Vancouver Yawns, Blames Gregor Next

What a pathetic turnout for the municipal election on November 15! When more than 75% vote “none of the above” by staying home, it’s really time to ask why this is happening. Could it be that everyone, after years of Olympic boosterism overriding any sanity in decision-making (and dealing with the Cambie Street Canyon and other long-term construction sites while the bills pile up and up) figures it doesn’t matter any more who’s in charge? Perilously close to they don’t give a flying fuck on a rolling doughnut for us, so “why should I care?”.

I voted — in the advance poll, even, knowing I would be away from the west coast on election day. One of the factors that had guided my support for various candidates was a firm desire to “reward” the prior NPA council under Mayor Sam Sullivan for the civic workers’ strike of 2007. Corners of my garage still carry a whiff of odeur des ordures despite repeated airings, but that’s what a fourteen week buildup of waste can do for you. The NPA members had supported Sam in his “no debate, no discussion; the public has no business meddling in the strike” attitude. (Vision Vancouver and COPE members on that council had been willing to air the dirty situation in a council debate.)

So former NPA councillors did not get my vote (except for Peter Ladner, who was competing for Mayor). Returning Vision and COPE councillors did. I then voted for some new NPA candidates along with one more Vision one. Similarly, on the Parks and School Boards, I voted for a mix across all the civic parties. Party politics at the municipal level is a plague brought on by our wardless civic structure — candidates need the “brand” to back their campaign efforts — but councils and boards ought to operate in a “non-partisan” manner and work together. Alas, the corrosion of faction, as it was called by George Washington in the early days of the United States, is alive and well: institutions diverge from, and corrode, the tradition they support.

I’m not dissatisfied that Gregor Robertson won over Peter Ladner: it was a hard choice as to which to support as I like both and think either would make a good mayor. Having voted for a council balanced toward the Vision/COPE stream, I ultimately decided an NPA mayor would be a good way to achieve non-partisanship. Anything to put the “us-vs-them” of the Sam years behind us!

But Gregor has been dealt a cruel hand, for the mistakes of the Philip Owen, Larry Campbell and Sam Sullivan mayoralties (at the very least) are about to come crashing down on him and his council. Needless to say, of course, the cupboard is bare thanks to the idiocy of putting the Olympics first, last and always, and needing to bail out shady developers (Millennium) and hedge/private investment funds (Fortress) in the process as the most recent on a pile of “you’re stuck with it” in the city.

Municipalities are the new backbone of the twenty-first century. Large-scale governments — nations and provinces/states — will find it increasingly hard to exercise authority. More and more issues will fall to cities whether they want them or not. At the same time, they are not even really a “level of” government: they exist at the pleasure of (and under the thumb of) the province. Eventually this will change: in the meantime, everyone will scream as the wholly-inadequate funding base of the city is strained beyond hope.

Now, on the one level, you could (as did CKNW commentator Bruce Allen) opine that “if you don’t vote, you’ve got no right to complain after the fact”, but that misses the point. Who are your municipal candidates? Parties formulate their candidates’ lists weeks before the election, and their policies likewise. (Note that Suzanne Anton of the NPA is the lone survivor from last council’s NPA members: she expended campaign resources with a barrage of radio advertising just before voting day. It probably built just enough name recognition — coupled with appearing in the top three names in the ballot thanks to alphabetical order — to squeak her home.) There is some logic in not voting for nobodies — and that’s who most of these are to most voters. They are just a party label. Why not? — it’s that way provincially and federally, too, although the ballot is generally much shorter.

So the complaints will come — and they ought to. But what needs to change is the system:

We need wards: Local voting areas — wards — mean that an elector is faced (as they are with their other ballots) with a much shorter list of candidates. These candidates, in turn, need not campaign all over the city to win election. We might actually get to know who’s running. (A good local candidate would also be a viable contender to be elected as an independent, too.) Meanwhile, region-blanketing advertising (Anton’s radio adverts reached six times as many people who couldn’t vote for her as could) would be less cost-effective, removing that point of influence.

We need new methods of civic financing: It’s time to move past the property tax as the essence of civic funding. The answers here are difficult: American cities have tried city income taxes, city sales taxes, etc. All of these come with serious problems, but they all recognize that cities do more today than pave roads, put in water/sewer lines, and run police/fire departments. (Some cities, like Toronto, have taken on far more than they should — and some have experienced the distortions of provincial downloading without funding [Toronto again, for one].) This will, in turn, lead us to …

Cities must become a true level of government: Cities must become the equal to provinces and the federal government, with a division of powers and true fiscal authority. As we move more deeply into the end of cheap energy (and don’t let the recent price declines fool you; the long-term trend is to constrained supply and more expensive extraction and refining) life will become more local. Land use patterns, transit patterns, local employment: all of these are civic in nature, best decided locally.

So, I wish our new council well. I know the noise level will be high. They will try to patch the mess left by the past and that will lead to new screaming. We’ll end up blaming them for failing. But until the game itself is changed, that’s all we’ll be able to do. No wonder people don’t care to vote!

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