My tips for new city councillors

Of Vancouver’s 11-member city council —10 councillors and the mayor — only two have any previous experience on city council. The remaining nine are all brand new to their roles. So I have a few tips I’d like to offer them from my six years of experience as a city councillor.

1. Reply to all correspondence.

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This means both hard copy and emails, as well as all your voicemail messages.

You’d be surprised at the number of city councillors who fail to do this. Once safely ensconced in their elected positions, many develop a very laissez-faire attitude about calls and correspondence, including those directed to mayor and council as a whole.

I still remember the day at city hall when a fellow from the IT department came by to see me. He offered me an option on my computer such that I would not even receive any emails directed to mayor and council. I couldn’t believe that most of my council colleagues used that option!

If you want to stay in touch with your constituents, it’s an absolute must that you personally respond to them.

It might seem like it takes a lot of time at first, but you quickly learn that you gain a wealth of information that you wouldn’t otherwise have — on-the-ground news from the neighbourhood; how people are thinking about the issues of the day; creative solutions to problems facing the city.

2. Listen to constituents.

ear-gradientThis builds on tip No. 1. It’s important not just to read and reply but rather to really listen. That includes face-to-face conversations and presentations like those at public hearings, too.

Most of my major initiatives when I was on council didn’t originate from my thinking but from constituents’ ideas. I learned far more, for instance, about rapid bus by talking to citizens familiar with this concept than I ever learned from staff reports.

Rapid bus, BTW, is a dedicated bus line something like the B-Line, but more. Passengers only use prepaid ticketing so they can board more quickly plus the bus operates in a special green-lighted lane, so it doesn’t have to stop for red lights. It’s just as efficient as SkyTrain but only 1/6 of the cost so can you have six times as many kilometres of coverage for the same price.

3. Work across party lines.

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The two accomplishments I’m most proud of from my time on city council — the Vancouver Food Policy Council to improve food sustainability and the city’s ethical purchasing policy — were achieved with the support of the NPA councillors of the day.

In my second term in office, COPE held the majority of the nine seats on council. The NPA had two, but since COPE was divided into two factions I needed the NPA’s support to get my motions through.

This turned out to be a very healthy requirement as it meant that a future council with an NPA majority wouldn’t roll back these initiatives.

With today’s multi-party city council, it will be more important than ever for individual councillors to embrace the concept of collaboration. It’s not only about getting your motion passed: Through collegial discussion and debate, other members of council better understand the thinking behind such initiatives, and ultimately share the responsibility of keeping them alive and well.

 

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COPE’s Jean Swanson is off to a great start

Vancouver’s new city council was sworn into office Monday, November 5 at an invitation-only ceremony held before their first council meeting. But COPE’s lone city councillor, Jean Swanson, had already been hard at work. She served notice of motion a number of days prior to the first meeting on her proposed motion regarding renovictions.

Let me take a moment now to talk about renovictions and what Councillor Swanson hopes to achieve with her motion.

Under BC’s Residential Tenancy Act, landlords may only raise the rent in a residential suite once a year. The amount of the rent increase is capped at the Consumer Price Index plus 2%. However, these restrictions do not apply each time there’s a turnover in the residential suite. If the tenant moves out, the landlord may raise the rent as much as she or he wishes, even if it has not been a year since the last increase. The raise is not capped at all.

For years, landlords have used this exception to get around the Residential Tenancy Act‘s restrictions on the amount of rent increases. The landlord serves the tenant with an eviction notice on the basis that they wish to renovate the suite, hence the term “renoviction”.

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New Vancouver City Councillor Jean Swanson got to work advocating for renters even before she was sworn into office Nov. 5th. Her first motion would improve tenant protections and ask the province for vacancy control to prevent ‘renovictions.’ [Photo from http://cope.bc.ca]

Councillor’s Swanson’s motion would close this loophole. According to a recent article in the Vancouver Star, she explains things this way:

“(Apartment buildings are) being bought at high prices with the landlord assuming they’ll be able to rent them out at a higher rent than tenants are currently paying,” she said. “Anything the government does to build social housing is nullified by all of these affordable apartments becoming luxury apartments.”

