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Sweeping up the NPA Add to ...

It's a time-honoured tradition that a new government trashes the previous one.

Some time shortly after the pomp and ceremony of an inauguration, but before a new administration starts committing its own blunders, new political leaders find themselves informing the public mournfully just how terrible their predecessors were.

"You always as a new government want to paint a worst-case scenario and then you look like the white knight coming in," acknowledges Daniel Fontaine, the chief of staff to previous mayor Sam Sullivan and someone not unacquainted with the art and science of trashing previous governments.

But Vancouver's current drama of revelations about Olympic village finances, the city's entanglement in them and potential risk for any losses have taken the city to a new level when it comes to nailing the previous administration for egregious errors.

In 2007, the city gave the private developer, Millennium Development Corp., a $193-million loan guarantee plus a completion guarantee on the project, intended to provide 1,100 units to house athletes for the 2010 Olympics and then be converted to condominiums and social housing. Then, in 2008, city council quietly approved a $100-million loan to cover Millennium's construction overruns.

Last Friday, Mayor Gregor Robertson's official statement to the news media painted a bleak picture.

"The Olympic village is a $1-billion project, and the city's on the hook for all of it," is how the mayor began.

"To my great frustration, we can't turn back the clock on the actions of the last mayor and council," he added, firmly pinning the tail on the Non-Partisan Association donkey.

Since then, Councillor Geoff Meggs has continued the attack with some even more strongly worded pronouncements about the village, including: "It is the largest financial loss in the city's history."

That's despite the fact that real-estate experts have said it's impossible to predict what the eventual financial picture will be for Millennium or the city, because no one knows what will happen with Vancouver's condo market in the next few years.

All of that has prompted a subsidiary debate - alongside the major question of how much the city will end up paying - over whether the new administration is pouring gasoline on a fire for political advantage or simply laying out a forceful presentation of the facts.

Many commentators and residents have weighed in, saying the new Vision council appears to be playing politics. That impression has been amplified by the involvement of public-relations specialist Jim Hoggan in planning the rollout of the information. Mr. Hoggan, who has worked with the B.C. Liberals but is also well-known for his efforts on environmental issues, has a temporary contract with the city's communications department for up to $60,000.

The Vision councillors and staffers have been adamant that they are telling the public the facts and that to eliminate the political element would be disingenuous.

"There seems to be a sense that the polite thing to do would have been to say, 'Voters, once upon a time a long time ago, a bad king did something wrong,'" Mr. Meggs said. "But every part of this was done by Sam Sullivan's administration."

He said the communications department brought in Mr. Hoggan because relaying information about the Olympic village is such a complex job.

But communications and public-relations strategists contacted by The Globe and Mail said the way the information was presented showed signs of being geared toward political goals. The strategists, from three different companies that work with a wide variety of corporate, government and non-profit clients, all said the administration was framing the message in an unusually dramatic way.

"If it was truly communications, I wouldn't be alarmist," one said. The strategists did not want to be identified because of politically sensitive work.

Another said that if Vision wanted to present the situation more neutrally, it would have provided information about what kind of security the city has against losses. As well, there would have been more details about the deal.

On the other hand, they say the Vision Vancouver communications messages are excellent political strategy.

"They have a simple message and they've driven that home - the worst-case scenario for taxpayers - plus they framed it as the good guys versus the bad guys," a strategist said. "They achieved their goals. They can say, 'We killed the NPA and we delivered our message.'"

Some would say there's nothing wrong or unusual about delivering a political message. When Mr. Sullivan started his term, he accused the previous mayor, Larry Campbell, of misusing his expense account (the accusation was later withdrawn), offered scary stories about budget overruns and a reminder that he'd saved the public from a Burrard Bridge bike-lane experiment and an unworkable and expensive plan for the Olympic Village.

B.C.'s regimes certainly have a rich history of governments bashing each other for cost overruns and boondoggle projects.

The most famous in the province's recent history is the NDP's fast-ferries mess. Even though it was nearly a decade ago, the B.C. Liberals still regularly remind people of the $460-million the government spent on three ferries that were never usable. Before that, the NDP government roasted the Socreds over the Coquihalla Highway, which ended up costing $1-billion, double the original projection, and which generated a public inquiry into how that happened.

Some have suggested that Mr. Meggs, who was an assistant to then-premier Glen Clark when the fast ferries turned into a scandal, is now getting to return the grilling they received.

Mr. Meggs dismisses that suggestion, although he does acknowledge that the opposition has been able to turn that issue into "devastating commentary to this day." But, he says, the two situations are different.

"Then, the political responsibility was accepted." Here, he said, the NPA administration won't do that - and so it's up to Vision to spell it out.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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