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The first civic election debate: Experience versus leadership

October 2nd, 2008 · 17 Comments

It’s hard to believe some people chose to go to a hockey game tonight when they could have been sitting with all of us at the Vancouver Public Library talking about municipal policy. A loss for them of 90 minutes of action-packed excitement, but fun for the 300 or so of us there.

Okay, kidding aside, this was a fascinating night because it’s really the first time people, including the campaign teams, have seen the two candidates side by side. So it felt an awful lot like a first-of-the-season hockey game, with the fans from both sides in attendance. (In fact, we could save ourselves a lot of time and money by just letting the two campaign teams, who were out in full force, rumble with each other in the room. The team with the most people standing at the end gets to run city hall.)

What did we learn?

1. Peter Ladner is going to emphasize that he has experience. He said it’s not time to let someone be learning on the job. He’s sat on TransLink and the Metro Vancouver boards and he’s got the skills and knowledge to negotiate. And all of that is going to be necessary when Vancouver hosts the world in 18 months at the 2010 Olympics.

Signature line: “I have learned what it takes to get results.”

Gregor Robertson is going to emphasize that he is willing to be a leader and a motivator and that’s worth more than experience. He got the biggest laugh of the night when he pointed out that, if experience was a good qualification for a leader, then current Mayor Sam Sullivan would have had an amazing term.

“My commitment is to activate city hall. We need stronger leadership, bolder leadership.”

2. Both men identified homelessness as the one issue they would aim to solve by the time their term ends in 2011. (Neither one said how they would do it except by pushing other levels of government.)

3. Both men have improved their question-answering style considerably since even a few months ago. Ladner is more forceful and articulate and big picture in his answers that he has been over the past few years, when he often tended to speak quietly and kind of snipe at minor points.

Robertson sounds way more fluid (the stumbling and hesitation used to be agonizing) and he’s able to pull out details to drive home his points, along with being able to use a lot of strong emotional language. When the two were asked about Project Civil City, he noted that the city’s own interim report said that the project’s efforts to reduce public disorder were not measurable because there was never a baseline survey done of the problems and so it was impossible to say whether there was any progress being made.

4. They each have a message that seems counter-productive to me. Ladner just kept going on an on about how much experience he had. He ended up sounding like the snotty Grade 12 boy picking on someone in the grade below. Robertson kept talking about how the mayor has to bring an “edge” or “friction” to discussions with the province to get anything out of them. I don’t see how advertising that you want to play rough with the provincial government is a selling point.

5. Both men are good at not answering some questions. Peter Ladner’s sidestep was the most noticeable. I asked why people should vote for him, given that he spent six years serving with Sullivan then ousted him because he claimed the mayor was steering the NPA onto the rocks, but hasn’t said yet what he would do differently. Ladner’s somewhat flip response was: “My biggest answer is that I’m running for mayor and he’s not.” And then he went on to attack Robertson (“I don’t know if Gregor’s ever sat through an entire city-hall meeting”) instead of explaining what many people in the city would genuinely like to know: If Sam was so terrible and he had to be replaced, how are you going to be different?

But it wasn’t the only unanswered question of the night.

Others included: Will you continue to have a Project Civil City commissioner? Granted, it was a part of a several-pronged question from CBCer Stephen Quinn on PCC but Ladner never answered that part. I personally would like to know if Geoff Plant will be staying on.

Would you support legalized brothels as your NDP colleagues do? (Mark Hasiuk of the Courier’s question) Gregor talked a lot about the horrific situation for women doing sex-trade work in the Downtown Eastside and something about Four Pillars and the statement that “I’m not a proponent of legalization at this time” so I’m not quite sure what his overall position is.

Other points:

1. I thought their most thoughtful answers came in response to Stephen’s question about whether they would support electoral and campaign-finance reform.

Robertson said that he used to be a supporter of wards and he continues to be concerned about the lack of local representation, but he thinks that actually a mixed system might be better. He didn’t say why, but presumably he, like others, has been swayed by the argument that councillors acting for the whole city aren’t so vulnerable to big local opposition groups over specific projects. Ladner said he’s gone back and forth on the issue and he thinks there are strong arguments on both sides, but he noted that western North American cities tend to have at-large systems and they’ve all got pretty livable cities.

Both also took nuanced positions in response to David Berner’s provocative question about what they thought of the “moral costs” of packing buses with voters from ethnic communities and handing them fake ballots so they know how to vote in nominations.

