When it came to bad press for Mayor Gregor this summer, it didn't rain. It poured.
This was a very bad summer for Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson. Even his most die-hard supporters will admit if they could start it all over again, they would. After experiencing a lengthy 18 month honeymoon period, it appears his political fortunes have all taken a turn for the worse.
As for when the trajectory began heading downwards, historians will likely agree it was the Mayor's now infamous “f***ing NPA hacks” comment which got the ball rolling. Although the language itself wasn’t all that offensive compared to previous mayors, it had the effect of stripping away Robertson’s well crafted image as a boy-next-door type. He was now just another politician demonstrating his disdain for the public who put him in office.
So what exactly happened during the summer of 2010? How did a mayor that most people thought had a lock on the 2011 civic election go from boy wonder to boy blunder seemingly overnight? It is definitely worth a bit more analysis, so here goes:
F***ing NPA Hacks: It all started back in July when the Mayor was caught privately attacking members of the public who spent hours waiting to speak to council regarding the controversial STIR program. He didn’t realize the microphones were still on in council and he made his now infamous “f***ing NPA hacks” statement. It was eventually revealed that one of the speakers was actually a card carrying member of Vision Vancouver. The headlines were awful with a Province headline calling the Mayor "ignorant and arrogant". CityCaucus.com even had “#*$&@! NPA Hack” t-shirts designed in his worship’s honour. The mayor eventually had to apologize.
Olympic Village Fiasco: The Mayor had promised that right after the Olympics over 250 affordable housing units at the Athlete’s Village would be occupied. As the summer comes to a close every unit still remains vacant. Vision’s bizarre last minute policy amendment which gave priority to firefighters, teachers and police officers threw a monkey wrench into the selection process – forcing over a dozen revisions of the RFP for a third party operator. Behind the scenes, provincial and city staff are pulling their hair out over what is quickly becoming the Mayor’s own Olympic boondoggle. Michael Geller estimates the City is losing $300,000 per month as these units remain vacant.
Hornby Street Separated Bike Lanes: After been accused of a lack of consultation on the Burrard Bridge and Dunsmuir separated bike lanes, the Mayor forged ahead with plans to build another one on Hornby. Calling the City’s consultation a sham, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business went on the attack and decided to conduct their own consultation. The CFIB's Laura Jones pulled no punches when she said the Mayor was not helping to create a friendly business climate in Vancouver. Regardless of the consultation, the bike lane will go ahead come hell or high water. You can anticipate the Hornby St. merchants won’t take this one lying down. Will the Law Courts building on Hornby St. become the scene of a class action law suit by businesses who feel they've been "Cambie'd"?
Red Light Robertson: It was first reported by The Province that Robertson was caught running a red light near the Dunsmuir separated bike lane. A Translink bus driver told the media she was shocked to see the cyclist she almost ran over was actually Gregor Robertson. The Mayor apologized and said he’d never do it again. Ever since, some folks have referred to the Mayor as “Red Light Robertson”.
Costly Office Renovations: For months the Mayor’s staff have been quietly grumbling they simply don’t have enough room to work in their “cramped” quarters at 12th and Cambie. The Mayor now has added one additional political staffer in his office. It’s interesting how 20 previous mayor’s (and staff) didn’t seem to have much of a problem at all in these working conditions.
Then Jeff Lee at the Vancouver Sun broke a story about how the Mayor was going to spend $260,000 to expand his office because he needed more privacy. Part of the renovations included a new dining room for city councillors. Vision councillor Kerry Jang said the Mayor was building a new dining room because the free food they receive was often left outside in the hallway and it would stink up his office. Needless to say, this whole fiasco didn’t go over too well with the public. No apologies from the Mayor on this one.
Staff Morale: In late August, CityCaucus.com released a leaked memo regarding how bad working conditions are at the City of Vancouver. Senior and exempt staffers wrote to the Mayor’s hand-picked city manager Penny Ballem and pleaded with her to act upon their concerns. They complained that city hall was becoming too politicized and that Ballem’s new management style was actually making things more inefficient. Here is an excerpt from Allen Garr’s most recent column which kind of sums up the problem:
While it may sound repugnant to some, I find it refreshing when she [Ballem] insists it’s the role of the public service to deliver council’s political agenda in a responsible and efficient fashion. “If people think that’s mean or disrespectful” she says, “bring it on.”
The fact is that Penny Ballem sees her job is to fulfill the Mayor's agenda, not council's. So on that score Garr got it wrong.
If it isn't bad enough that Ballem gives the finger to critics, she also said these 700 employees just weren't reacting well to change. It reminds us of her earlier comments that (former Director of Olympic Operations) Dave Rudberg was "too grumpy" and couldn't keep up with Vision's pace. Isn't it funny how these employees, many of whom have been agents of change in Vancouver for years, suddenly have become wallflowers.
$1000 per day no-bid, no tender contractors: It was revealed Mayor Robertson went outside his council approved office budget to hire a $1000 per day contractor to help him during the Olympics. The funds were provided to him by City Manager Penny Ballem. The untendered contract to Games expert Linda Oglov cost city taxpayers just under $200,000. Councillors Ellen Woodsworth and Suzanne Anton said they would hold the Mayor accountable for this expenditure when City Hall resumes business later this month.
Food Cart Vendors: After a lot of media hype and headlines, Vision promised new food vendors would be popping up all over Vancouver this summer. It was a mouth watering headline that left many potential customers and foodies disappointed. Critics attacked the program for a number of reasons including Vision's silly lottery system for choosing vendors. The program was a flop with not a single vendor ready to make it on the street by July 1st. The hastily designed program is going to be completely overhauled and will hopefully bear some fruit in the election year.
