Appeared in the North Shore News – October 28, 2011
WHAT’S the world coming to? Mike Smith is mayor-acclaimed of West Vancouver, he’s a long-time fuel distributor for Esso – yet he can’t get a fillup in his own town.
Smith’s car runs on diesel. None of the six remaining gas stations in West Van’s 89 square kilometres – only two beyond Dundarave – pumps diesel fuel. Ironic, no?
Cynics will recognize the above as a conventional cheap journalistic trick – suck in readers with the “human element” angle. Right. Now stick around for something completely different. This is not the mayoral – or any politician’s – style you’ve come to know and maybe loved. Or not.
“I’m cautious. I want to do things right. I really believe this – in 14 years I’ve treated public money as if it was mine.” He listed the West Vancouver projects that have cost far over budget, “two or three times” over: the aquatic centre reno, the Gleneagles Community Centre, the Gleneagles fire hall, the 22nd Street community centre (“it started out at $16.7 million and ended up over $40 million”), the Gleneagles clubhouse.
“Everything we’ve done has been over budget. That’s not gonna happen – I can promise you that.” And if he has a liberal-spending council? “I’m going to stand up and say ‘I don’t think the public is going to support this.’ The public is way ahead of the politicians.”
More: Smith scorns and defies the entire debt-ridden world, and essentially declares West Van will be an island of fiscal sanity. Few financial analysts are as brutal as this:
“We are going through an economic cataclysm. You’ve got to be pretty stupid not to see it. . . . There are 50 million Americans on food stamps. . . . Europe is a basket case. The western capitalist countries are paying for 50 years’ overspending and way too much debt. And it’s not going to end well – can’t.
“All the politicians do is kick the problem down the road, and it can’t be kicked any more.
“In West Van, I think we can stand up and say, ‘Look, this is the way it has to be.’ . . . We have a great community, we’ve got all these volunteers, we don’t have to go out and hire consultants, we don’t have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on lawyers. It’s got to stop. Look at the police department. I think they spend half a million dollars on legal fees.”
Smith talks turkey as if it’s still Thanksgiving. He cited a November Vanity Fair magazine article on U.S. debt problems: “It’s just haunting reading. . . . It’s happening in the United States. Do we want it to happen here?”
He’s soft-spoken, but the words are like a blowtorch peeling off paint. He scorned Liberal Dalton McGuinty’s debt-loaded Ontario, recently called the Greece of Canada.
“And (Prime Minister Stephen) Harper? He calls himself a conservative. He’s not my kind of conservative. Same with Gordon Campbell. Every year he increased the provincial debt. Yet they pass themselves off as these great fiscal managers. And they’re not. We haven’t had a sound fiscal manager since the (WA. C. and Bill) Bennetts.”
Does he belong to any party? “They’re all too left wing for me,” Smith laughed.
“I was on a Metro labour board for three years, and you want to see a frustrating experience. . . . I looked around – 18 representatives from the other municipalities, none of them with any management experience, any labour relations experience.”
The Smith view: If those municipalities pleaded they were forced by union contracts and fire and police legislation to raise wages four per cent, then they simply had to cut their budgets by four per cent. “They looked at me like I was a wild Attila the Hun type. You can’t have a system where the public sector workers have a standard of living that the rest of us are like apes looking through the bars.”
Unions got “way better than anybody expected” during tough times, Smith said, and now negotiations have to be about job preservation: “If you’re going to be talking about wage increases, we’re going to be talking about layoffs.”
Won’t that be huge for a mayor to do? “My drivers were unionized. I’ve worked in a unionized environment (the International Union of Operating Engineers) for years. We never had a problem. We never had a grievance that went to arbitration.” At bargaining sessions there were “rants and raves about what an evil employer they had. . . . We’d eventually get what we needed to get. It’s a bit of a game.”
Closer to home: He’s critical of AmblesideNow’s proposed public safety building for police and firehall, a cost of $65 million being floated around. “The thing’s taken on a life of its own.” It’s “a plain real estate play that’s become a giant, ballyhooed revitalization project,” complete with an information centre, website and consultants.
The present police station is “falling apart” but the firehall is perfectly good, Smith declares, and the plan only makes sense if the cost of a new police station can be covered by the sale of the present site.
He’s made a cause of the North Shore’s three fire departments: “Why do we need three separate bureaucracies?” He favours “one command and control structure” that would buy the equipment, do maintenance work etc. for all three. “The savings would be huge. What we have now is like Vancouver having 12 fire departments – one for Point Grey, one for Kitsilano . . . how can you argue against it?”
Who’s backing him? Any “downtown money” – code for Vancouver developers and businessmen hungrily circling B.C.’s wealthiest municipality?
Smith said evenly – he says everything evenly – that in his four school board terms and two as councillor “I’ve never taken a dime from anyone. . . . In North Van they take it from the goddam unions!”
He agreed a race for mayor would be healthier for democracy, and was surprised at how many people offered to work for his campaign – “I’m talking hundreds.” (After he declared his candidacy, Mayor Pam Goldsmith-Jones announced she wouldn’t run again.)
Born in Brighton, U.K., in 1946, son of a Royal Navy captain and a mother with a gift for painting, Smith has lived in West Vancouver since 1955. He passed through West Van public schools and at UBC majored in bridge, poker and rugby, but they gave him a degree in economics and history anyway.
He worked as an investment analyst for Peter Brown, then in the Bank of America’s Vancouver office, and – something of a surprise – as a newspaper publisher. He sold his White Rock Sun and Surrey-Delta Messenger to Conrad Black and David Radler in 1976. He’s been with second wife Virginia for 12 years and they married three years ago. They had five children – all girls – between them. Smith lost a daughter aged 23 to a brain tumour. “It changes your life. Something you never get over.”
Big events lie ahead: He retires from the oil business this month, his dream house in Kauai is nearly finished, and in December he becomes mayor. Any views of his predecessor?
“She did some things really well,” Smith said. “When it comes to community engagement, I take my hat off to Pam. Citizen involvement, the working groups – that was all good positive stuff. . . . She had a good vision.
“The flip side of that is the reality that she had never come from a management background. . . . Pam was a great speaker and – better than I’ll be – a great front person for West Van. I can try, but it’s just not my nature – I’ll never be as successful as she was. Not as good a public speaker, not as flamboyant – she served West Vancouver well in that way.
“It’ll be a change of culture.”
I expect so.
© Trevor Lautens, 2011