There’s a new kid on the development block

Appeared in the North Shore News – December 5, 2014

If you loved the Weegies, as I tenderly call the West Vancouver Citizens for Good Government, you may adore the West Vancouver Housing Association.

The WVHA is a new kid on the development block. Literally. It has a storefront in Dundarave. Two well-placed, mystified West Van town hall personages agreed with the undersigned that, as of last week, they’d never seen it open. Nor did it have a website. Or any Googleable reference.

Agent Tj3s8 – a development skeptic, so take the opinion with a large grain of NaCl – says the WVHA consists of “the worst” real estate heavies, the most powerful developers and salespeople. Meaning the best, biggest, most successful, by positive interpretation.

And why is the WVHA springing into life now?

Because next month West Van council begins serious debate on an updated official community plan, which will take many months to pass.

In that time gap, so goes the cynical view of Agent Tj3s8, the real estate business will put foot to the floor to rush town hall development approvals before a possibly more stringent OCP is passed.

Pretty much like the self-interest of all of us when our dollar is at stake.

Fittingly next up, gloomy retail news: Baracos + Brand is closing – a quality men’s store that would have attracted well-heeled residents of Grosvenor Ambleside, steps down Bellevue, had it held on for a few years.

Christine Baracos and late West Van councillor John Clark co-owned the store under the smartly named The Mensroom. Its successor’s closure supports Mayor Michael Smith’s case that many Ambleside businesses are suffering near-death experiences, and Grosvenor is a major step toward rejuvenation.

So Smith (and Grosvenor) must welcome the reborn Shell station across Marine Drive, long an inglorious mudhole entrance to Ambleside that hardly enhances sales of condos – which, Agent p49scR, a new agent whose accuracy is untested and is only on the apprentice list, declares are projected to start at $1.6 million and, for the two penthouse-type terrace homes, will be north of $15 million each.

Michael Ward, senior vice-president and general manager of Grosvenor Americas, responds: “Price lists are not something we distribute, but rather we provide those that are interested in purchasing specific residential units with the individual pricing for that unit.” Grosvenor Ambleside’s presentation centre will be completed in February, Ward adds.

As Constant Reader knows, my only journalistic fault is an abiding kindness.

So I’ve been musing about my words, last time at bat, about Coun. Craig Cameron’s pain that council duties were costing him – he has to take time off from what we might call real work. He’s right.

Most present councillors are either retired or aren’t principal or sole breadwinners.

Exceptions are Cameron, a government lawyer who has lost income due to council demands, and newcomer Christine Cassidy, a financial adviser, who may find herself in the same financial boat – a metaphorical leaky 12-foot rowboat. Councillors are paid about $30,000 a year for running a municipality where top staff get up to seven or eight times as much.

So vote-topping Cameron isn’t whining. He’s just more open than others about the sacrificial realities of council service in 2014.

I allow myself one sports comment per year. This is it: My deep distrust of contact sports – football and, yes, hockey, about which I have a puckish sense of humour – deepened last weekend.

Hamilton, my home town (only 51 years away from it, seems like 52), crushed favoured Calgary with a touchdown in the last 35 seconds of the Grey Cup game … but for an interference call that wiped out Brandon Banks’ classic 90-yard run to the end zone. And left Calgary’s 20-16 lead intact. From my seat in Section 444, the referee instantly resembled the man who ain’t got rhythm, nobody’s with him, he’s the loneliest man in town (that’s Irving Berlin, kiddies).

Vancouver Sun sports writers mocked the illegal block call. Iain MacIntyre doubted that Taylor Reed’s infraction influenced Banks’ spectacular run: “By CFL standards, deciding the Grey Cup on largely innocuous contact was absolutely predictable.” Cam Cole: “That’s not to say there wasn’t a foul on the play. The problem is that there’s a foul, or two, or five, on pretty much every play in football.”

(Canada’s real gridiron drama was Saturday, when my school, Hamilton’s McMaster, bowed 20-19 to University of Montreal Carabins on a dying-seconds blocked field goal. Two hometown losses in a weekend!) Back to the point: In hockey, as in football, the line between fair and foul is often so subjective, so arbitrary – penalties commonly aren’t called in overtime, f’r instance – that refs have huge power to determine winners and losers.

Which is why baseball is my game. The umpires – suitably black-clad – are clearly God clones. Never wrong. Sort of like old newspaper columnists.

© Trevor Lautens, 2014

Defiance of Weegie’s blessing brings hope

Appeared in the North Shore News – November 7, 2014

Where to start? How about in November 2018 – when, let us pray, some tough opposition group coalesces to take on Weegie?

