Vancouver mayor to make ‘best pitch’ to end city’s at-large voting system

Vancouver Courier

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Kennedy Stewart
Mayor Kennedy Stewart spoke to the Courier in a year-end interview from his office at city hall. Photo Dan Toulgoet

Mayor Kennedy Stewart has been in office for two months and says he’s “pleased as punch” with how he and a council of mixed political allegiances are getting the business of the city done without hyper partisanship.

Since being sworn in Nov. 5, the 11-member council made up of four parties passed a $1.5-billion operating budget and approved $371 million in new capital spending.

It approved another $500,000 to help battle the overdose death crisis and directed city staff to begin work on a city-wide plan and a series of other measures related to housing and homelessness.

Other initiatives included exploring implementing conflict-of-interest rules for city staff, setting up a lobbyist registry and looking to open a renters’ office.

“I think things are going really well,” Stewart told the Courier Dec. 21 in an interview from his office on his 46th day as mayor. “There was a bit of an expectation of failure. Of course, I was the first independent mayor in a long time, Vision Vancouver was gone and it left us trying to forge things together. But I’m just as pleased as punch.”

Symbolic of the relationship of the new council was them coming together Dec. 20 to join hands at the end of a long meeting regarding the overdose death crisis. City staff and members of Stewart’s staff also joined in the moment that was meant as a tribute to people lost to overdose.

“I was really humbled by it, I was really grateful to council,” the mayor said.

The crisis, his role as an independent mayor and his drive to have a new voting system in place for the 2022 municipal election were among some of the topics Stewart discussed in a year-end interview.

The following is an edited and condensed version of the interview, which was done for brevity and clarity.

You predicted the biggest test this year for council would be passing the budget. In the end, you approved a 3.4 per cent property tax hike and avoided deferring the budget to a vote in the new year. How did that happen?

It was a full team effort. As hokey as that sounds, it really was and I do think we came very close to accommodating really what everybody wanted. It’s so different than Ottawa [where Stewart was an MP for seven years].

How so?

As an opposition member in Ottawa, you’re assigned a portfolio and your job is to really try to knock the minister out—try to make their life so miserable. It’s not productive but that’s really the job you’re assigned by the party whips and the leaders. Here, it’s the exact opposite. Here, it’s like, ‘What can we do to build understanding and accommodation and, at best, consensus?’ I’m loving it. It was a change I totally needed.

Although council approved another $500,000 on top of the existing $3.5 million being spent by the city to tackle the opioid crisis, there are also some big requests in your task force report for senior levels of government to do more. Will they?

We’ve had very good conversations with the province and the federal government about leading again in Canada. Vancouver is known [for being a leader]. We’ve mentioned [former mayor] Philip Owen a number of times [for his work on the four pillars drug strategy] who really started the drive for the safe consumption site [Insite] during another crisis that we had in the Downtown Eastside, and then carried on by [former mayor] Larry Campbell. Now I think this council seems to be centering around this idea of a safe [drug] supply.

What’s been your biggest challenge so far?

Getting to know the councillors and understanding my role. I didn’t do a lot of attacking through the election but was attacked a lot, and now I’m trying to erase all that and make sure that we’re focusing on consensus and really listening and respecting others. I said that in my inaugural speech. When you’re sitting in the mayor’s chair [in the council chamber], you’re facing the public and councillors are facing each other. So you have to be even careful on facial expressions—no eyebrows up, or rolling your eyes or anything like that. I keep reminding myself to just listen to what they’re saying and there’s a reason why they’re saying it.

What has surprised you most about switching from a mayoral candidate to mayor?

The scope of the mayor’s job has kind of surprised me. Really, what we do in city hall is similar to what I did in the House of Commons. It’s legislative work, it’s getting laws through and budgets passed but it’s the extra work you do—the mayors’ council [on regional transportation], Metro, the work with consul generals. And you say one thing [in the media] and it can go international because you’re the mayor of a city that people know.

You’re also the chairperson of the Vancouver Police Board…

I’ve only had one real meeting there, but just the range of things that are going on in Vancouver that we have to talk about in-camera, the reports that we’re seeing—I tip my hat to the police because there’s a lot going on here, and they’ve got a very good handle on it. So that probably is the area I have to improve at the most—is understanding what it is like to run a police force in a big city, and in a complicated region.

How do the results of the proportional representation referendum play into your plan to introduce a new electoral system in Vancouver by the next civic election in 2022?

I was disappointed with the result. You can quibble with questions and campaigns and things but 60/40 is a pretty big resounding no. In the city of Vancouver it was a little less definitive, but in the end, proportional representation was rejected by Vancouver voters. My pledge was that even if it didn’t pass provincially, if it passed in the city, then I would move ahead with trying to get proportional representation. And if that didn’t happen, I would try to get neighbourhood constituencies. So I’m going to have to re-group in January and see what that path looks like [to change Vancouver’s at-large voting system].

So will the at-large system still be in place by 2022?

I want to talk to council. We should de-brief about this referendum result. I think most on council are probably disappointed with that outcome, and we’ll have to have some chatting about that first. I don’t know if there’s any will to move to neighbourhood constituencies [a ward system]. I’d actually have to have a bylaw passed through council and I’m not sure if folks are ready for that. I will make by best pitch. I do think about this—that when you run in an election, you’re saying what you will do if you get elected and you’re hoping to have a majority. But as an independent mayor, I have to try to deliver everything I can, but always looking through the lens of compromise. What will council accept? And that also applies to electoral reform.

Who do you rely on most for advice?

My staff, they’re extremely essential. I have a number of mentors. Paddy Smith, a prof at SFU, who can be sometimes cryptic but very, very knowledgeable. Stuart Thomas, who is a principal at Terra Housing. I worked with him for a very long time. Of course, Libby Davies. I’m in constant contact with Libby. She has a fantastic depth of knowledge. I’m sure I’m forgetting a few people…

You’ve said the late NDP leader Jack Layton was a big influence on your political career. You’ve also mentioned Mike Harcourt, the city’s former mayor and former premier of B.C., as someone you hold in high regard. Is Harcourt playing a role in your mayorship?

We have been together three times now and had some very good exchanges on city matters and regional matters. As premier, he brought in the regional growth strategy, which has been so important. He’s got a broad range of knowledge. His advice has been invaluable. In this job, you think, ‘Who could I possibly be like?’ And he’s one person I’ve had in mind. Two guys with moustaches—Jack Layton and Mike Harcourt.

Are you going to grow a moustache?

I did it once for Movember and it was my first year in Parliament. All my first year parliamentary pictures are me in a moustache, which is terrible. So there’s no moustache coming.