One day last April I got a call from Vancouver city councillor Suzanne Anton.
“I just want to tell you that I’ve loved your columns on the Olympic Village losses,” she told me. “You’re absolutely right.”
I was bewildered.
A couple of days earlier, the city had held a news conference to announce that taxpayers were going to be on the hook only for losses totalling $50-million related to the disastrous Olympic housing complex. I had noted, however, that the city’s figure did not include the $170-million that it was still owed for the land by the project’s now defunct developer. So, in fact, the losses were north of $220-million.
The city disputed my assertion, saying the $170-million was an “aspirational” figure. Because it paid only $27-million for the property originally, that was the correct number to use in assessing losses.
That was maybe an accountant’s view of the world, but not the public’s.
What surprised me at the time was that Ms. Anton, the lone member of the opposition Non-Partisan Association, agreed with the city. “You can’t look at it like the city paid $200-million for the property,” she told The Vancouver Sun. “It’s not like we’re out of pocket. We’re not.”
But the city was. That was $170-million that just went up in smoke – that it was now never going to be able to get. So I was surprised that Ms. Anton had taken that position. Needless to say, I was shocked when she later called to applaud me for my columns.
“I’m confused,” I said. “You were quoted in the paper as saying you agreed with the city’s position. That it wasn’t a $200-million loss.”
“Oh, I know,” she told me. “I should never have given that interview. I don’t know why I did. No, I agree with you completely.”
When I hung up the phone, I couldn’t help thinking that Suzanne Anton had a commitment problem.
Since announcing her candidacy for mayor last spring, the former criminal prosecutor has had to fight the flip-flop tag. She voted for the Hornby Street bike lane only to come out against it the next day. She voted against the proposed Paragon casino expansion, but then just as quickly criticized the mayor and his Vision Vancouver party for killing the project.
Her explanation that she voted against expanding the number of slot machines and gaming tables only, but was not against other aspects of Paragon’s proposal, didn’t persuade a skeptical media.
With a month to go before the people of Vancouver go to the polls, Ms. Anton, the NPA’s mayoral candidate, would appear to need a miracle to beat incumbent Gregor Robertson. It’s not that the mayor and Vision Vancouver have had a flawless three years in office – far from it. But the mayor hasn’t worn much of the criticism heaped on his party.
Many believe that Ms. Anton was the NPA’s default candidate for mayor. That is, she ran when it was obvious someone with perhaps a little more sizzle was not stepping forward. The mayor’s consistently high polling numbers seemed to scare off any of the high-profile candidates who might have otherwise run.
That may seem unfair to Ms. Anton. And maybe it is. She has done an admirable job as a city councillor, especially in the past three years, when she’s been the sole voice of opposition. Pit bulls on the Vision-dominated council have not always treated her well or with the respect she deserves. Maybe that fuels the mostly negative campaign she has run.
One of the questions hanging over her candidacy is whether she has the fortitude to run a big city. Her bouts of indecision are worrying. Say what you will about some of Mr. Robertson’s more controversial policies – bike lanes, backyard chickens, lawns for wheat – he didn’t back down from them in the face of criticism. Especially on the bike lanes, a policy move from which many other politicians might have retreated.
You can’t help wondering what a mayor Anton might have done in similar circumstances.
So far, Ms. Anton has failed to articulate a clear picture of the kind of city she strives to build. She says she wants Vancouver to be more cosmopolitan. That is not a vision, it is a banality. Her splashiest announcement has been a call for a $100-million-plus streetcar line that is far from a transit priority.
Mostly, Ms. Anton complains and complains about everything the mayor does and says. In that way, she sounds very much like former NDP leader Carole James, who moaned constantly about Liberal government endeavours but seldom offered worthwhile alternatives. Eventually, people tuned her out.
If Ms. Anton isn’t careful, the same thing could happen to her.