Corruption and the Abolition of Wards in Vancouver
Edwin R. Black
The University of Northern British Columbia
Hard times and demands to bring government under closer control are leading Vancouver activists to demand a return to the ward system. Curiously, it was hard times and popular demands to bring civic government under more control sixty years ago that led the voters of Vancouver to abolish the ward system. It may be instructive to consider how and why it happened. The inquiry may also lead one to ask whether electing our municipal representatives by wards or at large makes a difference to the quality of government.
It becomes readily apparent that in 1935 the ward question was only a small part of a wider political movement in Vancouver, the Province, and the Dominion. A financial crisis was threatening to drive the city into bankruptcy, a concern that crept into almost every aspect of political life in the city. An activist group of city-based Members of the Legislative Assembly was another factor in the drive for change. The catalyst, however, was undoubtedly the political ambitions of one colourful politician, Gerald G. McGeer, the man who would be mayor — or more.
The early nineteen-thirties were times of unprecedented public pressure for change. One only has to open almost any newspaper from those years to sense the flood of ideas inundating the readers. The Conservative federal government of R. B. Bennett fought steadily to overcome the depression set in motion by the crash of 1929 by ‘blasting our way into the markets of the world.’ It was not working. Inspired in part by the New Dealism of Franklin D. Roosevelt, W. L. Mackenzie King and the opposition Liberals kept up a constant barrage of demands for reforms of the economic and political systems. Bennett wanted change but not too much and not too fast. At home in British Columbia, his counterpart was Simon Fraser Tolmie, a stolid Conservative who as Premier was preaching the alleged virtues of applying business methods to every aspect of public affairs.
In Vancouver, as in the province generally, the demand for reform was heard constantly. After three years of ever worsening depression the people of Vancouver were tired of promises of change that were never delivered. Civic politics seemed hardly changed at all from those of the mid-twenties. The elite in Shaughnessy Heights still controlled the political system. Corruption and incompetence at city hall were endemic. The police department was said to be a cesspool of corruption. Both the city and the province were ripe for a saviour. At the federal level, however, there would be no chance for governmental change until 1934 or 1935 when the next general election was due.
The first white knight on a charger come to save British Columbia rode to power in a blaze of passion and promises in the provincial general election of 1933. That was the Liberals’ T. Dufferin (Duff) Pattullo. Two of the reformers who went with him were a former Liberal attorney-general, A. M. Manson, and the ambitious Gerry McGeer, another wouldbe saviour of the people whose radical ideas on monetary reform were being preached at the same time as the public was looking for a new solution to the problems of the day. McGeer felt that both Pattullo and Mackenzie King had endorsed his monetary policies(3) and that once elected he would have the ear of the premier in matters concerning financial reform. While putting these into effect would require federal authority, McGeer had won election in Vancouver Burrard with the second highest plurality in the province and he was confident that these would ensure a key role both for him and his ideas.
It was not long after the election that McGeer realized the pitfalls of being a person of high exposure and strong opinions. Much to his astonishment, McGeer was not put into Pattullo’s new cabinet. The same fate befell other prominent Liberal members, such as A.M. Manson, who had been attorney general in the previous Liberal administration. As if to add insult to injury, Pattullo appointed “a junior Vancouver lawyer,” Gordon Sloan(4), to the post of attorney general. Despite being warned by Mackenzie King to be “moderate in all your public utterances”(5) that was a piece of advice Gerry McGeer could not possibly heed. He had been devastated by his exclusion from cabinet, and did not take long to express his displeasure publicly. At a meeting of the Burrard Liberal Association, he claimed that in cabinet he would have “rid Vancouver of its `criminal element’ which was tied into illegal vendors of liquor…and instead crime now would continue to flourish”(5). McGeer decided to sit as an independent Liberal MLA in order to continue his crusade ‘unfettered’ by party politics(6).
Although on the `outs’ with the Premier, McGeer did have a few allies in the Liberal caucus. A. M. Manson joined McGeer in “attacking the Vancouver police force and police commission and the failure of the government to clean up crime and corruption by rigorously enforcing the law”(7). Manson’s support for reform at the municipal level undoubtedly resulted from personal experience with the unsavoury side of the municipal police when he was attorney general in the late twenties. The relationship that Manson and McGeer developed turned into a critical one a little later as, by the end of 1934 McGeer was toying with the idea of running for Mayor of Vancouver. After being all but disowned by Pattullo, he was looking for a platform from which to launch his reforms. Although Vancouver had a weak mayoral system in which the mayor held few powers(8), McGeer undoubtedly felt that if elected mayor he would be in charge. In this respect his great confidence in his abilities was well founded.
