Let’s hope policy debates don’t get trumped by twit talk

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Will social media improve the quality of policy debates during civic election?

It’s official, after months of speculation, Mike Klassen has announced he is trying to win a seat on Vancouver City Council with the Non-Partisan Association (NPA). After almost three years as a civic affairs blogger and 24 Hours columnist, the small business owner and co-founder of this blog has thrown his hat into the snake pit. If he is successful at winning the nomination, is it possible that Klassen could take down a council giant like Geoff Meggs or Tim Stevenson?

I have no doubt Klassen has become an instant target for the Vision Vancouver government. In the past, they have not always treated people who’ve opposed their “vision” of the world very kindly. In some cases their attacks have been rather personal.

If you don’t believe me, just ask how Vision coalition partner and Green Party Park Board commissioner Stuart Mackinnon feels about the barbs thrown his way over the last couple of years. MacKinnon was the only member of the Vision/COPE/Green coalition to have the audacity to question some of Vision’s policies over the last year.

After he spoke out publicly regarding massive cuts to the Park Board budget, Vision’s backroom boys sent their attack blogger after him. It was then revealed that Vision’s blogger was on the payroll of FD Element and his website eventually faded to black last January. As for ever-likeable Mackinnon, he survived the personal attacks and valiantly remains a loyal member of the coalition.

I truly do wish Klassen all the best of luck as he puts his name forward for public office. I also agree with Vancouver Sun civic affairs journalist Jeff Lee when he states on our blog that we should be encouraging good people of all political stripes to be running for city government. As they say, good governments are only as good as the people that run them.

I, for one, hope Klassen is able to raise the level of civic dialogue to something well beyond the symbolic gestures that have become a fixture of the current Mayor’s office. In fact, at times it has frustratingly appeared as though Mayor Gregor has turned 12th & Cambie into Twitter Hall. In other words, if you can’t squeeze the policy platform in 140 characters or less, it ain’t worth pursuing. Bike lanes. Backyard chickens. Food carts.

Many of the serious challenges facing Metro Vancouver require much more thought than a simple Facebook post or a Twitpic. I sure hope Klassen can use his social media skills as a way of raising the level of debate, rather than dumbing it down to the level of a surfer dude.

Some of those key issues that I think merit more discussion and debate include:

