Local caricature artist loses licence for ’bad behaviour’
Victoria’s Inner Harbour may lack a little character as of April — the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority has refused to renew the licence of one of its mainstay caricature artists.
Dean Lewis, an artist in the Inner Harbour for the past 17 years, was told last September he will not have his licenced renewed this year based on “bad behaviour” and “failing to comply with the Harbour Authority’s code of conduct.” Greater Victoria Harbour Authority (GVHA) officials told Lewis there had been a number of complaints against him from staff and other artists in the causeway last year. However, when asked to show evidence of said complaints, the authority refused to issue examples to either Lewis or to Monday.
One thing Lewis has been known for, however, is his outspoken advocacy for issues involving the Inner Harbour artists. He believes the GVHA’s decision is an effort to silence the squeaky wheel. This month could mark the last opportunity Victoria patrons have to get their character portraits drawn by Lewis, as his licence expires March 31.
“Working on the causeway has been my livelihood ever since I moved to Victoria, and it’s a job I’m in love with. I chat, I draw, I live slightly above the poverty level, but I can come to work happy every day,” Lewis says. “I’m 54. I don’t know what I’d do if it wasn’t this.”
Despite Lewis’ successful long-standing history on the causeway with patrons, he believes unrest began between him and the GVHA in 2009, after he asserted that there had been an unfair arrangement made between the Provincial Capital Commission, Robbins Parking and others, which left causeway artists without needed storage space. Lewis brought a small claims court action against multiple parties, many of which work in conjunction with the GVHA. Then, last fall, Lewis took a petition — signed by Inner Harbour artists — to then-CEO Paul Servos, asking the GVHA to clean the causeway after weeks of debris had been left unattended. The incident was written up as “ hostile,” and causeway co-ordinator Joseph Gonyeau sent Lewis an email on Sept. 2 stating that Lewis had breached the code of conduct.
“Overall it seems you are very unhappy on the lower causeway,” Gonyeau’s email states. “There is a waiting list of artists that would love to have your location … a review has been started and may result in your licence not being renewed for 2011 or a termination date being given.”
The GVHA is not willing to elaborate on what occurred during the petition incident. However, Lewis was not made part of the review process. On Sept. 25, he received another email from Gonyeau stating the review had been completed and Lewis’ licence would not be renewed.
A clear process
“I was very surprised [to get that email]. I couldn’t believe what I was reading,” says Lewis. “It seemed clear to me that this was an act of retaliation for asserting myself on behalf of all the artists. I support the Harbour Authority and I think they’ve done a lot of good, but my interest is that the processes they’re using are fair and reasonable, and I don’t think this is.”
Acting CEO Sonterra Ross says the GVHA “tried to work with him,” but that, ultimately, it was decided Lewis was not a good fit.
“We have a clear process about warnings on behaviour, and that’s what our decision was based on. Again, I can’t get into specifics,” says Ross. “We have chosen not to issue a new licence [for Lewis], but we encourage him to look into other programs where he can put his talents to use, like the Bastion Square and Moss Street Markets.”
While Ross says Lewis could reapply, she adds that his behaviour would be taken into consideration and says it’s unlikely the decision would be reversed.
Since the decision, Lewis has requested help from outside sources, including politicians, human rights and city officials, but has been met with little to no assistance. He requested evidence from the GVHA that showed his behaviour as inappropriate, and was refused. Then, in a February meeting between Lewis and Ross, Ross issued Lewis a letter outlining that the decision was final and Lewis’ “conduct towards GVHA staff, the causeway coordinator and other artists has been disruptive and disrespectful.” Ross furthered by writing, “GVHA believes strongly in supporting its employees, contractors and clients and will not tolerate ongoing behaviour that damages individuals or the culture.” The pages that follow as examples of “poor behaviour” include only Lewis’ emails and letters requesting action from the GVHA on issues of storage and parking, as well as dialogue surrounding the petition incident and Lewis’ concern over losing his licence.