McGeer ran in the Vancouver municipal election of 1934. His only opponent was L. D. Taylor, a man who was first elected to office in 1910 and whose experience included eleven years as mayor of Vancouver(9). Some argued that Taylor’s chief claim to fame consisted of surviving freak accidents and running a ‘loose’ government, that is, one that turned a blind eye to such things as illegal liquor sales(10). While Taylor had won the previous election by over 5,000 votes, in this one McGeer beat him by 34,500 votes to 9,000, the worst defeat in Vancouver history(11). If the newspaper accounts can be believed the electorate was so happy with its choice that it celebrated with a long night of revelry.
McGeer wasted no time in starting to reform city hall. His first act as mayor took place before his swearing in. He persuaded the premier to remove two police magistrates, an easy enough thing for Pattullo to do for both had been Conservative appointees. While neither magistrate had been directly implicated in any scandal, it appears McGeer wished to start with a clean slate and what better way than with loyal Liberals as fellow members of the Board of Police Commissioners(12).
On New Year’s Day the new mayor’s inaugural speech outlined detailed plans for reforming the civic government. Chief among the pledges was a “reduction of 50 per cent in interest rates” on city bonds(13). McGeer also promised to set up a committee charged with making “a complete survey of the cost of maintaining civic government with a view to departmental reorganization”(14). “Representative government is on trial,” McGeer warned. If agreement on reforms could not be reached then the city would be “placed in the hands of a receivership”(15).
The council faced the huge financial problems of a city too long in the depths of depression. On the one hand, the city was financially responsible for the welfare of unemployed who were flocking to the city in the thousands. On the other hand, the city faced ever-increasing difficulties in trying to collect property taxes, its main source of revenue(16). The financial crisis was only part of McGeer’s problems. The city was riddled with corruption; one of McGeer’s first acts as mayor was to suspend seventeen police officers for connections with liquor and gambling interests. The police chief resigned and had to be replaced. McGeer appointed Col. Foster as the new chief of police and T. G. Taylor as counsel to the chief(17).
Then there was the public’s perception of the city’s management. The notorious Janet Smith scandal ten years previously had badly damaged the public’s view of city politics and the police force and the city government had never really recovered. The public demanded change, a demand that Alan Morley suggests was reinforced by the fact that “the influence of the `old families’ in civic politics was reduced to a point where they never again could openly assert their sway”(18). It appeared that removing the old families’ influence also figured in behind the scenes activity stimulated by McGeer and others.
Three main focuses can be detected in McGeer’s ‘New Deal for Vancouver.’ First was dealing with the city’s financial situation. Second was overhauling the police department and third was the reorganization of city hall. It was in the last area that McGeer had the longest lasting effect. None of these objectives could be achieved until McGeer could win support from like-minded individuals, a difficult accomplishment for one with his ego and strongly-held views.
Vancouver’s financial dilemma was like that of many Canadian municipalities. During the worst of the depression the city was responsible for the relief of the poor and unemployed in the municipality. The mild climate and the draconian policies of other provincial governments, such as that of Aberhart in Alberta, resulted in the city being overwhelmed by transients who took refuge in Vancouver. The city’s relief cost for the 1931-32 year alone was over $1.3 million(19). From 1929 to 1934, the cost of relief was estimated to have cost the city over $4 million which contributed to a total increase in its indebtedness to bondholders of a further $11 million(20). As demand for relief far outstripped the city’s ability to collect taxes the city turned to borrowing, primarily by issuing bonds and borrowing from the banks. The city was required to pay a set amount into a sinking fund every year in order to fulfil its obligation to the bondholders. The rate of interest on these bonds ranged from 2.0 per cent to 5.5 per cent, the latter being considered quite high even for the depression. In this same period of time some $7 million in property taxes could not be collected. In 1934 alone 3,900 parcels of land had reverted to the city because of unpaid taxes(20?). That same year the city suspended sales of these properties indefinitely.
