Former COPE councillor Tim Louis knew exactly what he was doing the day he had a public relations agency send a press release to reporters on the afternoon of June 19.
The headline: “COPE and Vancouver Green Party look to join forces.”
Anyone reading the release would conclude the two parties were working on a deal to run a combined slate to “replace Vision Vancouver’s developer-friendly, possessive stranglehold on city hall with a progressive, people-oriented city hall.”
Except, there was no talk of a deal.
It was simply Louis being Louis, looking for a political edge to sharpen interest among Green members who were to vote later that day on whether to seek an alliance with another party.
With COPE struggling to regain the power it won in 2002 when the Larry Campbell-led party won a landslide, Louis’s strategic overture to the Greens was not a surprise; COPE no longer holds a seat on council, school board or park board, and hitching itself to the Green brand could possibly change that.
Seven hours after Louis issued his release, the Greens circulated their own media statement. The headline: “Green Party of Vancouver unanimously decides against running a mayoral candidate or entering a coalition with any other party.”
Party chairperson Jacquie Miller and the Greens’ lone councillor, Adriane Carr, drafted the release in the basement of the Ukrainian Hall in Strathcona, where members had just voted to go it alone in the 2014 campaign. Carr read what Louis wrote before she got to work on a laptop.
“That’s wishful thinking on his part,” she told the Courier that night in June. “Our polling has shown clearly that we have strong enough public support on our own to win without any kind of coalition. The more important thing is we really aren’t a party of the right or left. We really are out in front. To run in any kind of coalition with any party on the political spectrum would not be respectful to the people who support us.”
Five months later, the Greens’ decision to go solo appears prophetic. Or, at least, that’s what an independent poll released in October from Justason Market Intelligence confirmed for the party.
The poll found that Carr received more support, at 52 per cent, than any councillor or council candidate in the race. Closest to Carr, at 34 per cent, were NPA Coun. George Affleck and Vision Coun. Heather Deal.
The poll also revealed that Carr’s council running mates, Pete Fry and Cleta Brown, have a legitimate shot at being elected, with 27 and 25 per cent support, respectively. Louis, who wants his old job back at city hall, received 17 per cent support, effectively putting him and his fellow COPE council candidates out of the running for a seat.
Though it’s only a poll, and such positive numbers are viewed with more skepticism these days because of the NDP’s flameout in the last provincial election, the Greens’ trio of council candidates is buoyed by the results.
“You have no idea how my heart filled with joy,” Carr said prior to a recent all-candidates’ meeting at Britannia secondary school.
The party is optimistic its popularity will also translate to victories for its park board candidates Michael Wiebe and Stuart Mackinnon and school board hopefuls Janet Fraser and Mischa Oak.
But then there’s the Vision factor.
The same poll indicates Mayor Gregor Robertson and his Vision team will likely keep their majority on council for a third term, although it may drop its current eight seats to six on the 11-member council.
But if Vision loses its majority, the Greens have a plan.
Carr made it clear at the party’s platform launch in September that she wants the Greens to seek “the balance of power,” meaning she’s open to alliances with other candidates who get elected; she wouldn’t predict who those candidates might be.
That’s confident talk for a politician who won a seat by only 92 votes in the 2011 election, narrowly defeating COPE candidate Ellen Woodsworth for the final spot on council.
In a few days, voters will decide whether the Greens are for real and answer this question: Was Carr’s victory in 2011 the beginning of a political shift in this city, or was it simply a numbers game?
ON THE RECORD
This time though, Carr has the advantage of incumbency. She also has a public record that she can sell to voters. If she has developed a mantra over the past three years, it’s this: more public input equals more positive output.
Almost from the beginning of her term, Carr has supported neighbourhood groups across the city in their battles with Vision over development, community plans and criticisms of the ruling party’s approach to public consultation.
She seized on the upset of residents who showed up at city hall to protest Rize Alliance’s condo project at Kingsway and Broadway. She did the same for residents opposed to the massive redevelopment of Oakridge. Shutting down Point Grey Road to improve conditions for cyclists and pedestrians was another issue that saw her rise many times in the council chambers to call for more public feedback.
Those fights have translated to largely positive news stories featuring Carr as a cheerleader for residents, although she didn’t fare well in a public spat with city manager Penny Ballem that ended with an apology from Carr; she accused Ballem of resorting to bullying tactics to prevent her from introducing a motion tied to the park board’s plan to take over management of community centre associations. The mayor and Vision Coun. Geoff Meggs vilified Carr for challenging Ballem and threatened to launch an investigation under the city’s code of conduct.
Vision also sank Carr’s call for a plebiscite to hear whether the public wanted to keep whales and dolphins in captivity at the Vancouver Aquarium. Carr’s motion for a plebiscite on Kinder Morgan’s pipeline proposal, which would see a huge spike in oil tankers to Vancouver waters, also died on the council floor.
