Q+A Interview: Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps Doesn’t Hold Back

Outspoken and optimistic, Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps is full of ideas to move B.C.’s capital city out of what she says is a “colonial outpost” mentality into an innovative era of prosperity, bike lanes, housing for all and, yes, cool crosswalks.

Photograph by Jeffrey Bosdet.

Applaud her or criticize her, but no one should underestimate her.

There’s a famous old expression that says, “May you live in interesting times.” That’s certainly been the case for anyone following the news in Victoria over the past year and a half. We’ve had Tent City, the troubles of our police chief and the ensuing police-board fiasco, the sewage-treatment boondoggle, bike-lane bickering and, of course, the bridge.

Staring these issues down and taking the heat since she took office in late 2014 has been Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps, who can’t help but laugh with trepidation at the enormity of the obstacles she’s having to leap like high hurdles.

Helps knew her mettle would be tested as she dared to change the culture at City Hall, engage the citizenry with a tactic of less polarization and more dialogue, make allies out of the 12 neighbouring municipalities, kickstart economic development and form a new give-and-take bond with senior government, with an emphasis on thawing the frosty relationship Victoria has had with the province.

To hear it from her, “They are the government and we are the capital city. It is our joint responsibility to get things done together to make a better capital city. We’re the capital city. That ain’t nothing.”

Well, no one every accused her of holding back.

Over a third of the way through her tenure, Helps knows there’s a lot to harp on, a lot to defend and a lot to explain, but she remains surprisingly positive, almost feisty, against mounting criticism.

“We have this perverse propensity in Victoria to amplify the negative,” she says. “In a ratio of positive to negative, there’s way more positive going on than negative. It’s just that the negative gets amplified.”

So, in true Victoria fashion, let’s begin with the negative.

Tent City. These two words seem to have damned you in the eyes of many Victorians. What’s your stance on the influx of homeless into our city? Surely that’s not just a provincial problem?
Like [B.C.’s Housing minister] Rich Coleman says, it’s a free country. People can move. I think what we need — and what the [federal] Liberal government has said they’re going to do — is a national housing strategy with investments in affordable housing across the country, so that wherever people are they’ll have the housing they need.

How did we get to this point? And how does Victoria move forward?
The real problem is that in 1989 the federal government invested $114 per Canadian in affordable housing. By 2014, the federal government was investing $58 per person in affordable housing. At the same time the population grew by 30 per cent.

That’s a whole generation missed in terms of adequate provision of housing by the federal government — on every street in every major city in Canada. And we are a major city. We like to think of ourselves as this tiny little colonial outpost, but Victoria and the region, we’re a major city.

You see homelessness and mental-health and addiction [issues] in every city. I think what will also help is the significant investment that the region and the Province have committed to making. We’ve lined up $60 million so far and now we’re waiting for the feds to put in their $30 million — and we’ll have $90 million for new housing over the next five years.

That will make a dent. The City of Victoria has had very little power over Tent City. It’s on provincial land. It’s a provincial problem. [ED NOTE: As of press time, a B.C. Court judge had ruled the site as unsafe and must be shut down by August 8.]

It’s hard to recall when the City last enjoyed a healthy, co-operative relationship with the provincial government. Isn’t it crucial for us to be on the same page?
When’s the last time the Province was saying, “Here’s $30 million, Victoria”? I don’t want to pretend I have a lot of sway with the Province — that would be overstating it — but I certainly have had the minister’s ear with regard to Tent City. We’re working collaboratively to end it, not just by displacing people but by actually buying more buildings. One of the things — and I think it was even in my platform — is to develop a better relationship than Victoria has had in a long time with this provincial government, and that’s happened. That’s made a difference on sewage, Tent City and with regard to tourism and economic development.

Is that new relationship being put to the test with the new Belleville ferry terminal?
Minister Fassbender and Minister Stone are very supportive of the Belleville Terminal. We’re all working collaboratively to get rid of those ATCO trailers that have been there for a generation — and actually have a world-class terminal.

I understand the terminal is a three-phase project, and that the first phase, a repair of the docks at the Black Ball Terminal, is almost complete. What’s next?
Phase 2 [includes] public-realm improvements along Belleville Street, and that’s a really unique partnership between the City of Victoria and Tourism Victoria. We’re both kicking in a million bucks to do that.

