“We talked about this a lot through the campaign, through this [2008 civic] election, about how we want to do things very differently. We want them to come bottom-up. We want the grassroots to have serious voice at City Hall. We want City Hall opened up.”
Newly-elected Mayor Gregor Robertson, at Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver celebration event, December 10, 2008 (Heritage Hall, Vancouver)
(Updated) Yes, that was in the year two thousand and eight. That’s what the Mayor said to about 400 community representatives, thanking them for believing that Vision Vancouver would repeal the EcoDensity policies brought in by the Non-Partisan Association, and instead support CityPlan.
Today (December 10, two thousand and fourteen) in an interview on CBC Morning Edition, Rick Cluff referred to Robertson’s high-profile public a apology just days before the November 15 election this year, and asked, now that he’s re-elected (this time for four years), what he will improve at City Hall. Robertson’s first words were, “I think that where there is real room for improvement is on engagement with neighbourhoods….”
Stop there. Six years after he was first elected on promises of better engagement, many people know the opposite is what happened. What went wrong over the tumultuous six years, and why? How can anyone trust that promises today will mean anything? Why did Robertson feel compelled to make his high-profile public apology for Vision Vancouver’s performance, just before the November 2014 election? Perhaps the problems are much deeper, in the civic system. Perhaps the names could change but we would get the same outcomes, no matter how sincere the mayor of the moment feels he is.
In this 2008 video, Robertson repeatedly mentions the need to change how City Hall involves citizens. “It has to be real. We need significant, systemic change in the way we do things.” At 4:43 he says the City will embark upon a new way of engaging citizens, and says that Councillor Andrea Reimer is going to “leading the charge on this.” He says he wants to see a fundamental change in the way that City Hall involved people in the City of Vancouver, so that we make better political decisions, so that we can embrace the change that we want to see, and reflect the voices and concerns that you have.
Take a moment here to look at the insidious role played by some civic reporters who seem to willingly forget past “promises” and instead reinforce and amplify politicians’ slick words without adequate objectivity. As we have written, certain “compliant” members of the media are among the enablers of this civic system, doing a disservice to society, and need to be dealt with by going directly to their bosses, editors, and media owners. Look at this blog post by prominent civic reporter Frances Bula (2-Dec-2014) after the recent election: “Mayor promised to do things differently. Now what about everyone else?” Excerpt: “I’m talking, of course, about the various resident groups, cityhall watchdogs, mysterious Twitter entities, and political parties that sprang into being the last few years whose main function appeared to be to oppose, always and everywhere, the latest development project or bylaw or proposal or comment from a (Vision) city councillor.” Bula has a history of failing to report on certain “issues, misses important facts, and fails to correct them when pointed out. Don’t get us started.
Meanwhile, the actions, closed-door decisions by his party’s caucus, followed by bloc voting exploiting Mayor Robertson’s Council majority from 2008 to 2014 betrayed the public trust and “broke the social contract,” as some people have said over the past few years. The rest of the story after 2008 many people know by now — a large number of controversial public hearings, scandals about developer and union donations, lawsuits against the City, and mistrust in City Hall. Now in December 2014, newly reelected, Mayor Robertson is again saying he will improve consultation and engagement with citizens and neighbourhoods. But what will change? Have he and his colleagues on Council recognized what went wrong?
Prior to Vision Vancouver coming into office in 2008, CityPlan was an extensive citywide planning and visioning process in the 1990s. It involved an enormous investment of civic and citizen time and resources and resulted in a high level of trust in City Hall, and satisfaction with planning. Two hundred City staff were assigned to CityPlan work at one point, and $3 million of taxpayers’ dollars were spent for the first stages, while more funds went later to complete some community visions. Thousands of displays were made around the City. The then-mayor and council met many citizens and received input directly. By the end, about 40% of households said they had participated in CityPlan, and the final outcomes — a city of neighbourhoods — had very strong community support. That was then, in the 1990s.