The size of the task was daunting but McGeer had a plan. To rescue the city from bankruptcy, he decided that the city would unilaterally reduce the interest rate on outstanding bonds by 50 per cent(21). The very mention of this plan sent bond- holders into a panic. George Kidd, the outgoing president of the Vancouver Board of Trade, announced that the interest rate cut was ‘deplorable’ and worried openly about the effect such a move would have on the credit rating of not only the city but the Province and the Dominion(23). Mr. Kidd’s concerns were soon substantiated. The Times of London reported on January 29 “that the most important event of the day was the decision of the dealers in the Canadian and Municipal bond market to take out of the official list quotations for the City of Vancouver.”(24). The Times attributed this “drastic step” to the “extraordinary statements made by the new mayor of Vancouver, Mr. McGeer”(25). The paper went on to warn that “the effects on Canadian Credit generally would be serious” and advised bondholders to “take prompt steps to protect their interests”(26).
The premier, Pattullo, refused McGeer’s request to adopt legislation that would allow the city to go ahead with its interest reduction plans. Still unrepentant, McGeer managed just the same to persuade the western mayors to recommend adoption of much of his financial plan including a limit of 3 per cent interest on any new municipal bonds(27). The final resolution of the Western Mayors conference also demanded that the Dominion government take over responsibility for all the costs of relief and that the “federal government take over all debts contracted for direct relief and refund to municipalities all money they have paid for relief out of current income”(28). The writer, Bruce Hutchison, called it the “most radical programme of economic reform ever proposed by responsible government in Canada”(29).
Mayor McGeer did not limit himself to financial reform. He cut the number of committees of the city from twelve to ten(30), the first of many changes he introduced in reorganizing civic government. As the people of Vancouver were to learn later this was part of his plan to replace the Council-committee system with a city manager system(31). To achieve this, McGeer sought something that would destroy the advantages of the Council-committee to the elected aldermen. McGeer appointed a special committee responsible for surveying “all city hall departments, with a view to elimination of every unnecessary expense and to consolidate work of the departments as much as possible”(32). To this Reorganization Committee, the mayor appointed Aldermen Cowan, Smith, McDonald, Wilkinson, and DeGraves(33). Reorganization of this scope would clearly require amendment of the Vancouver Charter and the approval of the Private Bills Committee of the Legislative Assembly. Rather than taking the normal course of waiting for city council to suggest changes, this committee later proved to be far more activist in nature and actually set about initiating changes.
After being on the ‘outs’ with Premier Pattullo during the 1934 session McGeer in his role as MLA for Vancouver Burrard was reluctantly allowed to return to the Liberal caucus for the 1935 session. This was mainly a result of McGeer’s stunning victory in the municipal election of the previous December. So important were the Vancouver ridings to any provincial governing party that Pattullo had to appear in tune with the wishes of Vancouver’s citizens. Even though McGeer did not stop from railing against the government, Pattullo could not afford to have a man who was making international headlines on the opposition benches. McGeer’s return to the government’s graces had the happy effect of giving him a seat on the Private Bills committee in which his old ally Alex Manson had the chair.
It was the private bills committee that seemed to initiate a surprising proposal. On March 14, Manson, the committee chairman, urged adoption of both a smaller city council, from twelve to nine, and an at-large electoral system(34). Alderman J. J. McRae pointed out that council already had the power to adopt these measures. Manson retorted: “yes but you don’t do anything about it…. [T]he question is going to be dealt with by this committee. We are going to consider a clause to make that compulsory”(35). McRae and McGeer supported the idea which Alderman Smith opposed. On March 16 the private bills committee adopted a resolution that Vancouver citizens should have the right to vote on a plebiscite with regards to the reduction of city council from twelve aldermen to eight. These aldermen would be elected by an at-large system. The committee’s recommendations also provided that voter approval of the plebiscite would result in legislative passage of the necessary changes in 1936(36). All MLAs from Vancouver were in favour. Gordon Wismer would shepherd the bills through the assembly at the appropriate time because by then McGeer was not expected to be in the Assembly. (37) On the financial front the provincial government came to a compromise with McGeer. Under the Special Powers Act the government would provide the city with $2 million of new spending powers. The province would also lend the city the monies needed for its relief programs. The city would also be free to ask the Dominion government for a charter for a city bank(38). In return the city dropped its demand to be able to tax crown land and to modify its stand on interest rate reduction on outstanding bonds(39). The city was also given the go ahead to issue `baby bonds’ in order to raise money for the new city hall.