Power Centralized: Part of Ballem’s style is to centralize power in her office. Staff are being told they can no longer speak directly to the media. They’re told they have to have their emails and memos cleared by the top before they can be distributed. The result is Gregor Robertson’s agenda is grinding to a halt because the very people who are in charge of implementing it can’t do their job. With a little over 12 months left before the campaign begins, you can anticipate that a few disgruntled public servants may want to drag things out a tad longer, hoping there will be a change of government.
Media under attack: When you start getting bad headlines, the first thing you should do is attack the messenger. Right? Wrong. Several media types have reported this summer they’ve been under attack by the Mayor’s office staff who contacted their newsroom and complained vociferously about the angle of their stories. Some have even been threatened with law suits. Hearing reports about political staff phoning newsrooms and complaining (whining) about poor coverage is not a good sign for the Mayor. It looks desperate and it makes him appear weak and worried about something. Not to mention attacking the media it is a terrible long-term strategy heading into the election.
Vision Media Hit List: By late summer a rumoured “media hit list” was making the rounds in the blogosphere and the airwaves. Whether the so-called media hit list actually exists or not, it was widely circulated and served to further damage already bad relations between the Mayor’s office staff and some local media.
Gregor's $120,000 junket to China: After months of planning, the Mayor’s staff hoped his junket to China would help solidify him as a job creator and visionary leader. Instead, the media asked why so many staff and councillors were needed on this trip and whether taxpayers were getting value for this $120,000 junket. The Mayor’s response was to pull out previous expense claims for Sam Sullivan and say “look, he went to China too and it cost lots of money.” The two words that best describe the type of tactics used to defend this junket - sad & tiresome.
NPA awakens from slumber: After having gone into hibernation for months, the NPA awoke from their slumber. Several major events were planned for late summer and into the fall leading up to the mini-nomination meeting planned for November. Now that the name change issue has been put to bed, you can expect the party that ruled Vancouver for the better part of seven decades will come back with a vengeance. Based on what we’ve heard regarding recent internal polling results [we haven’t seen them, just been verbally briefed], it is very likely if the election were held today the NPA would win at least 4 seats - possibly more depending who the final pick is for their mayoral candidate. If so, which COPE and Vision councillors would bite the dust? Our guess is it would be Cadman, Woodsworth, Meggs and Reimer - with the low profile Deal as a wildcard.
Revelation of Big Donors: Earlier this summer it was revealed Vision Vancouver had broken the rules when it comes to declaring financial contributors. The Vancouver Charter indicates a political party must report within 30 days if they have received money to help pay off their debt. After months of pressure by CityCaucus.com and others in the media, Vision Vancouver finally released the list of donors who paid off their 2008 campaign debt. Needless to say, big developers and corporations were high on the contributor list. It was reported that Vision had about $10,000 left in the bank.
COPE Attacks (kind of): Despite their normally tepid response to most issues, it would appear COPE (at least Ellen Woodsworth anyway) found their voice by late summer. In response to Robertson hiring $1000 a day contractors outside of his mayoral budget, Woodsworth told CKNW news:
Somehow he thinks he can make these expenditures before coming to council and I would like to inform him and the city manager that I expect these kinds of expenditures to come before council.
Only time will tell if COPE finds their way before they are blown off the electoral map once and for all in November 2011. Charlie Smith wrote some excellent analysis on how neutered the "new" COPE has become.
STIR Flip Flop: After stubbornly saying that the West End STIR projects were going forward regardless if “f***ing NPA hacks” opposed it, the Mayor did a big flip flop. We suspect the over 10,000 signatures on a petition were having some effect on his thinking when he suddenly announced he wants further consultation. Local West End residents weren’t out in the street cheering, as they still believe the project is going to happen regardless of the Mayor’s recent flip flop. The group fighting this project is continuing to gather signatures and has become a political force to be reckoned with. Will we see any of them running for Council under the NPA or COPE banners?
This has not been a good summer for Gregor Robertson. We suspect both he and his closest confidents are now reflecting on exactly just what happened. Their initial strategy of "ooh...it's just summer and voters aren't paying attention" seems to have been a serious miscalculation. As summer ends we suspect they’ll be huddled with polling results clutched in hand hoping they can turn this ship (and the headlines) around.
In that vein, rumours continue to swirl that Robertson is about to make a change within his own office structure. Given how bad his communications strategy has been of late, it wouldn’t surprise us if he sends someone out on the plank as a symbolic gesture. There’s nothing like a major staff change to help send a clear message that it’s not business as usual.
So which staffer do we think is most likely to be voted off the island? Bets are it would be for the highly opinionated and partisan Kevin Quinlan, the Mayor’s Director of Communications. He’s young, loyal and hard working, but his lack of communication and political experience is clearly starting to show. Rather than acting as a calming factor in a brewing storm, he’s often added fuel to the fire. A number of media types have grumbled to us about their negative interactions with him of late. Not good, Kevin.
Remember, you can attract more support with honey than vinegar. Given the Mayor's new hives atop City Hall, we would have expected he'd know this by now.
Even if the Mayor does make a staff change or two, it will take a lot of elbow grease and some good luck to turn his ship around in time for the 2011 election. Time and incumbency is on Robertson's side, however, we’re about to move into the silly season which means a lot of people are about to take aim at him and his policies. Who knows, some of those people might actually be members of his coalition whom we're told are increasingly wondering if their boy wonder truly has transformed into boy blunder.
- post by CityCaucus Staff