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The People vs Gregor Robertson

Voted in—twice—on a platform of change, Vision Vancouver keeps running up against the necessary impediments of democracy. The clashes haven’t always been pretty between voters who want a say and leaders hell-bent on progress
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Gregor Robertson
Gregor Robertson Jeff Drew

Voted in—twice—on a platform of change, Vision Vancouver keeps running up against the necessary impediments of democracy. The clashes haven’t always been pretty between voters who want a say and leaders hell-bent on progress

The mayor is unhappy. You can tell by the press of his lips, a sure signal of his annoyance as he stands there enduring criticism from Diana Davidson, a lawyer and recipient of the Order of Canada. "I was warned not to even try with you," she tells him after a rambunctious public forum about the Broadway subway line, held at St. James Community Centre. "You're too surrounded by yes people. We're not going to vote for you, because your council doesn't even listen. You're going to be paying for what you've done. You've taken the view that you were elected into a dictatorship." Stung, he finally answers: "We listen all the time. And the majority of people elected me."

So ends another difficult moment between politician and public, another use of the line that Gregor Robertson and his Vision Vancouver colleagues deploy with increasing frequency. We got voted in by a lot of people, they rebut. More than you dozen or 100 or few thousand who are out complaining this week. We're doing what the people want and what's right. Can't you see?

Experts in public dialogue wince. "I wouldn't want to work for a boss who said that to me. That kind of management ended in the 1980s," says Paul Born, the director of Tamarack, "an institute for community engagement," and the author of the book Community Conversations. "If you do that, you're using up a shitload of social capital." By that calculation, our ruling party and its photogenic mayor have used up several loads in recent times. As this determined group pushes through some of the most significant changes Vancouver has seen since the 1970s-shifting road space from cars to bicycles, putting tens of millions worth of city land into housing projects, dramatically reorganizing city hall and the park board-the public has not always responded with love.

Resistance is understandable. Changing the culture of car supremacy is fraught. So is revamping an organization with 6,000 employees. So is turning a somewhat conservative institution into a saviour of the planet. There are other reasonable explanations, too, for the level of acrimony over the last four years. This council has dealt with a degree of controversy unseen since little old ladies started getting tossed out of their three-storey Kerrisdale apartment buildings 40 years ago so developers could put up new towers. At that time, mayor Gordon Campbell, looking to release development pressure in the city, created several vents. One was a grand CityPlan that embroiled 20,000 people in a discussion about where density should go; another, on the recommendation of planners, was a wholesale rezoning of land along main streets to allow three storeys of condos above stores.

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