It will be interesting to see how the rest of council votes on Councillor Swanson’s progressive motion. One would anticipate that the five NPA councillors will vote against it. If so, Councillor Swanson will be dependent on the rest of council — three Greens, one OneCity councillor, and the mayor — if her motion is to succeed.

Councillor Jean Swanson is off to a great start. Fingers crossed her motion carries. If it does, renters will have won a big victory.

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A no-brainer: Support pro rep!

One voting opportunity has just finished — our municipal election — and another is underway — the referendum on our provincial electoral system.

Elections BC mailed voting packages to everyone on the voters list just a few days ago. The mail-in ballot asks us to choose between 2 different electoral systems: the current first-past-the-post (FPTP) system or proportional representation (PR or pro rep). The ballot also asks us to rank in order of preference 3 different systems of pro rep. You can choose 1, 2 or all 3 of the systems.

I’ve long been a strong supporter of PR. With our current system of FPTP, the winning party typically gets more than half of the seats in our legislative assembly with much less than half of the popular vote. Typically, the losing parties elect far fewer seats than their share of the popular vote would indicate.

For example, if Party A won every riding in the province with 40% of the vote in each riding, it would win 100% of the seats in our legislative assembly having only obtained 40% of the popular vote. The other parties split the remaining 60% of the vote but would not obtain a single seat. That’s not fair!

Many people I have spoken to really like the idea of proportional representation but are somewhat confused about exactly how the 3 different PR systems offered on the ballot would work. Even I have some difficulty explaining the differences, but you can learn all about them here on the Elections BC website.

My advice is to focus on the big picture.

Do we prefer that the end result is a legislative assembly where the number of seats each party holds is roughly comparable to the popular vote it obtained in the election? If so, then proportional representation is your choice.

For me this is a no-brainer, and I don’t need to get bogged down in the intricacies in exactly how the new pro rep system will work. That said, my preferred “flavour” of pro rep is Mixed Member Proportional, or MMP — the second one listed on the ballot. I like the fact that each riding elects a single representative and then the regional seats are used to correlate the total number of seats to the total number of votes.

MMP has proven to be very popular in a number of places. Variations of it are used in New Zealand, Germany, Scotland and Wales to name a few, plus the Law Commission of Canada and several provincial commissions have recommended it.

England, the U.S., Canada, India and a handful of countries in Africa are the only nations that still use first-past-the-post. It’s almost like a relic left over from colonial times.

Certain people, often those who get often get elected to seats of power, prefer FPTP because it means more wasted votes, which favours them. It can also be easily gerrymandered, and the winner-take-all approach often means a distorted representation that usually favours them and their party.

We currently have a government in Victoria where two parties, the NDP and the Green Party, are working together. This arrangement has only been possible as a result of cooperation and compromise between them — a much more collaborative approach. It only came about because the NDP failed to win a majority of seats in our last provincial election.

Such an outcome is relatively rare with first-past-the-post, but parties working together — collaboratively — is almost guaranteed with PR. And when people work together we usually get better outcomes for us all.

My partner, Penny, and I have already voted and mailed our ballots back to Elections BC. If you have not yet voted, I hope you will vote for a big improvement in our electoral system and choose PR.

I leave it to you to decide which “flavour” of PR is your preferred choice.

Fingers crossed the referendum outcome is a brand new, collaborative electoral system.

Make sure you return your mail-in ballots by Nov. 30. If you are on the voters list and did not receive your ballot, contact Elections BC at electionsbc.ca, or phone 1-800-661-8683.

Posted in British Columbia, Canadian politics, Elections - British Columbia, electoral reform, Green Party, NDP, People Power, proportional representation | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The COPE election victory in context

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In the 2018 Vancouver municipal election, COPE ran an energetic campaign, helped by abundant volunteers and a progressive platform that featured rent freeze and mansion tax planks. [Photo by COPE]

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — COPE is back!

