Slates are readying candidates for council jobs that few may actually want
ROB REID IS NOT RUNNING. He still runs, of course. Reid operates three athletic footwear stores Downtown, he’s the race director for the annual Victoria marathon, and he jogs about 20 kilometres a week. But he’s not running for City of Victoria’s council in this autumn’s municipal elections — and his reasons for not doing so should make residents question what’s happening to our municipal governance.
“It was something I wanted to step into,” Reid said over coffee recently. “But not with this process.” Many council meetings have become acrimonious, late-night town halls, where residents argue, block by block, over every proposed development. That’s deterring him, and other businesspeople, from wanting to sit at the council table. “We want to build things, grow things, and we’re task and goal-oriented,” he said. “Many of us have realized it’s better to direct your energy to things that touch your heart.”
In many ways, Reid would make an ideal candidate: a Downtown business owner with a long record of work for local charities, and name recognition. (He ran for mayor in 2008, losing to Dean Fortin by 601 votes.) For most of Victoria’s history, council was mainly composed of people like him. But it seems they aren’t running this year.
John Wilson, president of Wilson’s Transportation, told Saanich News in January that he isn’t running in Victoria or Saanich, despite his interest in local affairs, because he needs to focus on his company. Bruce Gillespie, a Fort Street restaurant owner and management consultant, told CFAX last month that he won’t be running, despite his public criticism of the City’s bike-lane scheme, because, he said, “life is too short for politics.”
Five months from the October 20 election, we’ve heard more from those who don’t want to sit on council than those who do. Perhaps the problem is the job itself.
Victoria council gets plenty of scrutiny in a town that eats and breathes politics
Certainly its time demands have increased. Twenty-five years ago, according to archived minutes, the average City of Victoria council meeting was 2.7 hours long; last year, its 23 evening meetings averaged nearly 5 hours. (Compare that to Langford, where council meetings are usually under an hour.) Then there’s the Committee of the Whole, where councillors discuss reports from City staff; it convened 46 times last year, its daytime meetings often swallowing entire Thursdays. (Most other municipalities hold committee meetings after 5 pm.) There’s prep time, reading hundreds of pages of documents. Councillors also sit on other boards, from the harbour authority to the Downtown Victoria Business Association, attend neighbourhood association meetings, and represent the City at events — all for around $41,000 per year. As first-term councillor Jeremy Loveday ruefully noted at a January 4 meeting (6.5 hours long, mostly spent reallocating slivers of new property-tax revenue), serving on council is a “60-hour-a-week, part-time job.”
Those salaries won’t change, because a majority of councillors at the same meeting rejected appointing a committee to review their pay. But the impacts of that decision are more than financial. Nobody building a professional career, supporting a family, or leading a business is likely to want to sit on council. That favours the self-employed, and incumbents — all likely to run again this year — who have already figured out how to handle the job and its meagre income. (Geoff Young, an economist, and Margaret Lucas, who manages the Hotel Rialto, are the only Victoria councillors with “regular” jobs.) And that, arguably, engenders the culture at City Hall today, in which councillors micromanage the details of every project and bylaw, instead of simply providing direction to staff, and demanding answers if those directions aren’t followed.
Increasing salaries may not be enough, however. “More money is not the answer. That will just make it a career politician’s job,” says Shellie Gudgeon, who served one term and decided not to run again in 2014. The bigger challenge, she says, is learning how to navigate the numerous groups and factions in a city that eats and breathes politics. Every new councillor needs a team of supporters, a “kitchen-table cabinet,” to help them after they’re elected, she says: “You can’t wade through every single issue yourself.”
The challenges are multiplying, too. Social media, for example, once seemed an easy way to connect with voters; instead, it has increasingly become a “toxic echo chamber,” as Mayor Lisa Helps branded Facebook, before publicly closing her account in March. The Globe and Mail reported recently that 11 of 21 mayors in the Lower Mainland have said they are not running again this October, due to “the rise of vitriolic social-media attacks on people in public life, the intense fights and workload resulting from the blistering pace of growth and development, the housing crisis, and the switch to four-year terms from three.” (Some municipalities are advocating a return to three-year terms.)
As the Globe also noted, a concern of the departing mayors is that as cities become more complex, it’s likely populist candidates will emerge — proposing simple solutions, and motivated more by politics than public service. And that may be happening in Victoria, judging by the organizations readying candidates for October.
One association that’s already announced itself is newcouncil.ca, led by Stephen Hammond, the lawyer who founded Mad As Hell, the neighbourhood group opposed to the tent city that arose on Victoria’s courthouse lawn in 2016. As Hammond told CFAX recently, newcouncil aims to “overthrow” the current lineup, and replace them “with reasonable people who don’t deal with ideology.”
“A lot of people aren’t happy with the present council,” says Hammond. Around 250 people are on his email list, and via surveys, he’s distilled what they want into a set of objectives, including “a focus on Victoria’s core services,” “fiscal responsibility,” “fair and even enforcement of laws,” and planning that assumes cars “are still a fundamental form of transportation” — all concerns he says the council has largely abandoned.
Hammond’s group recently formed an alliance with “Club 89,” a group of Downtown businesspeople. (Helps defeated Dean Fortin by 89 votes.) Insiders say the alliance has at least eight potential council candidates — Hammond is not running — including several with community profiles and small-business experience. Their discussions have included BC Liberal staffer Andrew Reeve, and former diplomat Hilary Groos, both of whom ran for council in 2014, but no one has emerged yet as a mayoral candidate.
Facing off against them will be Together Victoria, a youthful, Green-NDPish electors’ organization. According to its materials, Together Victoria (formerly “Organize Victoria”) formed because progressive candidates didn’t run an identifiable slate in 2014, “preventing the opportunity for strong progressive turnout to be translated into a strong majority at the council table.” Its objectives, developed in five workshops with more than 100 participants, are to “create a city that is affordable and inclusive”, “prioritize infrastructure that impacts social and environmental justice”, and “foster greater democratic engagement” — although it also says its members may be suspended if they are “not able to acknowledge and address their own oppressive behaviour.” (Focus contacted Together Victoria’s principals, but they declined to be interviewed until they officially launch in mid-May.)
Together Victoria apparently aims to field three new candidates, in the hope of knocking off business-oriented incumbents Geoff Young, Margaret Lucas, and Chris Coleman, who got the last three council spots in 2014. Rumoured nominees include Laurel Collins, a PhD candidate in sociology and leadership studies at UVic, Sharmarke Dubow, a refugee worker for the Inter-Cultural Association of Greater Victoria, and Sarah Potts, an organizer for the federal Greens.
Who is actually running will soon become apparent. But the responsibilites they face, if elected, are already clear. They will steer a corporation with a $224-million operating budget and more than 1,000 employees. In the coming term, they will oversee construction of a new fire hall, possibly a new swimming pool, repairs to the Bay Street Bridge and century-old underground pipes, and the ongoing development of neighbourhoods, parks, and hundreds of buildings.
Victoria needs articulate people with common sense, experience handling employees and questioning consultants, practical ideas about how to improve the City, and the determination — and the time — to see them realized. Those qualities are not as common as one would hope.
Ross Crockford is not running for Council, as he abhors long meetings in any room without a well-stocked bar.
Edited by Ross Crockford