Why we need changes at city hall

Victoria deserves a break. We need a new municipal government that will bring this city together and reflect its values.

We need an end to polarization, an end to the alienation between City Hall and many citizens, a return to basic values like truthfulness and transparency in government.

This is a progressive town. Most of us vote for NDP or Green candidates at provincial and federal levels, because we believe they reflect our values.

But regardless of how we vote (or don’t), the majority of people in this town believe in human rights, equality, mutual respect and openness, basic needs like food and housing for all, improving quality of life, caring for our environment, our neighbourhoods, each other. Or most of the above.

The current council, led by Mayor Lisa Helps, has succeeded in some measures, but failed in others. Our downtown is vibrant, we have a spanking new bridge and a building boom in the central core and elsewhere. We have separated bike lanes on two city streets, enjoyed by cyclists every day. But if the city leadership deserves some of the credit for these measures, they must absorb some of the fault, the lack of proper consultation on the bike network, the dark side of crime, poverty and dissension on downtown streets.

This council has presided over a building boom that benefits the developers who erect these projects, the wealthier citizens who can afford to live or invest in them–often at the expense of the neighbourhoods where they’re located. Meanwhile, affordable housing has taken a back seat. Look at our old housing stock in this city: most of it was affordable and family-oriented when it was built. Today, nearly none of it is, which shows how far we’ve come, down the wrong road.

And council has failed to properly capture a fair share of the value of increased zoning bonuses for the City and its residents, a windfall that could have been directed at affordability.

They have not been strong on the environment, on measures ranging from protecting our trees and some key green spaces to demanding higher levels of environmental standards in new building projects.

New project at former St. Andrew’s school site: to some downtown
vibrancy, to others, neighbourhood encroachment

The main complaint about Mayor Helps is that she doesn’t listen, meaning she will forge ahead regardless of public feedback–if she seeks it at all. Another is that she is not always forthright with the public. Her promises and some of her assertions, even made in the midst of this campaign, ring hollow.

She promised to unveil a public process to city council on the relocation of the Macdonald statute before the election. She did not. No doubt some voters, like the young man I spoke to at the advance poll this week, abandoned her over this botched process. She claims her government is a leader on many fronts, and that there was no new rental housing construction in the City in the 30 years before she took office. Just check Page 9 this 2014 City Housing Report which indicates 445 new rental units were added between 2010 and 2014 alone. Common sense alone would indicate that the city could not accommodate the surge in population of the last three decades without adding new rental units.

She vows to “Take a neighbourhood-led approach to neighbourhood planning.” This is such a reversal from the experience of many residents of the last four years, it stretches credibility. On many fronts, we have had a city hall-led process, not a citizen-led process, as Helps herself acknowledges.

The mayor must take responsibility for this shortcoming, as much as anyone else. Many people feel she should have seen the ample warning signs and tackled this basic, fundamental problem within the last four years rather than finally acknowledging it just before the election.