The Record’s Mayoral Choice: Stephen Hammond

The city needs a new mayor and Stephen Hammond is the best choice of the ten candidates who have stepped forward.

There are many indications this is a two-way race between Lisa Helps and Hammond, so it appears he is most likely candidate to replace the current mayor.

He also had enough achievement, in his working life and on social fronts, and an expanding grasp of the issues facing this city to qualify him to serve as mayor, assuming he can learn quickly and grow with the job.

I didn’t come to this decision easily. Hammond has not been elected previously and it’s generally agreed in this city that a term or two as a councillor is a good apprenticeship for the mayor’s office. In this election, none of the challenging candidates have this experience.

So this endorsement comes with reservations. If the voters choose him as head of our civic government, I hope he will pick up the complexities of the office and lead with his strengths, his energy, intelligence and life experience and contain some of his character flaws and limitations.

Tall, lean and younger looking than his 59 years, Hammond has an image problem among many in this city. He came across as strident and angry–it’s right in the name Mad as Hell–in the battle over the downtown tent city.

There are some who won’t even consider Hammond as a candidate, like the woman I met at an election forum in Oaklands, standing a few steps away from him in the community hall. When I asked her if she had talked to Stephen Hammond, she said, “No I won’t.”

When it comes to people who sleep on the ground while most of us tuck into our cozy beds, our sympathy often lies with the downtrodden rather than those in comfortable homes who complain about neighbourhood disruption. Or at least that was how it was 2 1/2 years ago at the height of the tent city occupation on provincial land behind the downtown courthouse.

But people who lived in the neighbourhood affected by the encampment in west Fairfield, besieged by burglary, threats and loose needles on the street, were looking for a leader to take their case to city hall. Hammond, one of the neighbours, took charge.

Mad as Hell, he says, was organized six months after the tent city formed, and after polite requests to get the City to provide leadership and police protection had failed.

Hammond says he and his fellow-residents and parents of children in a nearby school were simply protecting the neighbourhood against all the criminal activity that accompanied tent city.

They showed up en masse at a council meeting, at which Hammond delivered “a five-minute rant” about council inaction and dramatically asked his neighbours to stand and identify themselves if they had been subject to crime or threats.

I recall the story of an electric battery stolen from a disabled man’s mobility scooter–a particularly cruel act of theft and vandalism.

So Hammond says the battle wasn’t against most of the homeless people in the camp, but the criminal element among them and others attracted to the tent city.

“After so much crime and so much nuisance in the neighbourhood and so much police presence, there’s way more people who have been personally and negatively affected by tent city,” he told the CBC in the final stages of the encampment.

A common complaint from Victoria residents is that the mayor and council don’t listen. Hammond and other residents became squeaky wheels and the noise and anger were sometimes painful to hear.

They got their increased police protection, tent city was eventually disbanded through court action–which just moved part of the problem a few blocks away to a building on Johnson Street bought by the province. Hammond and his partner Jack Boomer also moved a few blocks away, up the hill to a home in Rockland.

And the Mad as Hellions and others formed New, a political force dedicated to replacing much of the current council.

Can Stephen Hammond unite a city council made up partially of people he so vigorously criticized, and possibly, none of his New Council colleagues beside him? Can he move beyond that to bring together enough of the citizenry to put an end to polarization and mistrust of City Hall?

Those aren’t questions we can easily answer, but I believe there’s evidence he’s up to the challenge.

Hammond’s leadership abilities are demonstrated by his stitching together New Council, a group of policy and campaign activists running him for mayor and four council candidates. He is intelligent, hard working, dedicated to the city, and he has a proven track record in his business of resolving workplace harassment issues that takes him all over the country as a consultant and speaker. His business website features a list of his clients and their positive remarks about him.

He doesn’t seem receptive to criticism. In the mayor’s chair he’ll get a ton of that, so if he wins, he’d be wise to grow a thicker skin very quickly. For a politician, the best response to crankiness, some of it nasty, is not to respond in kind.

I have seen him display anger and impatience; high-performance people can be like that. But politicians, particularly at the local level and in a place like Victoria, where everyone has an opinion, must learn to suffer fools and others gladly–and keep their emotions in check.

Hammond faced a man with a grievance after last Sunday’s mayoral debate in Fernwood. Gary Greenspoon lost his job as a driver for BC Transit in 2011 and he wanted to talk to the prospective mayor about the role Randie Johal, then a transit manager and now a New Council candidate, played in his dismissal.

In the conversation, Greenspoon said he “impugned his (Hammond’s) vetting process” for selecting running mates. The former transit driver said he was taken aback at the response: “Before I told him I was not voting for him, he told me not to vote for him!”

Hammond tells the story the other way around. “He said he couldn’t vote for me. You need to be very careful when speaking about a person who is clearly emotionally upset.”

Stephen Hammond seems very sure of himself, which can be a fault. As mayor he must understand that many people have other ideas that contradict his and are sometimes better solutions.

He has to learn to use more measured words than “pissed off” and “bloody murder” in public. We need to lower the temperature in this town.

On the community and social side, Hammond has been a Big Brother three times, a gay rights activist, and has also worked for tenants’ rights, the deaf and hard of hearing institute, a Tibetan refugee resettlement project and served on the board of Our Place. So he cares for much more than himself, his partner Jack Boomer and the home they share.

He has promised fiscal responsibility, to pause expansion of bike lanes, to audit the Blue Bridge before deciding on the Crystal Pool, and perhaps most importantly, to truly listen to residents and to reject development that goes against the wishes of residents as expressed in local plans.

That’s a solid if thin platform, based largely on what he’s heard from New Council members and many others. It’s also short on detail, but he feels it’s better to promise less and listen and learn more. Newly elected members of council will soon find out that those who are most willing to share the information they need are developers and city employees. The elected people must resist the tendency to become voting machines for development and creatures of city hall rather than the rest of the city.

Hammond has the potential to be a good mayor. If he gets the chance, he’ll make mistakes, which is forgivable. But if he turns his back on his mandate and the people of this small city, they’ll turn their wrath on him.

Most important is telling the truth to the public. This doesn’t apply to Hammond specifically, but someone should set up an independent fact-checking committee to verify the public statements of the mayor and councillors every year and publish the result across the city.