Last Saturday was election day and for the first time since 2011, COPE had candidates elected not just to Vancouver’s city council, where Jean Swanson came in fourth, but also to the city’s school board, with Barb Parrott, and park board, with Gwen Giesbrecht and John Irwin.

Many predicted the disappearance of COPE in 2014 when it failed to elect anybody. Historically, parties that fail to elect any candidates find it very difficult to remain in existence. It’s a tribute to our COPE membership that they never gave up.

Full disclosure: I say this as someone who helped keep COPE afloat during difficult years. I did it because the party so strongly supports the needs of ordinary citizens and is not in the pocket of developers. Remember, COPE stands for the Coalition of Progressive Electors.

After COPE’s historic landslide victory in 2002, when it elected 8 of 10 city councillors along with mayor Larry Campbell, a pro-developer, pro-gambling-expansion faction broke away from COPE. This faction went on to become Vision Vancouver.

For many years, a debate took place within COPE over whether or not the party should align itself with Vision. In the 2005, 2008 and 2011 election cycles, a pro-Vision faction within COPE won the debate at our AGMs, resulting in electoral alliances between COPE and Vision Vancouver. The result was disastrous for COPE. In election after election, the party continued in a downward slide.

Finally, in the 2014 election cycle, the pro-Vision faction within COPE was defeated by an “Independent COPE” faction. The result was yet another split —- the pro-Vision faction left COPE to establish a new party called One City.

In 2014, COPE began to improve its standing in the polls but still failed to elect any candidates.

This year, however, COPE ran a very energetic campaign with more volunteers than we’ve had for a very long time along with a very appealing platform. Our rent freeze plank spoke to the majority of Vancouverites who are renters. Our mansion tax appealed to those who believe it’s time we address the city’s housing crisis.

We managed to achieve this historic breakthrough without a mayoral candidate. We had planned on running UBC’s notable urban planning professor, Patrick Condon. Sadly, he suffered a debilitating stroke just days before we were set to nominate him. Imagine what we would have achieved had he been able to run as our mayoral candidate!

Still, I am thrilled with the election results. Not only is COPE finally back, but Vision Vancouver is virtually wiped out. They elected no candidates to city council or park board and only one to school board.

It will be interesting to see how Christine Boyle, the single One City city councillor, votes on development issues and whether or not she follows in the footsteps of Vision Vancouver.

We have an exciting four years ahead of us! Three cheers for COPE!

Posted in affordable housing, Canadian politics, City Hall, COPE, developers, gentrification, Metro Vancouver, People Power, Vancouver, Vancouver election, Vision Vancouver | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Vote October 20 — don’t let others decide for you!

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This coming Saturday, Oct. 20 is municipal election day.

I’ve already voted at the advance poll so that I’m free to volunteer for the candidates I’m supporting on election day.

Who am I supporting?

For me, it was a very easy decision. I voted the entire COPE and GREEN slates. I abstained on the mayoral ballot. And I voted in favour of the three capital referendum questions.

Why am I supporting COPE and the Greens in this election?

I am very attracted to two of COPE’s policies — the mansion tax and the rent freeze. The mansion tax will create the revenue necessary to aggressively tackle Vancouver’s homeless crisis. The rent freeze is long overdue. For over a decade, rents have been going up at a rate far exceeding the inflation rate. The Residential Tenancy Act ties rents to the person, not the suite. What this means in real terms is that whenever there is turnover in the suite, the landlord raises the rent as much as the market will bear. It’s not uncommon now for a one-bedroom suite to rent in excess of $1,800 per month.

I am also aware of the environmental crisis humanity faces. Just the other day the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a dire report. Humanity has 10 years to get its act in order. This means getting as many Greens elected as possible a very high priority of mine.

With regard to the mayoral ballot, I thought long and hard about who might offer the best platform to address our No. 1 crisis — housing. Sadly, I concluded that none of the candidates recognize the need to dramatically move from market-based solutions to non-market solutions, such as 50% of the market being comprised of non-market housing with rent geared to 30% of income.

