#Occupy disrupts mayoral debate

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The ratio of low-income housing was not the only issue raised on the subject of the Olympic Village. Bula had also asked each candidate what his or her plans were for the rest of the land surrounding the existing development, which prompted further questions about the city’s unrecovered costs.

“There’s a secret here,” said Anton, pressing the Mayor for answers.

“The secret is how much has the city lost? And the reason it’s a secret is because Gregor won’t tell us – he either can’t or he won’t.”

Though he did not divulge a number, Robertson explained to the crowd that it was a “very expensive endeavour”.

“We don’t know what the net cost or benefit of this will be, because the market has not responded to all of it yet. There are still hundreds of units for sale, but we can’t predict what they will sell for,” he said.

Anton suggested that the land surrounding the existing Olympic Village might have to be developed in an effort to recoup the city’s related – and currently unknown – losses.

As the heckling continued and the clock counted down to the end of the debate, organizers made the decision to forgo closing statements and take audience questions. Quinn struggled to maintain control as protesters joined the lengthy line that had formed to speak at the microphone.

In response to a popular question about increasing rental costs and a potential “rent ceiling”, Robertson said he understands that affordable housing is a serious challenge. He said he doesn’t know how even his own children will afford to live in the city.

“Frankly, we need the provincial government to be a lot more helpful with renters – protecting renters, dealing with issues like rent control and renovictions. The provincial government has to a large degree abdicated their responsibility to look after renters in our city,” he said.

The shifting of blame onto other levels of government had become a pattern throughout the debate – from accepting tenants for new social housing units to the closing of aging co-ops. And the audience was clearly unsatisfied with the candidates’ refusal to accept responsibility for many of these problems.

Announcing the “final question”, Quinn prompted a dramatic outburst from members of the crowd. The questioner at the front of the line used the “human microphone” to confront Anton and Robertson, demanding that as public servants they must stay to address each and every one of the citizens’ concerns. 

“If they tell us to go home, they might be responsible for another riot,” he said.

Referring to the police at the doors as “armed thugs”, the protester continued to press the candidates, eventually handing Robertson a list of housing demands and insisting that both he and Anton attend an upcoming Occupy Vancouver housing rally on Saturday.

While the two main candidates remained silent on their intentions to take the discussion further, a lobster-toting Zimmerman enthusiastically replied that he would stay at the church to take questions all night long.

After the debate…

As the crowds dissipated from the church, politicians and residents were asked to reflect on the night’s events. Some attendees appeared to be troubled by the disruptions, but many thought it encouraged a healthy discussion. According to Councillor Anton, the debate was a success.

“I feel great. That was democracy in action, warts and all,” she said.

“It was pretty interesting. In a way I enjoyed it because I enjoy hearing from people but it was tough to get into the issues properly. It was tough to hear everything that needed to be said about homelessness. I think the crowd won the debate tonight.”

While Anton demonstrated her optimism about the protesters’ interruptions, others who attended the event were not so kind. Former NPA candidate and local development consultant Michael Geller said that though he understands many of the movement’s concerns, he does not agree with the Occupy Vancouver encampment.

“I have been completely opposed to most of what Occupy Vancouver has been doing since it set up camp. Tonight has simply reinforced my disgust with their behavior. I also feel disgust for the people who pander to them. If it was up to me, I would bring the police tomorrow to enforce all the fire bylaws and remove that camp,” Geller said.

COPE council candidate RJ Aquino was more diplomatic as he explained his experience at the debate.

“The event was…lively, you could say that,” he said with a laugh.

“Whether or not the candidates' answers on the issues [of homelessness] – from what you could hear of it – whether they really satisfied the protesters, well, you could tell from their reactions.”

Aquino also made reference to the protesters’ accusations regarding political donations from wealthy developers in the city. When asked about this during the debate, Robertson spoke about supporting a ban on such contributions to municipal parties. However, he declined to answer a question yelled out about why Vision continued to accept these donations.

“Unlike Vision and the NPA, COPE doesn't accept any money from developers,” said Aquino. “We've been around for 40 years, we've never needed money from them. We've always been very grassroots.”

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