Phase 3 is to get $24 million for … a combined terminal for the Coho, the Clipper and a pre-clearance facility so people can clear customs on this side [instead of once they are in the U.S.] … It’s in the plan for 2018, but as soon as the federal government comes through with the $24 million, the shovel is ready to go in the ground. And this would be a real gift for the federal government’s infrastructure spending. We’ve got a shovel-ready project. Everyone’s behind it, too, which is rare in this region. I’ve got letters from almost all the mayors supporting the redevelopment of the Belleville Terminal.

Some businesspeople and residents are calling for your head. What do you say to them?
Get a life. Find something productive to do … of course, people aren’t going to walk up to me on the street and say, “You suck. You should resign,” but you wouldn’t believe that from 10-year-olds to 80-year-olds, the most feedback I get is, “You’re doing a great job. This is a really hard job; you’ve got some challenging files.”

People calling for my head? Whatever. I don’t care. I really don’t care. If people actually want to call for my head, then every two weeks without fail in my office, there’s a community drop-in. People can actually get off their computers, walk in and have a conversation. If you want to call for my head, do it to my face, not online.

When we spoke for a Douglas article just after you were elected, you agreed with then-Chief of Police Frank Elsner that the mental-health issue is a huge priority in this town. Is anything happening with that?
You can’t solve the problem in a year. We’ve got all those folks at the table. The Coalition to End Homelessness had wandered a little bit from its mission of ending homelessness, so when I was elected mayor I also became co-chair of the coalition. We’ve done a governance review; we’ve focused our efforts on action. It was the coalition research that was the spark for the $30 million and then the $60 million [for housing].

But the most concrete action we’ve taken is that we’ve formed a Priority One Task Force to deal with the work for the most chronically homeless, mentally ill and addicted … if we got them housing, a lot of the disturbances that we see on the streets would disappear. You just don’t see the results yet because it’s complicated — and it’s 30 years of undoing.

Can you tell me what the biggest challenge has been for you?
Nope. There’s good stuff that happens and bad stuff that happens. My job as mayor is to stay level-headed and reasonable and open to feedback, and not get sucked into this crisis or that crisis. When the mayor thinks there’s a crisis, or gets mad as hell, or if the mayor acts unreasonably, that doesn’t do a service for anyone. My job is to stay calm, centred and really focused on the 30-year vision. People love to lurch from crisis to crisis, but that’s not my job.

Are there things you’re particularly proud of?
We’re sitting in one of them. The Business Hub [launched last year at City Hall] is a lean startup, no new tax dollars, repurposing a couple of vacant staff positions, converting a storage space to this space we’re sitting in — and it’s making a difference. If you want to open a business, run a business, relocate your business to Victoria, or if you want to invest in a business, it’s the place you come. It’s a perfect example of how to pilot something, have it as a prototype, see if it works, get feedback from our customers — and make it better. I want to nurture the Business Hub. I want to keep working on downtown and making our neighbourhoods great.

Another key deliverable that was in my platform that has now been delivered is the South Island Prosperity Project … It’s historic that 10 municipalities, all three post-secondaries, a number of private-sector institutions and our tourism and harbour industry associations have come together and created a truly regional economic-development body — and its focus is on sustainable prosperity. So I feel like in the last year and a half, we’ve almost finished setting up a structure to keep delivering the projects that we want to deliver.

You wrote in your election blog about transforming politics from a blood sport. But it seems right now, with the anger directed towards you, it’s more bloody than ever. How do you deal with that?
Stay open-hearted. People say to me all the time that you must need a really thick skin to do this job, but as soon as you have thick skin, you don’t let stuff in. It means you’re closing down. And there’s a lot of shit that comes my way for sure, so [when] that comes in I say, “That is kind of irrational and makes no sense and is not based on any evidence.” All right, so that doesn’t stay. But then I get some really good feedback like, “Why are you doing it this way? How about this instead?” and that actually is important. If you’re thick-skinned and closed-hearted, you aren’t open to feedback.

