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The first council meeting sets the stage for three years

December 17th, 2008 · 13 Comments

I really think there should have been a sports commentator at today’s first meeting of the new Vision-controlled council. Or several really, to handle the various rounds that ensued as council proceeded through the many motions put forward to kickstart the Vision agenda.

We could have started with one of those hushed-voice golf types for the first part of the meeting, when motions were being punted gently here and there to this committee and that. It felt like the new council was, possibly, going to be civilized.

Then one of those tennis commentators might have been good for the next round. Things started to warm up a little as Lonely Girl NPA Councillor Suzanne Anton started questioning why the Visionistas had to get reports back so durn fast on everything. How would staff be able to take proper holidays, she kept asking, when they were being asked to produce reports on arts councils, car-free days, sustainability and Nationalization of All Private Apartment Buildings (okay, that last one not true — just said it to get those apartment owners going again) by only January or February.

Staff, likely thinking they’d rather have no holidays at all than a super super long one like Judy Rogers is enjoying, kept reassuring everyone that they’d have no problem getting those reports done by January, so Suzanne had to give up on that one.

Round Three probably needed a soccer commentator — you know, the kind who can keep things going for the viewers as the ball just gets pushed around the field, no one really ever scores, and players occasionally fall over their own teammates.

In Round Three, things got testy for a bit, when the new COPE bloc (David Cadman and Ellen Woodsworth) suggested that the motion for car-free neighbourhoods be expanded to talking to everyone, not just three neighbourhoods, and making sure that businesses were included in the discussion because not all of them think car-free days are an unmixed blessing.

It looked like a fight might break out between them and the Visionistas, but it turned out in the end that actually they all agreed on everything. And the whole discussion helped poor Tom Timm, head of engineering, who had thought that Andrea Reimer’s motion meant he had to do a massive city-wide consultation on which three neighbourhoods the car-free Sundays should go to, along with studies on the possible impacts, like rerouting trolley buses and finding people to run the car-free days (now done by volunteers, but unlikely to be the case in future if car-free days are every Sunday for three months instead of once a year). As it turns out, Andrea’s motion meant his over-the-holidays report should set the stage for going out to consultation to find the best neighbourhoods.

But then it got to Round Four. Now that really needed a boxing commentator, someone who could tell you when something was just a vicious jab and when it was the equivalent of a knock-out punch. Round Four was the discussion about putting money into the city’s new homelessness efforts and it started out with Councillor Raymond Louie’s motion to put in $750,000 — not the $300,000 he had originally proposed. (Because they put $500,000 into a plan with the premier earlier that morning for 200 shelter beds.)

Well, people got distracted a little by David Cadman’s suggestion that the city should put all $1.34 million from the remaining money in the 2008 contingency fund into homelessness. There was all kinds of back and forth about that, with Raymond saying they weren’t putting everything in because it wouldn’t be prudent and David basically saying, Well, you said there’s a crisis so why not put all the money in that you have?

But that was nothing compared to what happened next, when former Crown prosecutor Suzanne got up and started popping out the punches.

“Unfortunately, your worship forgot to ask me to the press conference (about the homelessness emergency action team, she meant) and, at the moment, HEAT is only the product of your press conference and not the council. I hate to be churlish (I’ll bet she did), but I don’t actually know what HEAT’s mandate is. And your worship, with the greatest of respect, you cannot create entities on your own.”

And off we went into almost an hour of debate, where Suzanne kept asking them about the legalities and the process of what they had done, in creating a homelessness action team and handing out money to various initiatives.

Along the way, she managed to pin staff to the mat, with deputy city manager james Ridge saying he’d have to consult with the legal department before answering her question. And Gregor, I mean your worship, just kind of sat there taking it, not really saying anything. I couldn’t tell if it was because he was trying to maintain the neutrality of the chair or because he couldn’t think of what to say.

But eventually, the other side woke up to the fact that they were being socked in the stomach and started to hit back.

David Cadman was first up off the floor with: “I have to say, it’s a little bit rich of Councillor Anton” and then went on to list the many announcements former mayor Sam Sullivan announced about his various initiatives, long before he ever presented them to staff or to council formally. David also was the first to trot out the classic line so frequently used post-election: “We won and you didn’t so nyah nyah.” Oh, actually, that isn’t what he said. It was just the sub-text. What he actually said was: We asked the electorate, they said yes and we’re taking action.

Anyway, it went on and on forever until we were begging for mercy in the media-peanut gallery, with councillors displaying many of the idiosyncratic traits that we will undoubtedly come to know and love.

Suzanne kept going on about process and legality, grilling everyone in her prosecutorial way. She also pushed as many in-your-face buttons as your average provocative teenager (“I guess there’s no sense of facetiousness or irony in this chamber.” “I guess I’m an observer of this council and not a participant.” “This is shocking, shocking, shocking.” “This is a remarkably contemptuous way of dealing with this issue.” “I want to be assured that I am a part of this government.” Etc Etc)

And she kept making the argument that Vancouver is now trying to take on all the problems of the Lower Mainland and it already provides most of the shelter beds already, so why is it now throwing its own city money into even more.

Raymond kept interrupting her on points of order or trying to claim that there was nothing out of order with the procedure. Kerry Jang accused her of scare-mongering (before Suzanne rapped him on the knuckles and said he should not be directing comments at her personally). Geoff Meggs and Andrea Reimer mostly stayed out of it except to make succinct points. Tim Stevenson made an eloquent speech that wandered all over the issue of the homeless and why they come to Vancouver. George Chow was mercifully silent. And Gregor, towards the end, quietly said he would take into consideration her remarks about process and that he had been trying to work quickly, but perhaps things could be improved.

On the whole, not pleasant. Suzanne did raise some questions about process that piqued my curiosity and I’ll be waiting to hear the answers on those.

But I wonder how far her attacks will get her. She seemed to be trying to go after the new city manager, Penny Ballem, asking her several times to clarify city policy, which clearly Penny was in no position to do and had to pass off to the deputy, having just started the job last week. It felt like Suzanne was trying to make that point, but in an indirect way. It made me think: If you want to accuse her of being an inexperienced political appointee, why not just say so instead of trying to embarrass her this way?

Also, I’m not sure all the fuss about policy and procedure will go very far with the public. The election clearly showed that the public had little enthusiasm for Peter Ladner’s argument that the city had followed proper policy in not releasing information about the $100-million loan approved for the Olympic village developer. It’s hard to see the public storming the gates of city hall because Gregor didn’t wait to go through public consultations and policy meetings before deciding to take some action on homelessness.

It also seems to me that the public said pretty loud and clear that they did not want a council that was going to say, We’re not going to do anything because the other municipalities and the provincial government should be doing it.

Oh, by the way, the $750,000 for the homeless initiatives got approved. Then all the councillors went into  — tada — an in-camera meeting, where they spent the next four hours. I had to go back to city hall at 9 p.m. because I’d left my bag there by accident and they were all just emerging.

So that was two hours of public meeting, four hours of in camera. Welcome to your first day.

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