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It's time to hold your nose

Wednesday, November 12th, 2008

Something really stinks at City Hall. And out of this pile of stinking manure we have to choose our future for the next three years.

The smell can be overwhelming when the mayor, two past mayors, and the Chair of the Finance Committee who is a mayor-wannabe, close ranks and agree that taxpayers should be kept in the dark about their money.

All four men represent the three governing political parties that got us into this mess. Anybody who thought they’d come out against these sorts deals should give their heads a shake.

Our most recent past-mayor, elected as a COPE mayor turned VISION mayor, is now a senator. So much for accountability. Larry Campbell knows who to ignore to get what he wants. Now that he’s a senator, those he can most afford to ignore voters since I don’t know too many senators who would risk their life-long powdered butts for the electorate.

For Sam Sullivan, one of Vancouver’s leading candidates for the ‘Demagogue of the Year’ award, to side against the public’s right to know comes as no surprise. Indeed, given that he’s the one that took the council in-camera to consider this $100,000,000.00 gift to the developer, he’d be beyond hypocritical if he were to turn around and agree to opening the process up to the light of day.

For Philip Owen to have come out of private life to weigh in on this fiasco is a bit of a surprise if not a serious disappointment. For the NPA to be reaching back to a leader they formerly repudiated underscores how desperate they are to save their collective political skin. What has Philip to gain from coming out of private life? Perhaps to save his own legacy?

Peter Ladner, asserting that he was framed, insisting that the city is losing millions while political posturing goes on, is desperate to get this flaming file off his desk. But he’s just adding gasoline to that fire by saying last week that the property endowment fund was able to carry this extra burden only to say this week that there is no liquidity in the fund at all. This, from the Chair of the Finance Committee.

Just like John “The Fundamentals of the Economy are Strong” McCain a month before the US stock market went to Hell in a Hand basket, I seriously doubt that Ladner has a complete grasp of the financial picture of the city. And now he wants to be mayor.

We should not be so naive as to believe that the city cannot have secret negotiations. What should concern us, however, is that only with the shining of light on this one case, other liabilities have become better known. Like another $390,000,000.00 loan guarantee to the same New York finance company. At this rate, it’s starting to look like the City of Vancouver is a joint-partner alongside the US Treasury Department in bankrolling Wall Street.

So let the politicians throw mud at each other. It’s time for us grown-ups to make a decision and to cast our vote. For the City of Vancouver’s ballot we should aim for a balance: a number of veterans and a few newcomers to city council. Gregor Robertson as Mayor, and a couple of Vision Vancouver candidates, such as Tim Stevenson and Raymond Louie. Robertson’s judgement may have been clouded over his fare evasion issue but like it or not, he’s as much an outsider as we are going to get in this election.

As for the capital expenditures, Vancouverites should vote a firm NO to all of them. It’s time there was real accountability at City Hall and throwing good money after bad to this bunch of children who seemingly couldn’t manage an allowance from their parents should not be the ones in charge of another $100,000,000 of our money for capital expenditures. At least not until the Olympic Village disaster is accounted for to the satisfaction of the voters, citizens and taxpayers of this fair city.

And once our councillors believe they have cleaned up the way City Hall does business, they can call for a plebiscite to approve the extra capital expenditures. Like an interim performance report card, it would be a decent referendum on whether we citizens think our politicians have cleaned up their act enough to once again deserve our confidence.


Politics and the Hundred Million Dollar Question

Saturday, November 8th, 2008

A buck twenty-five, or a hundred million dollars. A transit-fare cheat or a dismissive steward of our tax-money who refuses to share what is up with the city’s finances. That’s our choice for mayor in this election.

Just when I thought I knew the answer to who I thought should be mayor of Vancouver, this perfect storm blows across out fair city. Peter Ladner, in an off-handed comment at CKNW surmised the convenience of diverting from Robertson’s fare evasion scandal last week and the loan issue this week- suggesting that Vision Vancouver created a stir to deflect from Robertson’s image troubles. Convenient indeed.

Were it not for Vision Vancouver’s Tim Stevenson to draw attention to this in-camera decision to lend (or guarantee) Millennium Developments or its own financier, Fortress Investments, $100,000,000 to ensure the Olympic village got done, we would have never known about it. Certainly not before the election. Any more details? Nope. It was all discussed in-camera.

To be clear, considering the sad state of real estate prices in the Vancouver market, it’s looking like the taxpayers of Vancouver are going to be on the hook for most, if not all of the hundred million.

But to be fair, if the city does wind up having to foot the bill for the final touches on the new False Creek neighbourhood, the entire development will revert to city ownership. While this much we do know, questions remain.

