All substance

By Aaren Madden, November 2011

In his pursuit of sound civic policy, Geoff Young defies labels and shuns spin.


When Geoff Young is not at any number of meetings in his roles as chair of the CRD board of directors, City of Victoria councillor, and member of multiple committees and boards, he spends his working days at Discovery Economics. He founded the company in 1984. His light-filled office sits on the second floor of a heritage building tucked quietly into downtown’s Langley Street. Diplomas in Economics from UBC, the London School of Economics and Harvard (PhD) are the main adornments, save a winter landscape painting that says more about clarity and presence than it does about chill temperature. 

We sit on worn but comfy chairs on opposite sides of a large oak desk and talk about earthquakes. Specifically, what would happen to this particular building, which leans congenially against its neighbour via a shared wall, should one hit that very minute. Young calmly states, “It would be a pile of bricks and we would be under it. I plan to dive under the desk, and I’d advise you to come under there, too.”

Though it’s quite the sturdy desk, he’d rather the city was able to address seismic upgrading for the many occupied heritage buildings downtown. He offers the tragedy in Christchurch, New Zealand as possible foreshadowing. The February 2011 quake there took the lives of 181 people, and the economic impact from it and subsequent tremors has further devastated the city, one of similar size and age to our own. “That’s a whole area we haven’t even been able to start working on,” he says, as we discuss the myriad priorities in civic spending—including the estimated $500 million in unfunded but necessary infrastructure projects looming in the near future. He continues, “One of my big concerns about spending the extra money on super-high blue bridge earthquake resistance [was that] I am very aware that there are a lot of higher priorities from the point of view of life safety.”

This is what he calls the “applied economics” of civic politics. His interest in it led to seats on City council from 1983 to 1999 and again since 2005. Though Young dabbled in the provincial Social Credit and Progressive Conservative parties in the 1980s, his niche is firmly in municipal government, in analyzing the minute details of an issue to determine not just economic, but overall benefit. 

One such detail in the bridge debate was its latching mechanism. Since it’s no longer readily available, it would have to be specially fabricated at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars. But the interest alone on the loan for the new bridge “swamps” that figure, he says. That’s one of many considerations he referred to when he admonished his colleagues at one meeting, saying, “There is a lot we chose not to learn about these issues.” 

Young argues that what should have been asked of staff was, “What are the costs and benefits of the new bridge option and the sensible, economically sound repair options?” Note the plural—a range of costs meeting safety requirements and transportation needs that won’t break the bank. “One of the most tragic things to me is that we were going to present to the public a higher level of service for the new bridge; more options for crossing. In the end, that isn’t the case,” he reflects. With the rail component removed, he elaborates, the options for crossing—three vehicle lanes, bike and pedestrian amenities—will amount to “not much more than we would have if we maintained and fixed what’s sitting down there now. I believe at much less cost,” he says.

He’s seen it happen before: the way the View and Vancouver intersection rebuild was handled still causes him pain. It was the height of the building boom, and only one bid came in. “I almost got down on my knees in front of my colleagues and said, Can’t you see? The US economy is heading downward. In a year or two, people will want to work; we will be able to get multiple bids. The concrete was not dry on that project before the building industry had collapsed. We probably could have saved a million dollars on that contract,” he laments. “So I have to say to people who are thinking of running for council because you have some expertise in an area, and you think you will be able to convey that expertise to your colleagues, don’t do it. Because they won’t listen to you,” he laughs heartily.

“That’s how government works, and I’ve gotten used to it. I attribute it to my lack of eloquence, or something,” he shrugs. Though Young is more “in the middle” at the CRD, his point of view is, especially of late, in the minority on Victoria city council.

Which is precisely why he wants to be there. “It always amazes me when I hear, ‘At least this council makes up its mind, and sticks to its decisions’ as if that was a good thing!” He marvels at the notion that any decision is a good decision. A recent editorial in a local paper advocating a more like-minded council “to reduce bickering” left him flabbergasted. “I thought, gosh, am I being perceived as being a nuisance, or someone who leads to unpleasant discussion because I don’t agree with everyone else all the time?” For Young, that debate is what brings about the best result. 

He has noticed a worrying trend sitting on boards like the Harbour Authority, the Provincial Capital Commission and the Airport Board, where major decisions get made in private. “If [the boards] can control the appearance of dissent and disagreement, they can appear to be more competent. And by controlling information, they can reduce the ability of the public to criticize,” he explains. 

At City Hall, he has noticed greater emphasis recently on communications, with one spokesperson gatekeeping messages, whether for road maintenance or bridge spending. And the City newsletters, to Young, “look like election flyers, presenting a series of good news stories about what City council is doing. I don’t think that’s appropriate. I have always disliked it from federal and provincial governments, and I don’t like us being a part of that. In many ways, the media is the most effective counterpoint to government actions. It’s really important that the media be healthy and present competing points of view, but it shouldn’t be competing with the government’s own direct publicity organs,” he opines. 

That may be especially true given his concern about the current governance model. Implemented in March 2009, it claims to streamline decision-making and, according to the City Hall website, “create more meaningful opportunities for public participation.” Sitting dead centre on the governance diagram (also viewable online), and flowing one-way to all other committees, is the Agenda Committee. It consists of two people: the mayor and the acting mayor. Young explains that the function of this committee, which meets weekly, is to decide what comes on the agenda. “That’s an explicit way of controlling items that come before council, and that’s an enormously powerful position. It’s pretty obvious that’s where the real authority is,” Young states. Half-jokingly, he compares the position to that of commissar. He’s quick to add, though, that these structures are almost always in flux and under review. (And with questioning minds on council, one expects that review to be somewhat more rigorous.)

Clearly Young is more concerned with issues than with image and power. He resists being pigeonholed, though he’s been labelled fiscally conservative, even unprogressive. When pressed, he calls himself “an urbanite. I believe in the social and the environmental benefits of cities, density and public transportation,” he says. Walkability is important, and his bike is parked downstairs. “I am anxious to move forward on environmental issues that make sense,” he continues. “I was disappointed when we didn’t move a little faster on kitchen scrap diversion, for example.” 

Not the stuff of flashy campaigns, perhaps. Young ran for mayor in 1999 (“Never again,” he says). At the time, former candidate Laura Acton accused him of being “all substance and no style.” While he chuckles grimly at the memory, he reflects, “I like to think I am primarily motivated by longer-term considerations of public benefit rather than shorter-term politically attractive messages. That’s still the case.”

Germane to Geoff Young’s goals toward reducing kitchen waste in Hartland, Aaren Madden can tell you that no less than 30 percent of material that ends up there is kitchen scraps. Shocking!