Vancouver’s new council logs a year of living lazily

A year ago, Vancouver municipal voters sent an unambiguous message to change course. The decade-old governing Vision party was eviscerated and a diverse council and independent mayor were elected.

The era of the city’s extra-territorial activity — of trying fruitlessly to fix or fight for matters well beyond its boundaries — was presumably coming to an end. Vancouver’s government would stick to its knitting. The basics — a functional, responsive administration to deal with our streets and sewers and service — would be the priority.

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Instead, municipally this has been the Year of Living Lazily.

There has been no signature initiative: no strategy for the local economy to raise the woeful average income, no magic potion to more widely and wisely develop housing those woeful incomes could afford, no focus on a much-needed arts or culture or tech development plan.

No one has been shown the door at city hall. Indeed, more have come through it to work. Nothing discernible has been cut, nothing discernible has happened — except, of course, higher taxes.

Residential and business owners were socked with rate increases more than triple inflation, and there are clear signs of double-digit increases (yes, double-digit) in the year ahead if the reign doesn’t rein in.

In his first year as mayor, Kennedy Stewart appears to have reverted to his previous pedantic life as an academic who writes frequent proposals for government grants. With his hand on the pen, he and council have written and written again and written once more to higher levels of government in Victoria and Ottawa to ask for help and more help and more help again.

He has focused on (federal) drug reforms, on getting the (federal-provincial) subway to the University of British Columbia and on an expansion of (federal-provincial) social and below-market housing.

Letters posted and received. So far, crickets.

In his correspondent role, Kennedy can at least be credited with recognizing (after a decade of his predecessor not) that history has shown that a city can’t commit to large projects on its own. Much as she is astute, our Downtown Eastside challenges aren’t councillor Jean Swanson’s to solve.

It would be fine for Hizzoner to ask up high for extra gas if on the ground things were cooking. But the mayor has traded former objectives outside the mandate’s jurisdiction for his objectives outside the mandate’s timelines. Any policy achievements are many years away.

It can be said that since he has done little, he has done little wrong. The exception to this rule was his activity in the federal election campaign.

Now, it would be naive to think a former NDP MP is with anyone but them. But a civic government can’t be choosy about its senior partners or how to play any election hand dealt. Stewart miscalculated twice: once to trade what little currency he had with doubters to door-knock in the campaign for his former cohort, and once to leader-knock the Conservatives’ Andrew Scheer as some kind of urban ogre.

If you want to be a mayor for everyone, as he suggested a year ago he wished to be, then you can’t cast aspersions on ideological rivals. You can’t claim with evidence that Scheer would kill your coveted subway, when it was the Conservatives who greenlighted the most recent one. In short, he owed the city silence.

In the interest of fairness, words about the five elected Non-Partisan Association (NPA) councillors who would be considered Stewart’s natural political rivals (full disclosure: I was the 2014 NPA mayoralty candidate): It has not been the best rookie year in the bigs for them, either. At least two are jockeying for the larger prize in 2022, and the group can’t seem to decide if the sun rises in the east or west instead of forming a bloc which, with one more vote, would drive the city’s agenda. The councillors need counselling. Former MP Peter MacKay, lusting after the leadership, last week likened Scheer’s electoral loss to missing an open net on a breakaway. The NPA Five haven’t figured out which team they’re on or which game to play.

Kirk LaPointe is editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, at Glacier Media.

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