Was a discussion of Vancouver politics on Saturday "balanced"?
As we were wrapping up mid-day after Saturday's "That Was the Year That Was" event organized by Michael Geller, a former elected official came up to me and said, "if this morning had been the mirror opposite and the left being the majority view in the room, I don't think it would have been quite so polite."
It sounded like the viewpoint of a partisan, and I didn't have a hard time agreeing. Would a room full of Visionistas and COPErs patiently and respectfully discussed the accomplishments of an NPA city council for a whole morning? I've been around politics for most of my life, and I have a hard time imagining that scenario.
Maybe that explains why the centre-right are not governing today – they're too damn polite.
That might have been the freshest surprise of this event that attracted about 80 political junkies and at least one reporter from the mainstream media to cover it. It was a civil, thought-provoking and sometimes amusing conversation held by a group of people who rarely agree. In fact, the only person who couldn't seem to resist throwing political stink bombs was Jim Green. But for Green it's like a nervous tick – he simply cannot help himself.
The morning was segmented into four parts. Opening remarks by Bob Ransford; a panel discussion on how the city is changing and how council has dealt with key issues; a discussion on the city's economy and it's "green" shift; and finally, a discussion by political pundits on the changing face of political media.
During the latter session, which I participated in, CityCaucus.com was accused of being nothing more than yellow journalism by some, being too "personal," and even (horrors!) exhibiting bias. Here are a few more notes on how the morning went.
Ransford set the tone for the morning discussion with for the panelists, and the audience:
- What does the future of Vancouver look like socially, politically, economically and in terms of development in the years to come?
- Why do people engage in politics in the first place? And why do people care about their city and its citizenry enough to become involved in the debates?
The first panel featured Joost Bakker as moderator, one of Vancouver's most notable urban designers and architects; Gord Price, the former longtime city councillor and outspoken urbanist; and Jim Green, former politician, political activist and now development consultant. Meeting organizer Michael Geller rounded out the panel.
Joost started by stating that 2009 was shaded by three important factors. First, he noted that we've had the most sunny days this year over the past three decades. And he's right, most of us were absorbing the rays all spring and summer and probably didn't care about politics. He said the glow of the Obama election also factored into the public mood, as well the burden of global economic collapse.
First topic for discussion was the Athlete's Village. Geller gave the Vision council good marks for how they handled this issue. Few commentators talk about the way that Robertson and Meggs politicized Southeast False Creek (SEFC), ignoring the complicity of members of their own caucus in decisions. The general opinion from Geller and others is that their measures helped reduce costs and financial risks of the project.
Gord Price says that the Olympic Athlete's Village was worth the risk, and that the city should not be deterred by the hiccups this time and continue to foster visionary developments like it.
Jim Green added that Vision were bold by bringing in Penny Ballem to set a new course for the civil service. And is usually the case in any discussion with Green, he went on to mention how great the Woodwards development is, and that you should see the view from the 43rd floor.
On whether city council should retain the social housing component of SEFC, you got a variety of opinions.
Geller said not at the current estimated cost, and that the money earned from sales of the units should be redirected to other social housing on city land nearby the project.
Gord Price, on the other hand, insisted that city council should hold fast and keep the units in spite of mounting cost pressures. Price argued that to remove the social housing from the project would be a huge departure from city policy, and a bad precedent.
Green, who works for the SEFC developer Millennium, argued that the units should not be sold because they could hurt the selling price of existing market units (how very capitalistic of him), and the city should have stuck to its "two-thirds" subsidized units in the project. He said his COPE colleagues "were close" to finding a way to pay for it before the 2005 election kicked most of them out of office.
On the HEAT shelters, Jim Green started off repeating that he was "very, very proud" of Gordon Campbell and Rich Coleman for their commitment to social and supportive housing, and the purchase of 14 hotels in the city. He said that Holburn deserved credit for their "bold" offer of the Dunsmuir Hotel 160 rooms for shelter space.
Gord Price described how Mayor Robertson appeared to "walk away" from the HEAT project as soon as controversy erupted.
Michael Geller said he was confounded by the Province's lack of response to his idea of temporary modular housing units for the homeless.
The Woodward's development was the next subject, and Geller started off by saying that although he didn't support the height of the project, he was impressed that Larry Campbell's council pulled it off.
