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Mayor steps in to defuse storm between councillors and staff

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson does a phone interview with The Globe and Mail at City Hall on Nov. 13.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Mayor Gregor Robertson appears to be trying to defuse a storm that blew up last week after Councillor Adriane Carr publicly suggested the city manager had bullied her and acted politically.

Another councillor, Vision Vancouver's Geoff Meggs, filed an official complaint that Ms. Carr had violated the city's Code of Conduct, which prohibits staff or politicians from criticizing each other publicly, even though Ms. Carr later apologized for her personal remarks.

But Mr. Robertson said he would like to avoid an investigation into that complaint.

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"The mayor's preference is to resolve the matter more informally and without the need to involve a third party," said a brief statement from the mayor's office Monday. "He is very hopeful that they can arrive at a sensible resolution and put the matter to rest."

That conciliatory statement is the latest chapter in a brawl over the city's community centres that has been dominating public conversation in recent weeks.

Some community-centre associations, which run the city's centres jointly with the city-funded but independently elected park board, have been complaining that they were being pressured by the board to sign a new agreement.

They said the agreement would give the board total control over the revenues and programming the associations now have.

Those complaints spiralled into a series of messy public meetings.

That has propelled Vision Vancouver, which controls city council and the park board, into defensive manoeuvres, while both right- and left-wing opposition groups have looked for ways to press the issue.

Ms. Carr, the city's only Green Party councillor, tried to get a motion onto the council agenda last week, asking the city to calculate how much it would cost the parks system if association volunteers were replaced by paid park-board employees.

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City manager Penny Ballem advised Ms. Carr before the meeting that she was not going to allow that motion since it would compromise the negotiations going on between the board and the community-centre associations over their legal agreement.

Ms. Carr then went out to the media to complain about Ms. Ballem's interference, saying that she "felt bullied" and implied that the city manager was politically motivated.

She apologized later for anything she said that appeared to be personal.

But Mr. Meggs filed an official complaint anyway, saying it was important to clarify the line politicians need to be aware of when it comes to criticizing staff.

"My objective was not to inflict any punishment or star chamber proceedings, but to get a better idea of what the boundaries are."

Ms. Carr, while pleased that the mayor seems to be trying to defuse the situation, said the whole complaint is just an example of Vision "trying to divert attention from their own behaviour and trying to put attention on me."

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She said she won't be silenced, as she tries to raise the issue of whether her motion should be heard by council and whether the city manager overstepped her authority by unilaterally deciding the motion shouldn't be allowed on the agenda.

Mr. Meggs says Ms. Carr is welcome to raise those issues all she likes, but that she shouldn't be calling the city manager names while she does it or suggesting that the manager is partisan.

What's confusing for many in the public is understanding what the role of senior city staff is in highly political debates like this.

Many municipal politicians say that they rely on their staff – managers, clerks, lawyers – to advise them whether their motions are properly worded or appropriate for a public meeting.

But they also say that it's typically left to the elected politicians, not the staff, to make the ultimate decision on whether a motion on a highly charged issue should be brought to council.

In Vancouver, the most politicized council in the province, relationships between councillors and the city manager have been strained on more than one occasion.

The current Vision councillors often complained behind the scenes about whose side previous city manager Judy Rogers was really on. None of them, however, made those kinds of criticisms publicly.

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About the Author
Urban affairs contributor

Frances Bula has written about urban issues and city politics in B.C.’s Vancouver region, covering everything from Downtown Eastside drug addiction to billion-dollar development projects, since 1994. More

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