Speaking of feedback, painting the crosswalks and sidewalks seemed like a fairly benign decision, but you got slammed for it as a waste of money.
Here’s a classic example of misunderstanding, and this really gets under my skin. “Why are you wasting the tax dollars on painting the sidewalk?” Well, actually, we’re not. The City put in $60,000, the private sector put in $120,000. There’s sidewalks, there’s a new retail kiosk, there’s new public art, there’s a new bike shelter, there’s a new bike-mechanic station — so we turned $60,000 tax dollars into a $120,000 investment in the public realm. Isn’t that what you want? Isn’t that the point? That’s good business sense.

Former mayor Dean Fortin once said his job was to be the biggest cheerleader for Victoria. Are you doing any of that?
Absolutely not. I could just say, “Rah, rah, rah,” but I’ve got my sleeves rolled up and my hands on a lot of projects. CityStudio Victoria — I’m leading that. I’m facilitating that. I’m pulling people together.

The Mayor’s Task Force on Economic Development and Prosperity is another perfect example of good business sense and saving tax dollars. Last time the City did an economic-development strategy, they hired a consultant and it cost a hundred thousand bucks. This time, with the support of our fantastic staff, I led the task force with zero consultant dollars, pulled all of the intelligence of the community together and wrote an economic-action plan. In terms of the actual writing of the actual plan, I was heavily involved in the crafting … I think I’m the opposite of the cheerleader.

My hands may be too much in some things sometimes, [but I’m] not standing on the sidelines waving my pompoms. It’s not in my nature.

In hindsight, is there anything you would have handled differently?
The police board is definitely one of them. We should’ve sought better advice. Mayors do not know how to conduct investigations. Mayors don’t conduct investigations. We did not conduct an investigation. Better guidance through that process, I think, would’ve really helped. And also being clear on what to say coming out of a meeting where a board decides this file is closed and we have confidence in the chief. It was a personnel matter, so we just should have said it’s a personnel matter.

It seems the Province is asking the amalgamation question now by launching a study into the possibilities. Where are we headed with the Big A?
We’ve amalgamated our economic development function, for at least 10 of 13 [municipalities]. That’s a significant small amalgamation that’s taken place in the last year. The regional police boards that are municipal (Victoria, Esquimalt, Oak Bay, Saanich and Central Saanich) have met three times and are working on better integration of regional policing. At a staff level, there are over 100 types of purchasing shared across municipalities. A perfect example is electric cars. We didn’t go buy electric cars ourselves; we bought electric cars in partnership with Saanich.

Political amalgamation of all 13 municipalities … who knows? What’s the most cost-effective way to deliver services? That’s the question to me. The question for me is not whether to amalgamate or not to amalgamate. If amalgamation is the most cost-effective, most efficient way to serve tax dollars, then I’m open to that. But I will reserve comment until we learn what this provincial-led study will bring us. And I’m glad the Province is taking leadership.

Helps downtownFinally, the Johnson Street Bridge. What’s left to be said?
Disaster from the start. What we’ve done in the past year and a half is brought the project back on track. We’re sharing information with the public. We’ve got Jonathan Huggett, who’s managing the project very, very well. Yes, it’s late. Yes, it’s over budget. But I knew it was going to be late and I knew it was going to be over budget and that’s initially why I voted against signing that contract, because I knew it was a bad contract from a business point of view. Now our job is just to get the thing done and never do a capital project like that again.

How do you feel about the job you’ve done so far?
I don’t think it’s about me. We’re doing well. One of the things I committed to was to work collaboratively with all of our partners, like the Downtown Victoria Business Association. Downtown retail vacancies are down two per cent from 2015 to 2016. Is that all me? Absolutely not. Is that us working together? Absolutely … Government Street is full, and the people moving in
are high-quality businesses. Tourism is having its best
year ever.

I was on a panel at the Victoria Real Estate Board with developer Dave Chard. Somebody asked him, “How is it to do business with the City?” and Dave said, “It’s fantastic.” The City has made huge changes with how they work with developers and business, and we’re really feeling that positive impact. There are 21 construction projects underway downtown right now. If I’ve done anything, it’s as a champion of culture change at City Hall by walking the talk. I think we’re seeing the ripple effect of that.