Signs of Thursday's meeting – not a lot of talk of compromise
Call us gluttons for punishment, but Daniel and I decided to attend a good portion of Thursday night's public hearing on the Vancouver budget, and as we predicted it was quite a show. Both of us were typing away on our handheld devices to our Twitter last night, giving a bit of a blow by blow of some of the best exchanges. Overall, there were few surprises, and everyone remained in character.
It was a time for the public to speak their mind, so most of the councillors (with a couple of exceptions) and the Mayor kept their remarks to a minimum. Watching Gregor Robertson chair the meeting is an odd spectacle. Gregor steers the meeting like he's Chewbacca in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon. He's constantly geeking out on the lights and buttons in his control, and is only paying attention to the speakers a fraction of the time.
At one point Coun. Tim Stevenson seemed to be having computer problems, and stood up to ask Gregor for help. The Mayor walked over to Stevenson's desk like someone dispatched from the computer department at BestBuy, and appeared to fix Tim's problem. From my angle I'm not sure if he resorted to Ctrl-Alt-Del.
The COPE councillors were playing to a receptive crowd, as there appeared to be little appetite for tax cuts or tax shifting (business to residential) among those present. Gregor appears to have come up with the idea of having the children and seniors speak first. While it was a nice gesture, it has the effect of prolonging the list of speakers in the end. When we left there were 88 names on the speakers list, and only just over a dozen spoke.
Perhaps the most interesting exchange of the evening took place between Stu Mackinnon, the lone Green Park Commissioner who was the first to publicly oppose the Vision plan, and has been the most vocal of the three non-Vision commissioners about the recent record cuts to the park budget.
Mackinnon speaks well, and because he didn't have to say anything more than he opposes the cuts, he was well-received by the crowd. The two councillors who held the most sour expressions during Mackinnon's talk were Coun. Reimer and Coun. Raymond Louie, also the chair of the budget committee. Both of them began to, in essence, grill Mackinnon with questions about what kind of tax increase he would tolerate, or which program he would fund assuming the answer couldn't be all of the above?
Reimer suggested that Mackinnon was asking for an "eleven percent" increase in residential taxes. When referring back to staff, Reimer was corrected and told that the increase Mackinnon proposed was nowhere near that high.
Then Raymond Louie, who sat stonefaced through most of the meeting, decided to really go after Mackinnon. Instead of the usual line of questioning councillors ask at these meetings, Louie challenged Mackinnon as if to say, hey, you think you can do better, punk?! Stu, who looked quite comfortable to this point, was a bit taken aback by Louie's aggressive line of questioning.
The rest of Louie's fellow Vision councillors all started to squirm at that point, too. Everyone there, except Louie, knew that the room was supportive of Mackinnon, who took pains not to deliver a political message. He started off by saying he was there more as a home owner and taxpayer than a park commissioner.
Eventually the room turned on Louie, and several began to shout at the councillor. Raymond, it's well-known, has a mean streak that he hides well but eventually it always comes back. Like Reimer, Raymond appears to have a sizable chip on his shoulder. Mackinnon, for a few minutes at least, appeared to knock the chip off.
We stuck around long enough to listen to CUPE 15 president Paul Faoro. It's long been rumoured that Paul is trying to take Barry O'Neill's job someday. Paul pontificates using the language of a class warrior, speaking of exempt staff and management like they are poison. In the eyes of Faoro and his ilk of course they are bad.
When you have leadership like Faoro and his CUPE 1004 comrade Mike Jackson, you will be locked in a perpetual battle with The Man. Collective agreements are not meant to be mere downtime between inevitable strikes that – set your watch – should begin anew for Vancouver's civil service in the summer of 2012. Maybe the Mayan calendar was correct after all.
Vancouver is a great city with a great civil service. But it could be so much better, and the way we build our city could be a helluva lot more efficient. Part of the problem is the culture that deliberately divides management and union staff. There's a lot of blame to go around on both sides for this predicament, but the most blatant demonstration of it is Faoro's rhetoric.
There will be at least 2 more nights where council hears from the public, and it's unlikely to result in much change. Vision are sticking to their 2% budget (or 4% for residential) tax increase, and coveted park facilities like the Bloedel Conservatory and Children's Animal Farm will most likely be put on ice.
Gregor Robertson is committed to having Vancouver take on provincial social services like homelessness and provincial/federal bailiwicks like regional policing and IHIT. They're trying to save face with the arts community after their 10% cut to arts grants last winter, by giving some of that money back in this budget. Anything beyond these priorities, you can kiss goodbye for now.