And when it comes to capital plans, I always support them. They make for a healthier city.

No matter how you vote, don’t forget to get out there on Saturday, Oct. 20 if you haven’t already voted in the advance polls. If you don’t help decide who you want to govern, others will gladly do it for you — and you may not like the results.

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Vancouver 2018 voter information (where, when, how to vote)

Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE) (click on candidates for school, park & council)

Vancouver Greens website

 

Posted in affordable housing, City Hall, COPE, Green Party, People Power, sustainability, Vancouver, Vancouver election, Vancouver Park Board, Vision Vancouver | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Support “shop local” when you “vote local”

vote-and-shop-localWith “for lease” signs popping up everywhere in Vancouver’s commercial districts, it’s become crystal clear just how difficult the situation is for our city’s small businesses.

Online retail is part of the reason so many small businesses are closing shop. Many of us now find the convenience of shopping with our keyboards much preferable to walking through our neighbourhood stores. I confess — I’m one of those consumers.

But a much larger and more significant cause of small business failure is the astronomical rent increases they’ve had to endure in Vancouver over the past decade. With the local real estate boom, landlords have jacked up lease rates far beyond the inflation rate. Most of the “for lease” signs we see in our local shopping districts are the result of the commercial tenant’s lease expiring and the landlord demanding rent far in excess of what the long-time commercial tenant can afford.

Much has been made recently of the need to protect residential tenants from high rental increases. Last week, the provincial government reduced from 4.5% to 2.5% the maximum amount a landlord can raise a residential tenants’ rent by in 2019.

I say it’s well past time for government to introduce legislation protecting commercial tenants. If there can be a cap on residential rent increases, why not a cap on commercial rental rate increases, too? This wouldn’t just benefit commercial tenants — it would also do a lot to keep our local shopping districts alive and vibrant by dramatically reducing the number of empty storefronts.

If the provincial government isn’t prepared to take action and introduce legislation to protect commercial tenants, then I call on the City of Vancouver to do so.

It’s election time! Let’s make sure that the candidates we vote for in the upcoming municipal election are prepared to stand up for commercial tenants. If we don’t take action now, we’ll soon have no other choice than to drive to suburban malls or shop on-line with our keyboards.

Remember, voting day is October 20. Advance voting is October 10–17. Check to see if you’re already registered, and/or find more 2018 election info here!

Posted in British Columbia, City Hall, developers, economy, gentrification, NDP, Planning, Vancouver, Vancouver election | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Make elections fairer — support pro rep!

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Do you ever feel like your vote doesn’t count because the parties you vote for never get in? Then you’ll definitely want to say “yes” to proportional representation in the upcoming referendum on provincial electoral reform.

I know it’s a bit confusing with two important votes happening about the same time, but once the Oct. 20 municipal election is over, we’ll have a chance to make voting fairer in the November referendum on changing our provincial voting system to proportional representation.

Unlike the municipal election where we’ll go to the polls and vote, the provincial referendum will be conducted by a mail-in ballot you will receive in a voting package mailed to you by Elections BC between Oct. 22 and Nov. 2.

I’m very excited about this referendum, as I’ve long been a supporter of shifting from the current first-past-the-post system to proportional representation.

Proportional representation would result in the legislature more accurately reflecting the popular vote. Let me explain.

With the current first-past-the-post system a party can win the overwhelming majority of seats in the legislature with as little as, say, 40 percent of the popular vote. Under proportional representation — or pro rep, as it’s known in shorthand — a party winning 40 percent of the popular vote would get 40 percent of the seats.

In the last provincial election in 2017, the BC Green Party received nearly 17 percent of the popular vote. However, they only won 3 of the 87 seats, or about 3 percent. Under a new and much fairer pro rep system, the BC Green Party would have won 20 seats in that election.

With the legislature much more accurately reflecting the results of the popular vote for all parties, we would see much more cooperation between political parties. To get a bill passed by the legislative assembly, the different parties would be forced to work with each other.

