When Sam Sullivan led the campaign against a ward system for Vancouver municipal elections, many thought he was tilting at windmills. When he was challenged this fall by former BC Liberal cabinet minister Christy Clarke for the NPA mayoral nomination, no one gave him a chance.
When Sullivan defeated Clark, some of her supporters muttered that Sullivan was unelectable. But in the last days of the municipal election campaign, no one is counting out the former welfare recipient in a wheelchair. After all, the soft-spoken East Side kid overcame a teenage skiing accident to work tirelessly promoting creative technological solutions that help the disabled lead more fulfilling lives.
On council, he championed harm-reduction strategies for drug users. Now he's championing fiscal prudence. His critics say he can point to very few personal accomplishments during his twelve years on council. They say he's equivocal. They question his ability to lead.
Voters may not see Sullivan that way on election day, after three years of a dynamic but bullying Mayor Larry Campbell.
The Tyee sat down with Sullivan on Wednesday for a slightly attenuated interview, and tried to focus on some of the policy issues that council has wrestled with during the last three years.
On the point at which there too much social housing concentrated in the Downtown Eastside.
"I think the direction that our homeless plan is going in is appropriate. We're putting in about 4,000 new units of market housing. We're also making sure that we replace existing SROs with proper social housing. I believe there's too much of a concentration. We certainly don't have the ratio right right now. We have to start adding more market housing and upgrade the social housing."
On providing social housing in neighbourhoods such as Dunbar, where many residents are upset about the prospect.
"I believe that social housing belongs in every neighbourhood in the city. But I don't believe we should be asking one neighbourhood to take people from other neighbourhoods. Each neighbourhood should be able to care for its own."
On whether Downtown Eastside residents are now of that neighbourhood.
"A lot of people are there because of the services and because of the drug trade. I think they reflect the general population of the city. The reality is, most of the people in the city don't come from here."
On the need for better mental-health-care services on the Downtown Eastside, and whether the current provincial government has improved on the sorry record of the NDP.
"I think they're very interrelated [with the drug problem]. One of the things I'm interested in is pursuing the idea of supportive housing, where people with mental illness have some supports to create structure in their life, and so that they have some sort of oversight and networks to ensure they're not getting in to trouble or difficult situations.
"I have detected some resolution to an old problem of whether supportive housing should be paid for by the ministry of housing or the ministry of health. It seems now that they've accepted this is the responsibility of the ministry of health. At least now the mandate is established. What I can tell you is whatever we're doing is not enough."
On the projections that the Richmond-Airport-Vancouver rapid transit line will attract 100,000 riders a day, which TransLink has guaranteed to the private builder, and the potential for a shortfall that will undermine our ability to provide basic bus service and keep fares low.
"I think we will eventually get to that number. As to how quickly that will happen I'm not sure. It's hard to make predictions. The engineers have their models that seemed a little ambitious. There is a combination for risk that's somewhat borne by the private sector, but there's always a chance that we'll see some costs that we might not be able to accommodate. [The risk on ridership], that's a problem, because they don't control the fares. That has an impact on riders. So obviously you can't transfer all the risk."
On the reasons for the COPE split.
"I think it's a lot more personality than policy. Jim Green has a personal leadership style that is not very consensus-oriented. He's had a history through the Downtown Eastside Residents Association, the Four Corners Bank, and COPE that's been divisive. It's resulted in a lot of bad feelings. If people really want to work together, even if they have significant ideological difference, they can. But obviously there's a lot of egos involved there."
On whether he could be an effective mayor if COPE and Vision still control council.
"Yes, I think I can work with anyone. I've in the past been able to bring people together from diverse points of view. I think that the fact that I've been able to bring [former NPA mayor] Philip Owen and [former NPA councillor] Jennifer Clarke together to endorse me as a candidate shows some ability to work cooperatively with people. I think that the way I handle meetings is respectful of diverse opinion. I point to the example of Larry Campbell, who shut off my mike almost 50 times in the first two years of our council."
On whether the Hastings Park Racecourse would have migrated to the suburbs without slots, and the reversal of his own opposition to slots.
"That might have been the ultimate result without slot machines. I ended up supporting them. The issue of the racetrack had nothing to do with it, the issue of the money had nothing to do with it. I'd been involved in opposing slots for many years with the NPA council. I remember the provincial government came in the middle of the night and installed slot machines in one of our casinos. We took them to court. I was an active participant. We took them to court twice and won.
