Mayor-elect Smith embraces restraint

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

Argyle’s changes point to a new type of town

Appeared in North Shore News – May 28, 2010

West Vancouver town hall is busily hyping its vandalism of the district’s most peaceable, genuine “people’s place” — Argyle Avenue from 13th to John Lawson Park — having detected that the feel-good but bad-vibes Spirit Trail project isn’t universally loved.

This area is West Vancouver’s equivalent of the European-style public square. It is insane to destroy it in favour of recreational cyclists, skateboarders and bladers.

Last night, too late for my deadline, town hall sneaked in an Ambleside Waterfront Plan Open House which, as of last weekend, hadn’t been flagged on its official calendar. West Vancouver’s most dedicated and knowledgeable council-watcher, Carolanne Reynolds, stumbled on it through a Ferry Building Gallery message.

This “open house” asking for public input was utterly bogus. Fact: The morning before council’s April 12 meeting unanimously approving the project, an earth-mover was on the Ambleside Beach sands behind Argyle Avenue, ready to roll. The decision had already been made behind the usual closed doors and the public council discussion was a farce.

Town hall has stepped on the accelerator to whip through this barbarism — demolishing the millennial clock (an initiative of Mayor Pam Goldsmith-Jones’s predecessor, Ron Wood) at top speed and patting down fresh turf — before it gets much scrutiny.

But, not to be parochial, how has the Spirit Trail — a 35-kilometre vision of hearty, healthy cyclists and chest-expanding backpackers linking Deep Cove and Horseshoe Bay — fared in its progress, including through North Vancouver?

Reader K’nud Hille sums it up: “Only the easy pieces have been picked so far, including a few hundred feet from/to nowhere along the Mosquito Creek Marina; a couple of kilometres from/to nowhere along West First Street/Welch Street and through the neighbourhood Welch Park Strip; and a couple of kilometres from/to nowhere behind Park Royal Shopping Centre and the Ambleside sports fields.” (My Secret Agent MT0218 beautifully describes the latter as looking “like the start of a cattle drive on the Ponderosa.”)

Hille isn’t alone in scorning the belief that cyclists and pedestrians can coexist on the same trails and seawall walks, citing Stanley Park and New Westminster. Is it possible that there are enthusiasts for the Argyle section, but they’re keeping quiet? Maybe.

Owners of properties on the north side of Bellevue, looking south over Argyle Street and facing the water and downtown Vancouver skyline, might conceivably be among them. Once the houses and probably the trees are gone, their view will be hugely enhanced. Herewith the addresses, ownership, street-level businesses where applicable, and current assessments of some of them:

– 1467 Bellevue Ave. (Bellevue Natural Health Clinic), Benevolent Realty Enterprises, $4,625,000;

– 1427 Bellevue Ave. (Canada Post), Sarah W. Lai, $5,656,000;

– 1455 Bellevue Ave. (Walker Place), Bellevue Properties Ltd. — a handsome, multi-tenanted project of Chuck Walker, whose (very charming and smart) daughter, Shannon Walker, is now a WV councillor — $13,095,000;

– 1571 Bellevue Ave. (containing many doctors’, realtors’ etc. premises), $2,573,000; suite 203, separately listed, is attributed to Noordin Madatali, assessed value $3,000,000;

– 1507 Bellevue Ave. (Dentistry-on-Bellevue), North Bellevue Holdings Ltd., $4,961,000;

– 1875 Bellevue Ave., Broadway Properties Ltd., $13,368,000.

With enhanced views, in which direction would you expect the market value of these properties to move?

No one can be blamed for self-interest. But destroying mature Argyle Avenue’s present peaceful mix of pedestrians, dog-walkers, runners, casual young cyclists and, yes, very slow-moving cars needed by frailer and child-transporting people to get to the area, demonstrates that town hall politicians, public sector unions and entrepreneurs will lightly roll over people taking time to stop and stare and chat — or to attend classes at The Music Box, or concerts at the Silk Purse.

Constant Reader knows my affection for the latter — a gem of high-quality, low-price concerts. Disclosure necessary? I donate to the Silk Purse (but seldom attend).