Ah, Weegie’s just my private name for the West Vancouver Citizens for Good Government, run by a tiny core of self-proclaimed civic do-gooders, heavy on implementers of the development industry. It’s a one-party town, a kinder version of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the USSR, minus the gulag and the show trials. Website is a joke – its email address doesn’t work, and no phone number.

Glaring omission from its slate (endorsed council candidates pay $900 for the precious Weegie nod): Coun. Mary-Ann Booth. Why? Smart lady. Very West Vancouver. Ambitious.

Likely future mayoral candidate. But she had to recuse herself from the Grosvenor debates and votes, her husband being a lawyer for a firm hired by Grosvenor – otherwise, wild guess, she’d have backed it. So Mayor Michael Smith had to sweat to get the precious tie-breaking approval vote. Make no mistake: Now twice acclaimed, Smith’s vision implicitly endorsed, this is his town. (Credit where due: His council kept tax rises under one per cent.)

How about Agent Y3nPg6’s claim that three prominent political hitpersons are gunning for Couns. Nora Gambioli and Craig Cameron?

Their supposed sin: They voted against the Grosvenor development, thus proof they’re anti-development. Weegie-endorsed Cameron seethes: Says he’s no such thing, just sought a smaller project. Had the jam to admit changing his mind about the ridiculous Ferry Building extension.

As for Gambioli, she let the feline out of the Gucci when she said WV council battles behind closed doors because “Realtors, land investors and developers have sent us many emails voicing their rather livid concerns about these plans to debate reductions to new home volumes.” Surprised? Cue George Bernard Shaw (see his Saint Joan at the Stanley): The best-kept secrets are the ones everybody guesses.

It all fits: With Booth, now a Kremlinesque Weegie non-person, and Gambioli hopefully exiled, the Weegies have sent into the lineup pinch-hitters Peter Lambur, Joanna Baxter and Jim Finkbeiner. Impressive careers. Zero political experience. No accident, says my theory. The Weegies want, possibly sought out, reliable neophytes. They’ll be beholden.

Hey, no dirty works. Conventional politics. Just like in Ottawa or Victoria. Team player, or out. Smith needs a council majority.

Otherwise, why Baxter, nice woman, shaky speaker, and why Finkbeiner, who recites his c.v., empty of content concerning WV politics?

Story making rounds about Finkbeiner: Early on, he asked where town hall is. Whaaattt? His explanation: “No, I was just kidding a couple of people. We have good friends who live right around the corner of the municipal hall.” His brochure boasts two pages of nationwide accomplishments – and no contact info. (Hastily reprinted, now added.)

Intermission, light relief: Clear winner of Most Unlikely Former Oakalla Prison Guard – svelte, stylish and smart council candidate Christine Cassidy. Yes, briefly, after graduation. Today a stockbroker, and passionate fund-raiser. A voice for slopitch development.

Coun. Michael Lewis’s campaign launch featured big backers, including Smith, former mayors Ron Wood and Pamela Goldsmith-Jones (who I believe don’t exchange Christmas cards), and former B.C. attorney general and councillor Russ Fraser.

However different politically, Lewis (again) disdained Weegie endorsement. Also Terry Platt, an actual working person and New Democrat and thus hardly a fit councillor for West Vancouver anyway.

Lewis is a strong future mayoral candidate – and his quietly successful repeat defiance of Weegie’s blessing brings hope before 2018 of a fresh political alignment challenging this stuffy little clique. Otherwise Lewis is no rebel, certainly not anti-development, a rubbery term. Platt (thrice, not twice as I recently reported, an unsuccessful provincial candidate against ageless Ralph Sultan) is a platform favourite.

Coun. Bill Soprovich – West Van’s all-time election champ, perhaps? – is a populist who personally trots around to listen to any aggrieved citizen, but Sop, as he’s fondly known, can’t be categorized as anti-development. Nothing is so black and white. Newcomers, oldcomers, we all live in developments. Hold the hypocrisy.

Personal regret: In the 2011 elections I blandly declared that Carolanne Reynolds, tireless chronicler of council meetings and defender of heritage, was more valuable outside council than in. Bad me. That shouldn’t disqualify her. Few know more of our town.

At this writing no council candidate proposes any means of stopping neighbour-insensitive bloated houses like Dong Biao Huang’s and Catherine Zhao’s on Kensington Crescent.

Does your reps’ wealth interest you? Fascinating public information: Return-match candidate Michael Evison holds stock in 38 companies; Finkbeiner in 29 (he evidently likes Supreme Pharma, 100,000 shares); Cassidy in 65, including 521.636 in Fidelity Northstar Fund and 812.056 in Manulife US Large Cap. Well, sure, she’s a stockbroker – the Oakalla prison guard gig rather far behind her.

