A city’s mayor is the central figure in an administrative hierarchy where experience, political acumen and people skills often go hand in hand.
And in Port Moody, where the city’s mayor has had to step aside to fight a sexual assault charge, a $100,000 pay packet, plus expenses, goes along with the job.
As Rob Vagramov handed over the reins to Diana Dilworth Friday, a veteran councillor who takes over as the city’s acting mayor, questions remain about who is this young man and how did he get the city’s top job.
Youth, it seems, was an important factor.
Now 26, Vagramov first ran for Port Moody council, in 2011. At the time, he listed his iPod playlist alongside his qualifications for the job — not surprising, considering he was 19-years-old and fresh out of Dr. Charles Best secondary school.
Vagramov didn’t get elected that year, but the 962 votes he received sparked political ambitions that led him to study three years of political science at the The University of Ottawa, according to a recent interview.
“I was excited, I totally got hooked into it,” Vagramov recalled to The Tri-City News prior to the 2018 civic election.
Eager to put some of his book learning into practice, Vagramov cut his studies short of a degree to run again in 2014.
“I was excited to see how democracy worked,” he said.
Vagramov said, at that moment, Port Moody was entering a “critical time” with the imminent arrival of SkyTrain poised to drive development in the city for the next decade. He said he intended to reign in property tax increases, escalate voter turnout and “improve what we love about Port Moody.”
That’s also when Vagramov coined the term “Metrotownification” to describe the perils of recreating another central Burnaby by adding dense condo and highrise developments along the SkyTrain extension that was being cut through the city.
Rick Glumac, another candidate who was re-elected in 2014, said those messages resonated with voters.
“The people in Port Moody want to be heard,” said Glumac, who resigned his seat on council in 2017 to become the MLA for Port Moody-Coquitlam. “They want a council that represents their values and concerns.”
Vagramov, an independent candidate who had produced an annual youth charity show at the Inlet Theatre, likened the 2014 campaign to a “high-school drama.” But the 3,285 votes cast for him were enough to get him elected, edging out incumbents Gerry Nuttall and Rosemary Small.
Nuttall, who had served three terms on council, said Vagramov’s confidence and speaking skills may have helped get him elected.
“He presents himself very well,” he said. “I guess [voters] were looking for youth.”
The young politician also promised to be a good listener, and for voters cynical about political grandstanding, it might have been the fresh air they needed to vote for him.
“My function as a councillor is to bring what I hear from residents to the decision-making table,” he said at the time.
But Nuttall said Vagramov may not have been as great a listener as he promised — as Vagramov even joked to the audience at a Freedom of the City ceremony honouring the elder politician that he hadn’t heeded his advice to listen.
Glumac said Vagramov’s brashness and ideals often clashed with Port Moody’s former mayor, Mike Clay.
“It was a struggle in the last council,” Glumac said.
That struggle played out frequently at council meetings, where Vagramov’s desire for “managed growth” countered others’ desire to densify.
Vagramov called it a “toxic” environment.
“The level of discourse is really low,” he complained to the The Tri-City News. “There’s a lot of personal attacks that go on.”
Vagramov said his exposure to the governance style of other municipalities — through his involvement with the Lower Mainland Government Association — showed him there was a better way, leading to his decision to seek the mayor’s job in 2018.
“The majority of municipalities don’t do it this way,” he said. “They’re not nearly as toxic as the council in Port Moody.”
Vagramov ran for mayor on a slow-growth slate that included several other councillors elected in October, 2018, including Couns. Hunter Madsen, Amy Lubik and Steve Milani.
But a Facebook video from 2014 that surfaced during the 2018 campaign almost rendered Vagramov’s candidacy toxic.
The profanity-lace clip showed Vagramov — then 22 years-old — shotgunning a beer with a homeless person outside the Granville Street SkyTrain station in exchange for a sandwich.
Vagramov blamed his opponents for unearthing it to hurt his campaign, then apologized.
“Coming from a place of such privilege, I really do feel horrible about filming our meeting,” he said.
The incident cost Vagramov the support of Glumac, who called it “deeply offensive.” But it didn’t cost him the election.
Vagramov won 52.27% of the vote, to Clay’s 47.73%.
Glumac said the voters wanted change.
“They were looking… for new ideas,” he said.
Now, as Vagramov steps out of the limelight until his court case is settled, Port Moody council and the city will have to find a way to work without him.
— with files from Diane Strandberg, Garry McKenna, Sarah Payne