Robertson’s rough ride ahead

As Mayor Gregor Robertson touched back down in Vancouver after a several week-long vacation that took him to sunny southern Mexico, he faced two pieces of bad news.

First, are the questions of his absence during the longest cold snap in three decades, which hobbled city services and left many seniors and those with mobility challenges captives in their own homes.

Second, is his response to a poll by Mainstreet Research that shows him with the lowest popularity among mayors of Canada’s largest cities.

Now, on the latter item, the mayor can simply shrug it off. Thanks to a change in the rules, municipal elections are now held every four years, making what would typically be an election year only the halfway mark instead.

Mid-term polls, as any political strategist worth their salt will tell you, are best used to line your birdcage. That is because you still have time to get back on track with voters.

It will be Robertson’s second time in office that he chose to ride out Vancouver’s heavy snowfall, impassable streets, and slippery sidewalks in a setting closer to the equator. The first was just after he was elected in 2008. Though he received a serious drubbing from the public then, the mayor promised the city would do better next time.

That, of course, did not happen.

As with eight years ago, the snow response was poorly timed, inadequate and paired with dozens of excuses by city officials. The one person the public rightly expected to hear from during the weather crisis was the face of the city — Robertson.

What we got was the occasional tweet from the mayor via Mexico, including one saying the weather was “challenging for us all.” That statement was met with a stream of snarky responses at the mayor from people wondering if the warm ocean breezes and sand between his toes had affected his judgment.

Robertson may get a rough ride once he gets back to work — a motion to review (again) the city’s snow response will be debated. However, very little of the snow crisis will likely stick to our Teflon mayor.

As the Mainstreet pollsters were quick to point out, the mayor has a strong core of supporters who like him a lot. Robertson can bank on that support should he decide to run for an unprecedented fourth term, beyond what will be the longest period any person has held the mayor’s office at 10 years.

It is worth noting that prominent political figures including Stephen Harper, Jean Chretien, Gordon Campbell, Brian Mulroney, and even Margaret Thatcher, only lasted 10 years as heads of government. Most were pushed out by their own caucus ­— which is a fate, though unlikely, Robertson may face if his poll numbers continue to plummet.

While it is not clear why the mayor’s popularity is waning, the botched snow response provides a clue. The city is signaling that basic services we depend upon such as snow removal and waste collection (countless households have endured weeks of missed garbage and recycling pickups) are not at the top of Vision Vancouver’s priority list.

Instead, the city’s latest releases are about the hiring of a new climate change czar, or about thermal mapping homes to see if someone’s attic needs more insulation, neither of which helps an 83-year-old pedestrian get her grocery shopping done.

While some will argue that the city can focus on several goals at once, if you are unable to fulfill what are considered core services, then maybe it is time to adjust those priorities.

Robertson’s popularity is not helped either by failed promises on ending homelessness and improving rapid transit, but he was still elected anyway in 2014.

The mayor’s dilemma will be whether to run again, and convince his detractors that he has the mojo to lead the city for 14 years, or he could take the hint from the poll numbers, let someone else run for mayor, and spend even more time in the sun.

Published originally in Vancouver Courier newspaper. See also my early December column predicting the city’s snow troubles.