Even more exciting, the up-coming referendum on provincial proportional representation might also open the door to pro rep at the municipal level.

Already, Vancouver mayoral candidate Kennedy Stewart is talking about the possibly of conducting future Vancouver municipal elections under a pro rep system. This would be a terrific change! Sadly, municipal elections are currently notorious for their low voter turnout because once voters feel their vote doesn’t count, they stop coming out to the polls.

Fingers crossed that the pro rep referendum at the provincial level is approved by the electorate and we can finally move to a much fairer electoral system. Even better if it spurs a fairer, pro rep system for Vancouver’s next municipal election. It would mean more people voting and a healthier democracy for everyone.

* * *

To be able to vote in this important referendum on proportional representation, make sure you’re registered to vote provincially.

You can vote in the referendum if you are:

  • a Canadian citizen,
  • 18 or older as of Nov. 30, 2018, and

  • a resident of B.C. for at least 6 months immediately before Nov. 30, 2018.

You can register on-line with Elections BC here or call 1-800-661-8683. If you do not receive a voting package by mail, you can request one from Elections BC from Nov. 3 to Nov. 23. Once you receive your voting package, you must return your mail-in ballot by November 30.

Voters will be asked two questions on the referendum ballot:

Vote for COPE Independents!

  1. Should we keep the current first-past-the-post voting system or move to proportional representation?
  2. Rank three proportional systems: Dual Member Proportional (DMP), Mixed Member Proportional (MMP), and Rural-Urban Proportional (RUP).

You can learn about these systems here from Elections BC. I’ll discuss the three different systems in an upcoming blog.

Posted in British Columbia, Elections - British Columbia, electoral reform, NDP, People Power, proportional representation, Vancouver, Vancouver election | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Out the door for Vision — and good riddance

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This Monday, with just four days to go before the deadline for candidates to file their registration papers for the October 20 municipal election, Vision Vancouver’s mayoral candidate, Ian Campbell, suddenly pulled out of the race. He did so issuing a brief statement, refusing to take any calls or interviews from the media.

What does all this mean for this fall’s municipal election?

Vision Vancouver — Vancouver’s dominant civic party for the last 10 years — is in very deep trouble.

Only 1 of its incumbent city councillors is running for re-election. And now the party has no mayoral candidate. To top things off, Vision is only running 5 candidates for the 10 city council spots. It was unable to round up enough qualified candidates to fill all the vacancies Vision incumbents are leaving behind as they exit council, school board and park board.

Why did Ian Campbell withdraw so suddenly? Perhaps it was the polling. Recent polls have Vision Vancouver in 4th place behind the Green Party, COPE and the NPA. Or perhaps it was some yet-to-be disclosed personal issue. All of this is likely to become clearer someday, but for the time being we’re all left in the dark.

If Vision was not already in deep trouble as we move ever closer to voting day October 20, they are in even deeper trouble without a flag bearer.

In any civic election campaign, your mayoral candidate is the spokesperson for the entire party. It’s much harder for a party to get press coverage and profile without a mayoral candidate.

Carlito Pablo’s recent article in the Georgia Straight describes more fuel being added to the fire. The Vancouver and District Labour Council, a powerhouse in Vancouver’s political scene, has cautioned Vision against fielding a new mayoral candidate.

As things currently stand, I predict that Vision Vancouver will be very lucky to elect just 1 city councillor this fall. Ditto for school and park boards. At long last the all-powerful Vision Vancouver, now just a shadow of its former self, is about to be swept out the door by the electorate, as it rightfully should be.

I say good riddance!


Remember, voting day is October 20. Advance voting is October 10–17. Check to see if you’re already registered, and or find more 2018 election info here!

 

 

Posted in City Hall, COPE, First Nations, Green Party, NPA, People Power, Vancouver, Vancouver election, Vancouver Park Board, Vision Vancouver | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Turn up the taps & cool housing prices more

water-2971049_640For many years now housing prices in Vancouver have been moving up at a very fast pace — so fast that most of us have been priced right out of the market. Economists will forever debate the causes of this phenomenon. However, it would appear that at long last relief finally may be here.