On an issue that has garnered attention in this campaign, Carr tried earlier this year to get council to voluntarily adopt a set of guidelines to get the big money out of civic politics. Vision Coun. Tim Stevenson called Carr’s motion “naive” and “dangerous,” pointing to a staff report that outlined concerns about corruption and no mechanism to enforce rules; interestingly, Vision, the NPA, the Greens, COPE and OneCity all voluntarily released their donor lists over the past two weeks.
Asked about her relationship with Vision, she is blunt.
“Vision is a tight group, they’re testy,” she said. “We do have a professional relationship. But is there any warmth from Vision? Zip. They are very cold to me, except for Tony Tang. He's a very friendly person."
Carr believes the ruling Vision council has it backwards in its attempts to meaningfully engage the public on the major development and rezoning issues of the day.
Her assessment: The present system, where plans are drafted before presented to the public, creates an unnecessary tension between residents and council. That tension is only exacerbated when it appears the Vision caucus makes up its collective mind before a proposal goes to public hearing; Vision, of course, denies this.
Regardless, Carr doesn't believe the system offers genuine feedback from residents but instead frustrates and angers them. She addressed this at an Oct. 30 all-candidates' meeting at Britannia secondary school in the heart of Grandview-Woodland, where residents there forced council to pull back on the plan to build towers in the neighbourhood. Council instead set up a so-called citizens' assembly to come up with a better plan.
"One party, when it holds the majority of seats on council, can honestly ram through whatever it wants to without having to listen to even other councillors, let alone you the public, and that's what I'd like to see changed," she said to applause from about 100 people in the school's auditorium.
The Greens want what they call "people-centred planning," a concept rookie candidate Pete Fry discussed over tea at his kitchen table in Strathcona. And the concept is just as it sounds, putting people in charge of planning.
He wants neighbourhood councils, much like they have in Portland, set up across the city to provide a venue where residents can collaboratively work on what’s good and bad for their area before city council weighs in.
“It really empowers community,” said Fry, who resigned as chairperson of the Strathcona Residents’ Association to run with the Greens. Fry also helped found the Coalition of Vancouver Neighbourhoods, which brought 25 neighbourhood associations together.
Fry’s involvement with both associations came as a result of his concerns around the city’s ongoing plans to possibly demolish the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts. Fry’s reading of the initial plan was that large volumes of traffic would be rerouted through Strathcona. He tells a story of attending an open house on the proposal and challenging a city planner about a six-lane route along Pacific that linked to Prior and seemed to end at Gore.
“People behind me were saying, ‘Go Pete, go,” he recalled. “That’s kind of when the penny dropped and I realized this was something I was articulate about and willing to stand up for.”
Stepping up his activism to a run for city hall was a logical next step if he wanted “to change the system,” he said, adding that his attraction to the Greens was inspired by Carr’s willingness to “show up and pay attention” to residents’ concerns in Strathcona.
“Unfortunately, agitating from the outside is only effective when you have willing partners who are going to listen,” he said of his decision to run. “I don’t think the city is a willing partner.”
Fry and the Greens want to produce a new official community plan. As outlined on the party’s website, the plan “must include growth management and affordable housing strategies that are tied to a transportation strategy that serves all areas of the city equitably and sustainably.” The plan also calls for an updated zoning map to curtail spot rezoning which the
Greens say is fueling speculative investment and development.
“I’m not naive, I know we have to work with developers,” Fry said. “That said, there needs to be a professional relationship between the city and developers, not like it is now where there are these cozy relationships.”
Across town in Kerrisdale, Fry’s running mate Cleta Brown is in her living room talking politics. She pauses before answering the question of why she decided to run with the Greens. She jokes she should have rehearsed her response.The retired lawyer and longtime activist devoted to women’s issues and human rights said she noticed a sudden rise in new neighbourhood groups and a spike in lawsuits against the city and went to find out why.
“This whole city is now bubbling over with people pissed off and upset about one thing or another and feeling they need to protect something or prevent something, or protest something,” Brown said.
She can’t recall a more rapid pace of development in Vancouver and didn’t expect that pace to be set by Vision, which won its first majority in 2008.
“I thought they were collaborative and consultative and they wanted moderate growth, not growth at the speed of light,” she said. “I didn’t expect that from Vision and I didn’t realize their reliance on developers.”
Added Brown: “I couldn’t care less if we become the greenest city in the world, if the city is not affordable for people to live in. We don’t have enough schools and parks. Green in what way? A city full of towers? There’s nothing green about towers.”
The Greens’ plan to make housing more affordable is ambitious and creative, taking elements and ideas from other parties and municipalities. It includes protecting existing affordable housing by putting an annual limit on demolitions, have the new Vancouver Affordable Housing Agency “build, own, manage, rent and sell housing on its own” and penalize developers of rental housing if proposed rents are jacked up.
Other policies include exacting a levy on large new commercial developments, as is done in Whistler, and use the funds to build or buy affordable housing. The Greens want to examine the emerging “tiny house” movement and how other North American cities develop solutions to housing affordability through small footprint housing and “micro-communities,” particularly for single-or two-person households.
