"I get accused of not consulting, of having 'a dictator style,' while others say I have too many advisers. So I can't win."
Mayor Gregor Robertson on bringing farm-boy ethics to Vancouver City Hall. Plus why the damn bike lanes are good for business.
Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson is not the highfalutin kind. As his sablefish with leek velouté lands in front of him at Fairmont Pacific Rim’s Oru restaurant, I lose him to an endearing fit of giggles, caused in part by comedic timing, and part by self-effacement.Just seconds before, an aide had popped by our table worried about the mayor’s schedule (we had lingered over a tuna tartare appetizer), and Robertson is also tickled about forgetting his fail-safe question.
“I’m not much into ‘fancy,’ so I usually always ask servers which is the biggest thing on the menu,” he admits, undoubtedly envying my generous spread of kobacha ravioli. “I still have farm boy in me.”
Robertson espouses the “it’s-just-who-I-am” approach to office. The privilege of his position, he believes, allows him to be personal and draw on his experiences; he has no hesitation addressing the Vancouver Board of Trade, for example, with such unorthodox business rallies as “crank it up” (even if the cycling parlance does not necessarily resonate with members). “If you look at what we are focused on as a city,” the 46-year-old remarks, “there are many deep connections to my life’s work.”
Beyond those green credentials (he rides a 20-year-old Rocky Mountain bike – “nothing special”) and the newly installed bike lanes (more on those later), the fifth-generation British Columbian emphasizes his business acumen in co-founding the juice company, Happy Planet.
“I went into City Hall thinking this needs to run with a small-business approach that watches every penny,” says Robertson, who once farmed in New Zealand after sailing there with his wife, Amy. (They now have four children, aged 16 to 20.)
So it rattles him that some allude to his political weight being more GQ (although it’s impossible not to comment on that chiselled jaw) than IQ, and that his three-year run is often defined by relatively parochial issues – chicken coops, for example. “That’s all classic politics – easy potshots to get attention – and it’s annoying,” he says emphatically, adding that these are issues in the background of his City Hall work. “I would love to see more reporting on the substance.”
That substance, to his mind, includes the Green Capital initiative aimed at attracting green jobs to the city, a new system of quarterly (rather than yearly) reporting on capital projects, creating an economic development strategy and rolling seven IT departments into one. “These are hot stories to those in business – but to most people it’s not sexy.”
Question just how much he is influenced by the likes of Mike Magee, chief of staff, and social-enterprise patron Joel Solomon, and he is unfazed. “I get accused of not consulting, of having ‘a dictator style,’ while others say I have too many advisers. So I can’t win,” Robertson says somewhat resignedly. In this complex city, tapping into others’ opinions is essential, he adds, although he insists that ultimately he makes the decisions.
Whatever his methodology, Robertson hopes his legacy will be “getting action” at City Hall. The phrase will no doubt be part of his re-election bid in the fall. “If I make mistakes,” he says, “it is going to be in trying to do too much rather than too little.”
Which brings us to the debate over the new bike lanes on Dunsmuir and Hornby streets. He disagrees with much of the criticism associated with them. When calculating any dents in sales revenue for nearby businesses, for example, both the recession and HST must also be considered as contributing factors, Robertson suggests.
“The overall fact is that the economic growth for downtown depends on improving our transportation beyond cars – which have dropped 10 per cent since 1995 – and is driven instead by transit, cycling and pedestrians,” he adds. “There are many examples of bike lanes enhancing business in other cities.”
But, as he stares at the new convention centre’s green roof opposite, he stresses that the economic benefits of building a green city are only one part of his campaign. “It’s about keeping us as a great place to live, play and work,” Robertson concludes before being whisked away to his next engagement, by car.