Whole Hearted Politics

On Saturday morning I was honoured to participate with Barb Desjardins and Cairine Green in a women and politics panel at Weaving Connections: Leadership, Creativity & Social Change, organized by the friends of St. Ann’s Academy. The panel was a welcome reprieve from the campaign trail and an opportunity for sharing ideas and experiences about the challenges and opportunities of being women in leadership positions.

With one week left to go in a very heated campaign for City of Victoria mayor, I chose to focus my talk on whole-hearted politics. While spoken talks don’t always translate well into the written word, I think the remarks are well worth sharing for the many of us interested in transforming politics from a blood sport to a collaborative whole-hearted practice. Local politics is an ideal place to start this transformation.

Competition and Collaboration
If the 20th century was the century of competition, the 21st century is the century of collaboration.  The 20th century saw many large-scale wars. It saw the rise of mass consumerism, with companies competing viciously with each other for your every dollar. It saw the race to extract natural resources as quickly and ‘cheaply’ as possible without considering the consequences. And, in the latter years of the 20th century, the globalization of everything ramped up this spirit of competition far beyond national borders.

The 21st century is already shaping up to be different. It’s the century of collaboration. We see this in the private sector where the companies that are great places to work, are also the most profitable – they share data, resources and ideas with their competitors, raising the bar for everyone. We see this in the non-profit sector with organizations co-locating, sharing resources, working together to serve their communities. We see this globally and locally with people developing local solutions to climate change, poverty prevention, economic development, to name a few, and sharing these solutions globally.

But we don’t yet see this collaborative spirit in politics. There are many reasons that politics remains entirely competitive, separating elected officials from each other and from the people we are elected to represent.

First, at higher levels of government, party politics and the system of government creates a climate where people are expected to serve their party first and the people second. The very nature of the words ‘government versus opposition’ prevent collaboration. Rather than focusing on shared goals to improve the lives of residents and opportunities for business, the government and its opposition most often level spirited attacks against each other, pointing out flaws and weaknesses.

Second, the media pits elected officials against each other, and sometimes we get drawn in. At yesterday’s panel, during the audience discussion, a journalism student stood up and said she’d been taught that competition, conflict and controversy are what sells. This happens especially at election time.

Third, the very nature of elections and the electoral process is adversarial. Those of us trying to get elected need to spend months in self-promotion mode, telling everyone who will listen why we are ‘better’ than everyone else running and why our competitors are ‘worse.’ We must separate ourselves from each other. We must try to stand above each other.

Humanness and Vulnerability
As people running for, or elected to, public office we can begin to change this. We can bring our vulnerability, our humanness, deep understanding, compassion and even love and open-heartedness from outside the political arena smack dab into the centre of it.

We can understand that all of us running for office are fully human and therefore vulnerable. When attacks are leveled against us on the campaign trail we can look with compassion and deep understanding at those leveling the attacks. We can understand that the attacks come from a place of them too feeling vulnerable and exposed.

After we’re elected to public office, we can continually look for points of connection between ourselves and others. We don’t need to ‘put our differences aside’; we need to use our differences, to greet diversity and difference of opinion with curiosity, generosity and compassion. Coming together across difference is what creates stronger more resilient decisions.

Whole Hearted Politics
Finally, both when running for office and once elected, we need to remain open-hearted. Stop reading for a moment and clench your fist really tightly, as tight as you can. Then, let your hand fully relax. What feels better?

I’ve felt my heart slam shut a few times in the past week, especially after the Fernwood mayor’s debate where attacks were leveled against me for the first time. And that’s taken a lot of energy, feeling defensive, clenching my heart shut so that all those comments can bounce off.

There is strength in whole-hearted and loving politics. When our hearts remain open, any negative comments that come our way can filter through and wash away. When we do this on the campaign trail, and once elected, it can clear away our defensiveness and ready us for clear-headed decision making. Surely this clear-headedness is what we want of all of our elected officials.

My final words to the crowd gathered at St. Ann’s Academy on Saturday morning. “My project for the next week? To love Ida Chong, Dean Fortin, and Stephen Andrew with an open heart.”

