November 11, 2014

Follow the money... the Vancouver election

Civic politics is different in British Columbia. Municipal elections are held on Saturdays in this province while most of the rest of the nation goes to the polls on a weekday, and that might be a good thing. Vancouver is the only city in the country that elects a Park Board, independent of Council, and accountable, which is probably a good thing. The Park Board controls much of Vancouver's environmental, social and cultural spending, especially through community centres.

Vancouver is however the largest city in Canada to elect its council through an at-large system. Most other Canadian cities use a ward system in which councillors are elected to represent a specific area, thus providing at least the opportunity for more diversity on council. Sometimes that diversity includes the likes of a Rob or Doug Ford as in Toronto, and that is clearly a bad thing, though possibly the result of local democracy.

Money is the most disturbing part of municipal elections in Vancouver and there are few, if any, restrictions on contributions to candidates throughout the province. Thanks to a provincial government that sets the laws regarding election spending, it's a wide open affair in British Columbia, though both the major civic parties in Vancouver claim to be interested in some restriction on donations from unions and businesses. In the current reality the situation is dark indeed.

Geoff Meggs, incumbent councillor from Vision recently attended a meeting of CUPE Local 1004 and reminded them that Vision Mayor Gregor Robertson "has again recommitted to not expand contracting out, to make sure that wherever we can bring in new processes, that members of 1004 will be delivering those services." Later that same day the union local decided to give Vision $102,200 in cash, another $10,000 to cover salaries of CUPE members who take time off to campaign for the party, and another $7000 to cover some pro-Vision advertising. There was a mild kerfuffle when this was made public, through a freelance journalist. The Mayor appeared upset with Mr Meggs, but that was soon smoothed over and it was business as usual.

Lululemon's infamous founder Chip Wilson, provided $75,000 to Vision and laughs when critics claim the diversion of traffic in front of his $54 million home on Point Grey Road to make room for another Vancouver bike lane, was created just for him.

There is the $25,000 contribution to Vision from developer Gordon Nelson, who made the news for mass renovictions at Seafield Apartments in the West End.

Vision also took thousands from Steven Lippman and his companies that are renovicting hotels in the Downtown Eastside, displacing hundreds of people.

The Rize Corporation wants rezoning at Broadway and Main for luxury condo towers. They provided Vision with $34,500.

Holborn Holdings, the Malaysian corporation redeveloping a site at Little Mountain made a $75,000 contribution to Vision, after evicting hundreds of families from low cost social housing.

PCI Group and Andrew Grant gave $35,000 to Vision. They also got rezoning on the Marine Gateway tower development along the Canada Line, which I ride past every day on my way to work.

The Aquilini Investment Group, the owners of  the Vancouver Canucks and all kinds of other things, gave $60,000 to Vision. They are behind the building of office and residence towers around Rogers Arena where the Canucks play.

Between the two major parties, NPA and Vision, about $5 million  will be raised for this municipal election. While some of that comes from unions, especially for Vision, the bulk of that total will come from corporations and developers. How does all that money influence our civic politicians? What kind of expectation comes with a donation of $25,000, or $50,000 or more? When asked why he got into civic politics, Mayor Robertson often says "to get things done." A follow up question might be: for whom?

An alternative to the bags of money flowing to the NPA and Vision parties is the lone civic party on the progressive side: COPE. The party has raised a modest $60,000 for this election, most of it from individual citizens and none of it from developers. And apart from voting for one Vision candidate for council, old friend Tim Stevenson, and the two members of the Public Education Project, Gwen Giesbrecht and Jane Bouey, my votes will go to Meena Wong and COPE.

Change can happen. Money doesn't have to rule City Hall.

Copyright 2014 by Jim Murray.

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