But as time went by subsequent regimes at Vancouver City Hall pulled resources out of implementation, and eliminated checks and balances, weakening public access to City Hall decision-making. NPA mayor Sam Sullivan pushed forward with development-friendly density — in his “EcoDensity” doctrine. In protest, voters turfed out the NPA in 2008 with hope for Vision Vancouver to return to community-oriented planning. But soon after Mayor Robertson’s speech in December 2008 (the day after his official inauguration) the stage was set for further disappointment. After many failed attempts by citizens to have their voices heard at City Hall in the ensuing four years, it is clear that something is seriously wrong in Vancouver’s civic system. This city is a microcosm of the world. If we can figure out what went wrong here where there was so much hope in 2008, maybe we will learn lessons with broader implications.
Some history of the neighbourhood movement:
Vision Vancouver’s specific commitment to CityPlan (as of 2008, before the civic election) in a response to an NSV survey of candidates.
Detailed story about CityPlan, for context:
Actual transcript of Gregor Robertson’s words on Dec 10, 2008.
10 December 2008, Heritage Hall – First Day of Mayor Robertson’s and Vision Vancouver’s Term of Office:
“It’s so fantastic to walk in here. I didn’t quite know know what I was coming into, but coming in the door, it was like all of Vancouver crammed into the Heritage Hall — with poster boards to boot.”
“I really want to recognize you, and thank you for all the work that you’ve done to represent your neighbourhoods, to actually pull together in a cohesive way — what your neighbourhoods are, what they mean to you, what they mean to the people who live there, and to put that forward and to make a political statement out of it.”
“Because its been the only thing really that pushed back effectively enough against the branding of EcoDensity. And when you say the word EcoDensity, well it sounds kind of good, I, you know, sounds reasonable and something we maybe should get behind, but the reality of it I think was very different, and it took a very very intense effort on behalf of all of you in the neighbourhoods to counter that effectively, and to reframe the whole debate around what matters most — and that is community, and our neighbourhoods.”
“Ultimately, when you think about what was most important, where you grew up, what’s most important through your life, it’s those connections to where you live and the people that you live with. And a lot of the problems that we have — not only in this city, but in cities and towns across the world, is when community starts to pull apart and disintegrate, and there isn’t all that support. People fall through the cracks, and they fall between communities. There’s a lack of cohesiveness, and that’s where a lot of the problems, and a lot of the social unrest and challenges that we have, come from.”
“So making our neighbourhoods and communities stronger is so critical right now, and we can get a lot better at it — and the work that you guys are doing is about that, I think. It’s about making neighbourhoods stronger, and making sure that we’re — as a society that we’re better looked after by working together in our communities. So, we recognize you for that work, which is really important to our city, and beyond.”
“We have a great opportunity right now with the big shift in the political winds to do things differently at City Hall.”
“We talked about this a lot through the campaign, through this election, about how we want to do things very differently. We want them to come bottom-up. We want the grassroots to have serious voice at City Hall. We want City Hall opened up. That’s why we had our big inauguration yesterday at Sunset Community Centre, because we want to be out in the community.”
“And it’s more than just us being out in the community, it’s about the community being in City Hall.”
Another account of the December 10, 2008 speech by Mayor Gregor, recounted by Joseph Jones. Excerpt: I remember 10 December 2008. A group of community folk from across Vancouver scrambled to put together an event at Heritage Hall. Lots of displays went up for different neighborhoods and their concerns. Food and drink bedecked a long row of tables. All for the benefit of the invited guests: seven of the eleven newly elected Vancouver City Council, who showed up at the end of their first day in office….EcoDensity™ backlash played a major role in the Vision Vancouver 2008 sweep of City Hall. New voters came out to support what looked new … while dyed-in-the-wool NPA voters, their interests savaged by EcoDensity™, saw nothing to choose from and sat out the election. There was hope for change, hope for a renewed respect for the hundreds of thousands of people who already live in Vancouver neighborhoods.