is willing to take on his own police department budget deserves a high grade. Mandell announced that he wants to focus on the root cause of crime in order to prevent it from ever happening. This means that money otherwise scheduled to go into police coffers might now go into after school kids programs.
Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz (C): His idea to generate revenue through advertising is a bit of a bust while his council spends almost $1 million dollars to renovate offices for senior management. Winnipeg continues to have a very high rate of property taxation, but has managed to stave off new increases for over ten years. Expect that next year’s budget troubles will break that record and Katz will end up wearing it. The severance packages he handed out didn't look good on him either.
Calgary Mayor Dave Bronconnier (B+): As he grapples to find ways to balance his budget, Bronconnier continues to provide Calgarians with effective leadership for Canada’s Western HQ capital. His recent cost cutting efforts have engaged staff in the idea making process which should garner him some goodwill with the unions. Kudos to Bronconnier for also trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by having all of Calgary's power delivered through renewable resources by 2012.
Now, It's Over to Our Readers
Like a typical report card, there's not much nuance to our ratings. There are stand-out moments for everyone above, both good and bad. We think we've been fair, but we're open to your views too. What did we get right, or wrong? Tell us your impressions of how Vancouver, or any other Canadian metropolitan area is being run. Just leave a comment below, and be sure to answer our CityCaucus.com Poll Question – How would you grade the performance of Vancouver City Council in its first year?