After attending about a half-dozen candidate forums (I think I could do some of the candidate’s stump speeches for them), I collected a few common tropes and promises worthy of analysis (and a little ridicule).

 

Biggest bullshit line used by every candidate: The problem with City Hall is its failure to consult. It doesn’t listen to the people. The process is broken.

Every candidate goes into office promising more and better consultation – and then in many cases actually provides more opportunities (additional advisory committees, more surveys, more staff) to do so. And then, because some participants don’t like the conclusions or actions taken, they criticize the process. (We talked about that here.)

Advocates believe that if proper consultation was conducted, it would result in the conclusion they or ‘the community’ agreed with. If not, then clearly the consultation was inadequate.  Or else the politicians weren’t listening.  (“If they were, they’d support my position!”)

By the end of their term, the incumbents will hear exactly the same critique of them that they made when they first ran.

Oh, and be aware when wailing away at the size of civic government’s communications staff:  those are the people who do the consultation, as well as the analysis and recommendations.  

 

Worst metaphor: I’d run government like a business.

Usually the candidate means they would pay more attention to the budget and target conspicuous examples of ‘waste.’   (That does not mean they would cut cops, firefighters or most of engineering – which together make up almost all the budget. Hence the attractiveness of targeting bike lanes: a minor expenditure with major profile, but a rounding error in the overall scheme of things.)

Fundamentally, though, they miss the point: government is not a business. It can’t be, because it has to provide equitable services for everyone.  The mayor can’t just discontinue a service that doesn’t break even or make a profit.  Look at libraries: giving copyrighted material away for free!  Bad business model.  Same for community centres, schools, parks.  (Can’t cut them?  Okay, let’s kill off something minor and controversial like public art.  Or bike lanes.*)

What about taxpayers in arrears?  Could the city refuse to send out firefighters until they’ve paid up?  Or offer special service for those who pay more?  (Two firehalls for Shaughnessy!)

Thirdly, there’s really no competition, no other government down the street to take your business to.  ‘You don’t like our utilities? Sorry we disappointed you, but you can always go to the competing government across the street for your water and sewer services.’

Oh wait …

Fourthly, and ironically, civic government has to be managed more carefully than a business.  Under provincial legislation, it can’t run a deficit.  It has to go to the public for capital plan approvals.  It is continually audited.  And it operates in a way that would be unthinkable for most businesses: subject to freedom of information legislation, the daily scrutiny of media, effectively unable to sue when falsely charged, its board of directors and CEO subject to a vote by everyone regardless of their knowledge or stake in the company.

Maybe the line should be reversed: business should be run more like government.

 

Most unrealistic promise:  Freezing taxes, not increasing them above inflation, or cutting them, while at the same making commitments for massive new expenditures (housing!) or taking on new services and commitments, (homelessness!  Ask Gregor).

It’s not that governments haven’t made cuts before.  (We did it when I was on council, including cutting our councillor salaries by 10 percent as part of a thorough core review.  Hardly anyone noticed.)

One council  tried not raising property taxes at all for years (Surrey under Doug McCallum).  The result was, inevitably, disastrous, as it took decades for the City to catch up on services at greater cost, not to mention damage to reputation.

Some candidates are aware, of course, that when they promise huge new expenditures (housing!), there has to be a huge new source of money. That’s why they always add this little disclaimer: ‘In partnership with senior governments, we will … ‘  Oddly, candidates for senior governments are making huge new promises too, and don’t intend for a moment to fund local government without downloading something else on to them.

 

Hopelessly absurd policy proposal:  ‘There is $700 billion dollars worth of residential property in Vancouver on stolen land from indigenous people. It’s time to return it.’

It was just a matter of time before some enthusiastic candidates made the connection from “unceded” to “stolen” to “returning the land to its rightful owners.”  (What a gift to the alt-right.  Imagine their propaganda: ‘The City says they will send you, the hard-working homeowner, a decolonization notice.  Title will be given to tribal groups without accountability.  And they’ll be able to develop the land anyway they want.’)

Few would take that commitment seriously, but COPE seems not to have raised the slightest eyebrow when one of their candidates said it.

 

*Can’t end without another comment on bike lanes.  I noticed that the candidates on the right most apt to use the ‘run government like a business’ trope are also those who proposed that the separated lanes on arterials be ‘seasonal’.  I presume that means they’d remove the dividers  and open the lanes to general traffic when ‘no one’ is using them in the rain.

First of all, they probably have no data and no idea how much the lanes are being used in winter.  And they certainly have no idea how much it would cost to make the transition twice a year: the planning, the staff work, the signage, the storage, the maintenance – and above all, the confusion, resulting in accidents and ongoing conflicts.

The budgetary costs are easily in the six figures, but the political capital lost would be so much greater: protests and ridicule twice a year, every year until they saw how pointless and wasteful it all was.  Perhaps that’s what Wai Young means by ‘ideological bike lanes.’

Comments

  1. Rule 1 of consultation (?):
    You can’t please all of the people all of the time.

    … and if you do you might end up with a half-assed result that doesn’t function well and pleases nobody.

  2. Amen, Gord.

    Another view not often enough addressed: The great things cities actually accomplish with so few resources. Cities are the economic engines of the nation and the loci of most of the population and their huge demand for public services. Yet for every tax revenue dollar generated within them 92% is scarfed by senior governments and rarely returned in full.

    Transit funding is just one example. Though senior governments recently funded a record share of the planned major transit projects the Metro was still left short by a couple or three points. It was far worse before when the region had to fund a 1/3 share with a revenue shortfall of ~25%. No wonder we are 40 years behind.

    Cities have for too long also been downloaded on, condescended to and treated like children by an arrogant parent, most always the province. BC’s last election and Ontario’s recent provincial vote and subsequent action against local democracy in the GTA illustrate this point.

    One current mayoral candidate in Toronto has a novel idea. [Jennifer] Keesmaat [ex-director of Planning] is proposing that Toronto break off from the rest of Ontario, which would consequently make it the fifth largest province or territory in the country.

    https://www.blogto.com/city/2018/07/toronto-might-secede-ontario-and-become-its-own-province/

    That may be a statement meant only to generate discussion, but it does prove the point that Ontario — or any province — cannot treat its biggest human resources assets with too much disdain without consequences, especially if the federal government pays more attention and does the math and decides to promote cities more through its own directed funding.

    Twenty out of 21 local mayors lined up against Christy Clark’s monster bridge / freeway and collectively cringed with her arrogant treatment of the Metro on several files while taking over 40% of all Metro tax revenue. She is now the ex-premier for a reason: the Big City dumped her party, even though individual urban votes are worth less than rural votes where her centre of support was.

    Cities are where most of a province’s wealth is created. Natural resources pale by comparison to Metro’s $100+ billion in annual GDP generated on 1/1100th of BC’s land base. Too bad most local politicians don’t realize this, and too often act very parochially in their obliviousness.

  3. I’d run government like a business

    To which I always reply, “Which business? Enron? Eatons? Lehman Brothers?”

    Or, says the Internet, “Business failure statistics show that about 96 percent of small businesses that enter the marketplace survive for one full year, 85 percent survive for three years and 70 percent survive for five years.”

    Do we really want three in ten municipalities going broke every five years?

  4. When your definition of “consult” or “listen” is “to do what I say”, then it’s hardly bullshit. It’s just selective definition. And horseshit.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *