The People vs Gregor Robertson

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.

Campbell also had the good fortune to have access to several hundred acres of industrial land on the flanks of Vancouver’s downtown where condo interest could be channelled, but that land ran out in the mid 2000s-as did business’s tolerance for development encroaching on the central financial district. Developers, looking for places to build the condo towers they knew best, have more recently been pushed out into parts of the city-established neighbourhoods-that had been napping.

Even that hasn’t been enough. One of the first moves under Vision’s reign was a policy that councillors hoped would both shore up the construction industry (hit by the global recession just as Robertson was elected) and help create rental housing by giving developers the right to build higher and denser in return for dedicated rental units. As a result, the city turned into a kind of War of the Worlds as residents fought what they saw as the giant metallic aliens that had landed in their midst. (Added to all that, political opponents and regular citizens had just discovered the internet as a tool for relentless criticism, mobilization, and attack.) Some might say no political party could hold a reasonable conversation with the public in this environment. And certainly, other cities, along with pretty much every organization larger than Block Watch, are struggling to find ways to connect with that vast, unknown public out there, so apparently tangible on every form of media, so ultimately incomprehensible. They poll, they survey, they hold open houses and neighbourhood walks. Their councillors are out at every parade and banquet and community festival. Surrey, for example, is launching a high-tech tool through the software and technology firm Vision Critical to develop a panel of thousands of citizens that it can turn to every time it needs to palpate the public’s frontal lobes about the next looming issue.

So yes, it’s hard. Still, Vision-supposedly somewhat leftish, definitely greenish-has been slapped with the label “arrogant” in several of its own polls. And its strategists have become concerned enough about “You don’t listen to anyone” criticism that they’ve undertaken a number of defensive actions. In the West End, Commercial Drive, the Downtown Eastside, and Marpole, they halted all major projects and plunged into massive community planning exercises. And last year, following a Vancouver Foundation report about social isolation, the party launched a “community engagement task force,” ostensibly about how to help citizens talk to each other but also about how council can talk to citizens. Yet there is a sense that it’s the latter problem councillors are most anxious about. And then there are the strange “public forums”: one on affordable housing in the West End last fall; the Broadway rapid transit discussion that brought out Diana Davidson in March. In both cases, these forums are organized not by city hall staff but by the party itself, with invitations blasted out to Vision Vancouver members to ensure the crowd includes a healthy component of supporters.

Perhaps Vision is just bad at talking to the public. Certainly the mayor-a former businessman more comfortable giving speeches and running small meetings of the like-minded-does not love large, messy public gatherings. He was not keen about the public forum in the West End, going along only reluctantly with the strategic move to talk to people directly about contentious issues.

But there could be something else, too-a whole different mind set about “the public.” Paul Born says that people who come into city politics from other sectors (social activism, business, environmental advocacy) can have trouble with the inherently uncontrollable nature of public conversation. “It’s not an environmental campaign anymore. It’s not even running a business.” Born emphasizes that no matter how many votes you get, an election is not a mandate to do as you please. “The election means we have confidence in you to manage. We’re not electing you to become dictators.” Rather, it’s the beginning of an intense process to decide how a government makes good on its promises. Born, who just toured Australian cities hungry to talk pretty with their citizens, said high-quality interaction requires that three things be done well: provide lots of information-not just promotional bumf about how great you are, but real information; consult in a way that makes people feel their voice matters; and involve them so they can see that what they have to say is having an impact on how things get done.

That kind of exchange has not always been the strong suit of the green movement, home to key Vision people: Coun. Andrea Reimer, who was long the executive director of the Wilderness Committee; chief of staff Mike Magee, former strategist at Sierra Legal Defence Fund and freelance consultant to other similarly minded groups; Robertson himself, a one-time Green Party member. Environmentalists have been successful at generating a sense of crisis that trumps every other social issue, dealing with the public by mobilizing them with emotional messages rather than having real conversations.

At the height of the B.C. enviro-clashes in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Western Washington University professor Debra Salazar studied the political tendencies of groups within the environmental movement. She found that while one cluster, the “green egalitarians,” was more like the traditional left, another, typically the professionals who ran large groups, was fairly apolitical, less concerned with redistribution of wealth (a pillar of social-justice groups), less sure of a difference between the U.S. and Canada (in fact, they see all political systems and countries as essentially the same entities in a global battle over the environment), and more interested in fostering pro-business policies. These “inside preservationists” were the least likely to be enthused about community conversations. Good at campaigns, they were less good at negotiation.

A decade later, the environmentalists have entered the political system. Reimer has been a city councillor for just over four years. With the mayor, she chairs the city’s community-engagement task force. And yes, it’s tough talking to the public, she acknowledges in a two-hour conversation over martinis, beer, and fried polenta sticks at Main Street’s Cascade Room. On a Friday night, it’s filled with people doing community engagement of a different sort: loud and personal and perhaps leading to at least temporary romance. In the back, Reimer and I tussle over whether Vision has a communications problem, whether all cities have a problem, and how they’re going to get fixed.

When she goes to other cities, she says, everyone praises Vancouver for its citizen activism, its healthy cadre of planners who can spend time talking with the public, its neighbourhood-planning processes. “I listen to them and think, ‘Well, it’s not working out so well for us,’ ” says Reimer, who comes across as the council’s most cerebral member. (That brings with it a heightened ability to analyze the world at a meta level; it also means that she can seem cool and managerial.) Unpleasant public hearings and unrelenting criticism have taken their toll. “I was getting-not cynical, but a slow erosion of faith in the process. You do this broad consultation, and then at council people say they never heard of it. We keep trying different things-open data, for one-but then it’s not solving the problem.”

Reimer believes that the reason they’re seeing so much backlash is not that they didn’t consult enough, but that they consulted so much. More people involved in the issue means more people unhappy that they didn’t get their way. “If we have a consultation, somebody’s voice is not reflected. If we try to find the middle ground, we’ve now pissed off both sides.” She also believes that many of those caught up in various city uproars belong to one small, empowered group. “The people who come out are not age diverse, not gender diverse. What you’re seeing at the meeting is people with social capital already.” Older, land-owning, politically engaged, somewhat privileged white people, she means-the kind who tend to skew conservative and anti-Vision.

The goal for the community task force, it can be deduced, is to find ways to get more representative (some might say more pro-Vision) groups connected to city decisions. That, says Reimer, means helping less empowered, more isolated residents talk to each other so they can build up the kind of social capital the loud talkers already have. In June the task force comes out with recommendations on how to do that. One of the big targets will be how to improve public conversations about redevelopment. Before then, there will be a round of “quick starts” the group has identified as easy signals to send about who is welcome. Among them: plain-language signs at proposed redevelopment sites, to make it easier for passersby to understand what kind of building is being pitched; a mobile kiosk that lets people access basic city services-get a new recycling bag, pay a parking ticket-without having to travel to city hall; and a push for a city-wide block-party day or week, with neighbourhood organizers encouraged to email city hall afterward about the issues that bubbled up as people watched their kids play street hockey.

All of this is designed to alter the current system, which favours, Reimer believes, “people who like the microphone meetings, where it’s not dialogue, it’s theatre.” Her end goal? To disrupt a process “designed for 1,000 white men who ran this city 126 years ago.”