Lisa Helps: welcoming your ideas to City Hall

By Katherine Palmer Gordon, November 2014

Helps wants the public more directly and meaningfully consulted before decisions are made by City Hall.

Why should Lisa Helps be the next mayor of Victoria? “There’s a very high talk-to-action ratio in this city and that needs to change,” Helps responds bluntly. “Victoria’s next mayor needs to know how to bring together diverse people and perspectives and make things happen. For the last 17 years in this city that’s exactly what I’ve been doing.”

Helps is referring to her resume which includes dealing with poverty as a former chair of Victoria’s Bread and Roses Collective; helping oversee the purchase and renovation of ten affordable housing units as vice-chair of the Fernwood Neighbourhood Resource Group; and founding Community Micro Lending. Currently in her first term as a Victoria councillor, she has won the support of more traditional business types like former Chamber of Commerce President John Juricic, as well as “new economy” representatives like Nicole Chaland (director for SFU’s Certificate Program for community economic development professionals) and Jason Guille (vice president of the Victoria Public Market and head of Sunset Labs). Unlike Mayor Dean Fortin and candidate Ida Chong, she is not a member of any political party, although she’s been endorsed by former Green Party leader Jane Sterk.

On her campaign website, Helps, 38, pillories a lack of progressive action at City Hall: “Cities around the globe are light years ahead of Victoria in adopting leading edge practices in everything from green building to economic development, to affordable housing to sewage treatment.” She believes she’s the one to change that. As mayor, she pledges, “I will take a leadership role to move Victoria to the leading edge.” 

I meet with Helps at her bare-bones campaign headquarters on Fort Street to discuss her run for mayor. Seated on a threadbare couch in an empty meeting-space that doubles as an office, Helps discusses the issues as energetically as if the room were full of voters. Three key themes emerge: putting City Hall’s house in order, public engagement, and regional collaboration.

“The time is ripe for transformation of City Hall into a place where new ideas are welcome. As mayor I plan to ask each of my new councillors: What are your ideas? What are your priorities? We should be sitting down as soon as we can after the election to set the vision together for the next four years. That never happened when I was elected, and it was a huge missed opportunity.”

One of her strengths, says Helps, is her collaborative approach: “You have to be a strong team. Everything starts at the council table, and if we aren’t working effectively together that’s not going to be good for the City.” 

She intends to apply the same approach to working with senior management to improve processes and systems at City Hall, presently a siloed organization: “That doesn’t serve the public well. I want to see City Hall working instead as a streamlined, effective network of interdependent departments. I have lots of ideas about how we can improve.”

There’s a risk that could be seen as political meddling in staff responsibilities, but Helps doesn’t see it that way. “I have no intention of micromanaging,” she says. “We have an excellent staff team…but that doesn’t mean we don’t have to keep an eye on things. For example, if I had been mayor when the Johnson Street Bridge replacement came onto the table, I would have demanded detailed weekly status reports. We haven’t been getting anything like that. That kind of thing has to change.” 

The 2009 decision (before Helps was on council) to spend significant sums to replace the Johnson Street Bridge after its seismic safety was called into question—without public consultation—was seen by many residents as a kneejerk reaction made without considering more pressing infrastructure priorities. It’s one of the reasons Helps’ second priority is a public engagement plan for all issues in front of council. 

“I think there’s a real disconnection to City Hall right now because of the lack of meaningful public participation on a whole raft of issues, big and small,” she says. “We need systems in place to make well-informed decisions. Rather than focus on issues like the bridge as they arise, part of our plan should be a participatory process where we put forward to the public all the projects we believe are necessary and seek feedback on those projects.” 

“Right now I would put forward sewage treatment, the fire hall, the Crystal Pool, the Bay Street Bridge, and the library. Let’s go out at the start of the budgeting process and ask some questions: Should we be rebuilding in the same place? Do we need a bigger library? What about adding bike lanes to the bridge? Not everyone’s going to agree on everything, but that still gives us a much stronger mandate because we can say we asked for your input, we listened to it, here’s how we built it in and this is what we’ve decided. That’s much more supportable in the long run.” 

