At the recent Union of BC Municipalities Convention, we chatted with Greg Moore, Mayor of Port Coquitlam and Chair of Metro Vancouver, to discuss his views on the VoteLocal Survey, some of the big issues in this election including housing, and his thoughts on topics ranging from social media to the future of regional coordination.
VOTELOCAL: You’re leading a workshop here at the UBCM Convention called “Social Media and Democracy”. What are you planning to talk about?
GREG MOORE: Well, I read the VoteLocal survey and what it says about the priorities of citizens all over the region around transportation challenges or density challenges, and it’s the same dialogue going on in social media. It’s a very divisive dialogue going on in social media right now. The conversation there is not complex, there’s no depth. No one is actually thinking about the repercussions of all these discussions. I think that’s why you see among the politicians who responded to the survey, they have much different answers on these issues compared to the public. Because it’s our job to think through all of the aspects, and to think 5, 10, 20 years down the road … not about what’s popular today, or what I can write in one Facebook post. And I think that is an erosion of our democracy. Social media does not give us the tools to have an in-depth conversation about what is going on in our cities. You see comments like “we should get rid of this” or “screw that”... and people get lots of likes and re-tweets. I think that attitude is making it into traditional media as well. They’re writing sensational stories, and judging the success of their stories based on the likes and tweets and thumbs up that they get on it.
VL: So how do local governments have productive conversations with the public about important issues?
GM: Long range planning is probably not that sexy. You can have those conversations online to a certain extent. Municipalities ask residents to come to a town hall meeting or come to an open house, but local governments can do a better job getting into neighborhoods instead of forcing neighborhoods to come to them. In Port Coquitlam we used to say, "Come to city hall and let's talk about the OCP" [official community plan]. Now we take the OCP to the elementary school and make it convenient for people to come out. We get a much better level of community engagement and a much more in-depth conversation.
VL: A lot of people are raising alarm bells about a lack of awareness about the October 20th election, and it could lead to lower voter turnout than usual. How do we get a better turnout among voters in municipal elections?
GM: Make it illegal not to vote [laughs]. Municipal election turnout has always been bad. It's consistently 20, 30, 35 percent. If you have a good mayor's race, you'll get more people out. In the last election the City of Vancouver was by far much higher than everywhere else. I think we were at 28 percent in PoCo. In one election I got elected with 18 percent. It wasn't a good mayor's race. I was seeking re-election and we didn't have a strong opponent and our council all sought re-election and were re-elected. So there were not any big, burning issues in town. I don't know what the answer to that is. It's mind boggling to me why people aren't more willing to get out and vote.
VL: Thinking about the burning issues that we’re expecting in this 2018 election, our VoteLocal survey found that people want local governments to do something about affordable housing, but a lot of people are concerned about overdevelopment and densification. What do you think is driving that apparent contradiction?
GM: People think "density" is a bad word. And that's one of our solutions to affordability. I use the analogy that the Metro Vancouver region is growing up to be a global city. But right now, we’re like a teenager. You look at any other global city. Most of them are having affordable housing issues. You look at London, Shanghai, Paris or New York... go find single family homes – you just can't. So we're growing up into this global metropolitan city and all of our other policies are saying ‘we want to get there’. As the teenager, we have our parents telling us that to be successful, to raise a family, you need to have a backyard. And we are the teenager saying "I'm not sure that I really want a backyard. I want to be really close to transit." We’re struggling with our identity. But I think if you fast forward 20 years... and actually it's already happening... we have fewer single-family houses this year than we did last year because we're creating density with our townhouses or condos. Supply and demand tells me that if you have less of one product and more people wanting it, the price is going to go up. And it's not going up just for luxury homes. It’s going up everywhere from Mission all the way to downtown Vancouver. And there is somewhat of a supply argument there – make sure that we have enough product in the market and enough diversity of product so that it's available to help with affordability.
But even that answer that I just gave you is a bigger answer than anybody ever wants to listen to on social media. Because I could not answer in 2 sentences! When I read the VoteLocal survey, I kept thinking back to the different discussion groups and social media posts that are happening in all of our cities. Some of the discussion on the community Facebook groups is awful! People go after each other, and it inevitability boils down to name calling. No one comes up with a solution. And I’m not suggesting that we should all agree to the same solution but there is no real conversation going on.
I think citizens pay us to do our job. They elect us and we have highly qualified staff to do the research and spend the time figuring it all out, looking at best practices in Canada and around the world. And then we make a decision. But for some reason, that's been forgotten – the notion that you elect your local representatives to make these decisions as part of a team.
VL: The VoteLocal survey asked the public, businesses and politicians about different opportunities for better regional coordination. There was some public support for exploring local government amalgamation, and some decent support among all groups for coordinated policing and economic development. As Chair of Metro Vancouver, what do you think the region can be doing to increase coordination?