The fact that it is silly-season, with a full city-wide election only a week away, politics cannot be cleaved out of this discussion. Is this just a political stunt being played by Vision Vancouver to discredit the NPA? Maybe. But regardless, because all the political parties agreed to an in-camera session to discuss this issue there is no way of knowing the truth to this most political of questions and so I cast a pox on all their houses.

Since Vision Vancouver and their comrads in COPE got weak-kneed about playing along with the NPA to go in-camera concerning this massive liability, I question their judgement in the first place. Equally, the fact that the NPA wasn’t prepared for this public outrage is equally mind-stumping.

Peter Ladner, the NPA Mayoral candidate, assures us all that even if the city does wind up having to pay out the $100,000,000.00, taxpayers will not have to pay a dime. How, is that possible? Does he propose that the short-fall be paid out of parking meter revenue? How is it that demanding to know what’s going on, “posturing” as Ladner puts it, is “costing us millions of dollars”? Who is in control here? The developer or the citizens of Vancouver? What other financial surprises have you hidden from the taxpayers?

Should the city have entered into a $100,000,000.00 agreement at all- never mind that it was in secret? Not on your life. A contract was signed several years ago and a contract is a contract. In the case of default, according to the contract, the property reverts to the city. So if the entire development was about to revert to the city, why should it not? At least we’d have an asset to balance the liability. But we can’t un-ring a bell. What’s done is done. Or so it seems.

So putting politics aside (because I still don’t know who to vote for) and looking forward, it is imperative on the Vancouver City Council to add a condition to the loan- or loan guarantee- whatever it is, that Fortress Investments actively and agressively look for alternative financing. On this point there should be no negotiation so that the taxpayers of Vancouver are not exposed to this $100,000,000.00 liabiity until the end of the Olympics. If this condition isn’t met, the city should walk away from the table.

The taxpayers of Vancouver deserve no less.


Gregor Robertson’s Unfare Fight

Sunday, November 2nd, 2008

It was reported in the paper today that Vision Vancouver’s mayoral candidate, Gregor Robertson was caught riding on the Skytrain with an invalid ticket. He was fined $173.00.

This is a stunning hit for boy-wonder of the Vision Vancouver coalition. While it is not as serious as being convicted of drinking and driving which has dogged other political leaders from Metro Vancouver, it is still a major hit against him.

Robertson claims that he rides the skytrain once every six months. Well six months ago, the zone system was exactly the same as it was the day he got the fine. Vancouver, all by itself, is one zone. Travel anywhere beyond Vancouver’s boundaries necessarily means you are crossing into another zone.

Surely, someone who has been a sitting member of the provincial legislature, presumes to be mayor of the province’s largest city- and is an advocate of public transport- ought to know beforehand, or at least be saavy enough to become aquainted with, the zone boundaries and the cost to travel across one.

If this was a mistake, what will this say about his character? Certainly we should expect more of our mayor than this sort of sloppy self-governance. Let’s just hope it was an honest mistake- a sort of slip-up never to be repeated. Ever.

But to make things worse for Robertson, he claims that after receiving the ticket for travelling in the wrong zone with a one zone ticket, he got off the train to buy a zone-upgrade at the next station. Too little, too late, Gregor. The damage has already been done. (After you get a parking ticket, do you then plug the meter? Of course not!)

Then, in an act of political spin that could pull dust bunnies out from under the bed, he postures that he’s going to make a fuss about how the fine unreasonably fits the crime: a $173.00 ticket is way out of proportion to the $1.25 difference between a one-zone ticket and a two-zone ticket.

Is the fine too much? Perhaps. But posture all you want, Gregor. The fine is still $173.00. The fine would have been zero, zilch, nada, had you actually paid for a two-zone ticket in the first place.

Yet Gregor Robertson’s inter-zonal plight highlights a sort of fare evasion that is almost impossible to detect without directly interfering with travellers on the bus, skytrain and seabus. It is so pervasive that one might even go so far as to say unofficially that it is the norm.

People carrying one-zone monthly passes and transfers and travelling in another zone is wide-spread throughout the system. As a transit operator, I see it all the time. It speaks to the unfairness of our zone system.

Why do we still use the archaic zone system anyway? After all, why should someone who lives at Joyce and Kingsway pay $3.75 to go shopping at Metrotown only nine bus-stops away but in Burnaby on the other side of a zone boundary, while pay only $2.50 to go to completely across the city to UBC, a considerably farther distance?

Robertson should take responsibility for his action, inadvertent or otherwise, instead of trying to cover for the fact that he was unfortunate enough to get caught.