  • Preserving our “jobs focused” land base: As a mature city, it is critical Vancouver develop a new Industrial Land Reserve which will become a legacy for generations to come.
  • Reforming Neighbourhood Engagement: As I’ve written here before, if Vancouver wants to develop a 21st Century city, it can’t do so by continuing to use a horse and buggy public consultation process. Major reforms are required that will allow technology and new social media tools to help engage neighbourhoods in a more meaningful dialogue.
  • Symbolic Environmentalism: The current administration has been all about developing high profile and mostly symbolic gestures to save the planet from environmental degradation. They have failed miserably to educate citizens regarding how land use management is the most effective tool a city can use to reduce its overall carbon footprint. It’s time City Hall reconsider its solar panel schemes and get down to the business of creating a truly green city.
  • Value for Tax Dollar: We need a real debate on how to improve services while lowering costs. As we approach yet another collective agreement, our civic leaders must begin a debate regarding what core services the public service should be delivering directly, and what it should not. Politicians shouldn’t be afraid to use the expression "contracting out," as long as it protects the public’s access to key services while keeping costs in line.
  • Empowering Our Cities: Cities around the world are increasingly becoming key stakeholders in generating new wealth and economic activity. It’s time for Vancouver to lead a comprehensive discussion with Victoria to ensure B.C. cities are equipped and properly incented to create new jobs and generate economic growth. A new urban economic partnership agreement between Victoria & Metro Vancouver cities is long overdue.
  • Municipal Auditor General: With Vancouver’s annual budget nearing $1 billion dollars, it’s time that an independent auditor general have the opportunity to review its books.
  • Olympic Village: Besides selling off all of the remaining units at the best price possible, a top priority should be for an independent auditor general to review the books. For far too long this project has been politicized. Nobody believes the current Vision administration when it says it has a handle on what the real financial costs to taxpayers will be.
  • 311: The data collected from the City’s 311 program should be used to determine if enough resources are being allocated to the priorities of Vancouverites. Clear customer service targets regarding a number of key services should be regularly reported to the public. This will help to reduce inefficiencies and make City Hall more transparent and accountable.
  • Housing Affordability and Choice: Vancouver is now Canada’s least affordable city to call home. At over $1M per home on the West Side, clearly owning a home in Vancouver is out of reach for a large segment of the population. It’s time to end subsidies for developers building market rate rental housing through the STIR program. A new strategic plan should be established that will demonstrate how the city will allow additional supply of housing to be built to help meet the needs of our growing population.
  • Trains, Planes and Automobiles: The City needs to get serious about constructing a new rapid transit option from Broadway/Commercial to UBC. It could look at using density along the corridor as one option to help finance the project over the next 15-20 years. It must also work with the private sector and Translink to develop a creative option to re-start the light rail connection between Science World and Granville Island.
  • Pedestrians as a Priority: While Mayor Gregor is fond of saying he is Vancouver’s top advocate for separated bike lanes, he has been far too silent on the issue of pedestrian safety. In the first 3 months of 2011, we’ve already seen 6 pedestrian deaths. One death is too many, but the carnage will continue unless pedestrians are put high on the agenda of the next council. That will likely mean redirecting scarce infrastructure dollars toward improved traffic calming measures and safety features.
  • Inclusive City: As our population ages, it is critical that our public infrastructure is prepared to accommodate people in their neighbourhoods. A legacy of hosting the Paralympics Games last year should be that Vancouver pledges to become a 100% accessible city. If you have a disability and live in Vancouver, you should not face any barriers due to inferior public infrastructure.
  • De-politicize the Public Service: Staff morale is at an all-time low in Vancouver. Senior managers who were once empowered to make decisions are now facing micro-management from their political masters. Our civic leaders should commit to hiring a public service that will provide them with information they need to know, rather than telling them what they want to hear.
  • Collective Agreement: During Vision’s term in office, they will have increased residential property taxes by about 16% in three years. This is way above the rate of inflation and most of those increases are driven by labour costs. The time has come for the Mayor and council to respect the taxpayers and set a bargaining mandate of 0% pay increases for the first two years of the next labour agreement, as the Province has.
  • Homelessness: While homelessness remains a federal/provincial responsibility, we need to return to a strategy of investing more in long-term social housing. While a mat in a church basement can cost taxpayers upwards of $2000 per month, permanent supportive housing can cost a fraction of that figure. It’s simply not good enough to sweep people off the streets and into a church basement. Homelessness is up by 12% in Vancouver and the city must continue to make the case as to why investing in new social housing throughout the region will pay dividends.
  • Openness & Transparency: Now widely referred to as Canada’s most secretive government,  Vancouver has clearly taken a few steps backwards when it comes to enouraging more public scrutiny.  The City should pledge to become the most transparent civic government in Canada. They could do so by establishing a series of policies including forbidding staff to delete incoming/outgoing emails for a period of 90 days. Re-establish the practice of publishing comprehensive annual reports online. Ensuring all Freedom of Information requests are responded to within the framework mandated by provincial legislation. Make available on the City’s website all expense claim forms for public officials and senior managers on a quarterly basis.

These are a few policy areas that need to be addressed over the short and long-term in Vancouver. I’m doubtful that we’ll be able to discuss in great depth more than a handful during the election period. However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be raising these issues now in order to begin a more substantive dialogue.

Let me know what you think on the issues I’ve raised. Which one of these do you think merits further discussion leading up to the civic election? Have I missed any that are of concern to you? If you want to write an opinion piece and would like it posted here on CityCaucus.com, please send your submission to citycaucus@gmail.com.

– Post by Daniel. Follow @CityCaucus on Twitter

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  • boohoo

    All important issues but I hate that you preface the whole post with that same old tired political catfighting bullshit.

  • Max

    You do realize this is a political blog…right?
    Just like other political blogs, there is a point of view and no differnt than many journalists that write an
    op ed piece for a paper.

  • Max

    And this just up….
    Okay, you promised to end HOMELESSNESS, not just street homelessness. And I would not count on ‘another majortiy’. Some of us are tired of this majority rules, democracy cubed, Vision Vancouver’s, my way or the highway, don’t ask questions becuase we don’t care, city council.
    Mayor Robertson’s platform
    Vision Vancouver held its first policy meeting last night ahead of November’s civic election.
    Mayor Gregor Robertson says ending street homelessness is still at the top of his party’s agenda.
    “They’re going to take more years. we want another term with a majority to make sure we stay on track with those goals.”
    As for new ideas…
    “Supporting local business and iniatives that encourage more entrepreneurship.”
    Roberston says he hopes the fall civic campaign will be civil and respectful.

  • Steven Forth

    Hey, I agree with boohoo! I wonder if Daniel was trying for some sort of recursive irony here. The first section of this post does nothing to raise the level of civic dialog. Perhaps you should try again.

  • gman

    How about stopping US campaign funding.I never want to even hear the word GREEN again and then maybe just maybe we could start to whittle down some of that 16% tax increase.The reason people come to this city is because of its beauty,the reason they dont come is the cost.

  • Steven Forth

    I on the other hand want to here a lot more about Green policies and plans for a sustainable and resilient city. And I am pretty sure that Mike does too if you take the trouble to read his posts. That is one reason I am considering supporting him even though I will likely support Robertson for mayor. I like diversity of opinions and options.