Setting the Record Straight

I’m learning a lot about politics in my run to be your mayor. The mayor’s debates have been particularly interesting. I think if someone did an analysis of the amount of airtime the candidates spend looking backwards at what has or hasn’t been done, and pointing fingers, we’d see that a lot of the time is spent on this.

I’ve been trying to keep my spirits up and to stay focused, looking forward, on the future of Victoria, and on the city that we will create, together if I’m elected on November 15th. I relish the opportunity to serve as your mayor and I feel really excited about the energy I sense in the community about change and possibility and a new way of doing politics.

There has been some misinformation, so I want to set the record straight and share my perspective on a few issues that are really important to me, and to you as well.

Crystal Pool
The word on the street is that I plan to privatize Crystal Pool. I don’t. On October 13th2013, the day Council was asked to vote on whether we want to have a publicly owned and operated swimming pool or not, I published this blog post. In it I said, “I support the retention of a public pool and fitness centre in Victoria. And, to be perfectly clear, I support this facility being operated by the City and staffed by our terrific, competent and very capable workers.”

I also said, should the City decide to rebuild rather than refurbish the pool, that we keep our options open as to how we get to a publicly run swimming pool. My commitment to Victorians in my detailed election platform is to develop a business case for a Crystal Pool and Wellness Centre that incorporates a publicly owned and operated swimming pool and recreation centre as well as commercial / retail space and housing. This may require a partnership with the non-profit or private sector for the housing portion and for the commercial space (for doctor’s office, massage therapist, chiropractor etc).

When I was asked to vote on the issue at the Council table, it was framed as a black and white choice. In order to keep the City’s options open, to innovate, and to look for creative solutions, I was forced to vote “no”.  There was no outside the box option available. The spirit of leadership that I bring to the table is to look for a common goal – a publicly owned and operated swimming pool – and a willingness to find new and creative ways to get there.

City of Victoria Housing Trust Fund
Early in our term of Council we were considering the contribution that the City makes to the City and the Regional Affordable Housing Trust Funds. Every year the City puts $500,000 into these trust funds. Early in my term, Council was considering reducing this to $400,000 per year for the next three years.

We were making this decision in October 2012. From July to October 2012, I had undertaken budget workshops across the City to ask Victoria residents and business owners for their input on the 2013-2015 budget. The number one concern I heard from seniors was that Victoria is getting too expensive. While Council may have capped the property tax increase, their pensions weren’t going to increase that much every year.

The voices and concerns of the seniors were on my mind when I voted, at Governance and Priorities Committee in favour of reducing the City’s contribution to affordable housing to $400,000 per year.

But then, in the two weeks between the committee decision and the Council decision (which is where we make final policy decisions) I learned something important. I learned that each $10,000 the City contributes to new affordable housing projects, leverages $1.4 million in contributions for other funders. So in voting to cut $100,000 I’d actually be cutting $14 million in potential funding. With this new information in hand, I voted in favour of keeping the City’s contribution at $500,000 per year. As a leader I’m willing to change course when I get new information and evidence.

In my platform I commit, in year three of our term, to see if there is money in the budget to increase the amount we put into the affordable housing trust funds.

Tax Exemptions for Non-Profits
In this past term, Council reviewed its non-profit tax exemption policy. In so doing, we found something troubling. In 2006, Council had changed its tax exemption program so that new applicants to the program were granted only a 50% property tax exemption. At the same time, Council grandfathered a 100% permissive property tax exemption for all organizations that already received a tax exemption.

Frankly put, organizations that had received a tax exemption before 2006 received a 100% exemption. Organizations which had applied after 2006 received only a 50% exemption. This is unfair and it is an unequal application of policy.

Council wanted to make sure that City policy is applied fairly to all the amazing organizations that do important charitable and community service work in the community. And I also understand the challenges facing this sector, having worked in it for many years. So we voted to phase in a 50% exemption for everyone over a 10-year period to give the organizations receiving a 100% exemption time to adapt to the new policy gradually.

