CityCaucus Redux: Costly renos to Mayor's office caused controversy

Post by Daniel Fontaine in

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Mayor Gregor is caught in some nose-stretchers by CKNW's Sean Leslie

Back in August 2010 Mike Klassen did a great story about Mayor Gregor Robertson's public statements regarding his costly office renovations. As part of our CityCaucus Redux series, we are republishing this post. Hope you enjoy!

Later today we'll have a new post on the state of homelessness in Vancouver. Tomorrow we'll have a feature post on the Occupy Vancouver encampment situated on the front lawn of the Vancouver Art Gallery.

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It's been almost a whole week since Jeff Lee's story about Gregor Robertson's new office and city council dining room ran on the pages of the Vancouver Sun, and it continues to suck all the oxygen out of any news from Vancouver City Hall. On Friday Gregor Robertson finally made himself available after dodging media all week up while on his second vacation this summer up at Cortes Island. Robertson just returned from 2 weeks up at his island homestead last weekend, then apparently went "off the grid".

On the phone Friday with CKNW's Sean Leslie, Gregor Robertson danced all over the place as he appeared to be making up his own messaging on the fly as to why he and councillors needed to spend $260,000 for new digs. Those who've paid close attention to this story all week understand that the messaging has been confused from word go:

  • Raymond Louie attempted to blame Sam Sullivan for the office updates: FAIL
  • Kerry Jang said his free meals stunk up his office and therefore needed a new dining room: FAIL
  • Gregor Robertson says his office hasn't been updated in fifty years: FAIL
  • Robertson says that his new office is "no frills": FAIL
  • Robertson says he needs more privacy and that his staff are too cramped: FAIL.

Hear this interview with CKNW News' Sean Leslie with Robertson which we have archived for our readers' benefit. The first part is about the new office and councillor dining room, and Robertson is caught in a successive string of whoppers (mp3).

Robertson says that the changes are a "necessary expense" and that they have been "approved by all of council" (both Clrs Woodsworth and Anton have denied any knowledge of the plans to expand Robertson's office). Robertson says that his office is being used for council meetings (which he chairs) and for "ceremonial gatherings" (which the Mayor is typically present). Robertson claims that he needs more space to "get his work done" (does anyone think for one second that the Mayor actually does any real office work?).

Robertson says "all of council supported the work to get done at City Hall." Actually, the October 2008 in-camera vote to move the Engineering Department to Crossroads at Cambie & Broadway was almost unanimous with only David "Carbon" Cadman opposed and Vision Vancouver/NPA in support. Cadman could have raised it as an election issue on behalf of COPE, but by accommodating Vision Vancouver he had compromised his party's ability to do so. For Robertson to suggest that the current council approved his office expansion and the plans for a council dining area is simply not accurate.

Robertson makes reference to City staff's involvement in the office re-build process, but the truth is the Mayor continues to rebuff the advice of the non-partisan public service. Gregor says the office upgrades are an attempt to "keep up with the times" (more on that spurious effort to seem hip in the days to come).

Robertson says there hasn't been "significant changes in over 20 mayors or about fifty years". Mayor Gregor better get thee to Wikipedia fast. Twenty mayors goes back to 1936. There have been changes made in recent years. Mayor Jack Volrich made sure that there is a private bathroom, shower and sleeping area within the Mayor's apartment-sized office. Mayor Bill Rathie put in teak panels on the walls in the 1960s. Those panels were recently refurbished at a cost of about $10,000. Both of those previous mayors were voted out of office.

Robertson slips in this line: "The City's obviously changed a great deal as have the staffing needs in the Mayor's office. So it's time for the space to be appropriate." Well, there you have it, folks. Credit Robertson for a smattering of forthrightness in his otherwise whopper-laden statements.

Robertson and Vision Vancouver is making a fundamental change to how the City of Vancouver is governed. The Mayor is moving forward with plans to dispense with the current "weak mayor" system for a Board of Management style government, whereby the Mayor leads all policy direction for the City, appoints a rung of political aides below him, who will direct all the top management of the City in Engineering, Planning, Social Policy, Development, etc. etc.

As Robertson goes on to say in Leslie's interview, it's council's job now to "manage" the city, not staff.

The plans for moving all staff off of the third floor and replacing it with political aides has been in the works since the day Robertson and Chief of Staff Magee moved into Vancouver City Hall. It was agreed with Ballem that they would hold off until after the Olympics were over to make this change. Ballem's staff are already packed up and their office is being moved to the second floor as we publish this. Ballem's staff will occupy a temporary office on the second floor beginning Monday, until their new offices on the sixth floor are ready for occupancy.

Robertson goes on to state that the reason for the new kitchen and dining room facility is because "there is no place to store or prepare food for receptions." All events on the third floor are catered by private operators. The idea that additional food prep and storage is required on the third floor comes from Robertson's own imagination.

Asked whether the budget will go over the $260K alotted, the Mayor's response was:

I expect that it will come in, uh, at or below budget. I don't want to see this go above that. There's significant dollars being invested beyond that and this is a smaller portion of that. But we want everything to come in under budget on the City Hall renovations...We'll certainly be holding staff accountable for the expenses that get invested in the building, and uh, watching this one very closely.

Great answer, Mayor. How about just saying "No"? Funny how City staff are the ones who are being held accountable when it's you that wants all this new office space built. Perhaps the Mayor should hold himself accountable.

Leslie asks, "some of your critics [read: CityCaucus.com] suggest that this is about the expansion of your own staff, and the administration around you. How do you respond to that?"

No, there is nothing nothing nothing to do with, uh, expanding staff. Uh, I have a budget on that front. We stick to that budget. It's just making sure we all have appropriate work spaces and can be functional and can get their work done in the time frame that's allocated.

Folks, please etch that response from the Mayor in your memory.

Thank goodness for honorable and wise public figures from the past such as former City Councillor Marguerite Ford, whose scathing letter to the Vancouver Sun puts the Mayor in his place:

The taxpaying citizens of Vancouver should be concerned about the money being spent to renovate and enlarge the mayor's office. They should be even more concerned about the reasons for this. Are we going to have an imperial mayor? Enlarging the mayor's staff means that politically appointed people who are not selected or screened in the usual way will have more and more power. Council is supposed to set policy and see that it is carried out by trained and competent staff, of whom there are many.

Vancouver has always had what is called the weak mayor system, whereby the mayor has only one vote and has to persuade council to his ideas. Apparently, two people who have funded this mayor feel that inherited wealth gives them the right to alter Vancouver without consultation with the people who live here. Is that what we want for Vancouver?

Marguerite Ford
City councillor from 1976 to 1986

Sean Leslie wraps up with a question regarding the lack of consultation and the ramming through of the Hornby bike lane project. Here is the clip below. (mp3)

What we've learned is that all the work schedules for building the Hornby separated bike lane that would have City engineering crews working during August were dumped because of the increasing public controversy. The "consultation" underway is a mere dog and pony show to back up Robertson's rhetoric. When you listen to Mayor Gregor's own words, you can hear on the one hand he thinks they're done ("the consultation started over a month ago" – actually it started after council recessed for summer).

Gregor says "this is NOT a referendum and at the end of the day we'll make the best transportation decisions for the City." Robertson says they're looking for "all the best feedback" but dodges the question from Leslie as to whether the bike lane is a done deal.

That's because it is.

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