“I’m still waiting for a clear and rational explanation of what exactly I did wrong, and it seems like this is just a grudge match,” Lewis says. “It just seems like the directors of the Harbour Authority see me as a source of embarrassment and want me silenced.”
Squeaky wheel or not, Lewis’ non-renewal has raised flags with others artists, residents and the City of Victoria when it comes to transparency around the GVHA’s appeals process. Because the GVHA is a privately run non-profit organization, it has only an internal level of governing — meaning management works only under a board of directors. But whether or not there is separation between the two seems questionable.
Dermot Loughnane, acting chair for the GVHA board of directors, says he’s never heard of an appeal coming to the board before, but adds that the board’s role is mostly to support the management.
“The board should not be seen as super management; we prefer to support the management in the excellent job they do,” Loughnane says. “If someone does disagree with a decision, then they are welcome to file an appeal, which we would look at, but all artists are expected to adhere to the same rules, and so I can’t see us overriding management to make exceptions for people.”
Loughnane says he is aware of Lewis’ case, and believes that since “there have been a number of incidents over the past few years” Lewis was given adequate warnings before the decision was made.
“It’s not like we woke up one day and decided to give him the axe because we didn’t like the look of his face,” Loughnane says. “I think, based on the questions management has asked, they have used a fair process in their decision.”
Loughnane agrees that the GVHA is under no obligation to show Lewis or the media specific allegations against Lewis, though he adds that he is sympathetic to Lewis’ dissatisfaction.
“Of course someone who is losing their livelihood is going to be upset about the decision, but that doesn’t mean the process used to decide that wasn’t fair,” he says, adding that no reports cite Lewis’ outspoken behaviour as the reason for his non-renewal. “We try to keep the place [Inner Harbour] clean and keep people happy, but … most [artists] just go down there and do their job.”
Victoria city councillor Pamela Madoff sits as the City representative on the GVHA’s board of directors. Madoff says that while it’s inappropriate for her to take an official stance on Lewis’ case, she says the case has brought up an important issue of appeal accessibility for her, and she’s assisted Lewis in accessing resources to the mayor and other officials.
“The truth of the matter, though, is that there is really nothing the City can do,” she says. “If nothing else, it’s important for people to be aware that even while [the Inner Harbour] is seen as public space, it’s run by a private organization which doesn’t have to follow the same transparent processes or come with the level of citizen involvement that, say, the City of Victoria would strive its best to do.”
Dave Harris, the one-man-band Inner Harbour busker, believes the GVHA is being heavy-handed with the issue and does not believe Lewis is being treated fairly in the process.
“It seems [the GVHA] are treating this like a kangaroo court, where they have already made their decision and it really doesn’t matter what Dean or anyone else says — there’s nothing anyone can do to change their mind, and I don’t think that’s fair,” says Harris, 54, who has been busking in the Inner Harbour since the mid-’70s. “Any appeal made is just going to the same body who made the decision, so what are the chances they are really going to change their mind?”
Lack of transparency
Harris says that while the last few years have been quite smooth in terms of the relationship between the GVHA and buskers, he is concerned by the lack of transparency around Lewis’ non-renewal and says that, if nothing else, it adds to an environment of fear among those who work in the Inner Harbour.
“It really seems like one person is running the show, and people are scared — even though they won’t say they are … we’re all trying to make a living,” Harris says, adding that Lewis a valued member of the harbour and patrons love him. “Dean can be a pit bull, and when he gets something in his teeth he often won’t let go. And you kind of have to in order to keep the peace. Maybe that sounds weak, but that seems like the reality we’re in.”
Lewis says he doesn’t yet know what he’ll do for work now, though he is considering taking legal action.
“I intend to go down fighting,” Lewis says. “I’m convinced in the merit of what I’m doing and, if nothing else, I hope this raises questions for everyone in terms of the Harbour Authority’s ethical treatment and accountability. It’s not fair for people with so much power to quietly get away with this.”M