Jim Green, as loquacious as ever, asked "where else do developers and labour unions work so well together as they do with Vision Vancouver?" Michael Geller responded with one of the great zingers of the morning by responding, "In virtually every city around the world where political donations have influence!"
Gord Price called Woodwards a "Nixon in China" moment. It was a project that would be inconceivable under an NPA government, and something only a left wing council could make happen.
Discussing the Burrard Bridge, Gord Price said in the end the road engineers had it wrong. There was no traffic disaster, and the city must move with greater haste on building a city that prioritizes pedestrians, cyclists and transit users over the insatiable needs of "motordom".
On the subject of parking, there was a lot of consensus on the panel, with all suggesting that parking requirements for residential buildings be significantly reduced. Geller said that residential parking permit costs are too low, and should be considered for an increase.
Jim Green said while he supported the expansion of parking fees across the city, he recalled his own political scars for trying to extend meter hours with the COPE council.
On laneway housing, the panel all seemed a bit frustrated by the lack of city guidelines being available yet for this kind of development, but the City with its hiring freezes have a good excuse for the hold-ups. Price stated that the goal of laneway housing should be to increase availability but not increase the cost of residential units.
On STIR, or the Vision council's rental subsidy policy, there were concerns expressed by Geller and Price. Michael says that "red flags" have gone up for him on the policy, and fears that important amenities like parks and community centres are being sacrificed for rental, which he didn't consider to be an important city amenity in itself. Gord Price said that "shoveling out density" was a bad precedent and that the Vision council do not understand the consequences.
The second panel on Vancouver's economic future was moderated by former city council and mayoral candidate Peter Ladner. John Tylee of the Vancouver Economic Development Commission (VEDC), James Fletcher of ThinkCity, and joining the next panel Gord Price, to bring some perspectives of the Mayor's Greenest City initiative.
Tylee talked about the VEDC's forthcoming report, due to be made public by year's end, which CityCaucus.com has already reported on in some detail. He reminded us that this was the first such strategy done since Mike Harcourt was Mayor of Vancouver.
Gord Price made interesting observations that the political right have made the spector of raising taxes so negative, that even the left have embraced this as a core philosophy. His case in point, the NDP's crusade against the BC Liberal government's carbon tax. Price underlined that Vancouver is a "well run and rich city," and that because of our relative prosperity we've been able to weather economic storms over the years.
He called the Greenest City report "an acceleration of the consensus." Nothing earth shattering, just a simple list of items that the city should get to work on. His fear, says Price, is that "trivialization and inertia" will be the death of the green movement. He cited the Mayor's community garden as an example of something that many people perceived as trivializing the real issues around carbon reduction and climate change. He said that the GCAT report was "a child of Clouds of Change" and that it took him back to the early 90s when that groundbreaking report was produced.
James Fletcher conveyed some of the opinion gathered in ThinkCity's member surveys on city budgets. He didn't have a clear response as to whether the survey respondents would abide by service fee increases instead of property taxes in order to maintain city services. Peter Ladner noted that by increasing fees by 4% this year, millions were shaved off the budget shortfall.
The final segment is somewhat harder for me to describe here, as I wasn't taking notes while sitting on the panel. Frances Bula started off with what I thought was an unusual description of the reporter's life. She said that her stories reflect the world view of the many people she talks to. It came across as a defense of any political tilt her reporting may have.
It's a recurring theme with Frances that she feels that she cannot really understand the city's politics unless she consults those she knows "outside the beltway" or not those who read her blog or ours. She explained that two people help her to really understand Vancouver's political zeitgeist: her dentist, and her hair stylist. She joked that "some of you don't think I have one" (a hair stylist). She said she got good perspective from her dentist because she couldn't talk when they met, of course because of all the instruments shoved in her mouth.
Bula said that she picked up that Sam Sullivan wasn't doing well because everyone at her hair salon didn't like him. Gee, a roomful of people whose work is about personal appearances not liking a quadriplegic – who would have guessed?
Our panel consisted of Miro Cernetig, the crack Vancouver Sun columnist who spent much of his career overseas before returning to the city. Next to him was Jonathon Ross, a person I've never met before that morning and someone I understand takes an uncommon interest in CityCaucus.com. Another new acquaintance for me was Monte Paulsen, writer with TheTyee.ca, and someone who struck me as earnest and thoughtful about city politics.
