British Columbia·Analysis

Has Gregor Robertson kept his promise to 'do better'

It was a year ago that a contrite Gregor Robertson delivered a mea culpa, and promised cooperation. It helped him win a third term in office, but did anything change from terms one and two?

New ideas needed for age-old problems of housing and transit after eventful 1st year of 3rd term

Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson, seen here during his 2014 campaign, is trying to keep momentum going now a year into his third term. (CBC)

It was a year ago that a contrite Gregor Robertson opened a televised election debate with a mea culpa to voters, and promised more cooperation with the left if he was reelected.

While the apology — which was intended to stop disillusioned supporters from voting against him — appeared to help him win a third term in office, did anything change from terms one and two?

"It's an encouraging sign that the mayor seemed to be more interested in the job again," said Frances Bula who chairs Langara's journalism department and covers urban issues and city politics.

Often nothing serves as a better wake-up call than coming close to defeat and it appears that the near-miss saved with a "I'm sorry" to voters energized the 51-year-old.

'Unforgettable year 1'

In a note to supporters on the anniversary of re-election, Robertson says it's been an "unforgettable year" and indeed, he has pushed hard on key issues of transportation, housing and green cities.

Unfortunately, despite the upbeat anniversary note, Robertson made some missteps.

He was at the head of the mayor's council that failed to win the transit referendum that would provide funding for long-term transportation improvements for the region.

Dark mark

"Failure of leadership right across the board," says Gordon Price, who is the director of SFU's City Program. "That's a dark mark there."

But in the same breath, Price says the failure of the campaign was not Robertson's alone and claims it's now a problem for B.C. Premier Christy Clark to solve in the absence of any new plan from Metro Vancouver mayors.

Still Robertson says he's committed to the Broadway subway line and will have to get creative to find the municipality's portion of the money after a commitment made during the federal campaign by Justin Trudeau to fund the federal portion of it.

Trudeau's election is another sign, though, that Robertson may be hitting a sweet spot in his time as Vancouver's mayor.

He now has a kindred spirit in the prime minister's office in Ottawa in Justin Trudeau, a place where before, there was little to no communication.

"Vancouver was left out of the national conversation on a lot of issues," says Kirk Lapointe, who ran against Robertson as the Non-Partisan Association's mayoral candidate.

He says the Trudeau Liberal government will be good for Vancouver, but the city can't forget that others will also be knocking on its door.

"The Liberal government is a collision of priorities all over the country and finite resources in order to meet those commitments."

Profile building

But Robertson, if he continues on the trajectory since being re-elected, could become the image of progressive politics and be a major ally to the federal Liberals in their goals.

He spent a good portion of the year jet-setting, lobbying the federal government in advance of its budget for money for cities.

In July of 2015 he met the Pope to talk climate change and was the only Canadian invited to a exclusive climate change summit in Washington where he trashed Canada's record on the issue.

"Part of it is creating a certain profile around him and having him achieve a certain status as the mayor of a green city," said Bula.

The final stroke on that was to promise that before 2050, Vancouver will obtain 100 per cent of its energy from renewable resources and emit 80 per cent fewer greenhouse gases that in 2007.

"We saw the greenest city, we've seen the homelessness and housing plans and I have to say, I think on those fronts that the city has made some pretty big moves and done some really interesting things," said Bula.

"Do they have any more ideas? Especially in the housing situation that has some people in a panic."

Out of reach solutions

"The main problem with almost all the issues that are really concerns to the city: housing, transportation to a great degree are out of their control because the tools aren't there to local governments," added Price.

Robertson decried the racial component to research done by Andy Yan on foreign ownership and house prices while at the same time touting "record-setting" new investments in housing and childcare

"But there has to be this conversation," said Price about better data on home ownership in Vancouver. "Otherwise the pressure continues to build and may break in ways that truly unfortunate."

"You can't not talk about this and as of yet they don't appear to have found the words."

Bureaucrats please apply

Among his priorities on transportation, housing and environment, Robertson also has some significant house-keeping to take care of.

Several key staff positions remain unfilled including the position of city manager.

Kirk LaPointe, the 2014 NPA mayoral candidate, says Robertson still needs to change the culture at city hall which he says has driven many talented staff away. (Terry Donnelly/ Twitter)

Penny Ballem was let go in a move to create a new era of leadership — a more collaborative era — at city hall after she was perceived as keeping a tight grip of most files during the past seven years.

"It's an acknowledgement that the culture that had been created ... had not been suitable," said Lapointe. "A lot of great civil servants have been pushed out of the city and are now working elsewhere."

Bula agrees and says fresh blood is needed at city hall as there are few new-comers to council.

"And so how to convey that they have new ideas and new people coming along is a challenge for them," she said.

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