Thank you
Thanks for taking the time to read this post and for continuing to share your thoughts and concerns with me going forward. I welcome a diversity views, even when they differ from my own. This is part of how I learn. For me, continuous learning and ongoing dialogue are key qualities that I’ll bring to the role of mayor.

A City Hall that Works for You

A City Hall that Works

Having a vibrant city with festivals, activities for families downtown, beautiful new buildings, safe and welcoming public spaces, affordable housing, and a strong local economy built on a solid foundation of thriving local businesses is good for everyone. Businesses create jobs while providing a place to get that delicious Americano, a loaf of bread, a good lunch.

During my time on Council, I’ve received countless calls and heard numerous stories from people trying to start small businesses in our city – Fry’s Bread, Wheelie’s Motorcycle Café, Shatterbox Coffee, among many. All of these businesses are run by local people choosing to stay in Victoria. They employ people. And yet, each of them struggled through City Hall’s processes that took far longer than necessary to open, creating an unnecessary and expensive burden for a start-up to shoulder. This is a problem. It prohibits growth.

Similarly, building permits, home renovations, larger scale developments, and organizations building affordable housing are all an important part of the City’s economy. Yet they take unreasonably long, and the steps are often unclear and unpredictable. This leads to frustration. It also tempts people to build without a permit to avoid the red tape at City Hall. People tell me, “Next time, I’m not coming into City Hall. It takes too long and time is money when you’re hiring contractors to do the work.” This is a problem.

Reality Check

For much of the last three years, despite the City having adopted a Customer Service Action Plan, and opening both a Customer Service Centre and a new Planning and Development Centre, the situation hasn’t changed at a fundamental level. City Hall has great staff. Our staff isn’t the problem. The problem is how City Hall is organized – as a series of silos.

In the last eight months, under our new City Manager’s “one city” approach, we have finally begun to make some headway. But the reality is that a City Manager can’t change everything. What’s needed is a mayor with a vision and a plan for running City Hall as an organization that directs its resources towards the goal of making Victoria a prosperous place.

How We Make City Hall Work

To solve these problems takes strong, focused, bold leadership. Run-of-the-mill political leadership isn’t enough, focused so often on re-election rather than best practices. Victoria needs a mayor with a rich and diverse leadership background who understands complexity.

An organization like City Hall is a complex system; all the parts need to be working as a whole focused on the goal of creating local prosperity. If City Hall were run in this way, Wheelie’s, Shatterbox, Fry’s Bread and many other businesses would have been open much sooner, making them more viable from the outset. It would be less stressful to renovate your home. Development projects could be built in a more efficient way, with important decisions being made at the front end of the process. Affordable housing projects would move ahead more quickly. It would be easier for citizens to turn new ideas into action. Victoria would be more prosperous.

Leading for Positive Change

For the past 17 years, I have held a number of leadership positions in Victoria. Nearly 20 years ago, I managed UVic’s Martlet newspaper. I was Board Chair of Fernwood NRG during the revitalisation of the Cornerstone Building and the construction of affordable housing at Park Place. I was Chair of the Bread and Roses Collective, which produced the Victoria Street Newz (now The Megaphone). I helped shape and deliver the Leadership Victoria curriculum. I founded and was Executive Director of Community Micro Lending – an organization that provides mentorship and facilitates loans for small-business start-ups. For the last three years I’ve served as a City Councillor, immersing myself in the issues facing this city, both in Council Chambers and on the ground with citizens.

Working within and across many sectors, I’ve learned how to manage and lead in a way that breaks down silos and creates connections. Victoria needs a mayor who understands complexity and who can bring her diverse leadership experience to bear on the problems at City Hall.

Victoria’s next mayor also needs to understand that a mayor is more than one vote on Council. A mayor is also the CEO of the Corporation of the City of Victoria and has the responsibility to work with her senior management team to help shape how City Hall works and serves. My plan is to transform City Hall into an organization that works as a system, with all staff in all departments working together to serve our residents and businesses.