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Philip Owen: There Are No Shortcuts When Running a City

08/08/2013 07:46 EDT | Updated 10/08/2013 05:12 EDT

Last month I organized a community event to celebrate the 10th anniversary of a unique piece of public realm on Vancouver's east side -- the Country Lane. I had discussed the idea of an anniversary fete with a neighbour, who suggested that I invite former mayor Philip Owen.

It was Owen's council that approved the project mere months before he left office, and the mayor came to the grand opening during the final days of his administration. Having Owen join the community in celebration of the lane seemed only fitting.

But why would Owen come to our community event? Long retired, he hasn't been Vancouver's mayor for over a decade.

In spite of my doubts, Owen was not a hard sell. To the delight of everyone involved, Philip confirmed that he would join us. He even called me the day before to warn me he'd be a few minutes late. "I'm not expected to make any remarks, am I?" he asked. I assured him his presence alone is all we would ask of him.

On July 14 around noon, a car pulled up to our street barricade erected to block traffic in the lane, and out came Owen wearing a broad-brimmed hat and light linen suit with his Order of Canada pin on his lapel. At his side was his 8-year old grandson, Will, whom Owen said had just arrived off a jet from the U.S. with his family. The former mayor proceeded to stay for over an hour, mingling with others, reminiscing about how the Country Lane got built.

Summing up his philosophy of governing, Owen said to me, "You have to follow the process. For public policy to succeed you need to get buy-in from staff, citizens and your business community. There are no shortcuts."

The idea that change in our city involved a process of stakeholder engagement seems positively abstract through today's lens. Don't the people want "action" instead?

In my view, Philip Owen was the last mayor to really make a personal effort to get to know the city he led. He wasn't in a bubble created by political aides -- his staff was tiny in comparison to those in office today. When the public was upset with him on an issue -- which inevitably happened during his three terms as mayor -- he didn't cower under his desk. He made himself available to citizens and to the media.

It seems remarkable now that each month Owen used to do a primetime cable TV call-in show -- back in the days when we only had 12 channels. Any member of the public could ask him something about the city's business, or kvetch about a problem concerning their community during this live broadcast.

There was no communications department stick-handling the affair, or a chief of staff standing by to intervene. It was just the mayor and the caller, along with thousands of spectators.

These unscripted moments are practically unthinkable in Vancouver politics today. Why is that?

I recall phoning in to the show to report a big construction mess that had formed on a former piece of city property in an obscure residential block near Boundary Road. To my surprise, the mayor said he had already been there to check it out. Owen was known within city hall for his habit of visiting sites around the city in advance of council votes. When I asked him about this, he admitted with a certain pride that touring the city in his car was easier than wading through endless staff reports, and it helped him to make better decisions.

A longtime city staffer told me that Philip Owen was regarded as a "mayor's mayor." His legacy is distinguished by the fact he exhibited a passion for the whole city, and not just the parts that agreed with him politically. By coming out to a small East Vancouver community event a decade after he left office confirms that perception.

Owen succeeded Mayor Gordon Campbell, whose wonkish leadership style still influences policy-making in Vancouver today. When it came to dealing with the public, however, the former B.C. premier often appeared awkward. From my perspective, the two mayors who succeeded Owen -- Larry Campbell and Sam Sullivan -- also struggled to connect with many parts of the electorate. Gregor Robertson faces that same challenge today.

These days Vancouver city hall is twisting itself into pretzels trying to figure out why citizens have stopped engaging with the political process. Perhaps we should ask if it is the politicians themselves who have stopped engaging with voters. No matter how many PR flacks you hire, there really is no substitute for the ability to connect with those you serve.

As Philip Owen would tell you, there are no shortcuts.