I suspect most councillors — who now have retreated on abolishing the boat ramp and allowing a beachfront seafood restaurant — wouldn’t know the Silk Purse if they fell over it. Town hall’s treatment of it is not merely indifferent, it’s aggressive. Mayor, councillors and bureaucrats should be ashamed.

The new beach path is right on the property line, literally six metres, 20 feet, from the piano. Noisy passersby especially in summer would make concerts utterly impossible — and the end of nearby parking is a death warrant. Town hall’s fair-haired boy is the Kay Meek Centre, a very different, splendid but also flawed gem: Its shared space with West Van secondary and especially its almost scary night parking are problems.

I’m amazed at former Silk Purse board president David Schreck’s optimism that the foot traffic “may be a good thing — more people will become aware of it.” Well, attendance is strong now. But Schreck — former New Democrat MLA for North Vancouver-Lonsdale — accurately added: “Relocation would essentially kill (the Silk Purse).”

Its directors are publicly silent. My guess: They’re too nice. And, not so nice, they doubtless include supporters of Goldsmith-Jones, and in this small town are reluctant to speak up, many compromised by their connections or ambitions. (I’ve sought other prominent people’s opinions and their silence speaks.)

I hesitate to respond to News letter-writers. But I count the following as personal friends, salt-of-the-earth people.

Neale Adams, former newspaper colleague and the gentlest of men, writes a witty letter supporting the Spirit Trail and looks forward to cycling along it. Thanks, Neale, and remind me to warmly recommend a cement factory on your street — which is near Cambie and 25th, Vancouver. A tad distant from the scene.

Marc Strongman, co-chair of the Spirit Trail Committee and member of a family I admire and have broken bread with, gently admonishes me. He recalls the difficulty of learning to cycle on the North Shore as a boy. I fearlessly predict that Argyle as it is would be a far better place for children to learn to ride than Argyle as it will be. On Victoria Day a mom and her two small children were doing just that, the street with its throngs amiable and tolerant.

Marc reveals: “Never, ever has the trail been considered a bicycle commuter route.” Zounds! That would be its chief, or only, justification.

Are these a lot of words for a little issue? I think not. The larger movement of which Argyle Street is a part is toward a very different town, especially the redevelopment ahead for Marine Drive in Ambleside, certain to drive out many small, non-chic existing businesses. West Vancouver is doomed to become a ghetto of three classes: The well-off, the rich, and the stinkin’ rich.

It’s already afoot. A lot of older people are land-rich and everything-else-poor. You can see them counting coins at the Ambleside Safeway, hoping they outlive their change purses. Few younger people, our children, have a hope in hell of buying here.

The big bass drum hyping Vancouver as a grrreat cosmopolitan city welcoming the world, beaten by Premier Gordon Campbell, the Liberals, and West Van’s power structure — I turn my deaf ear toward it. This will not be a pleasanter West Vancouver.

© Trevor Lautens, 2010

Election Fanmail

Here’s a piece of fanmail from the municipal elections:

Pamela Goldsmith-Jones has been re-elected Mayor of West Vancouver! This must provide you with an opportunity to continue with negative reporting for the next three years or until your progressing senile decay sends you to the care of geriatric attention. I will be glad to offer you the addresses of good seniors care facilities A close neighbour of ours has advised me not to be too hash with my remarks and informs me that when seen in our neighbourhood and still walking the dog, he is assured that by your presence that their is a life after death.

My reply:

Thank you for your thoughtful words – I’m always pleased to receive fan mail and of course will repeat your words in my next column, space allowing.

While you are flipping through the Yellow Pages for a good seniors home for me – may I, with the kindliest of intentions, suggest you reflect on your ageism, which some people consider as vicious as racism, anti-Semitism or sexism? – you might spend some time pondering the numbers showing that the
mayor was not supported by a very clear majority of voters in a virtual three-way race. The margin of her rejection was significant and would trouble any politician, especially an incumbent, looking at such figures.

You’ll also appreciate that I was, as far as I know, the only practitioner in the media in the world who openly and without qualification predicted the mayor’s victory. One would have expected at least a modicum of gratitude.

Tell your neighbour I’d be delighted if he/she would describe symptoms of “life after death” that can be observed through a man walking with his dog.

I thank you again, most sincerely, for your message. I appreciate anyone who takes time to contact me in this busy world.


trevor L.