"When this council was elected and voted on the process of considering slots, I voted three times against even having it considered. But the council kept moving it forward. When the Plaza of Nations came forward, I warned them that slots are only a yes-or-no decision. My preference was to say no. I thought it was a moral issue and I said no. Once the decision was made, and council agreed that slots were an acceptable form of gambling in Vancouver, the question fundamentally changed. It became a land-use issue. When the Hastings Park decision came to me, I asked myself 'Is it appropriate that the place where Vancouverites have been going to gamble for 115 years, is it appropriate to have expanded gambling there?' And I had to say yes."
On whether it was a mistake for Vancouver to try and eliminate the PNE from the Hastings Park site.
"I think so. There was a legitimate idea that there would be a renewal, and [the PNE] would be more central to a regional population. But the PNE has been a wonderful part of our city for many years. And it's given a lot of employment to young people. It's been a real tradition in the city. I personally favour keeping in the city, but I understand that times change."
On what we need to do to find the right balance of uses on the site.
"I think we're close to finding the right balance now. There are some passive parts and more active parts. I think we need a mix of uses, for various parts of the community. The reality is that it's not a local park, it's a regional area that people from all parts of the city have come to enjoy and I don't think we can deny that."
On why the current council should shoulder more blame for property crime and public safety issues than the previous NPA administration.
"This council did make an election commitment to get rid of the open drug market by 2005. I didn't make that promise. I do believe you attack the problem in an intelligent way, you should be able to have some good successes. This council takes the credit for two initiatives that I know I worked hard on, the safe-injection site and the Naomi heroin maintenance trials. You check the minutes of this council and you will not find a single motion on these subjects, because all the motions were passed by the previous councils. The only tangible thing that I can point to that this council has done is the crackdown by the police on the Downtown Eastside. That does not to me represent what the 'four pillars' strategy is about.
"I don't think 500 condos and 200 social housing units [at Woodward's] is going to affect the drug problem. We have a $100 million project right next door, International Village, and the drug market still exists. I don't think you attract the drug problem by building condos and social housing down the street."
On Jim Green's claim that the safe-injection site has saved more than 1,000 lives.
"It seems a little exaggerated, but I do believe that it has saved lives. That's a tribute to that initiative. But I have to remind you that it wasn't Jim Green's initiative."
On Jim Green's best qualities.
I do believe that somewhere deep in his dark heart he has some feeling for people who are in need of help. I don't think it's a matter of intention. I think it's a matter of implementation. Jim Green actually believes he's a good manager. That is absolutely not the case. I can tell you that from personal experience. That's a little dangerous. When you give him a position, and give him access to the bank account, he will spend the money unwisely.
"A lot of the COPE members are more suited to opposition. They can speak about good ideals, directions, where we should be going. But we certainly don't want to give them the keys to the bank."
On his decision to support a $477,000 grant to the Sea Vancouver Festival, which left a trail of angry creditors, and who is responsible for its failure.
"There was only one group that put together a non-profit society and got the support of the various stakeholders and put a proposal forward. That's the group that came forward. There was some due diligence. I was not part of that decision. There was a recommendation that came forward, and it's hard for me to take responsibility for this council's actions. But I think a maritime festival is needed in this city. We should really celebrate the maritime heritage. I endorsed the concept, but I certainly don't like how it was implemented."
On how he would cut the tax burden on commercial property owners, pay for a crime commissioner, increase policing, and reduce transit fares at the same time?
"Well, I believe there's a lot of spending that this council has engaged in that is unwise, and violates some longstanding policies of the city. The ward system referendum that cost $1 million. I had suggested that we wait for a year and put it on the ballot on November 19. They did not agree and went ahead, and basically blew a million dollars. That's the kind of reckless spending I have seen with other initiatives.
"For example, next year we're going to have a drug conference and the World Peace Forum. According to the city's policies we do not subsidize conferences. We have several hundred a year, and we don't pick and choose which ones we'll support. We decided we would not use our limited property-tax base to subsidize conferences. There's a $650,000 bill right away that could have been avoided."
On his strategy to find the tens of millions required reduce commercial property taxes.
I support the one-percent shift per year. It's modest, but it's significant enough that in 20 years we could have a better ratio. What you have to do is make sure you're frugal in other areas.
On whether he supported the annual week-long closure of the library under the NPA-controlled council.