The last hurdle for McGeer’s reforms was the plebiscite to be held on December 11. The city council had originally asked for one year in which to study the question of reducing council and abolishing wards(40). With the provincial government mandating a vote the council had lost control of the issue. Four aldermen, Loat, Lembke, Wilkinson, and DeGraves voiced disapproval of the plebiscite but too many others supported the idea. The Vancouver MLAs supported the plebiscite as did many of those seeking office in that year’s fall election. Among those running for office was L.D. Taylor whose aldermanic campaign platform in Ward five included abolition of the ward system and reduction of the size of council(41). The local CCF organization favoured the plebiscite as did all CCF members of the provincial legislature. Aldermen McRae(42) and Wilson also supported the resolution. The latter was noted to have supported it as he was the “youngster of that august body.”(43) The presumption was that a younger person would be more open to modern ideas.
If the electorate needed any further persuasion of the necessity of change, Mayor McGeer was ready with a further lesson on the corrupt practices within the city administration. On November 28 he suspended three city officials, Walter Wardhaugh, the city comptroller, W.L. Woodford the city clerk and Frank Stead, the internal auditor. The last of a group of twenty-six city officials to be suspended in 1935, they were implicated as a direct result of a charge of cover up by city officials. The charges stemmed from the Kerr investigation into the relief department which the previous council had ignored(44). Once the investigation had been brought to the McGeer’s attention, he launched himself into an investigation with his usual gusto. Although the tribunal was eventually bogged down in legal wrangling it revealed that Stead had embezzled over $4,000 from the city. In defence Mr. Stead assured those present that he had since repaid all but $400 of that amount. The scandal does not seem to have been a large factor in the public’s attitude toward the ward question. Not even those supporting election by wards were under any illusions about civic corruption. It did, however, take a writer of a letter to the editor of The Sun, George Allan, to point out:
It might very well be that the latter (ward system) would occasionally lend itself to abuse, but what guarantee would we have that the different system would not at times also be abused? There does not seem to have been a organized campaign for the “NO” side of the plebiscite campaign. Alderman Lembke did express the opinion that reducing “the number of Aldermen is not going to help any. It still depends on the personnel elected on how the city’s business is conducted”(47). Other aldermen expressed their “indignation at the action of the provincial government which (Alderman DeGraves) characterized as `rather high handed'”(48). A Vancouver Sun editorial on December 9 urged support for both the proposed changes but especially for abolition of the ward system. No voting relationship can be found between the various candidates’ stated positions on the ward question and the votes they received as individuals. All incumbents who ran retained their seats which may only a testament to the power of the ward electoral machines.
The electoral turnout in 1935 was very low: 20 percent of those on the registered list. Those who did voted two to one in favour of abolishing wards. The margin of victory for those in favour of reducing the size of council was almost 9,000 votes(49). Some have claimed that the plebiscites were deliberately put to the public on an off year in order to assure victory. A more plausible explanation might well be that the two men who championed the cause knew it was their last chance at bringing about these civic reforms; both McGeer and Manson ran in the 1935 Dominion election and were obligated by law to resign their provincial seats.
One writer, Andrea Smith, attributes the campaign to abolish the ward system to the McGeer’s nefarious desire to run “a businesslike board of directors under [his] unchallenged guidance and control”(50). A more reasonable assumption would seem to be that passage of the change had far more to do with the public mood and the widespread demands for change that swept across North America and much of the western world in those years. That the newspaper opinion of the day attributed the deed to Manson has been lost on many writers of Vancouver history(51). If one is looking for someone to praise or blame, however, then the colourful Mayor Gerry McGeer is much the more colourful candidate. One might suppose that he would have wanted it that way.
Whether Vancouver or any other municipality has been better served by substituting at-large electoral systems for those based on a reformed ward system is difficult to say. Foreign observers of the American scene see positive correlations between ward systems and civic corruption in the oldest U.S. cities but only the most careless could argue for a meaningful cause and effect relationship. Most of the English-speaking world’s electoral systems are very ‘ward-like’ for the mechanism does not differ in substance from most orthodox single member district plurality systems. The adoption in one or more cities of at-large electoral systems in tandem with anti- corruption crusades tells us only about changes in the various civic political cultures and the symbolic power of institutional change. There is no evidence at all that abolishing Vancouver’s wards was responsible either for increases in City Hall’s virtues or in the voters’ influence on the way their business is conducted there. The McGeer-Manson council changes served only as a vehicle for an orthodox anti-corruption campaign and a means of depriving the city’s less affluent parts of meaningful democratic representation on council.
