Mayors' Peace Forum Alive, Say Backers

Vancouver said to be considering restoring some funding.

By Raphael Lopoukhine 20 Feb 2006 |

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Who says you can't fight city hall? Not peace groups.

Vancouver's new city council is showing signs of reversing its decision to rescind its offer to play host to peace-loving mayors. The peace conference of international mayors in Vancouver was planned to complement the larger 2006 World Peace Forum, (WPF) also slated to be held in Vancouver this June. But on February 3, Vancouver's city councilors reversed a decision by their predecessors to commit $50,000 to the mayors' gathering.

Now, however, backroom negotiations between the city and World Peace Forum organizers may produce a new agreement.

After preliminary discussions with the city, the organizers of the WPF believe that the city of Vancouver will take on some hosting responsibilities, but most likely in a reduced capacity.

When the motion was unanimously passed almost a year ago to host the peace-loving mayors - that is, the mayors who would represent the International Association of Peace Members Cities (IAPMC) and the Mayors for Peace - the four-day conference was to be held in tandem with the springtime WPF and was to cost the city no more than $50,000.

"The original $50,000 is off the table," said WPF program coordinator Rex Weyler. But he told The Tyee he is "confident" that the city will step up and help cover some costs to support the peace mayors.

The city has not confirmed its willingness to cover any costs. All that is coming out of the mayor's office is that there is a dialogue going on between the city and the WPF organizers.

"Council doesn't meet again until February 28, so if anything were to happen, it would not be before that date, but I don't mean to indicate anything is on that agenda for that meeting," said Anna Lilly, the spokesperson for mayor Sam Sullivan.

American pressure?

Council's alleged softening of position comes after a public relations blitz by the organizers of the WPF, mounting international attention and local uproar over the Non-Partisan Association-led council's pulling of funding for the mayor's conference.

Some organizers of the WPF claimed that the city was less concerned about cost overruns and more worried about offending conservative opposition to the peace forum.

"Through the NPA's business relationship and federal conservative relationships there probably is some political pressure coming from the Americans to scuttle the peace forum," said Rex Weyler, program coordinator for the WPF, before the new talks got underway.

That assertion was denied by NPA councillors. "The idea that there is a Jewish conspiracy or military industrial conspiracy or some people are leaning on us or want to be aligned with the American's arms manufacturers…is completely off the point and unjustified," said NPA councillor Peter Ladner. "The only decision council made was we couldn't afford a four-day conference."

Now, with the city showing signs of rejoining the fold, a conciliatory tone is the order of the day from the WPF.

"Both sides can accept responsibility for the poor communication," said Weyler. "We could not imagine doing this without our city involved."

Theme: 'Working together'

The WPF will still look to other sources, including surrounding municipalities, to cover the costs if Vancouver decides they only want to play a minor role, said Weyler. The ultimate responsibility - cost overruns and liability - will probably fall on those private sources of funding providing the bulk of financial support for the forum, said Weyler.

"We think that we will come to some agreement where the city will play some role - that everyone will be happy," said Weyler.

If the city is back in as the partial host, the WPF will not have to divert as much to cover the expenses of the visiting mayors, a prospect that they were claiming could have led to a scaling back of their ambitious spring forum.

The forum's plan envisions over 250 events with speakers and delegates coming from around the world, including a peace boat sailing from Japan, under the theme Cities and Communities: Working together to end war and build a peaceful, just and sustainable world.

Part of the WPF's budget is funded through $150,000 from the city, a stream of money separate from what was supposed to be for the peace-loving mayors. The WPF has received the first $50,000 installment, but to receive the next two $50,000 installments, they have to meet set revenue targets from other sources.

"The money is raised for the next $50,000, but we haven't raised all the money we need for the final $50,000," said Weyler.

He said the final chunk will depend on receiving registration funds that will be coming in as the event approaches.

$1.8 million target

The forum will be cutting it close with only four months until thousands descend on Vancouver. Weyler could not provide an exact number on how much was raised to date, but he said it was several hundred thousand.

It was reported in the Prince Rupert Daily News that the WPF has raised half of its $1.8 million budget. During the next few months, the WPF will have to do a fund raising blitz, which may be difficult as they are still recovering from the recent loss of their fundraising coordinator, Jason Dom.

Dom wouldn't speak to why he left because he had signed a confidentiality agreement with the WPF, but his departure did set the forum back at least from one volunteer's perspective.

The mid-twenties volunteer, who did not want to be named, was prepared to start raising funds as early as December. She had read the training manual and was in communication with Dom.