Miro began the discussion by describing his shifting opinion of Gregor Robertson, saying that he thought that the Mayor was "more GQ than IQ," but that in recent months he sees the Mayor's resistance to talk to the media on issues as more of a shrewd political tactic. I had a hard time seeing how that was a ringing endorsement of Robertson, but maybe I've set my standards too high.
Jonathon Ross overall gave good marks to the Vision council, but a fail on the HEAT shelter mess and the recent restaurant liquor bylaw flip-flop. Ross also said that he thought that unlike COPE and the NPA, who have much longer histories in city politics, Vision Vancouver had no real constituency to rely upon. It was an interesting comment, and one that suggests that Ross, like many of us, is still grasping the real meaning of Vision Vancouver in today's political scene.
Monte Paulsen did his homework by reaching for the Vision platform document, and analyzed the top campaign promises against the record of the first year. I was surprised by Paulsen's inventory:
- Housing and homelessness. A good start, but they've stalled since the summer HEAT mess.
- Safe and inclusive communities. Paulsen wasn't even sure what it meant, and there was no appearance that anything had been done on this file.
- Environment & Green City – the GCAT plan landed with a thud.
- Creative capital, he says there is "no real progress." Monte talked about how tragic it was to see young people who come to Vancouver with high expectations, then eventually packing up because it's too expensive to live and work here.
After I gave a bit of an intro about myself, I felt that the time would be better served hearing questions from the room. Having been a part of organizing so many events over the years, I became extremely mindful of the clock, and I didn't want to run it out listening to my own voice. I was amazed at what a great group that had assembled, and how many faces I didn't recognize. So the only feedback I offered at that point was to say I thought Vision's greatest accomplishment to date was to work well with Rich Coleman and Gordon Campbell.
Much of the discussion of this panel centred around how blogging stacks up to mainstream media. Our moderator clearly had a point of view about bloggers, and I called Frances on how she used the word "blog" like it was a pejorative. She went on to accuse CityCaucus.com of all sorts of sins, such as hypocrisy (over the issue of personal emails being used for city business), and yellow journalism (the only stories the MSM picks up from us are the tax dollar issues, and that we're just another version of The Province newspaper).
My response to the accusation was simple. We're more than what Frances describes. CityCaucus.com has drawn attention to issues the MSM for the most part ignores, or cannot afford to follow-up. We're pushing the regional economic discussion louder than any other news source, and I would argue we've re-shaped some of the local discussion on urban sprawl, which was getting stuck in traditional left-right politics. And we do it all with a wry smile on our face. No one else, not even The Province, can lay claim to that.
Jonathon Ross took shots at CityCaucus.com, saying that we were "too personal" in our attacks. We've written over 1000 posts since last December. Perhaps I misunderstand the term "personal attacks," but to me it's something like Andrea Reimer did on her Twitter post about Rich Coleman. Yes, we focus on elected officials much of the time, and we put what they do and say under the microscope, but I wouldn't classify it as personal attacks. Writing smears that you must take down from your blog afterward, that I would consider personal. Thankfully, there's been none of that here.
One of the interesting questions from the room pertained to electric cars. Wasn't it great that Vision had pushed for more plug-ins in new parking lots to address future demand? He seemed truly surprised when I said it was not a great step, after all, we're not accomplishing much by swapping out combustion engines with batteries. The endgame must be more walkable cities, not new-fangled cars.
Monte Paulsen described the crisis that is facing the region on paying for the transit system. I added that the true failing of this city council, and those before it, is the declining influence of Vancouver in the region. This city council does not have the leadership skills to bind Metro Vancouver together for common cause.
In retrospect, there were a dozen topics I would have loved to discuss with those assembled if we had more time. On the whole, I heard from all I spoke to that it was a worthwhile morning of civil and challenging discussion about city issues. I'm thankful to the organizers, and was glad to be a part of it.
The event in part made me nostalgic for what the NPA can be when it's at its best. I became involved in that organization because of its ability to assemble amazing, thoughtful leadership from the city to push forward progressive ideas in a fiscally responsible way. At its heart, the event on Saturday morning could be construed as a signal that there's life left in something, anything, that isn't Vision nor COPE.