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Gregor Robertson on green business and the nitty-gritty of city politics

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson.

Jeff Vinnick/Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images

He was swept into power as mayor of Vancouver a year ago on a promise to solve housing problems, clean up the Olympic-village financial mess and push a green agenda in the city.

Today, Mayor Gregor Robertson said he's pleased with how much the city was able to accomplish on all of those big-picture files.

But he acknowledged that on the more prosaic items that are the bread and butter of city government - snow removal, garbage and keeping residents happy (at least near controversial homeless shelters) - his team could have done better.

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"I've been really impressed how much we can get done at city hall," said Mr. Robertson, sitting at the much-used conference table in his office at the end of yet another long week as he reflected on his year in power.

"People said, 'Don't set your expectations high, it's a grind, city hall has no power and all that.' I think we've gotten a lot more done than most expected."

The Olympic village has now been handed over to the Olympics' Vancouver Organizing Committee on time. The city has brought in new initiatives on homelessness and affordable housing. And Mr. Robertson recently launched a Green Capital plan that outlines what the city will do to attract green businesses and reduce energy consumption citywide.

However, at the same time he and his team were opening emergency shelters for the homeless and tackling the Olympic-village file last December, Vancouver was hit by the biggest snowfall in 40 years - and it turned into one of his council's major flubs when they were slow to respond.

"We were caught off guard by the magnitude. We were, you know, juggling the Olympic village and a tough budget and a new team. That we could have done better with."

He also said that he thought the city would have been able to introduce curbside composting by now. It's a recycling measure that San Francisco adopted energetically several years ago, with the result that its recycling level has climbed to 75 per cent. Metro Vancouver's is 55 per cent. He hopes it will come to Vancouver within the next six months.

As well, the mayor acknowledged that his team did not deal well with the resident backlash that emerged against two of the five emergency homeless shelters they had initiated as one of their first acts, the two set under the Granville Bridge in a neighbourhood of condo towers.

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Mr. Robertson said he thinks that issue was blown out of proportion. But he added that, when the city opens even more new shelters this winter to deal with the 1,000-plus people still sleeping on the streets, "we'll be careful."

However, it's clear in talking to him at year-end that it's the green initiatives for which he shows the most passion.

According to Mr. Robertson, the green economy - alternative energy, new ways of building, enviro-friendly consumer products - is the fastest-growing business sector. It's also in a shaking-out process that will determine which key cities become homes to that new sector.

"Ideally, we can attract a couple of the emerging big fish in the green economy and they are our next big head offices," said Mr. Robertson, best known for his own early contribution to the green economy, his organic-juice company Happy Planet. "Ultimately, landing some head offices in the new economy would be the home run here. For now, just getting the smaller players and strategically targeting the emerging victors of mergers and acquisitions is the ultimate goal."

Mr. Robertson, who has said in other interviews that he plans to run for a second term as mayor and has no interest in moving back to provincial politics as many suggest, is clearly preoccupied by his job. He said his biggest problem in the first year has been getting enough sleep.

"I remember reading about Winston Churchill not sleeping much in those years and I've found you do adapt, you don't sleep as much. There's just so much to do and it's hard to shut the brain down and the only quiet time I get is generally late at night so I can get a lot done."

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One pleasant surprise on the job? "I've been able to maintain my bike commuting," said Mr. Robertson, an athletic 45-year-old known for cycling everywhere. "I was advised that might not work out. But I've found I can get downtown faster on my bike than any other mode."

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