Provincial and local governments have taken a number of steps to dampen the red-hot housing market, including the foreign home-buyers tax, taxing empty homes, and a property speculation tax (although that last one got watered down).

Now the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver has released August statistics. For the second month in a row, prices for detached homes, townhouses and condos have fallen in Metro Vancouver. And it’s not just prices that are falling — the number of sales fell as well in August, adding to this past April’s benchmark, which saw the lowest number of home sales in April in 17 years.

It’s still too early to say with any certainty that we may look back at this summer of 2018 as the turning point in housing prices in Vancouver. But fingers crossed that the correction continues, allowing more and more of us back into the housing market.

We have a long way to go before housing prices return to the realistic levels they were historically. Up until about a decade ago housing prices were much more aligned with people’s incomes. Government must still do a lot more to ensure that correction trends continue, bringing prices back into balance with local incomes over the long-term.

For instance, a capital gains tax due upon the sale of residential properties might be a policy governments should consider. It would mean that individuals can no longer realize enormous unearned windfalls upon the sale of their residential properties. The tax revenue generated could be earmarked for non-market housing, such as co-ops.

In many European cities like Vienna, where 6 out of 10 residents live in subsidized or municipal housing, non-market housing makes up the majority of the housing stock. This gives everyone, especially young couples and people starting out in life, a real opportunity to obtain housing — something still so desperately needed in Metro Vancouver.

Posted in affordable housing, British Columbia, developers, economy, fiscal responsibility, gentrification, Green Party, homelessness, Metro Vancouver, National Housing Strategy, NDP, Vancouver | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Have a fabulous summer enjoying our great city!

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I can’t believe it’s already August!

In just a few days, I’ll be closing my law office and taking my annual staycation with my partner, Penny. We love this time of year as it gives us the opportunity to be tourists in our own city — Vancouver. What an incredible place we live in.

Every year Penny and I do up a schedule of things to do and places to go throughout our 3- or 4-week holiday. This year we plan on revisiting many of the highlights of our last staycation.

The Museum of Anthropology is always a fascinating place. This year the main summer exhibit is Arts of Resistance, Politics and the Past in Latin America. I can’t wait to see this as Latin American politics have interested me for decades.

Throughout Latin America, broad social movements attempt — many times with success — to bring about positive social change. Cuba has accomplished so much with so little. In Bolivia my hero, Evo Morales, has done so much for his tiny and very poor nation. In Mexico, we just witnessed the election of the nation’s first-ever left of centre populist president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the National Regeneration Movement. Arts of resistance are definitely more important than ever for Latin Americans, given the atmosphere in the US right now.

The Southlands area in Dunbar along the Fraser River is always an opportunity to escape the city without leaving the city. Its idyllic environment convinces you that you’re in the countryside. The large lots, no developments over 2 storeys high, and lots of horseback riders make for a very peaceful and restful afternoon. We never forget to spend at least an hour at Southlands Nursery. We enjoy the atmosphere as we wander through the greenhouses, where the motto is “beauty always comes before profit.”

Our annual staycation is never complete until we’ve spent a full afternoon taking in Granville Island. The market and all its offerings are a feast for the tummy and for the eyes. Outside the market and throughout the island are entertainers of every sort, from musicians to magicians.

Granville Island provides an excellent opportunity to support the amazing people in our cultural sector, who often struggle to make a living. Another piece of good news in that regard — Arts Umbrella will be taking over the space that Emily Carr University of Art and Design used to occupy. For a great way to wrap up a long afternoon on the island, have a bite to eat outside at the Granville Island Hotel, where you can watch the boats go sailing by.

I won’t be blogging again until late August or early September. In the meantime, I wish you all a fabulous summer, and urge you to take full advantage of the incredible city we are all so fortunate to be part of.

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