Beware of zombie groups in Vancouver: Case of the “West End Residents Association” (WERA)

cartoon zombie

Beware! Is there a zombie group in your neighbourhood?

(An introductory note for context (July 2015): This article was first posted on October 31, 2014. A Halloween, that happened to be during the frenzy leading up to the November civic election in Vancouver. None of the WERA-spawned candidates ended up getting elected, and six months later, WERA announced it was closing its doors. The final post (June 5, 2015) on its website lists many accomplishments over the years. But perhaps this whole saga going back nearly 20 years underlines the very point about every individual in a grassroots community group needing to be vigilant about being excessively influenced by political aims — lest it becomes a “zombie group.”)

This Halloween we have a true and scary story.  It’s a warning from the West End. Is there a zombie group in your neighbourhood?

The West End Residents’ Association (WERA) was once a well-intentioned group of individuals, serving its host community. But things began to change in 2008 and today it looks like a zombie — nothing but the shell of an organization that was invaded by political spirits, now cast away like a corpse once its purpose had been served.

WERA has held no events for over a year. The WERA website (www.wera.bc.ca) shows a sporadic record of posts in the past twelve months — the most recent being an announcement in mid-July about the “Celebration of Light” fireworks starting July 25. Likewise, traffic on its Twitter feed (@werabc) shows no heartbeat. (Update – see West End Residents Association packs it in, by Charlie Smith, Georgia Straight, 3-June-2015. “In recent years, however, it has been a challenge to recruit new members … which led to the decision to cease operating.”)

Community groups can be invaded by political or profit-seeking interests. The changes can be slow but real. How did this happen to WERA?

West End Residents Association became a zombie, with its shell filled with politically-motivated individuals who in retrospect appear to have used it as a vehicle to launch their political careers. WERA’s usefulness now spent, it has been cast aside like a corpse.

WERA was a convenient source of “opinion” from the community. Certain members of City Council referred to WERA’s “position” to justify policies and decisions, and to discount opposing voices. The CBC and other media were duped into thinking that this “residents’ association” was duly constituted and that its name meant what it said. Yet it had no members, and never held a general meeting. And representatives let the false impression persist. Only upon persistent questioning would they admit that it was not an “association of residents” but a “collective of activists” working things they were concerned about.

What did they do and where are they now?

Brent Granby, previous president, used WERA as his platform for an attempt to get a political foothold with COPE in 2011 as a Park Board candidate. Seeing the shifting winds, he abandoned COPE in 2013 and joined Vision Vancouver, and now seeks to ride the Vision brand into a career as Park Board Commissioner in the November 2014 civic election. (Website: www.brentgranby.ca) Over the years, he addressed public hearings and Council meetings numerous times, supporting Vision Vancouver’s policies as a representative of the “Residents’ Association.” There are many examples. In April 2009, he represented WERA as the only residents’ association invited to the closed-door Mayor’s Roundtable on Affordable Housing — attended mostly by prominent individuals from the development industry. This roundtable quickly led to the Short Term Incentives for Rental (STIR) program, which granted unlimited height and density bonuses to developers for building rental units. The Vision council rushed the policy into legislation in June 2009, without public consultation. WERA was invited to closed-door meetings with developers. The night before the rezoning public hearing for what was Maxine’s (Bidwell and Davie) in December 2009, WERA was invited to a private luncheon organized by Millennium Developments, for rezoning to create a 21-storey luxury tower with million-dollar condos and 49 small rental units — all made possible by the STIR program. When community opposition to Vision’s policies got stronger, WERA did not want to get involved, except to speak to the media and City Council in favour of the developers’ agenda. As the months went on, WERA moved further away from the community sentiments and closer to the political party and its development funders. Mr. Granby should explain his actions over the years. If he wishes to become an elected official, who will he serve? The public? Or his political masters?  

Christine Ackermann is still listed on the website today as WERA president. In February 2014 she moved to Ottawa to work for MP Megan Leslie. But before leaving, she went from being executive assistant to the head of the United Church of Canada, to president of WERA in 2010. The United Church sold St. John’s Church at 1401 Comox in 2009 to Westbank Projects Corp. which demolished the church and built The Lauren (address changed to 1051 Broughton), a 22-storey tower that just opened in the heart of the West End. Now, role in the West End apparently complete, she has left the organization and the city behind.

WERA founder Rob Wynen originally planned to run for Park Board with Vision in 2011, but shifted his candidacy to School Board, getting elected under the Vision Vancouver brand in 2011. He is running for reelection in 2014.

Former WERA director Aaron Jasper launched his political career using WERA as a vehicle. He was elected in 2008 under the Vision Vancouver brand and reelected 2011. He is not running for reelection in 2014. He is now defending the idea of demolishing the Vancouver Aquatic Centre and rebuilding it outside the West End as part of a major tower development.

WERA directors were prominent in promoting the Vision Vancouver agenda of development and density. The Patina, Maxine’s (The Alexandra), 1401 Comox/1051 Broughton (The Lauren), Beach Towers, West End Community Plan, and more.

WEMAC

A similar story could be told about how some individuals appeared to use their involvement in the West End Mayor’s Advisory Committee (WEMAC) for connections or to gain political influence.

WEMAC was a bit different. It was created from individuals hand-picked by politicians (Vision’s Tim Stevenson and Andrea Reimer) to represent the West End in response to community pushback against the 1401 Comox rezoning. And it had a limited lifespan. Despite its members’ desire for it to morph into something else with eternal life, it has now been shut down. Nevertheless, it was also  a useful vehicle for connections or gaining political influence. Cherie Payne benefited from involvement by joining the Vision Vancouver brand and using it to gain political office as School Board member in 2011. She seeks reelection under the Vision brand again in 2014. Christine Ackermann was also a member of WEMAC, which did not hold  a single meeting in the West End (always at City Hall). Dean Malone and Duncan Wlodarczak turned up at numerous rezoning public hearings speaking in favour of rezonings requested by major developers that were also Vision Vancouver donors.

After WEMAC ended, in 2013 they launched the West End Community Action Network (not the same as the pre-existing WECAN) to build support for Vision Vancouver. (See The Straight “Vision Vancouver stalwarts form neighbourhood cells“; the article says that the party created committees in three other neighbourhoods undergoing community plans, but refused to name organizers.) Wlodarczak also turned up as an employee of Pottinger and Associates, a real estate marketing company that promotes many projects sponsored by Vision Vancouver political donors (including the redevelopment of Oakridge Mall). Below is a column from the June 2013 party newsletter.

WECAN West End in Vision Vancouver newsletter summer 2013

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