"We protested it and said we didn't like it and said we wanted to keep the library open. But if you're going to set up a library board and give them responsibility and authority, you have to accept the decision of the board. It wasn't a decision of the council.... In retrospect, I probably would have been more vocal in opposing that. It's turned into quite a political issue."
On COPE's use of the property endowment fund.
"The fund is supposed to have the principle of sustainability first and foremost. We're supposed to maintain the principle and make sure we have it available for strategic investments. It does other things like supports our social housing programs, and it also helps to create confidence among external bond rating agencies. You could look at it as a rainy-day fund that we could have available in times of trouble.
"This council has decided to become the first in history to violate the principle of sustainability and take money from the fund and not return it. We know for sure it's $50 million. Some figures go up as high as $100 million. And that involves land purchase and the market value of that land now that will not be going back into the fund.
"One of the worries is that this is a precedent. With the east Fraser lands being developed, there will be pressure to use the fund to subsidize that development as well. If that happens, you can pretty well kiss the fund goodbye."
On the argument that creating the best possible model of for a sustainable community on the south shore of False Creek is a strategic investment in a different kind of sustainability.
"You could do that in any other part of the city as well. Why that one neighbourhood? Look at what the money is being used for. To put 66 percent of the development in non-market housing. We've got $15 million to lower the height of some of the towers. I think it's several million to make a full-service community centre as opposed to an aquatic centre. Remember, we have several full-service community centres within a 10-minute walk or ferry ride from that neighbourhood. I think that they're so emotionally involved in that project that they have not been able to make rational decisions and prioritize in a way that makes sense for all the other neighbourhoods. I challenge you to find any community that has three full-service community centres within a seven-block radius."
On whether the podium tower model that council moved away from is a good model for the former industrial lands.
"I think it's worked quite well in other areas. I am interested in the West End model of just straight towers that go into the earth. There's different ways to do urban design, but if it's going to cost you $15 million to do it a different way..."
On whether Vancouver's buildings are beautiful enough, and what great buildings have been constructed in Vancouver in the last decade.
"I think some of the newer buildings are beautiful in their way. I like the Shaw Tower and even the Wall Centre tower. I think they're attractive. I was just thinking of the Museum of Anthropology, but that's not the last decade. I think there are some great buildings being built in Coal Harbour. I think there are some great designs that are happening there."
On whether there's a better place in Vancouver for a Wal-Mart than the proposed location on Southeast Marine, which council rejected.
"It's hard for me to think of one. Remember, that we have two areas that are available for big-box retail: one on Grandview Highway and one on Marine Drive. The situation on Marine Drive, you've got a lot of highway-oriented retailers already, you've got the Dueck [car dealership], you've got the [Real Canadian] Superstore. It's not like that's a real example of neighbourhood shopping on that street, on that side of the block.
"It's very close to a future SkyTrain station. It's on a bike route, it's on a bus line. It's one of the few sites you can access legitimately with transportation other than the automobile. The other thing is the polls show the people in the neighbourhood favour it."
On whether Wal-Mart is a good corporate citizen that shows due respect to its suppliers and employees.
"All I can tell you is that some of the literature I've read -- I especially refer to professor Joseph Heath of the University of Toronto, who is certainly no right wing economist, he is certainly coming from the thinking of Jurgen Habermas of the Frankfurt School. Joseph Heath has a lot of good things to say about the Wal-Mart business model. He makes a distinction between the business model and business practices. You can have a good business model but bad business practices....
"Wal-Mart I know is rated by an independent agency by its own employees as one of the best employers in the world. I know they have at least 30 factories that are no longer allowed to supply Wal-Mart because of their own labour problems. So I don't know many other buyers in the world that have actually forbidden certain factories from supplying to them."
On Wal-Mart's practice of circumventing local municipal planning by locating their stores on Indian reserves.
"I'm not aware of that. I think it's a real problem on native reserves with issues like casinos and other types of projects. And that's not a problem of Wal-Mart. That's a problem of how we regulate that."
On the crazy idea he'd like to see fulfilled to make our city a more interesting place.
"I don't know if I have... I've been part of an initiative called the Philia Project that's funded by the McConnell Foundation in Montreal, and what we do is we bring in great thinkers, people who have unique ideas that have merit and should be discussed more broadly. We've done it in a very limited way. I'd like to see us reach out to the people around the world who are doing innovative things and bring them to Vancouver and give them a chance to let their ideas percolate through society and see if they have an pertinence. That would be a project I'd be very interested in."
Charles Campbell is a Tyee contributing editor.