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Civil accountability a tougher sell than chickens and wheat

Like many of you who live in the city of Vancouver, I was jarred out of a peaceful sleep some time before sunrise several times over the past week by the incessant crowing of my neighbour's backyard roosters. I've tried to tell them more than once that the backyard chicken bylaw forbids the keeping of roosters, but they don't listen. Last time I looked over the backyard fence, I noticed the chicken population had doubled. Also, I spotted two goats and a pig. It's a slippery slope. I think they just ordered a cow.

Worse yet, the person who delivers my morning papers missed my yard completely again and the papers had landed somewhere in my neighbour's front-yard wheat field.

It took 20 minutes of combing through the golden shafts of durum to locate the news of the day.

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So when I heard the Non Partisan Association radio ad this week that was critical of both backyard chickens and wheat fields, you bet I paid attention. Emerging from the clucking in the background was the voice of NPA mayoral candidate Suzanne Anton, sympathetic but at the same time strong.

Clearly Ms. Anton has had it with the chickens as well. She talks about them a lot.

I would have thought residents of Vancouver were more concerned with housing, or homelessness or transit and transportation or infrastructure or civic services or police and fire protection or property taxes or parks and recreation facilities or the ever-growing disparity between the rich and the poor in our city, but nope.

In the very first radio advertisement released for the NPA campaign, chickens and wheat fields take centre stage.

To be fair, the ad also mentioned that Vision Vancouver expected me to pay my neighbour's rent. Can you imagine? Me pay their rent? Why don't they sell some eggs, or toast?

And so begins Civic Election Campaign 2011.

Yes, the NPA has hired the company that worked on Toronto mayor Rob Ford's campaign, but "stop the proliferation of backyard chickens and front yard wheat fields" doesn't quite have that "gravy-train" impact or simplicity. I also note with interest this week that Mr. Ford's popularity rating has plummeted in his first nine months in office as he appears unable to locate the train, the gravy, or in fact condiments or sauces of any kind.

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The NPA advertisement, though, plays into a narrative that we may be hearing a lot over the next two months, that is, that mayor Gregor Robertson and his posse of Vision Vancouver councillors are as flaky as a Lesley Stowe tourtière.

The chickens and wheat have, as far as I can tell, failed to capture the imagination or the ire of most right-thinking citizens.

When I asked Ms. Anton whether she was willing to abandon the tactic, she said with a smile, "I don't think we'll ever get off the chickens because it really annoys people."

Even so, Ms. Anton has managed to set aside her poultry fetish for the time being and set out on a new path.

This week, she unveiled the NPA's "accountability accord," which she says is a series of specific actions to open up the public's access to city hall.

Some of the actions are aimed at solving problems that may not actually be problems.

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The accord promises to cut the budget for councillors attending international meetings and national conventions, spending that last year totalled just over $73,000. That's about $13,000 more than in 2007, when the NPA dominated council. It's also about $20,000 less than in 2008, when the NPA dominated council. To put the amount in context, the city's annual operating budget is roughly $1-billion.

The accord would also "restore the ability for councillors to debate at city hall."

The length of council meetings would suggest that this is not a problem. Yes, Ms. Anton has had her microphone turned off after the allotted five minutes of speaking time, as did Vision councillors during mayor Sam Sullivan's tenure.

Where Ms. Anton may get some traction, however, is with her pledge to "lift the gag order on Vancouver civil servants and senior managers."

This has been well documented elsewhere, and it is something that I have experienced firsthand. Any question for city staff, no matter how technical or trivial, is sent up the political food chain ensuring that a Vision Vancouver councillor replies. The process itself makes any issue, no matter how innocuous, political.

This may not mean much to civilians not tasked with extracting information from city bureaucrats, but it means that all information that comes out of city hall is put through a one-sided political filter. That is a problem.

Civic accountability is a much harder sell than chickens and wheat and the sheer craziness of paying someone else's rent.

It challenges voters to think beyond knee-jerk slogans and catch phrases.

And it's hard to cram into a 30-second radio spot.

Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One, 690 AM and 88.1 FM in Vancouver.

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