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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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  • Lets see: Anton is churlish over process, on day one, yet claims to not want to be left out of government. And Anton seems upset that the new management are actually moving forward on homelessness issues, like they promised they would.

    Perhaps Ms. Anton could find a better way to express her keen desire for process, if indeed her goal is to be an active part of the government rather than an bystander. She doesn’t even have to leave the warm confines of her office.

    Meanwhile one wonders if she realizes that that the current weather emergency is much more than an inconvenient cold-snap for those living on the streets or in some of our fine city’s splendiferous slums.

  • Vancouverism

    Great idea, Mike! Have our only opposition leader blend in on council and “work with government.” Yes, you’re absolutely correct, that her protestations are making things worse for people living outside.

    Frances, congratulations on keeping up the attacks on the Bad Old NPA. Seems to me that you, Garr et al weren’t exactly quiet on Sullivan’s tendency to roll out policy without consulting Council. Now Vision does it and it’s somehow fine?

    Don’t tell me that journalistic non-partisan veneer is showing some cracks.

  • It’s going to take some time for everyone to settle into the new council configuration, but Councillor Anton seems to have the steepest hill to climb. If she’s going to be a needler and grouser and characterize herself as the lone voice of opposition, rather than finding a way to bring NPA-style goals and values into the fold of what the council is doing, she’s going to have a lonely and frustrating 3 years. If she sees that there’s a direction voters have chosen and to go with that while getting the NPA voice in there, then it’ll be a more productive run.

    I’m not saying the Vision and COPE councillors are perfect by any stretch, but for Anton to position herself as the marginalized outsider and expect to make any difference is delusional.

  • coldwater

    And the circus begins. Partisanship is so much fun. When Vision was the opposition and questioned process, they were lefty loonies who didn’t know what was what. When the NPA is the opposition and questions process, they are churlish. For heavens sake, the opposition does what the opposition thinks they have to do. Let’s hope that everybody works for the citizens and not just themselves. Thank goodness the group at the Park Board look like they might be able to work together for the betterment of everybody. Four parties that know they won’t agree on everything but will try to work things out so that the citizens benefit. Wonder if Council might take a look over there?

  • A. G. Tsakumis

    “And your worship, with the greatest of respect, you cannot create entities on your own.”
    -Suzanne Anton-

    OMG Suzanne…how in the hell could this have even come from your mouth?!

    You sat there, idly, for three years while the most shameless, useless Mayor in Vancouver’s history, offered up nothing but policy flagellate: What the f–k do you call Eco Density or Civil City or CAST?

    Useful city initiatives??

    Jesus Murphy…give it a rest councillor…

  • coldwater

    …and why is it that when a man speaks he can be forceful, but a woman is shrill; a man can be combative but a woman is churlish; that when a man is questioning, a woman is whining? I’ve often wondered at the gender specific language that goes on in the press and elsewhere when referring to politicians…

  • fbula

    Just a point of order here.

    It was Suzanne herself who used the word “churlish.”

    I agree that it’s too easy to gender stereotype when it comes to describe the speaking styles of public figures (I’ve taken whole graduate-degree courses in the subject).

    That’s why I prefer to describe what people say or do, rather than assigning an adjective myself.

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  • coldwater

    No offense meant fb. It is even a sadder state of affairs when women will accept these stereotypes for themselves. Are there really graduate courses in this?

  • tommi

    To borrow the words of David Cadman (who puts the “cad” in Cadman), I find it kind of rich to see people here complaining about Anton complaining about being left out because “that’s what the NPA did for the last 3 years.” So, is it now OK for Vision to do the same? Is this behavior acceptable only when your team is in control?

    Apparently, COPE was also not informed of the topic of the in-camera meeting, either. Why did only Anton complain? Is COPE just going to sit there and let Vision walk all over them for 3 years?

    The hypocrisy is palpable (Michael and A.G.).

    And so much for the “open, transparent government” that Vision promised. They can’t schedule secret in-camera meetings fast enough. Is guess that broken campaign promise is also just fine with most of you.

  • Wagamuffin

    The term and the concept behind Eco Density is fine with me. We need to grow up here, Vancouver. A little planned densification never hurt anyone, if you are counting choices made in London, Paris and New York. The single family lot may be doomed, but yes, include the neighborhoods on how it could all work out. There was such a massive amount of misinformation out there during the election, it was kind of sickening.

    Surely those who live on large sf lots understand that (barring a complete housing collapse) no-one can afford to live like this anymore. Do you want your kids to stay in the neighborhood or hike out to the Valley?

    What doesn’t work about Eco Density is that it was not really understood—it was a horse before the cart situation and predictably, people went ape.

    Process is important, not just in answering todays immediate problems but in shaping tomorrow’s responses. There’s nothing worse than the potential for a hodge podge of ad hoc policies that have not followed process.

    If the processes need tobe changed, OK, room for discussion. But to ignore what staff have so carefully and thoughtfully put together is a recipe for crashing morale. If staff are to be ignored soley for the purpose of supporting one party’s ideaology, count on continued unrest and unhappiness at City Hall.

  • T W

    All too often in Vancouver, the Mayor or Chair of Committees fails to rein in the flights of rhetoric, which are, in my observation, more passion than policy. Perhaps the present incumbent can focus on the public interest rather than the political rhetoric (unlike his predecessor)

  • Ahhhhhh……CAST…..We hardly knew thee.

    Would it be churlish to ask if Ms. Anton, in her former majority role, used the proper procedures to approve the release of any and all monies that were used to hire the lobbyist for Smilin’ Sammy’s Codeine Substitution Program?

    .