The 2011 Vancouver municipal election is in full swing. What do the candidates really think, and what can we expect of them? The Mainlander has interviewed some of the council candidates, and will be publishing a series of candidate interviews over the next few weeks. Recently, we sat down with COPE City Council candidate Tim Louis. A transcription of the interview follows.

The Mainlander: Why are you the best person for the job of City Councillor?

Tim Louis: I don’t believe there’s ever anybody who’s the best. Don’t believe that I would ever say that I am the best. I think many different people bring many different skills, positions and world-views to the table. The reason that I’m running for Council is that I believe, and always have believed, that it is very, very important that issues are framed in a way for the public to clearly understand the differences between the developers’ agenda on the one hand, and common sense on the other hand. I think in life, unfortunately, the media, the mainstream media, the corporate media, do a very poor job, in the sense that they make most issues appear to be far too complicated, and don’t leave the public with a clear understanding of what the choice really is.

ML: What would you say you would have done differently over the past three years?

TL: Without meaning for a moment, any criticism of anybody currently on Council, including my two good friends [COPE Councilors] Ellen and David, I would have clearly, and without pulling my punches, without muddying the waters, articulated the choices to be made by Council. For instance, with regards to the tax shift, from business owners to property owners, criticism was couched. Criticism of a view that we should be shifting taxes off of businesses and onto property owners, where technically the businesses pay with pre-tax dollars, taxes the property owners pay with after-tax dollars – in other words, taxes that business owners can write-off but that homeowners can never write off. I believe that that policy, of the current Council, when criticized, was criticized very tepidly, and very timidly, and not with a clear message being sent to the public. The average person, the average homeowner in this city, to this day, is unaware of the fact that tens of millions of dollars have been removed from their pockets, and put into the pockets of business owners, and business property owners.

So to come back to your question, what would I have done differently, I’d like to believe that for the six years that I was on Council, I tried very hard to present a very clear picture between what should be done on the one hand and what was being proposed to be done, by the developer Councilors on the other hand. We need to do as public officials a better job of making the choices that we are making clearly articulated to ensure that the public has a clear understanding of the choices we’re making. A clear understanding of the choices at hand.

ML: What are the top two policies you’re planning to work towards if you are elected?

TL: For me, the number one, is social housing. It is perhaps the one item that any Council has the greatest control over. Many would disagree with me and say no, social housing falls into the jurisdiction of the provincial or federal government, and it’s the one item that municipalities have the least control over, but I very vigorously disagree. There’s not a lot of good that a municipal Council can do as far as say, recalibrating income tax, which is federal, or implementing social programs, which is provincial. Most of what a municipal Council does is fairly routine, mundane stuff – getting clean water into our homes, pick up the garbage, et cetera. But as Harry Rankin, my mentor, always said, what we need to do is understand that City Councilors should be concerned with much more than dogs and garbage, and that their most powerful tool is the power they get at rezoning hearings. At rezoning hearings, Council turns dirt into gold. By way of a single motion, they literally, not figuratively, create tens of millions of dollars. As the Council, we have the authority and the ability, to make it a condition for any and all rezoning that this crisis of social housing is addressed then and there. Not in a policy document that gets cut-up outside the rezoning hearing as a meaningless set of watered down goals, but right in that rezoning hearing, that either a) or b). That a) build, in that development, a certain number of units of social housing, or b) pay a certain amount of money into a pool that the City would then use to build social housing. This City Council, as have previous City Councils, have done a wholly inadequate job of using that very powerful tool.

Beyond that number one item, I have a hard time picking out high priority items. I suppose that one of them would be a very strong focus on public transit. I’ve always believed that, for economic, environmental and health reasons, we need to be gradually shifting to buses. I’ve always believed that one of the best ways of doing that is to remove the fare box. Literally ten cents of every fare dollar collected is spent collecting that fare dollar. It is the most inefficient form of collection of revenue that any bureaucrat could ever create. Income tax, on a side note, costs no money to collect. None of the amount of income tax increases adds to the cost of collection, but I digress.

The beauty of the U-Pass is that it does, in a sense, remove the fare box. You’ve already got the pass in your pocket when you get up in the morning. The beauty of the U-Pass is that you buy it whether you want to or not. It’s built right into tuition for students. And the beauty of it further, is that Translink, taking a revenue neutral approach, is able to sell the U-Pass at a much lower price than it would have been otherwise. They take the amount that they are currently collecting in revenue, before the U-Pass is introduced, and divide it by a much larger number of people, all students. So the price per person plummets. Its beauty is in its simplicity. Why on earth can’t we get that same construct and replicate it literally, in as many different ways as the imagination can produce. A neighbourhood could decide democratically, in a geographical catchment area, that it wants to have a U-Pass for all of its residents. In Kitsilano, all the homeowners could democratically decide and then Translink would estimate as best as they can the revenue they’re currently collecting and then divide that revenue by all the people in that catchment area, and the amount per person would be very small. It could be the entire City of Vancouver, but for limited times on the clock. The City of Vancouver might cut a cheque to Translink at the beginning of the year, and transit would be free for all residents during off peak hours. When there’s a surplus of capacity, there are empty seats in any event. Those are just two examples, where I’d like to, at no cost to the taxpayer, dramatically increase ridership, by creatively taking the concept of the U-Pass and making it apply in different scenarios.

