The ballots have been counted, the election signs are gone from yards, and the dust is settling from the October 15 civic election. There’s perhaps a very short window of opportunity for the incoming administration to set the tone at Vancouver City Hall.
The outgoing Council came into office in late 2018. The 2018 civic election was a change election after a decade of Vision Vancouver rule under Gregor Robertson. Voters wanted change and nearly voted Vision Vancouver out of existence. Yet within their first few months, the new Council quickly squandered their opportunity to make big changes that voters were expecting. Here are few takeaways about blunders by the past administration:
- In 2018, the incoming Council kept the Vision-installed administration/senior management in place, starting from the Vision Vancouver appointed City Manager.
- The only place where there was a house cleaning was within the limited confines of the Mayor’s office, in order to install the new mayor Kennedy Stewart’s loyalists.
- By contrast, when Vision first came into power in 2008, one of the first orders of business was to fire the City Manager.
- Starting in 2008, the culture of City Hall changed from civil service to that of a corporation.
- Changes in Council meeting rules limited their abilities to work and Councillors were actively hampered by uncooperative staff who threatened to silence them with the ‘code of conduct’ and the ‘integrity commissioner’ (who refused to investigate complaints made by the public).
- The 2018 incoming Council was told ‘oh you have to get trained by staff’; perhaps the new administration can decline to accept the ‘training’ by City staff, and train members of their own caucus. At least some balance is needed to limit the tone set by staff.
- The 2018 incoming Council quickly rubber-stamped the budget for the following fiscal year that was put in place by Vision; they had until the end of March in 2019 to make changes
- The wholesale change that was needed (City Manager, Directors in areas such as Finance, Planning, HR, etc., along with respective Assistant/Deputy Directors) was denied; staffers who stymied the operations of Council were given free reign.
- There seemed to be a trend for hiring and promoting managers from outside of Canada, who may not have an appreciation of this history and culture of Vancouver.
- Planning and rezoning staff appeared to be actually coaching applicants in major and controversial development applications, and providing Council and the public with information that was not correct.
- The culture of secrecy continued, whether this is refusing to provide information in response even to simple requests from the public, blocking and significantly delaying responses to freedom of information (FOI) inquiries, for what seemed to be political or bureaucratic reasons.
- Large tax increases continued year after year, and the majority on Council collectively toed the line and rubber stamped budgets and policies coming from staff.
- Council appeared to be tone deaf to the public, and refused to consider comments from the public. Staff could say anything, and be proven wrong by the public, without any repercussions.
- Lavish spending by City Hall on the bureaucratic bloat was allowed; increasingly residents were seen as ‘piggy banks’ and ‘walking ATMs.’
- Staff actively fought against transparency and accountability (torpedoing attempts for line-item budgets and data releases, trying to block the process of creating an independent office of auditor general, and so on).
- Pet projects by staff appeared to be favoured over the provision of basic municipal services.
- When Park Board and the public showed support to reconstruct the outdoor pool in Mount Pleasant Park, the City Manager and senior staff were able to nix it without consequence.
- Access to council chambers at City Hall was for the most part closed off. Speakers were only allowed up to the third floor chambers from a holding area just moments before they were up to speak in the chambers.
- Daytime public hearings continued as well as reconvened public hearings that went into business hours during weekdays
- Council chambers were almost entirely closed off to the public with access to the seating area cut off; in the few exceptions were members of the public were allowed to view the proceedings in person, Kennedy Stewart scolded them if they clapped after a speaker.
- Speakers were often interrupted by the meeting chair even when their points were on-topic and pertinent; slide presentations were hampered.
- There was a complete lack of leadership by Kennedy Stewart at the regional level on the Metro Vancouver Board, as seen by his very poor attendance record there.
- Big-ticket items like a road tax and a levy for all street parking were cash cows pushed by staff; these items would surely have been passed in short order after the Oct 15 election without wholesale changes, had there not been a major change in Council composition.
- The chronic slowness and expense in getting many permits and business licenses didn’t seem to be resolved; staff kept making excuses and plans to speed things up, but nothing materialized (takeaway: don’t task the same staff to make things more efficient).
- Public sector salaries spiralled out of control, as did expenses at City Hall; 1798 staffers at the City made over $100,000 back in 2021. Staff made over a half-billion in combined salary in 2021 – and the rise in staff numbers from 2011 so prevalent under Vision continued under the 2018-2022 council.
- Core services such as simply picking up garbage once every two weeks or upkeeping parks were left to the wayside with the bureaucracy taking up so much of the budget.
- The permanent campaign mode by Kennedy Stewart and the publicly paid staff at the mayor’s office showed that decisions were already made and the spin on a vote or topic was ready as soon as a measure was passed by Council (prepared tweets and e-mails would out within minutes of a vote).
- While at least one individual on Council did attempt to counter many of these problems, it was an uphill battle, so the net effect was as listed above.
- One positive thing of the 2018-2022 council was that, as the council represented different civic parties, representation on Metro Vancouver regional committees was more balanced, in contrast to the Vision years, when non-Vision councillors who appeared to be locked out of access to Metro Vancouver meetings and information. Hopefully the new Council will share these tasks even with councillors who are not on the ruling regime.
- In short, the corporate culture set up at the City of Vancouver under the Vision regime continued through the current Council, and many of promises made were left unfulfilled.
How could things have been done differently? While most voters probably don’t follow the minutia of City Hall such as the above list, the net feeling of the electorate was one of frustration, and it was probably due to many of the above items.
Will the incoming Council learn from the mistakes of the last? Stay tuned.