Helps also believes that the City should take advantage of a more diverse range of voices at the table sharing their experiences. Local experience can be just as valuable as expert advice, but is often undervalued: “Look at the speed limit discussion.” It’s all very well for traffic experts to talk about what is statistically safe, says Helps, but it’s the residents who are going to know how speed affects local traffic on any given street. “They need to be listened to and their feedback built into the decision-making from the beginning, not as an afterthought.”

On her third priority of regional collaboration, Helps cites as examples of lack thereof: endless costly disputes over sewage treatment, inefficiencies in delivery of regional services like policing, and stalled regional economic development. “There’s a big, fat regional reset button that needs to be pressed.”  

Helps, whose website outlines a detailed four-year plan, says “My economic plan for the City includes a regional development strategy where we stop worrying that someone is going to get a bigger slice of the pie and we all work together to make the pie bigger…We can’t have a strong economic region without cooperation. If we all sit down together to discuss ways to attract business to the whole region we can find ways to make progress together and all come out ahead.”

That could apply to other regional challenges, including sewage treatment. Helps agrees: “We need to stop the bullying and the finger pointing and get on with finding solutions that work for all the municipalities in the CRD.”

She is adamant that for Victoria, advanced treatment is a must: “We absolutely need it. Juan de Fuca Strait cannot flush away antibiotics and microplastics and all the other toxins coming down the pipes. The federal government is also not about to drop its treatment requirements and we can expect them to get more rigorous as time goes on.”

Secondary treatment isn’t necessarily the answer, thinks Helps, since it won’t take care of many toxins. “We also need to refocus the conversation from waste treatment to resource recovery so that we can make good use and money out of the end products—water, phosphates, and biomass—instead of just getting rid of it.”

Helps wants to see the provincial government’s deadline for having treatment in place extended from 2016 to 2020, in line with federal requirements. That would allow enough time to consider treatment options, including a comprehensive distributed advanced treatment system with in-built resource recovery—if, she stresses, “we roll up our sleeves and get to work as soon as the election is settled.”

Some West Shore municipalities, including Esquimalt, have started work on a collaborative treatment plan. Helps is leaning towards a similar solution for Victoria, Oak Bay and Saanich that would connect to the West Shore plan. Work has already started in Victoria on this front, she says: “Staff have been asked to look at partnering options with other municipalities and what public engagement on the options should look like.”

As to what form treatment and resource recovery might take, Helps will only say, “We need to have all the information in front of us, not piecemeal ideas and costs. We need good advice from experts and we need to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to discuss the pros and cons of the options publicly, rather than simply having mayor and council think they know best on this issue.” 

And what of amalgamation? Helps is on record as saying she doesn’t support a mega-city. She does believe a reduction in the number of municipalities in the CRD could improve efficiencies in service delivery. Building new municipalities around common interests would make sense: Oak Bay, Esquimalt and Victoria make natural bedfellows as an urban core, for example.

In the meantime there are some simple steps that could be taken to pilot amalgamated services: “Every municipality needs to pay its employees and needs IT services. What about piloting a shared service delivery model between Oak Bay, Esquimalt and Victoria for payroll, banking and IT? Let’s do a cost-benefit analysis to see how we can gain efficiencies and cost-savings that way while building closer relationships with those municipalities, and try it out.”

In front of an audience of business people and developers at an Urban Development Institute candidates’ panel, Helps admitted ruefully: “I’m learning a lot about politics.” She had posited that anyone opening a business in Victoria needed hope—a statement pilloried by her opponents as naïve and unhelp-ful. Helps stuck to her guns: “Of course we all have hope for this City, that’s why we’re here.” 

The difference between her and the other candidates, Helps said, is that she has a concrete plan to give effect to that hope. “I’ve listened to many people in the business community. Based on what I’ve heard I’ve developed a detailed business plan for us to work together to build a city based not only on hope but on good planning, to create sustainable prosperity not just for the people who live and work here now but for their grandkids.”

These are not empty political promises or pledges, Helps told the room. “You and the people of Victoria deserve better than that.”

Katherine Palmer Gordon is the author six books, most recently We Are Born With the Songs Inside Us: Lives and Stories of First Nations People in British Columbia.