And then some candidates declare no investments at all. Why do I cynically suspect that the spouse evasively holds the shares?

© Trevor Lautens, 2014

Picking over the election’s entrails

Appeared in the North Shore News – November 25, 2011

Is West Vancouver Citizens for Good Government (WVCGG) a monster that eats a whole town’s political culture every three years, then burps, digests and snores for the next three?

Or just nice neighbours, exchanging apple pie recipes over the back fence?

Fascinating issue, you’ll agree. But first, applause for the 50 per cent of fresh new faces on West Van council: Mary-Ann Booth (lawyer), Craig Cameron (lawyer) and Nora Gambioli (lawyer).

Amazing how so many lawyers are devoted to selfless public service.

They will join incumbents Bill Soprovich, who came last in his first council bid and has topped the polls six times since, Trish Panz and Michael Lewis around the town hall power table next month – December, Christmas month.

But there’s a new hardeyed Santa in charge, no lawyer but a none-too-jolly private businessman, and he is not in a giving mood in this ho, ho horrible time for many financially pressed West Vancouver citizens and even anxious wealthier ones.

Disillusioning though it will be to some readers, the gifts to run town hall, where salaries gobble up 80 per cent of the budget, come from the taxpayer. They aren’t cobbled in Santa’s workshop by elves.

The elves have retired – on handsome pensions, of course.

Mayor-elect Mike Smith has made it clear: If Metrowide union contracts impose a four-per-cent salary rise, the budget will have to be cut four per cent. Period. Last year’s determined squeeze on the budget that fell just short of its zero-rise target will be resurrected.

Don’t think the grandiose projects of the Pam Goldsmith-Jones era, like Grosvenor’s boosterishly dubbed AmblesideNOW!, will be invulnerable. Or the swollen sums paid to lawyers, typified early by the half-million squandered by the mayor-chaired police board to fire honourable cop Scott Armstrong and replace him with the vainglorious scoundrel Kash Heed.

The last two councils were evenly split several times on development-related issues, often with Couns. Lewis – former member of the budget-policing Interested Taxpayers Action Committee – Soprovich and Smith on the nay side. Coun. Shannon Walker, businesswoman and daughter of the glossy Walker Building’s Chuck Walker, who retired to raise her children, proved no fool with the public’s money either.

(Longish footnote: I asked Shannon’s take on the election. In part: “I am very encouraged by the make-up of the new council. . . . Actually makes me a bit sad I won’t be part of it because I think it looks like an energetic and intellectual group of leaders that will push the boundaries a bit. I think it is unfortunate that Coun. (Michael) Evison was not re-elected as he was always a very diligent, wellprepared and enthusiastic member of our team and I really enjoyed working with him.” She and Smith are also mutual admirers. She asks who I think might run for mayor in 2014. Answer: Herself. Have I ever been wrong?)

And now? Let’s see if council’s chemistry changes with the three newcomers (none of whom, Constant Reader unkindly notes, got the nod from the undersigned).

Gambioli didn’t mention that she had been a Green party candidate in the 2002 provincial election. Still Green? West Vancouverites quirkily are kneejerk naturelovers but not political environmentalists, a large distinction.

Cameron, affronted by the suspicion in this space that he was too sleek, too trite in speeches, too “downtown,” cordially suggested a get-toknow-you informal interview over coffee, an hour-plus.

Charming. A justice ministry lawyer, granted one (unpaid) day off weekly for council work. “I’d be better off if I lost,” he laughed. Father of three youngsters. Boyishly belies his 42 years (youngest kid on the council block), and almost embarrassingly open – I feared that if I asked him about his sex life, he’d tell me. I gave notice I’d be on the lookout for his alleged sleekness, downtown-ness etc., so he’s been alerted to look quietly rich and dress in stained dog-walking clothes like all genuine West Vancouverites.

Mary-Ann Booth isn’t so amusing. In my view she shouldn’t even have thought of running for council: Her husband is a lawyer for a firm that does business with Grosvenor – a connection only drawn from her at an allcandidates meeting, and which subsequently she smoothly passed over.

Of course Booth will abstain from debate and voting on Grosvenor-related matters. That abstention in a small six-member council could be decisive. But also, what of other developments that conceivably might compete with Grosvenor’s? All aspiring and even practising politicians should consult Plutarch’s narrative that established the “Caesar’s wife” example.

. . .

Oops, no space to hash over WVCGG’s influence, except to say that it can’t be blamed for having no competitors in this small town. It should have. The real knock on the WVCGG is its up-front fee of $900 from council candidates (refunded if they don’t make the cut) before it even considers their pitch.

© Trevor Lautens, 2011