GM: I started this discussion in my Metro Vancouver role in 2015, and we've been working with local governments, the private sector, universities, unions and First Nations on the Regional Prosperity Initiative which is bringing all of those groups together to have one common voice for economic development in the region. But we did not want to just make it economic development. Because if you do not have affordable housing, or good transit and transportation, good luck with trying to attract businesses here. There is more to it than just economic development and foreign direct investment. So when I saw support for a regional economic development agency in the survey, I thought “This is great.” And we're really at the finish line in terms of launching a new organization to do regional economic development.
VL: There was less support among politicians for a single economic development agency compared to public and business community support. Why do you think that is?
GM: Well apparently, I should have done a better job convincing my colleagues. I think some of the resistance is because you lose your local identity. The way we brand this region, it’s “Vancouver.” Nobody from Shanghai knows what Port Coquitlam is. Probably nobody from Seattle will know where Port Coquitlam is. But everybody knows where Vancouver is. Businesses do not care if they are on this side of the municipal boundary or the other side. I think the local politicians that are resistant to the idea fall into one of two categories: either they don't know anything about it, so it's easier for them to say they’re not really in favour, or they don't want to lose their municipality’s local identity.
I interpret some of the VoteLocal survey results as evidence that people see that the regional coordination happening already at Metro Vancouver [regional district] is working, and maybe there are other things that the region’s municipalities can do together. I know regional policing has always been a discussion, and it's a very worthwhile discussion. It could be regional fire services or coordinating certain specialty areas within the fire departments.
At Metro Vancouver, we're been blamed over the years for being an organization that's growing out of control. Which couldn’t be further from the truth, because according to the law, if we want to add another service, we have to get unanimous support of every one of our 21 members. So, it's never happened. At least not in the last 10 or 15 years. But there is the perception that it does. Most of the expensive stuff that local government does – water and sewer and garbage – is already amalgamated. And if you amalgamate police and fire, certain services of it, it's not any cheaper. That's usually the argument for amalgamation is saving taxpayers. But you have to just look at Ontario when forced amalgamation was done there and the studies that happened 10 years later. Their cost of delivering municipal services went up at a greater rate than the other municipalities in Ontario that weren't amalgamated.
VL: Back to the big issue everyone is talking about in this civic election: housing. Our survey found the public believes municipal governments have an important role to play in influencing the affordability of housing, but the politicians we surveyed believe other levels of government have more influence. What’s your view?
GM: No doubt, affordability is a concern for pretty much everyone. When you’re in your 20s and asking how you’re going to afford to buy a home, maybe it’s partly because our region is growing up. You look at global cities, and the majority of people rent in those cities. We've had policies over the past 40 years federally and provincially that have encouraged home ownership. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But maybe it's shifting. Maybe more people will be renters in the future and that could be a good thing, or it could be a bad thing – I don't know. But that shift is making some people uneasy because it's not how they were brought up.
I think all of us – the private sector, all levels of government – have a role to play in affordable housing. It's too easy to point a finger somewhere else. It’s too easy for us in local government to say “Housing is a provincial and federal mandate. It's not our mandate.” Yet we have zoning provisions. We do have some tools. We don't have the subsidy tools necessarily, we don't have taxation tools, those sort things...but we have zoning power, which is an enormous thing that we control. The private sector also has to stand up and be more creative and innovative in how they are dealing it. But I think there's been a rush to find the silver bullet for affordability and there is no silver bullet. There wasn't one thing that got us here... one policy or one decision or one anything... and there is not going to be one solution that's going to get us out of this.
VL: You’ve said you’ll be doing some consulting work in the future. What will you miss the most about being a Mayor and Chair of Metro Vancouver?
GM: There are two things that I’ve really enjoyed. The first is working with my colleagues both in Port Coquitlam and at Metro Vancouver. Both of the groups have great dynamics around the table, we enjoy working with each other. We have a laugh quite often. The second thing I’ll miss is the opportunity to be innovative and bring in new creative ideas to make our society a better place. It doesn't matter how hard the issues are.... in fact, the more challenging they are, the more I love it. I'm going to miss the discussions. I never really try to convince anyone. It’s about how to work someone else’s ideas into the direction that we should go. I think that's been the secret to my success. Some politicians are very much black and white... “It's my way or the highway.” But when you collaborate, it makes a better product. And I'm going to miss that part of figuring out those complex issues and getting everybody owning and championing something and moving it forward.
As part of VoteLocal’s most recent survey of Metro Vancouver civic election candidates, we asked if local residents have been engaged and interested in talking about the election, and what that might tell us about potential voter turnout.