Friday, November 18, 2011

Three more years?

Since 2008, it has been the best and cheapest place in Vancouver to witness tragedy and comedy. The seats are new and comfy and there is even “free” wifi.

I’m talking about Vancouver city hall, at Cambie and 12th. Government is not supposed to be so entertaining. But that’s how it has been under Vision Vancouver's management.

In my 21-year career, no single government I have followed has dealt with so much upheaval in such a short amount of time. Governing an Olympic city before, during and after the Games has proven harder than Vision Vancouver ever imagined. On Nov. 19, it will be up to the voters to decide whether Mayor Gregor Robertson and his Vision Vancouver-dominated city council should be rewarded.

Robertson overcame an unpaid SkyTrain ticket and rode the Olympic Village financing scandal to victory in the 2008 election. His administration has been anything but the moderate, business-like one that was promised. At a time of global and local socio-economic upheaval demanding no-frills, cost-conscious government, Vision Vancouver has made bike lanes and chicken coops priorities. I haven’t seen any rogue roosters on the streets yet, but I found evidence that helmet and safety bylaws are not being properly enforced.

It all seemed to unwind for Vision Vancouver just before the Olympics, with the firing of chief electrician Ark Tsisserev for nothing more than cost-cutting. The original spin was that Tsisserev had retired or quit. Instead, his lawyer threatened a wrongful dismissal lawsuit and the city changed its tune. Ark floated away with a nice golden parachute.

Tsisserev had red-flagged concerns about safety at Olympic sites, including the Olympic Village. During the Games, a barrier collapsed at the City of Vancouver’s David Lam Park live site when the crowd surged. I found out later that city hall knew there were serious safety concerns because: A) none of the officials had not figured out the maximum capacity of the site and B) the emergency exits were locked and nobody knew where to find the key!

So 19 people were injured and nine hospitalized on Feb. 16, 2010 in the worst crowd control incident of the Olympics. There are at least two lawsuits against the city. One girl’s flesh was ripped from her leg in the melee.

After the Games, more chaos with city hall oversight and infrastructure.

It’s lucky nobody was killed in a demolition gone-wrong on Hornby Street or a hazardous materials incident on Nelson Street at the old B.C. Hydro building, now the Electra apartments and offices. Both incidents exposed city hall regulatory shortcomings. There were sinkholes in South Vancouver and downtown that affected major transportation routes and harmed businesses. There was a propane explosion at the Vancouver Christmas Market, on the day it was to open.

And then the ultimate tragedy -- the preventable deaths of three men before Christmas 2010 in an illegal rooming house on Pandora Street. Common sense says the city should have acted swiftly and decisively and condemned the building and found the men suitable accommodation elsewhere. But that did not happen. Inspector Carlene Robbins sued in the aftermath.

After the Games, Robertson went to New York City in spring 2010 to make him look like a statesman back home, but instead spent much of his time meeting with New York-based party supporters. Chief of staff Mike Magee held mysterious “hosting” functions at bars and restaurants in the Big Apple, but kept secret the identities of his guests.

Robertson was caught calling concerned citizens “fucking hacks” after a lengthy council meeting. Some of those “hacks” were members of his own party. Randy Helten got so angry at Vision Vancouver, he started his own party called Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver.

The Mayor’s Office hired a spin doctor who in turn hired a blogger to attack other bloggers and the media. It was officially a contract for “conversation mining.”

Researcher Vivian Krause probed Vision Vancouver’s intricate web of campaign financing. Her fair questions about whether American interests are breaking Canadian laws and influencing Vancouver policy making have gone unanswered. Vision Vancouver bagman Joel Solomon lobbied deputy city manager Sadhu Johnston to find a spot for one of his coffee company investments.

Of course, that should have been the job for the Vancouver Economic Commission, but it was too busy trying to pad the results of its Olympic business promotion while hiding the real information from nosy journalists.

Journalists have been stymied, under Vision Vancouver, because of city manager Penny Ballem’s gag order for staff. Meanwhile, the city communications budget has skyrocketed and the Freedom of Information office gutted. The city has fought tooth and nail against those who have sought copies of important reports. It even decided to withhold key information about contracts and spending on the Stanley Cup fan zone until after the election!

Robertson promised in his swearing-in speech that transparency was a top priority. No ifs, ands or buts.

"That accountability must extend to every aspect of City Hall. When the city uses your money, you have a right to know where it’s being spent, and what it’s being used for. When leaders fall short of that standard, public confidence is shaken.

"Over the next three years, we will rebuild that confidence, and ensure transparency, accountability and public debate at City Hall.

"Politicians do not always live up to that responsibility, I know. But I also know that there were literally thousands of people voting last November for the very first time.

"My commitment to them, on behalf of every member of my team, is that I will not let you down on making City Hall more open and accountable."

What is the Mayor hiding? The election will come and go with not a single rioter or looter being charged in Vancouver, yet Robertson, city manager Penny Ballem, Vancouver Police Chief Jim Chu and Deputy Chief Doug Le Pard have gone out of their way to protect their reputations amid criticism they failed the public on June 15. No fun city? No fault city.

Unelected, $300,000-a-year-plus Ballem was appointed a member of the VANOC board after her 2008 hiring and has used her power to spend $2.32 million on used VANOC furniture and computers and to sign a contract that keeps Olympic financial and board documents secret until 2025. She did so without council approval and denies conflict of interest. Shouldn’t citizens who employ her be the ultimate judge of that question?

The Mayor is supposed to be the number one cheerleader for business in the city, but the juice company he co-founded made a bee-line for Burnaby a year after the Olympics and quietly closed up its Downtown Eastside warehouse and office. Robertson claims he owns less than 10 percent of shares but was noncommital when I asked him the simple question: did you make any effort to persuade the majority shareholders to maintain a Vancouver presence?

The Olympic Village remains a story without end. When a municipal auditor general is finally appointed, this project must be the first he or she probes. Vision Vancouver inherited the mess from previous COPE and NPA dominated city councils and has continued to keep citizens in the dark about how much the real loss is.

On the eve of the election, lawyers for the Occupy Vancouver protesters were trying to thwart the city's bid to disband the anti-corporate greed tent village on the Vancouver Art Gallery's north plaza. (Y'know, where the B.C. government replaced the green grass with bark mulch after the Olympics.)

Robertson could have enforced bylaws to remove tents and structures in the days after the Oct. 15 rally. He could have followed the lead of Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn and sought a compromise that included issuing of permits to the protesters, so that they could exercise their right to freedom of speech and assembly while adhering to reasonable bylaws. McGinn served protesters coffee and his council voted to support the movement. Robertson claims he has visited the Occupy Vancouver site, but my repeated questions have turned up no proof of dates or times of any such visits.

Robertson didn’t and now his city hall’s failure to provide safe and ample homeless shelters to the city's weakest people is an issue for the defence lawyers.

The last three years have been a treasure trove of stories. Those of us in the media thrive on conflict and controversy.

Citizens of Vancouver who pay the bills probably don't share that sentiment. They want a responsible, compassionate and transparent government that upholds laws, protects and respects all citizens (and their rights) and, most of all, spends public money wisely.

Do they really want three more years of Vision Vancouver?

We'll find out on Nov. 19.

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