Something broke – will City Hall watchers take note?
Given the preponderance of "year-end" lists coming out these past few days, we really didn't think CityCaucus.com had to publish its own. But then we began to read those other lists and wondered, are we living in the same city??
Whether it's Rod Mickleburgh's musings in the Globe and Mail, Allen Garr's love letters to Vision in the Vancouver Courier, or more warm and fuzzy reflections in that same paper, plus Charlie Smith's suggestion that Vision should be feeling great about the year gone by, local commentators seem to have ignored the breadth of Vision's inept governance in the first year of its mandate. Therefore, we're bringing you a list of thirty-seven items you probably won't find listed by those other sources.
So here is a quick recap for our newer readers, and those who have read us throughout the year.
1. The HEAT mess
Gregor Robertson sets up a series of emergency "no barrier" shelters during Vancouver's winter storms. Then he lets them continue throughout the warmest, driest summer in years. In the process he forgets to let affected neighbours know, and only sneaks in after dark to witness the mess. Councillor Kerry Jang raises hackles with his arrogant remarks. After the Province steps in, problem shelters are closed and new guidelines are set.
2. Constance Barnes
The daughter of the late NDP MLA Emery Barnes was Vision's "star candidate" and garnered the most votes on the 2008 Park Board slate. Barnes erratic performance as a commissioner is dealt a blow when she gets drunk on a public beach, then drives over a bridge and through a residential neighbourhood, eventually crashing into a house and causing $40,000 damage. Her fellow Vision commissioners run for the hills, avoiding any public comment on the matter. Barnes seeks and gets a small loan from the City to help cover the cost of an $18,000 alcohol treatment retreat.
3. Olympic Village myth-making
Sold to the media as saving the Southeast False Creek project from inept NPA stewardship on this file, emails later reveal that the "storyline" was concocted with the aid of a $60,000 PR contract with James Hoggan and Associates. In spite of referring to the Athlete's Village as a "billion dollar boondoggle," Mayor Robertson is all smiles at the ribbon-cutting this fall when all those negative comments seemed to fade away like they never happened.
4. Hoggan double-dipping
On the one hand a respected communications operative, author and energy industry de-bunker, James Hoggan has been a devout supporter of Vision Vancouver since their inception, providing over $10,000 in donations to the party. It was no surprise that his company was hired to field the Olympic Village story early this year, but when it was revealed that the City Manager had subverted rules around procurement to provide a second untendered contract to Hoggan PR alarm bells went off. Late this year the City Manager asked for and received an overhaul from city council, raising limits on discretionary contracting out from $30,000 to nearly $2,000,000.
5. Raymond Louie crowned as PNE chair
In one of the stranger moments of 2009, Councillor Raymond Louie was made the head of Vancouver's biggest "crown" corporation, the Pacific National Exhibition. In a very Napoleanesque moment, Louie actually chaired the meeting where he was voted in as the head of the PNE's board of directors. Louie, who counted on significant support from the East Vancouver community where the PNE resides, is now at cross-purposes with community leaders puzzled at the new direction for the site.
6. Penny Ballem's eHealth troubles
While technically not a member of the Vision Vancouver party or elected caucus, Penny Ballem was the clear "hand-picked" choice for the head of Vancouver's civil service made by Mayor Gregor Robertson. When the eHealth Ontario scandal came to light, it came as a great surprise to our crack research team that Penny Ballem had left her mark on this story of enormous bureaucratic nepotism and waste. Our discussions with the Globe and Mail led to a national front page story on how Ballem had earned $33,000 + meal allowance for about 2 weeks work. Our subsequent FOI revealed that eHealth got one email, one PowerPoint and a few hours of Ballem's time for that price.
7. Preferring outside hires over internal promotions
Vancouver's professional civil service may well be the most respected in the country, but it's something that Vision Vancouver failed to note when hiring every single new top position from outside the city limits. This included new CFO Patrice Impey, Deputy City Manager Sadhu Johnston, and Director of Intergovernmental Affairs Robin Adair (a former BC Liberal candidate), among others. The outside hirings demonstrate Vision's lack of faith in City staff.
8. Embracing BC Liberals
This is more funny than inept, but probably depends upon your point of view. Gregor Robertson was seen fist-pumping for Premier Campbell just prior to his re-election in the spring, telling everyone he looked forward to a "three-peat". The backlash from NDP supporters in the Vision ranks was predictably sour. Bonus marks go to Vision for the hiring of Robin Adair, who was fresh off the campaign trail as a BC Liberal candidate, only losing to his NDP opponent by about 400 votes.
