My column in this week’s 24 Hours Vancouver.

The housing market is the ubiquitous topic of conversation in Vancouver.

Everyone has an opinion about it. It’s an obsession that is rivaled only by our compulsion to talk about the weather.

Keith Roy, a Vancouver realtor, is one of them. After years of buying and selling homes for his clients, he is building a house for himself under the new 2015 City of Vancouver building bylaw.

He is detailing his home building adventure on his blog “Building in Vancouver,” found at buildinginvancouver.com. His hope is to share his experience step by step to give people an idea of the cost and red tape associated with building a house in Vancouver.

“I want to highlight how decisions made in the council chambers affect end users, because sometimes I think good intentions have very expensive consequences”, says Roy.

For people who have a phobia of government bureaucracy, this excruciatingly detailed blog will surely give them nightmares.

Something as simple as removing a dead tree stump and a diseased, almost-dead tree from his property has turned into a costly and time-consuming process for Roy.

The Protection of Trees ByLaw is a staggering 46 pages long. It is a verbose document which Roy amusingly points out must have resulted in the death of several trees just to print.

The protection of trees in our city is important, and we all love the beautiful oak and cherry blossom trees that adorn our city streets and help maintain a healthy ecosystem. There should absolutely be laws to protect them.

However, as Roy points out, his trees are, in fact, a stump and a dying fruit tree that hasn’t produced a piece of fruit in a decade.

Nevertheless, Roy has to go through the same permit process as someone looking to remove a healthy, old growth tree. This doesn’t make a lot of sense. As Roy points out, why is the City of Vancouver applying the same level of protection to a tree stump as it does to a healthy, beautiful mature tree?

To get his permit, Roy has to pay application fees, obtain arborist reports, produce a tree plan, possibly get a report from a plumber and fill out a permit application.

Roy estimates it will cost him about $561 to $650 just to get the green light from the city to remove the stump and the dying tree from his property.

This is a shining example of government making things unnecessarily hard and expensive for people.

When getting permission to remove a tree stump costs the same and requires the same permit process as getting permission to remove a 100-year-old Arbutus tree, something isn’t right.

My latest column for 24 Hours Vancouver.

In this column I often tell sad tales of public money waste being perpetrated by our municipal governments – from larger-than-life civic salaries to politicians golfing on the taxpayers’ dime.

Unfortunately, there are too many tales to count.

Thank goodness the provincial government appointed a watchdog to keep an eye on municipal spending. In 2012, the Office of the Auditor General for Local Government was created, headed up by Basia Ruta.

What a great concept. An auditor general specifically tasked with sniffing out waste at the local level and holding city councils to account.

Too bad it has been an utter failure.

Only two years into its infancy, it seems like this agency needs its own watchdog – and badly.

Here are some numbers that would make any auditor cringe. The AGLG has ten staff and an annual budget of $2.6 million. Ruta earns $200,000 annually, and her office has spent about $5.2 million in the past two years. With all this staff and resources, Ruta’s office is supposed to be auditing local governments across the province. However, to date the AGLG has only released one audit of one municipality. One single audit, that’s it.

This glacial pace of productivity is truly astounding – and unacceptable.

To make matters worse, a report that looked at the work environment in Ruta’s office was recently leaked and it suggests there are some serious problems. The report details frustrations expressed by Ruta’s staff that their time and work were wasted.

It sounds like Ruta’s office is a picture-perfect example of the sort of waste and inefficiencies her office was mandated to fix.

Ruta attempted to defend the issues in her office by chalking it up to “growing pains.” She has promised there will be audit reports released soon.

But at this point, it is too little, too late.

Taxpayers have doled out $400,000 in salary for Ruta and all we have to show for it is one audit report. A failure of this magnitude would never be tolerated in the private sector, so why is it tolerated in government?

An auditor general whose own office is wrought with waste and inefficiencies, according to the leaked report, does not have the credibility to audit and call out the waste of others. The AGLG needs to be leading by example.

Enough is enough. It is time to replace Ruta, bring in a new AGLG and hold local governments to account for their spending.

My latest for Huffington Post.

March 8 is International Women’s Day.

Unfortunately, recent events in our world have not given us a whole lot to celebrate. Female genital mutilation is a serious problem in places like the U.K.women and girls are being kidnapped en masse by extremists, and ISIS is determined to strip females of their personhood.

Domestically, the picture isn’t rosy either.Death by domestic violence is on the risesex trafficking is a growing problem and thanks to social media “rape culture” is more prevalent than ever.

It is clear that even in 2015, there is a lot of work to be done both at home and abroad to advance the rights and equality of women.

Let’s take a peek at what the federal political parties in this country are doing to make a difference.

Over in the Liberal camp, MP Mauril Belanger has tabled a bill to change the lyrics of Canada’s national anthem to make it gender neutral by removing gendered terms like “sons.” In a 1,205 word speech delivered in the House of Commons by Liberal MP and one time Liberal Leader Stephane Dion, he states “it is a seemingly simple bill, perhaps one of the simplest bills we have ever debated in this House.

Too bad the real issues facing women’s equality in this country aren’t simple. They are complicated, and can’t be fixed by altering a word or two on paper.