On West Broadway, it’s very important to me that we do not go high-tech, high expense like we did with the Airport to Downtown Vancouver line. The RAV line is a perfect illustration of how not to proceed with limited transit dollars. It cost $1.8 billion. For one sixth of that cost, $300 million, we could have had basically the same system in terms of capacity with a rapid bus, the travel times from the airport to downtown being approximately two minutes longer. Dedicated bus lanes, pre-paid boarding and little electronic devices in the buses so that the buses don’t have to stop at red lights. The savings on the $300 million from $1.8 billion would have allowed us to put a rapid bus anywhere and everywhere we wanted throughout the entire GVRD and still had money left over, or taken the entire savings, $1.5 billion, put it into a savings account, and used the interest only to remove the fare box from all public transit in the entire GVRD. My point being, let’s please not make the same mistake on West Broadway. Instead, let’s take a rapid bus, make it free. Let’s have a system so it never hits a red light. Let’s get the ridership way up and get traffic off of West Broadway.

So two issues, social housing and transit, are positives. At the risk of sounding negative, I’m going to do anything I can to put an end to the shifting of taxes off of businesses and on to residences. I’m going to do anything and everything I can to make absolutely certain that there’s no gambling expansion. As a sidebar, and I guess this is a bit of a criticism of the existing Council, I am absolutely convinced that they were onside and they were supportive of the mega-casino that the public stood up to and eventually defeated. It was a done deal. The media in fact announced it was a done deal before it was even out of the gate. The developer would never have spent the millions he did on that proposal if he hadn’t been assured it was a done deal. The only reason it was stopped was because of the phenomenal job the public did in organizing against it.

This current Council is pro-developer, pro-gambling. These are statements of fact, they’re not criticisms. I think we need a voice on Council that is instead pro neighbourhood, pro neighbour, pro gambling-free. That view needs to be clearly articulated in the Council chambers, so that the public has an ally on Council.

ML: For the past three years, Vision Vancouver has promoted their green stances as the crux of their role on City Council. What’s your stance on the environmental policy over the past three years, and what would we see change if you were elected?

TL: Let me just say first that I am convinced that the planet currently is on a trajectory towards apocalypse. The greenhouse gas emissions, global warming, species extinction, peak oil, it is a perfect storm that is going to result in catastrophic and cataclysmic changes in the not too distant future. I say this because I believe all levels of government should do anything and everything they can to be more environmentally conscious. That having been said, and at the risk of being a little bit cheeky, bike lanes are easy, social housing is harder. I don’t say that to be critical of bike lanes, we need them, we should have more of them. But I don’t ever want to get in a situation where a little bit of greenism is used as a mask to camouflage the bigger picture, either the real agenda, or the lack of a real agenda. If it’s used to mask the lack of a real agenda, for example, no real plan to build social housing, that would be very sad. If it’s used to mask an existing but negative agenda, for example, tax shifting on to residential property owners or more gambling, that would be sad. To answer your question, of course on any individual item, anything and everything Vision is proposing from an environmental perspective I support. If as a sidebar, we can reduce our garbage consumption and increase our organic waste diversion from the landfill, that’s great.

These items shouldn’t be allowed to become distractors for other, bigger items. I’m guessing, and it’s only a guess, that a really aggressive public transit policy would reduce green house gasses by an order of magnitude more than the creation of bike lanes. If we’re really serious about what bike lanes apparently do, reduce green house gas emissions, we wouldn’t be looking at a limited number of bike lane kilometers, we’d be looking at a major shift towards public transit. Bike lanes are good, but getting public transit usage up by double or triple would be a bit harder and requires a bit more effort. Some corporations, and I’m not saying this about Vision but it’s something we need to be alert to, have used the public’s wish to be green to green-wash, rather than dealing with the real fundamental issues.

Let me just say one more thing. The compressed work-week [of four ten hour days], so beautiful and so simple, had three main benefits. Firstly, workers could be home more with their families. Secondly, City hall was able to stay open longer for citizens. Lastly, because the number of hours in the workweek were spread out over a fewer number of days, it meant fewer trips to work. It meant a minimum 10 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from City employees travelling to work. I would ask the question why hasn’t City Council reintroduced the compressed work-week, something that I fought very hard for in my 2002-2005 term. It was something that the now Vision, then COPE, Councilors opposed with all their effort. They did not want to reintroduce the compressed work-week.