Following Dom's departure, she was never made aware of his exit and continued to send him emails. She eventually was told to contact the new coordinator but says she has heard nothing back and she is still waiting to volunteer.

Tickets already bought

It was in this climate of uncertainty that the city calculated that hosting a sub-standard event would have been more embarrassing than rescinding its invitation. With the recent talks between council and the WPF, the city's political calculation may be changing. They may be shifting the responsibility and liability onto the struggling WPF, or it may be just that the city is engaging in more open communication - something that been severely lacking on both sides during this two-week saga.

The city only started opening the back channels of communication once the WPF announced that it would pick up the hosting responsibilities from the city and after Alfred Marder, the President of the IAPMC, informed the city that the mayors would come - with or without the city's support - because many delegates had already purchased non-refundable tickets.

The opening of the channels of communication marks a significant turning point as this whole confusing affair has been marked by misunderstandings and speculation.

Initially, the NPA-led council had justified the cancellation of the invitation to host the peace groups because the $50,000 the city had unanimously earmarked to host the four-day event some nine months earlier, had ballooned in city staff projections to four times that amount.

City's figures called 'absurd'

From the NPA-led council's perspective, the cost overrun could not have been sustained in the face of the city's $29 million budget shortfall.

But when the figures were drawn up they were based on the host city's responsibilities "according to information obtained from the [peace messengers'] website," said the January 23 staff report that predicted the cost overruns.

The numbers were thrown together hurriedly as the new mayor had taken over the file from the previous administration, said to have done "almost no planning," according to Lilly. The numbers were as best as staff could figure based on the city's protocol standards, but there was little input from the peace groups involved.

This prompted Keighley to label their figures as "absurd" and a "fabrication." One example was the need for interpreters, which in the staff report it noted that President Marder waived the need, but the city still earmarked $12,000 for interpretation.

"There was going to be one mayor that would be coming that isn't fluent in English" and when he comes he always brings an interpreter, said a then frustrated Keighley. An exasperated Marder added, "We don't expect country club standards."

Communication problems

When the decision came to cancel, the peace groups were blamed for poorly communicating their needs. There was "very little communication from this organization and many red flags were being raised," said Lilly, on the day council rescinded its offer to play host.

Lily also said that no venues had been secured and the budget, which was not very comprehensive, was only received one day before council's decision to axe.

Down the hill from city hall in their False Creek offices, the organizers of the WPF flatly denied that they were behind on planning. They denied that they didn't have venues secured and characterized the channels of communication between them and the peace mayors quite differently.

In a letter addressed to council on January 19, 2005, Jef Keighley, executive director of the WPF wrote: "Not a week goes by since then [May 2005] that I have not had contact with IAPMC President Marder and Mayors for Peace staffers. In fact, Alfred and I have become good personal friends in the process."

From the WPF perspective, it was the city that had not returned calls and was the poor communicator.

The city, on the other hand, didn't know why the WPF was getting involved; to them, it was a separate event.

"This was not ever seen to be part of the Peace Forum's funding," said councillor Ladner.

Tandem gatherings

IAPMC's nineteenth general assembly and joint meetings with the other peace mayors were to be held in conjunction with the WPF, but at its root, it was funded through a different stream of public monies than the forum. Though the streams of money flowed separately, from the forum's perspective, "It's all part of the same event," said Weyler.

The cancellation also sent out mixed messages that left organizers scrambling to inform participants and donors that the WPF was still a go. The WPF organizers felt the cancellation was hasty and it left them wondering if it was the "city's plan to undercut the forum - to sabotage it a bit," said Weyler.

The whole affair was perplexing to Keighley. He wrote to council, questioning the necessity of the entire exercise. "Focusing primary public attention on just $200,000 [total city funding for the World Peace Forum and for IAPMC] or just 2/3 of 1% of the $30 million dollars, regardless of what it is spent on, is misplaced accounting forensics in anybody's book!"

The UN supported IAPMC has a membership of 98 cities worldwide and was established in 1982 by the mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to promote a culture of peace in urban settings. Their last assembly brought 52 delegates to Slovenia, and before that, New Haven, Connecticut was the host, where Marder sits as the chairman of the municipality of New Haven's Peace Commission.

The Mayor's for Peace is an ad hoc formation and fifty-plus delegates are expected in June. The 2006 World Peace Forum will be held in Vancouver from June 23 to 28.

Raphael Lopoukhine is a graduate student at the University of British Columbia School of Journalism.  [Tyee]

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