The storyline is pretty simple. Vancouver gets the biggest dump of snow it's had in a decade, and the Mayor skips off to Mexico. Meanwhile snow piles up on streets and sidewalks, affecting the city's many shut-ins, and there is no one left in charge to respond. The whole of City Hall appears to go dark for over a week, with no communication at all.
10. Plummeting morale of City staff
Even vocal Vision supporter Allen Garr had to admit this year that there is a pall over Vancouver City Hall, and the blame is pointed directly at Vision's disrespectful style of leadership. The Mayor himself even went as far as to say that staff may not be up to the challenge of following through on Vision's demanding new agenda.
11. Vision's disappearing senior caucus
It was clear this year the real power within Vision Vancouver was held by Mayor "Geoff" Meggs and Chief of Staff Mike Magee, and that the original members of the Vision caucus may have not got the memo. That's why we barely hear from or see George Chow, Tim Stevenson, Heather Deal and even former leadership candidate Raymond Louie. Left out of the loop and most of the media limelight, the original Vision councillors are scrambling to stay relevant in this government.
12. Cuts to arts funding (2009 budget)
Perhaps stinging from the backlash they received from their 2009 10% budget cut to the arts, Gregor Robertson and Vision were quick to point out that they maintained their support for the arts in the 2010 budget. Some within the arts community are still feeling pretty burned by the obvious betrayal of their campaign promise to enhance arts support. Lucky for Vision, most of the arts community are more browned off at the more substantial cuts to gaming grants from Victoria.
13. Rapid losses of experienced management
One of the great shames of Vision's first year in government is that they treated experienced managers as if they were expendable. As a way of covering their tracks they even made up excuses for the losses, such as suggesting that Head of Olympic Operations Dave Rudberg was too "grumpy" to continue with his job and needed more time with his grandchildren.
Vision decided after being lobbied by one advocate to ask staff to report back on how Vancouverites can house chickens in their backyards. This all happened in the depths of the painful economic slowdown taking place during last winter, so many wondered if it was the wisest time to devote precious staff time to this policy frill.
15. Mayor's community garden
The rules for community gardens are very clear, but that didn't stop Gregor Robertson from waving his hand and decreeing that the North Lawn of City Hall would be the home of his new community garden. Cost to the taxpayers: $25,000 for year one, and another $25K raised by a private foundation. The money was removed from a grant that would otherwise support other needy groups.
16. Dianne Watts and Vancouver's disappearing regional influence
Vancouverites might become more displeased when they realize that their influence in Metro Vancouver decision-making is declining under the Vision government. Gregor Robertson no longer makes the effort to attend Translink meetings, sending Mayor Meggs instead. The real leadership is coming from Surrey's Dianne Watts.
17. Raymond Louie donor revelations
Councillor Raymond Louie played cat and mouse for most of a year, but finally he grudgingly revealed that he had spent $240,000 in his failed attempt at becoming the Vision Vancouver mayoralty candidate. Who gave Louie cash is still a quandry, such as $10,000 donated by a student who no longer lives in the city, and nearly $80K from an Ontario shopping mall magnate who reportedly wanted a "Chinese candidate" badly enough that he became the largest individual donor of the 2008 election.
18. The Hollyhock connection
The connection of Vision's curious hiring practices and the island retreat where you sit on a yoga mat most of the time became clearer during the year. New Deputy City Manager Sadhu Johnston was reportedly married at Hollyhock, and the new Director of Communications from Toronto is also directly connected to an arm of Hollyhock's social enterprise booster program.
19. Olympic sleepwalking
Vision Vancouver have never been on the record as big boosters of the Olympics, and their eerie silence in 2009 was evidence of that. Now, with mere days left before the Torch arrives it appears that Gregor Robertson is kicking it into gear to promote Vancouver enterprise at the Games.
20. Mayor's office ditches "toxic" furniture
An odd story that only Gregor Robertson could create is the fact that furniture purchased for a revamped Mayor's office was rejected by Hizonner because it was deemed too toxic.
21. Failure on openness and transparency promise
Vision promised to be more open and transparent in their campaign platform. They've totally abandoned this promise, and the increased numbers of in-camera meetings are only one example.