But if he prefers not to take responsibility, he should raise the question that would help those who don’t intend to cheat the system, to avoid making the same mistake he claims to have made and make transit use fairer at the same time…

When will electronic payment, a technology that allows for payment in real-time based on actual distance travelled, replace the outdated and unfair zone system we currently have?

Some Insight into Insite

Friday, October 24th, 2008

The riot squad marched past me in pairs on Wednesday. About forty officers, their faces tight and emotionless moved to pull down the tents and stage erected in the middle of East Hastings Street adjacent to Insite, the supervised, drug injection facility in the downtown east side. Fifty more officers kept the curious from intervening.

Insite, is a harm reduction tool in a ‘four pillar’ approach to the drug problems not only in the downtown east side but across the city: those pillars being prevention, harm reduction, treatment, and enforcement. But from what I see in the downtown east side, I wonder whose harm is being reduced?

Apparently, the organizers of the party supporting the Insite facility failed to obtain permits from the city to block two lanes of Hastings Street and to hold a concert at the tail end of rush-hour.

It looked like a classic confrontation between the police and the rag-tag community in the neighbourhood- two monolithic forces clashing over drug policy and who really runs the ‘hood. But not everything is as it seems.

While a few local residents were not so enthusiastic of the obvious police presence with their plan to break up the street barbeque and concert, a few others voiced their support for closing Insite down.

Despite what one might believe, the police in Vancouver actually support Insite, much to the frustration of some residents who don’t. The VPD disagrees with those who say Insite is a breeding-ground for continued dependence on illicit drugs: the RCMP, the current federal government and its outspoken Minister of Health, not to mention the Bush Administration in Washington, D.C.

But it’s not like the Vancouver Police Department stands alone. Both the city and the province support Insite. The entire medical establishment backs the effort. Partisan political support crosses party lines- excluding the Conservatives in Ottawa- with the NDP, Liberal and Green Parties in lock-step with each other on the issue.

While I take no issue with whether Insite is effective or not, I do start to wonder what’s up when almost everyone in authority appears to agree that it’s the only solution. Everything’s too neat, too tidy. Does Insite do what its supporters say it does? Whose voices are being silenced by the deafening and coordinated call for its continued operation?

So since our establishment fails to have this debate, someone has to ask these questions because the reality of the downtown east side is that the entire neighbourhood and its issues have been swept under the carpet for decades too long. Successive, well-meaning governments of all political stripes have fostered a flourishing poverty industry but relatively little money actually gets to those in need.

Where services ought to be provided honestly and without ulterior motives, bean-counting still reigns supreme. Unfortunately, bean-counting is what gets the cash so statistics come before services. Playing second-fiddle to an accountant when it’s your life on the line… what a wonderful path to recovery.

Whether they supported Insite or not, every activist and community member I talked to agreed that there are not enough resources to handle the demand for rehabilitation and re-location; the Treatment pillar of the Four Pillar approach seems to have been forgotten. Imagine deciding that you want to break a serious life-threatening addiction only to find that you have to wait four months for a detox space?

When addicts decide to make a change it’s a spur-of-the-moment thing. To wait four months for a detox bed and a rehab space would be like waiting a year, maybe two, for a hip replacement. It’s ridiculous to expect any success at an individual or at a policy level with a four-month wait. More to the point: it’s inexcusable.

Moreover, once people have done detox and rehab, where are they to rebuild their lives? Back in the downtown east side? That’s hardly the answer. The sad fact is that there is not enough ongoing community support and housing in other neighbourhoods and towns to help these people put their lives back together.

What mechanisms are established in outer-lying communities to support people from relapsing or even becoming addicts in the first place? How is the mental health outreach community faring in the smaller towns across the province, or dare I say, the country? How much money are we spending to get people who want to get out of the dangerous neighbourhoods and all its temptations into safer communities?

I wouldn’t even know where to find straight-up answers to these questions, never mind whether they could be answered affirmatively. Worse, I don’t think any of our governments, responsible for this humanitarian catastrophe, could either.

So while the cops bust up an unsanctioned party in support of Insite, our leaders continue to present a brave and united front that this one facility is the only viable choice in Vancouver’s supposedly unique battle with the same addictions that plague cities across North America.

There’s a fine line between compassion and enabling. Should Insite be kept open? Absolutely. I just wonder if Insite, notwithstanding the great work it is reported to do, is merely a symptom of a much more serious problem.

Does Insite actually reduce the harm on our collective conscience over our inaction? Is it possible that our politicians and other policy leaders have chosen to support Insite as an easy way out, to enable the situation because they’d rather do what’s easier, cheaper, and politically most expedient? Where are the detox and rehab treatment facilities to go along with Insite? Where is the political will to make real change outside of the downtown east side?

We may not know the answers, but I certainly know we have to keep asking the questions.