Although Vancouver’s new mixed council seems — at least so far — quite collegial compared with its predecessor, they’ve seen at least one early behind-the-scenes disagreement.
In November, as the new mayor and council left their swearing-in ceremony at Creekside Community Centre in Olympic Village to head to their inaugural meeting at city hall, they held a flash vote on whether to stop for a treat at Earnest Ice Cream. To the clear disappointment of the councillor who later told the story, the ice cream proposal was voted down.
But, apart from that early divergence, Vancouver’s most politically diverse council in recent memory — with an independent mayor presiding over councillors from four different parties — seemed to be getting along well in their first weeks together before the winter break.
This coming week brings Vancouver’s first council meetings of 2019, and an agenda touching on several of the most talked-about issues in the city right now: money laundering, climate change, ride-hailing, transit, and, as always, real estate.
For the first time in decades, no one party has a majority, but this council has appeared broadly aligned early on around the top issues, voting unanimously in their first meetings on measures addressing housing and overdose deaths. Perhaps the closest thing to a wedge issue so far is one that seems, to many, pretty innocuous: duplexes. NPA Coun. Colleen Hardwick had sought to rescind the previous council’s decision to allow duplexes in low-density residential neighbourhoods, but council decided last month to leave the existing zoning in place, at least on a trial basis.
Mayor Kennedy Stewart has joked, more than once, about his running tally of how many items council can pass with unanimous votes. Council’s only two returning members, Green Coun. Adriane Carr and NPA Coun. Melissa De Genova, have also commented repeatedly on the comparatively chummy tone of this council’s meetings compared to last term.
There have been debates, of course, which have occasionally been somewhat tense. But it’s been a far cry, at least so far, from the sometimes combative tone of the last council, which city hall observers — and some council members — noticed escalating as last year’s election season approached.
But what happens when the honeymoon is over? How will they all get along over the course of their first full year together?
Watching how COPE Coun. Jean Swanson’s motion plays out this week may provide a bit of a preview.
Swanson, a longtime anti-poverty activist and the most-left-leaning member of council, has submitted a motion calling on council to push for free public transit for minors and sliding-scale fares for low-income people. The general thrust of the motion — making transit more accessible and affordable for people who need it — is likely to find broad support from everyone. But there’s a chance that before Swanson’s motion can pass, other councillors might propose amending or removing certain pieces of the language, such as the idea to eventually “unlink ICBC from fare evasion for youth and adults” and to “cease ticketing adults.” (ICBC is charged with collecting unpaid TransLink tickets before renewing an offender’s driver’s licence.)
If, after some friendly back-and-forth across council chambers and plenty of amendments-to-amendments, an altered version of Swanson’s transit motion does get across the finish line, the result might be similar to what happened with Swanson’s “anti-renoviction” motion in December. After Swanson introduced a motion seeking to beef up tenant protections, other councillors amended it to the point where every member of council was able to get behind it. Swanson complained that council’s changes had made her motion too “wishy-washy-ed,” but housing activists hailed it as an “incredible win.”
It’s a change from the previous civic government, when former mayor Gregor Robertson’s Vision Vancouver enjoyed a majority on council. The last council sometimes saw unanimous tri-partisan agreement, but they often voted along party lines, with the Vision caucus voting as a bloc to approve a motion from one of their party-mates, or to shoot down a motion from a councillor from the NPA, which had become a de facto opposition party.
Vision dominated local politics for a decade, governing with majorities on three successive councils. As with any leader in power for that long, Robertson and Vision attracted their share of critics during their time in office, and their majority shrank in the 2014 election and again in a 2017 byelection, before the party was all but wiped from the scene in October’s election, left without a single representative on council.
During their years in power, Robertson and Vision used their majority to make major, if sometimes controversial, moves on challenging issues: positioning the city as a leader in sustainability, battling a housing crisis with limited support from senior governments, setting the foundations for a major new subway project.
This year we’ll see how much this mosaic council can accomplish without a majority, and how long their collegial, collaborative approach will be sustainable.
Maybe they’ll even find time to grab an ice cream together.