When we’re thinking about the environment and the green element of the Vision Council, let’s be really clear about what we’re talking about.

ML: What is the influence of developers on civic politics, in particular the NPA and Vision Vancouver.

TL: Massive and profound. Whether politicians admit it or not, whether they’re conscious of it or not, politicians and political parties’ funding sources have a massive and profound effect on the lens through which any and every decision is made. When there is a question to be put before Council, should we increase density in Chinatown for example, and we have the Downtown Eastside saying unanimously don’t do that – it will have a negative impact on one of the most vulnerable neighbourhoods in the city, that question is looked at through a different lens by people that are funded by developers than it would be otherwise. When a major developer proposed to ask Council for an exception that would allow it to build a tower on Burrard and Davie, a tower that the public are not clamouring for, the Council of the day looks at that proposal through a lens that is unique due to the fact that most of their funding comes from developers. I’d like to issue a friendly challenge to Vision, and at the same time give them a compliment. One of the criticisms of Vision, is that they have received and perhaps continued to receive funding from foreign sources. I believe they’ve agreed to stop accepting foreign donations. A friendly challenge to Vision is to agree to no longer accept donations from developers. It would be a big step forward.

ML: How would you empower neighbourhood councils?

TL: Firstly we need to look at how neighbourhood councils are created, elected, and resourced. Absent of any resources, it’s very difficult for them to communicate on an adequate basis with their constituency. I’m not talking about a huge amount of funding, but I think neighbourhood councils should have a modest amount of funding to communicate with the citizens that live in their area. That would certainly do an enormous amount to empower them. Secondly, and just as importantly, I’d like to see the shift of a lot of decision-making power out of the chambers of Twelfth and Cambie and into the hands of these neighbourhood councils. As soon as we do that, the more meaningful we make a neighbourhood council – meaningful, real and robust. I’m not quite sure where we’d draw the line – at some level of a developer’s proposal. For example, in the neighbourhood where I work, at Main and Broadway, there’s a huge tower being proposed. That would fall into the category in which neighbourhood councils should be making the decisions. This would, by the way, be another step towards a ward system. If we had fifteen or twenty effective neighbourhood councils, that would lay the foundation for a transition to a ward system.

ML: What is your ideal model for housing development in Vancouver?

TL: I think the question presupposes that there is one ideal model, and I reject that. I think there are many different models that are appropriate for different times and different neighbourhoods. What’s appropriate for the Downtown core for housing, large towers, is totally the wrong model for the Southlands. But there are some commonalities. Every time there is an increase in density as a result of development, there needs to be a commitment to a greater use of public transit. As a for instance only, if there’s a residential tower that goes in Downtown, built right into the strata council’s by-laws as an unalterable by-law, should be a requirement that anybody in that building that wants to can submit at the end of each month a receipt for a bus pass that gets paid for by the strata council. This goes around full circle to what we talked about with the U-Pass, but it would be unique to that building. We need to look at buildings where the developer is not required to build or provide parking. The building that I work in has five floors of residential and no parking for anybody and it means that most people in the building are car-less, and that’s beautiful.

To go down to the more low-level ideal development, we need, spread throughout the City, more Special Needs Residential Facilities (SNRFs). We need way more of those. The de-institutionalization of Riverview was a scam. It was never done because the government of the day was opposed philosophically to institutions, it was done to save tens of millions of dollars. People living on the street in the Downtown Eastside, at least from the perspective of the provincial health department, superficially appeared way cheaper than housing them where the per capita, per day cost might be four or five hundred dollars at Riverview. The de-institutionalization of course I support, but not as a convenience to save money. We need to be building a lot more SNRFs in neighbourhoods.

I guess I would say, at the end of the day, no matter what the model, the question should not be “What’s the model?”, but “What’s the mechanism?”. It’s the mechanism that gives birth to the model. If the mechanism is eleven people in a semi-dark, semi-recluse chamber at 12th and Cambie funded mainly by developers, that mechanism is designed to produce disaster. If the mechanism instead was local democratic, ordinary people sitting around a table at a neighbourhood council, that mechanism could only give birth to beauty. It would see lots of development.

As Harry Rankin said, nobody in their right mind can be opposed to development. If it wasn’t for development, we’d all be living in caves. And I don’t want to live in a cave; I like living in a house. My house was built as the result of development.

I’m not opposed to development, but the question is: for whom? For the developer or for the neighbours that live in and around that development. If as a coincidence only, the developer manages to make some money, there’s nothing wrong with that, but that shouldn’t be the objective. The objective shouldn’t be to stuff his or her pants full of money so full that there’s no more room and the money that falls out ends up in the pockets of the political parties.

Photo credit flickr user brent_granby.