What about the NDP? They have always been outspoken champions of women’s equality — surely they are working on something that will make a real difference in the lives of women, right? NDP MP Irene Mathyssen has tabled a private member’s billaimed at abolishing the GST on women’s menstrual products like tampons. According to proponents of this bill, female hygiene product taxes are discriminatory.

Too bad that tax free tampons won’t do anything to stop the discrimination faced by women everyday in places like the workplace and even on school campus.

Last but not least, what has the Conservative Party been up to? Well, the Minister of Health Rona Ambrose recently invested $100 million dollars towards the fight against domestic violence. The money will go towards helping the victims of family violence and preventing violence. It will make a real, tangible difference in the lives of women for years to come.

Alright Liberals and NDP, either step up your game or give credit where credit is due by joining forces with the government to put an end to violence against women.

Cheaper tampons and lyric editing are simply not the best use of parliament’s time and resources when women still face very serious issues that impede their safety and equality.

Making the country, and the world, an equal and safe place for women should be a non-partisan goal. On International Women’s Day 2015, let’s see all parties take a stand against domestic violence, and pledge to work together to fight it.

Remember the first thing Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson did after he was sworn in after he won re-election? He talked about raising salaries for city council and the mayor – which just so happened to be him.

Well, he got his review to look into raising their salaries. It didn’t matter that not one of them ran on a platform of more money for politicians. After the election, it was one of their top priorities.

Well, it turns out that while Robertson was distracting us all with talk of higher salaries, he was feathering his own nest in another way as well.

On Tuesday, the City of Vancouver passed its 2015 budget – which included an overall spending increase of 3.7%.

Some line items in that budget got smaller and some got bigger, a lot bigger.

For instance, spending on housing services is up over 30% and certain small grants nearly doubled in size.

But one spending increase stood out for me – the mayor’s budget grew by an astonishing 23.6%. That works out to $233,000 more than in 2014.

Significantly, it’s one of the biggest increases of any line item in the entire city budget.

So why does Robertson need more money for his office? Well, the budget explains it is to support his roles as the chair of four organizations: The TransLink Mayor’s Council, the Big City Mayors’ Caucus, the Vancouver Police Boards and the Vancouver Economic Commission.

But that doesn’t make a lot of sense. By definition, the mayor is the chair of the police board and economic commission, and has been for years. These are not new responsibilities that require more staff – they are part of the job that never needed special funding before.

The two other jobs may need some extra effort from his scheduler and a bit more prep work on the mayor’s behalf, but they hardly justify nearly a quarter-million more in office spending. In particular, the Big City Mayors’ Caucus only meets two or three times a year – it’s hardly onerous on office resources.

Buried even deeper in the budget documents is the fact that this level of spending is projected to be maintained for the next four years. We’ve seen the TransLink job change hands fast – so it seems premature at best to assume Robertson will still be running the show in four years. But the money is there.

Robertson’s office budget has ballooned by 23.6%, and it really isn’t at all clear why. A giant leap in spending like that should be scrutinized, justified and explained in more detail than a vague paragraph buried deep in a budget document.

Running a successful election campaign isn’t cheap. Phone banks, campaign literature and advertising all cost a lot of money. Parties depend on their donors to help them deliver a win by writing cheques.

We are used to hearing about big money being spent in federal and provincial election campaigns, but in 2014, according to information released by Elections BC, municipal election spending broke records.

Unlike other levels of government, there are no election spending/donation limits at the municipal level. This means that parties can spend what they want, and corporations and unions are free to empty their pockets for their candidate of choice.

It is always insightful to look at who is writing campaign cheques.

So who were the big campaign donors across the Lower Mainland in the November municipal election? You guessed it – developers, unions and special-interest groups.

Overall, Vision Vancouver spent just north of $3.3 million to secure its win – an astonishing sum of money. Vision spent more money in the 2014 campaign than any other party in Vancouver’s history.

The vast majority of Vision’s $2.9 million in campaign contributions came from corporations – which accounted for $1,917,822.98 of Vision’s total raised dollars. Developers were among the most generous donors to Vision. Some examples include: Amacon Management Service Corp, $75,000; Aquilini Development and Construction, $50,000; Concord Pacific Developments, $46,000; and CM Bay properties, $25,000.

Unions also gave just over $360,000 to the Vision war chest.

The NPA raised just over $2.4 million to finance their failed election bid. Of that, only $3,000 came from unions. A significant chunk – $1,748,244.88 – came from corporations.

In Surrey, the winning party Surrey First spent a whopping $1.2 million. Most of their funds were donated by corporations, which collectively contributed $902, 195.

The re-elected Burnaby Citizens Association spent around $473,000 to sweep all seats. Merely $18,000 of the contributions were donated by individuals. The rest came from corporations, businesses and unions. Cupe Local 23 alone donated a massive amount – $91,125.

In Richmond, independent Mayor Malcolm Brodie spent just over $450,000 to secure his win and raised around $265,000. A large portion, around $170,000, came from corporations, and a good chunk came from not-for-profit organizations.

It is clear that when it comes to electing local government in B.C., corporations and unions play a massive role. This isn’t a good thing, and it’s about time to make some changes.

The provincial government promises that municipal campaign expense limits are on the legislative agenda and that we can expect to see significant changes in time for the next election.

Let’s hope this is a promise government intends to keep.

« Older Articles