Local elections, regional roulette

When British Columbians go to the polls this Saturday to vote for mayors and councillors, they’ll also be voting indirectly for the next chair of their regional district.  This is a little strange, because we don’t know who the candidates will be for those regional leadership positions.

Metro Vancouver, the largest region, is budgeted to spend $620 million in 2012, or $524 for every household in the region.  The chair has influence over the Metro agenda; works closely with the well-paid ($323,767 in 2010) chief administrator, Johnny Carline, whose almost supernatural invisibility in the online world testifies to a high degree of skill; and perhaps most significant, the chair appoints the membership of the Metro committees that oversee Metro’s utilities, parks, housing and planning activities. 

The chair will be elected from the Metro Board at its first meeting in 2012.  In the past term, the Board was made up of 20 mayors, a First Nations Chief, and 16 councillors, mostly from large municipalities that are allowed to send more than one body.  Board voting is weighted according to population, so that the City of Vancouver get 29 points, Surrey 20, Burnaby 11, Richmond 9, Coquitlam 6 and so on.

For the past six years (two terms), the chair has been Lois Jackson, the Mayor of the Municipality of Delta. One criticism of Ms. Jackson is that she has tightly restricted the membership on Metro committees, favoring Board members and alternates.  Some mayors have served on half a dozen committees at once while dozens of elected representatives from across the region were shut out.  In an interview with the Province newspaper, Ms. Jackson said: “When appointing members to the Metro committees, you have to look at a balance, geographically – small communities and large communities – and you have to look at the experience of those sitting on the committees….someone that’s brand new coming onto the committee will take perhaps six months to understand the issues. I feel that we must go with our best.”

One mayor told me that Metro has 30 people in its communications shop, but in my experience most citizens are unaware of Metro’s functions and size.  It’s possible that if be more local councillors were appointed to Metro committees; it would generate louder debate around Metro issues and more buzz in the public realm.  Ms. Jackson’s position — that local politicians need six months in the Metro Vancouver hothouse before they can be trusted to discuss regional parks or utilities questions — is entirely bogus, in my respectful opinion.  The next chair may take a different approach to this matter, or they may not – who knows?

Of course, a shuffling of committees would have only minor impacts on the overall problem; we would still have two levels of local government, one elected and one indirectly elected, creating barriers to public engagement and to media scrutiny, especially in Metro Vancouver.  However, the B.C. system still allows for considerable local autonomy, and this is better than amalgamation into megacities.  As noted elsewhere on this site, megacity formation in other provinces has been a painful process, sweeping aside local identities and organizations, and it has not achieved the promised financial returns.

The current provincial administration appears to be committed to the regional system.  During the current election campaign in Abbotsford, just outside Metro Vancouver, the municipal Council vote in favour of setting up the City as a one-tier government without regional ties.  The government has responded quickly, saying that this kind of breakaway will not be permitted; but a provincial minister is prepared to discuss reforms to the structure of the Fraser Valley Regional District.  On November 19, therefore, voters across the Valley will elect new councils to negotiate a set of unknown proposals.

3 responses

  1. I disagree with the notion that Metro Van board members are not elected. They are elected at the important local level and then represent the entire region from their local perspective. This is the same concept as a provincial cabinet minister being locally elected but responsible for the entire province. Lets stop this anti-regional government propaganda! It is the agenda of developers that want fewer restrictions on the development of farmland and conservation areas.

    • Thanks for taking a strong interest in this. I agree that having regional policies on land use is valuable, and that we need regional coordinating structures in B.C. I’ve revised a statement near the end of this post – it said that regional government is “unelected,” and I have changed this to “indirectly elected.”

      The fact remains that the identity of the next Metro Vancouver chair is unknowable at this time, as is the nature of the next Metro Board. The influence that the chair’s position wields in allocating tax dollars is generally unrecognized. Overall, for reasons that are partly related to the complexity of the regional system, the activities of Metro are subject to less public scrutiny than the activities of local councils. To take a non-trivial example, the Capilano water filtration project has run $220 million over budget due to a series of decisions that have not been widely discused.

      • Your main point is a good one. But all of politics is in essence a game of chance because we have but one vote and must rely on the perceptions and knowledge of others of the candidates, then on the integrity and intelligence of the candidates themselves. Our system is certainly flawed, but still a good one nonetheless when one examines the alternatives. Human nature has its perverse side and will thwart any system created by humans. The only systems that cannot be subverted below to nature, which always wins in the long run. Excellent blog and topics.

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