1. In Williams’ biography of McGeer he notes that in a letter to Duff Pattullo McGeer “disclaimed any commitment (to sitting in cabinet) telling him that his primary interest lay in the Federal rather than the provincial field”. David Williams. Mayor Gerry: The Remarkable Gerald Grattan McGeer. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1986. p.135
2. Tolmie is reported to have thought of government as just one more business and went so far as to run a slate of “businessmen” candidates. Robin Fisher. Duff Pattullo of British Columbia, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991. p.187
3. McGeer had worked with Pattullo on the provincial Liberal’s platform and was a long-time correspondent with King. Williams,pp. 135-137.
8. D.S. Terrell. Local Government Administration, Camosun College, Revised 1993. pp.5-10.
9. Vancouver Sun, Nov. 22 1935. p.11
10. Taylor had survived near decapitation in 1926 when he backed into a propeller blade and had been given up for dead during a boating vacation.
11. Alan Morley. Vancouver: From Milltown to Metropolis, Mitchell Press: Vancouver, Third Edition, 1974. p.222
12. Williams, p.177
13. Sun, Jan 03 1935,p.1
16. Morley, p.222
17. Vancouver Daily Province, Jan. 03 1935,p.1
18. Morley, p.194
19. Eric Nicol. Vancouver, Doubleday Canada Limited: Toronto, 1978. p.172
20. Williams, p.168
22. The same Mr. Kidd whose report on the economy for the Tolmie government recommended among other things, closure of UBC.
23. Province, Jan 19, 1935, p.7
24. The Times, Jan. 29, 1935, p.19
27. Province, Jan 29 1935,p.1
30. Province, Jan 02 1935, p.1
31. McGeer in his inaugural speech of 1936 urged that there should be an “early appointment of a city manager to administer the city’s business.” Province, Jan. 02, 1936.
32. Province, Jan. 09 1935,p.1
34. Province, March 14 1935, p.2
35. Sun, March 13 1935,p.11
36. Sun, March 16 1935,p.1
37. Sun, March 21 1935,p.24
39. Sun, March 13 1935,p.1
40. Sun, March 14 1935,p.1
41. Sun, Nov. 20 1935,p.20
42. In an article in the March 14 edition of the Sun it is reported that “For several years Ald. J.J. McRae has been vainly trying to have city council agree to a plebiscite reducing the number of Aldermen from twelve to eight.”
43. Sun, Dec. 07, 1935, p.5.
44-45-46. Andrea Smith contends that the “charges of patronage and corruption were never substantiated”. See her “The CCF, NPA, and Civic Change: Provincial Forces behind Vancouver Politics 1930-1940, BC Studies 53 Spring 1982 at p.56. The city had suffered from corruption in the police force for years and it took until the late 1950 to clean it up. As noted above Stead had admitted to embezzling a substantial sum of money. For an informative look at the state of Vancouver’s police force in the 1950s see Jack Webster’s autobiography. Letters from the public to Alex Manson suggest that the conclusion of some Vancouverites was that the city would finally be wrested from the control of the few. See: A.M. Manson’s private papers.
47. Sun, Dec. 07, 1935, p.5
49. Sun, Dec. 12, 1935, p.1 & p.5
50. Smith, p.55
51. McGeer’s biographer, Williams, gives sole credit to McGeer.
Fisher, Robin. Duff Pattullo of British Columbia, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1991.
Morley, Alan. Vancouver: From Milltown to Metropolis, Mitchell Press, Vancouver, Third Edition, 1974
Nicol, Eric. Vancouver, Doubleday Canada Limited, Toronto, 1978.
Smith, Andrea B. “The CCF, NPA and Civic Change: Provincial Forces behind Vancouver Politics 1930-1949,” BC Studies 53 (Spring 1982), 45-65.
Terrell,D.S.. Local Government Administration, Camosun College, Revised June 1993
Tennant, Paul. “Vancouver Civic Politics 1929-1980”, BC Studies 46 (Summer 1980. 3-27
Williams, David Ricardo. Mayor Gerry: The Remarkable Gerald Grattan McGeer, Douglas &
McIntyre, Vancouver, 1986
The Vancouver Daily Province.
The Vancouver Sun.