Where’s the Mayor in the Pandora flophouse fire deaths matter?

Leadership means being there in the hard times too – click for larger

On February 24, 2008, standing before a crowd of supporters which included many members of the Vision Vancouver caucus such as Tim Stevenson and Heather Deal, Vancouver-Fairview MLA Gregor Robertson made the following statement:

I reached a turning point a few weeks back, on hearing news about a tragedy in my so-called affluent part of town. A homeless man named Darrell Mickasko burned to death trying to keep from freezing on an icy cold night on the streets. Darrell died only three blocks away from the Lookout emergency shelter, which was full that evening. He died only 9 blocks from city hall.

Darrell is one of thousands. And I know I’m not alone in wanting this state of emergency to end. Collectively, we are letting this take place, in a city with enormous resources, with compassionate citizens. It’s time for profound change to deal with homelessness.

We may all have a warm and safe place to sleep tonight, but thousands of our neighbours don’t. In the midst of our affluence we see soul crushing poverty on a daily basis that is deplorable.

Darrell’s death, and the lack of response from City Hall, shifted something in me. I love this city, but the extreme contrasts we live with are heartbreaking. As leader of this city, our mayor is failing us, and I can no longer stand by in good conscience.

On the evening of December 22nd, as City officials scrambled for answers to what happened on Pandora Street, where three men died in a fire trying to keep warm on a drafty rear deck of an Eastside flophouse, Mayor Gregor Robertson posted this update to his Twitter account:

going offline till january. family time beckons. thanks for your 2010 tweets+comments. happy holidays all!

And with that Gregor Robertson checked out. Complete silence on any City business until January 4th, and even then refusing any comment on the Pandora Street tragedy. Despite a groveling defense of Vision Vancouver by at least one member of the media, most of the fourth estate have stayed on the Pandora Street story because they know something more than the ashen remains of the rear deck stinks.

NPA Coun. Suzanne Anton was quick to ask for an independent review, something akin to a coroner’s inquest which are standard practice when someone dies in police custody. Subsequently, NPA candidates Jesse Johl and Bill McCreery turned up the heat on City Hall, also urging a third party review. Was it mere politics that drove these calls, or perhaps indignation? It’s a fair question.

But it's also a fair question to ask why Gregor Robertson feels it's okay to use the memory of Darrell Mickasko to serve as his excuse for quitting his post as MLA a year early to jump into civic politics. He said almost three years ago that Mayor Sam Sullivan was failing us, and "the lack of response from City Hall" moved him to run for Mayor.

Gregor Robertson was so married to that narrative created for him around poor Darrell Mickasko that he repeated it in his December 8, 2008 inaugural speech:

The Vancouver we hold in our hearts is not a city where people die of exposure. Not a city where a man named Darrell Mickasko, after being turned away from a full shelter, burns to death in a sleeping bag, trying to stay warm with his camping stove on a freezing night. If our vision of Vancouver is to become a reality, homelessness must end – and I tell you today that it will end.

So, dare we ask, was Mayor Gregor Robertson (as Kennedy Stewart once framed it) a "Homeless Champion or Heartless Political Entrepreneur?"

One thing is absolutely certain. He is not a leader.

Instead, Gregor Robertson has taken the advice of his political advisers and kept his head down. Like on several other occasions during his term where a whiff of controversy exists, Gregor ducked. It could have been different though.

First, Gregor gets paid about $140,000 annual salary not including other perks. To me that’s still a lot of money, and as a Mayor it means you get paid to do your job year-round not just when you’re not on vacation. That’s why they call it public service, capice? As with his trip to Cuba in December 2008 while the city experienced Snowmageddon, Robertson fails to recognize that leadership means being engaged to your post during the good times and the bad.

A leader would do this. Immediately accept calls for an independent review. First of all, by the time the report is done the heat around the story has passed. Second of all, as Mayor you can prepare a response. If the recommendations are unkind to either your administration, or the civil service you are in charge of, then you promise changes. You assure the public that although you may have inherited systemic problems, you will take swift action and report back to the public with your plan.

It’s that simple. You take responsibility for the city that you claimed to love in your bid for Mayor. But somehow, taking responsibility for bad stuff just doesn’t seem to be in Gregor Robertson’s genes.

Last week, CTV‘s Lisa Rossington asked tough questions of City staff (see video), and not surprisingly she got to interview Vancouver’s nanomanager Penny Ballem. When asked if previous statements from the City were accurate (Sadhu Johnson and Kerry Jang both suggested that action against the property owner was "imminent"), Ballem said no, the City was not in the process of shutting down this house.

In a time when we seem to move from one story to the next, we must give credit to several media sources such as CTV BC, The Province, GlobalTV BC, 24 Hours, CBC and Metro News Vancouver for sticking with the Pandora Street story. It’s only with their continuing pressure that the Mayor and the City Manager may acquiesce and heed calls for a fully independent inquiry on this matter.

Even after a decade of inspections, emergency calls and City demands to fix safety violations, not to mention the agony of neighbours, nothing happened which could have prevented the needless deaths of those three men just before Christmas Day. Surely an independent review could only help to shake up the institutional rot which allows these flophouses to prosper.

If Gregor Robertson cannot lead, then it must be the media and the public which forces change.

- post by Mike

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