Ladner: “I don’t know what the alternative is — tell people they can’t vote?” He noted that politics is a rough business and there’s a long history of difficult nomination meetings. Robertson also talked about there being a long history of different styles and cultures coming together in civic elections and that Vision’s recent meetings saw many sample ballots with many combinations of slates, not just one directed at one ethnic group.

The question did prompt an angry outburst from Vision council candidate Kerry Jang, who yelled at Berner: “How do you know what they don’t know?” I can’t imagine the question got too favourable a response from the several Indo-Canadians (who have strong candidates running for both parties) who came out to the debate, since it was clearly directed at the reports of busloads of Indo-Canadians coming in to vote at both Vision nomination meetings and the NPA mayoral nomination.

2. Answers to Mark’s questions on whether the city needs more supervised-injection sites.

Ladner: The current site mostly attracts people from a five-block radius who don’t even use it for all of their injections. “To think you could use that model all over the city, I don’t see how that would work.” (I don’t understand that answer either, in case you’re wondering.) Instead, he’d rather put more money into treatment.

Robertson: “I think there is a place for more supervised injection sites and different types.”

3. Answers to my question about what are three specific things you would do to create affordable housing, including one that would be politically risky but you’re willing to try.

Robertson: 1. Inclusionary zoning (That means requiring developers of projects to provide a certain percentage as affordable.) 2. Density bonusing (the controversial one) 3. Workforce housing for certain categories of people, like police, teachers, nurses, emergency workers.

Ladner: 1. Increase the supply overall, with encouragement from the city by rezoning for higher density around SkyTrain stations. (By the way, Ladner noted that the busiest SkyTrain station in the province, at Commercial and Broadway, has low density all around it and that should be changed. But, unless I’ve misunderstood what planners have told me in the past, that area is zoned high-density but developers are declining to take advantage of it for reasons no one can quite understand.) 2. Laneway housing 3. Bonus density, but used with care because the city also uses density bonusing, which essentially means giving developers more space to build than they would normally be restricted to on a site, to pay for many other things like parks, daycares, and cultural facilities.

Should merchants along the Canada Line get compensation?

Ladner: Yes, but it’s almost impossible to figure out how to do it without opening the door to compensating everyone every time the city so much as repairs a sewer line.

Robertson: I think he said yes, but he went on more to how it can’t happen again when the line is built on Broadway. He said the city has the power to force the province or TransLink or whoever to pay compensation or take greater care when building because the city signs all the approvals necessary to build. Ladner got off one of his better shots of the night when he pointed out that it was the COPE/Vision council that signed all the approvals for the Canada Line.

Do you support Vanoc’s proposal to the Britannia community centre that it be allowed to use the ice there for a month in return for giving a quarter million for improvements.

Ladner: It’s up to the Britannia board, although the hockey parents (those who would be the most affected by the closure) would like to see the quarter million put in.

Robertson: The Britannia board wouldn’t be the position of having to make the tough decision about whether to accept the Vanoc deal if the city had been willing to invest more in community-centre improvements.

There were questions from the audience about using Storyeum as a homeless shelter, civilian oversight of the police, cities’ losses of democratic rights because of Bill 30, and a weird one from lobbyist Cindy Burton (helpfully pointed out to moderator David Berner by Ladner supporter Reg Tupper (seated next to not-much-seen-in-public Allen Langdon, much to the annoyance of the Vision team) about Robertson’s voting record at the province.

The most interesting one was about the Whitecaps stadium and whether they would support expropriating the land. Both said no and both did not indicate a lot of enthusiasm for the current site over the rail lines behind Gastown. Ladner said something about the Whitecaps currently being in some kind of negotiations with the port about a structure that would be closer to the water and actually hang out over it, which is news to me. The things you learn.

Robertson said that there are likely better sites, like at the old Empire Stadium or on False Creek Flats. He also pointed out that it seems clear that city staff are not enthusiastic about the current site and they’ve sent a confusing message, noting that when Philadelphia was pitched a soccer stadium, it got approvals from the city there within six months. (And, reiterating his theme, he said the stadium has been floating helplessly around the city because there’s been “no clear leadership.”

That’s about all, folks. The impression I got from both campaign teams is they thought their candidates did well, perhaps even better than expected. The Robertson spinmeisters said they thought Ladner’s constant evasion about his record on council and whether he was different from Sullivan were his biggest noticeable weakness. The Ladner team said they thought Robertson had performed quite well (implication: way better than expected) but that his confrontational attitude about the provincial government wasn’t going to win him any votes.

Now: I await your comments.

The next debate is Oct. 8 at Science World, hosted by the Courier.

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