Incidentally, Brown and Fry running for office isn’t a big surprise when considering who their parents are: Brown is the daughter of the late Rosemary Brown, a longtime NDP MLA for Vancouver-Burrard, and Fry’s mother is Hedy Fry, the Liberal MP for Vancouver-Centre.
Will name recognition give them a boost at the polls?
Brown: “I see it as a plus. I don’t see it as a minus. People who would see it as a minus wouldn’t vote for me, anyway.”
Fry isn’t sure but said his mother “totally respects the fact that I’m not afraid to speak my mind and that I’m that kind of guy because that’s who she is, as well.”
As was evident in the Courier’s interviews with Carr, Fry and Brown, the Greens’ fight is clearly with Vision.
But how markedly different are the two parties?
Fry’s answer: “For all intents and purposes, the Greens stand for a lot of the same things that Vision does except we’re not cozy with developers. So there’s little political advantage in attacking us and appearing to be bullies when, in fact, we make a lot more sense to a lot of people.”
Vision shares the Greens’ environmental concerns, wants a more affordable city and has a former Green Party member in Coun. Andrea Reimer, who leads Vision’s so-called Greenest City Action Plan. Reimer works closely with deputy city manager Sadhu Johnston to achieve the plan’s ultimate goal of making Vancouver the greenest city in the world by 2020. Vision hired Johnston from Chicago, where he was that city’s former mayor’s chief environmental officer. He recently put his expertise on paper, co-authoring a book entitled The Guide to Greening Cities.
Since Robertson and Vision won a majority in 2008, the party brought in separated bike lanes, installed electric car charging stations, expanded farmer’s markets, held car-free days, added more childcare spaces, established relationships with First Nations communities and rallied against Kinder Morgan’s pipeline proposal.
“Vision has well exceeded on every platform area that I was fighting for in the Green Party,” said Reimer, who made history in 2002 when she became the first Green candidate in Canada elected to a school board. She lost her seat in 2005 and joined Vision three years later with the aim of bringing the Greens, COPE and Vision together to work towards progressive policies.
Robertson, she said, was the leader to do that.
“There was no universe that I could imagine a mayor greener than Gregor,” she said. “He really seemed to be the one that all three parties seemed to agree on.”
Reimer has known Carr for 20 years, once lived in her house but the two had what she said was a falling out over political strategy in the 2005 provincial election; Reimer was involved at both the municipal and provincial levels of the Greens when she was a trustee.
Reimer spoke to the Courier in June after attending a press conference at dPoint Technologies, a company operating out of a building at Clark and Venables. It sells and manufactures membranes and heat and humidity exchangers for energy recovery in buildings.
Reimer was there to hear Robertson announce that the city saw a 19 per cent increase in the number of “green” and local food jobs since 2010, growing from 16,700 to 20,000. Reimer is proud of that achievement and her work on the green front but she’s heard the criticisms from the Greens about consultation. She referred to previous NPA administrations in prefacing her response.
“I don’t even have an adjective to describe between what was getting done and where it’s at now,” she said of public consultation and the work of a task force aimed at getting more people involved in shaping the city. “We were at the hundreds level and now we’re into the hundreds of thousands level of people who are engaged in some way in being able to meaningfully provide input to the city.”
But Reimer qualified her comment with this: “But if people aren’t feeling engaged, then that’s a problem.”
That ongoing criticism of Vision’s approach to consultation has not been lost on the mayor or Vision Coun. Geoff Meggs, who have acknowledged the pushback in parts of the city.
At a Vision annual general meeting in May, Robertson pointed to the proposed community plan for Grandview-Woodland to have towers built at Commercial and Broadway and how that set off residents.
“That was a mistake that was made that immediately got turned around,” he said, noting the citizens’ assembly will help plan the future look of the neighbourhood. “That’s one example of where we learned from our mistake and we accept that we’re not always right or perfect.”
Near the end of last year, as more neighbourhoods banded together over concerns of development and new community plans, Meggs recognized the unrest when questioned by the Courier in December 2013.
“The city is going through dramatic changes and those are unsettling neighbourhoods a lot,” he said. “I understand that and I agree that the changes are dramatic. What I think has been hard for some people is to understand the attempts made to balance that change with some of the other objectives voters want us to tackle, including housing and affordability, access to rapid transit and things like that.”
Vision’s campaign team claimed last week that internal polling shows the race between Robertson and NPA mayoral candidate Kirk LaPointe has tightened to only a four-point lead for their leader.
An Insights West survey published in the Vancouver Sun Monday confirmed the four-point spread. If accurate, it’s inconclusive what’s driving that, although LaPointe has also criticized Vision for what he believes is a broken public consultation system that has alienated neighbourhoods.
So where does that leave the Greens? That answer will come Saturday. Until then, here’s some insight from Reimer to consider.
“You don’t lose an election because the media is wrong or because your opponent is wrong. You lose an election because you have not sufficiently connected with community.”