22. CFO hire gets 20 years seniority
In what appears to have been a way to subvert the pay scale for a senior employee, new CFO Patrice Impey was given the benefits of a 20-year employee. Yes, she was not given pension benefits of that magnitude, but the vacation and earned days off added up to about an additional $45,000 to her already maxxed out $224K salary.
23. Vision shares lists with NDP, denies doing so to Privacy Commissioner
There were ongoing reports of Vision members being pestered during the Provincial election last spring to get out and vote NDP. We took it to the complaint to the Privacy Commissioner, who asked the party to give up the sneaky "opt out" practice for their membership form. Vision maintains they didn't share lists, and they are not being honest when they say that.
24. Abandonment of Four Pillars
Considered one of the hallmarks of a progressive government, Vancouver's Four Pillars policy was developed at considerable political risk to previous mayors and administrations. Yet, the so-called "progressives" of Vision Vancouver have all but abandoned the Four Pillars policy.
25. Gregor on/off support of Critical Mass
Critical Mass is a strange event that divides the city each year it happens along cycling/motoring lines. Gregor Robertson was a booster of this event, that is until he felt a little political heat.
26. Vision moves to the right
Vision's politics have become decidedly more conservative over the past year. Traditional NPA supporters are loving it, but their COPE supporters are not.
27. Vision Vancouver debt, fundraising and lack of disclosure
Vision Vancouver ended the 2008 election sitting on a quarter million dollar debt. They continue to spend money, and are in the market for an Executive Director. Yet they haven't bothered to report back to the city where their funding is coming from, nor how much they received during fundraisers this year. When it comes to questions about political donations, Vision are hypocrites.
28. The foot bridge idea
Everyone remembers the ruckus before the Burrard Bridge lane closure. Does anyone remember that Gregor began to panic? Recall his "pedestrian/cyclist only" bridge idea hatched for English Bay. It was going to cost tens of millions the city doesn't have. Most knew that it was a smokescreen.
29. Curtis Brick's death
We cannot blame Vision for Brick's unfortunate luck, baking in the sun all day before dying of dehydration. But like their previous lack of preparedness for extreme weather in the winter, Vision appeared to be oblivious to the extreme heat last summer brought. As with previous crises involving the city's homeless, Vision were left reacting rather than acting.
30. Greenest City promises & the expensive logo
24 Hours crack Olympics reporter Bob Mackin discovered that Gregor Robertson's Green Capital scheme resulted in a $240,000 bill for a logo and a short promotional video. The green plan which promised to create another 20,000 jobs in ten years was resoundingly scoffed at by even traditional supporters such as Frances Bula.
31. Park Board bends to Mayor's office wishes
The point of having a separate body to govern the city's parks was lost on Vision, as the commissioners appeared to bend to the will of the Mayor's office and the City Manager. It began an embarrassing 3 months of ineptitude, leaving coalition supporters from COPE and the Green Party voting against Vision's austerity measures.
32. Missing KPMG auditor's report
It was asked for by reporters for months, and to date the full report has never been made available publicly, and only a summary has been provided.
33. School board's embrace of Olympic protest movement
It was always clear that Vision Vancouver were sympatico with Olympic critics, but it was when the Vision/COPE school trustees approved the use of school facilities to train elementary school teachers in Games "resistance" that it became more apparent.
34. Green City plan awkward launch to Board of Trade
Gregor Robertson came just short of arriving on a skateboard when he gave a fist-pumping introduction to his Green Capital plan.
35. Vision forces management to take pay cut
Bitter feelings linger among exempt staff who feel they were sandbagged by the City Manager when it was decreed they would forego a full increase in their 2010 salary.
36. Vision abandons Metro labour bargaining unit
Mayor Meggs has quietly made sure his union pals are getting what they paid for. He successfully removed the city from the Metro Vancouver labour bargaining unit, virtually guaranteeing that CUPE will prevail in all future contract negotiations.
37. Budget 2010: Coveted facilities cut; residential taxes go up 12% in two years
It wasn't exactly a high note to end the year, but in spite of evidence that the public wished to retain coveted services and facilities, Vision held fast to a 4.25% residential tax increase. It resulted in the loss of about 155 jobs, and left many supporters reeling.
That's just a quick list we were able to come up with. There are dozens of other stories...which ones stood out for you? Do you think that Vancouver's media are still giving the Vision government a free ride, and will the honeymoon ever end for Vancouver's telegenic Mayor? Answer that question on our latest CityCaucus.com poll.
- post by Mike