Another Provincial Election Ignoring Citizens living in Municipalities
Ron Bolin: May 9, 2013
Think about it. There will be a provincial election next week which will see either some new faces in an old party in power or some old faces in a new party in power. From none of the participant parties have I heard much about the governance of our municipalities even though these contain the bulk of our population, demand a predominant portion of the money we pay for governance through property taxes, fees and levies, and often have Councils made up of well meaning, but often politically and financially naïve people, i.e. a disaster waiting to happen.
To exacerbate this problem, in 2004 municipalities were given “natural person powers” enabling them to enter into a broad range of agreements, just like a real individual (or ‘natural’ person). They have, too often, taken on the mantle of Captains of Industry, imagining themselves to be Masterminds of Community Development and Prosperity. Thus they take on debt, forgive taxation, and donate land and services to commercial enterprises seemingly following the pattern of government/corporate integration which is characterized by fascist governance on the right and communist governance on the left, while at the same time personally accepting none of the financial accountability which is associated with corporate officers in the capitalist sense.
Ask yourself, do you as a citizen of a municipality feel that you as a person are equal to such a “Natural” person? Try to question the system, even in an interpretation of legislation which may appear clear, and you may find yourself having to take the same course of action required if you have a dispute with a neighbour or business: i.e. take it to court. And good luck to you in that endeavour as it is your tax money that will be used against you there.
You can be misled by an “alternate approval process” where, by means of a negative option, if you want to actually force a referendum which is called for by a municipal action, you will be required to undertake a procedure to obtain over six thousand signatures which is even more taxing than a referendum.
And if a referendum is undertaken, it appears that a municipality can pick and choose which parts of a referendum question they wish to honour. For example, the referendum question leading to the conference centre affair was quite clear. It spelled out an amount to be borrowed ($30 million) and a purpose for the borrowing (a contract to build the conference centre for $52.5 million in public money and a Marriott Hotel to be built with private money.) The $30 million was borrowed, but the rest of the referendum deal was subsequently forgotten. Had the referendum deal made with the public been honoured, we would have, instead of a money gobbling VICC, tax revenue producing private properties along Commercial Street. Whether one likes the conference centre as it stands or not, the deal with the public was broken. Can these folks be trusted in any new deals?
The Community Charter legislation must be reviewed and the powers of municipal governments and their officers to act as corporations without personal risks, must be curtailed. Ask your Candidate for MLA about the Community Charter.
Municipal government has far greater impact on the life of the average person than the federal government. Municipal regulation determines much of the quantity and quality of a person’s housing – how much it costs, whether it is close to parks, schools and other amenities, to what extent it can be inexpensively modified, etc. Municipal decisions can and do hugely affect the time it takes to get to work or to go shopping, the availability of recreational facilities and the overall conveniences and pleasantries of daily life. Municipal property taxes are not tied to income and accordingly can be a very significant and disproportionate annual cost for lower income people. For small businesses commercial property taxes are often a big component of their rental costs. Additionally small businesses have to survive an increasingly onerous regulatory regime, much of which is imposed at the municipal level.
Thusly it is baffling that the percentage of people voting at the municipal level is less than half that at the provincial and federal levels. Additionally in most municipalities candidates do not run on organized, disciplined platforms; provincial and federal politicians are expected to specify their promises and are now asked to cost them; It is politically unwise for a party to introduce a new tax regime like the HST when at election time that they won’t be doing so.
In contrast most municipal candidates do not even have the foggiest notion that if successful one or two years later they will be voting for a seven million dollar expenditure here, a sixteen million dollar expenditure there, a thirty-five million dollar expenditure here, and so on and so on. Did any candidate for council or mayor at the last Nanaimo election tell us that they supported building a new civic building or removing the Colliery Dams or acquiring lands in the industrial waterfront? I don’t believe so. In fact municipal candidates usually tell us to elect them because they “will listen to the people” which of course is a total inanity. Thusly as stated by Ron Bolin it leads to “Councils made up of well meaning, but often politically and financially naïve people, i.e. a disaster waiting to happen.”
Municipal government is also often the most oppressive. Witness the storm trooper tactic in Mission where squads of inspectors (supported by the local police) were prior to the last election (when fortunately the storm trooper supporting council was swept out of office) descending on people’s homes – ostensibly looking for grow-ups – but then imposing $5,000.00 plus fines for minor electrical violations.
Prior to 2004 there was a general defence to municipal excess – by-laws were struck down on the basis that the municipality was a body of limited jurisdiction – it only had the powers specifically given to it by the province. As noted by Ron the 2004 legislation which gave municipalities the powers of a “natural person” swept this all away. Combined with the “alternate approval process” there are few restraints on municipalities engaging in big, shaky capital expenditures.
It is unlikely that a new government will roll back the clock on municipal powers. This makes it ever more important to put together a municipal party committed to take disciplined control of operating and capital expenditures.
I attended the CHLY All Candidates meeting yesterday afternoon as my last chance to hear the candidates on the issues and to ask them about a review of the Community Charter. Despite a previous email sent to all of them asking this same question, I was disappointed that most had no idea of the significance of the Community Charter, a piece of legislation by our Provincial government which, to the best of my knowledge, remains unique in Canada to British Columbia. Neither the people of BC nor our candidates appear to understand the significance of this legislation for our municipalities, funding for which is based on property taxes and fees and levies. If we would like to curtail the gambling fever which has arisen in our municipalities it will be important that we ensure that our elected officials are aware of the significance of municipalities being recognized as legal persons. Having searched for a concise definition of the meaning of being a legal person, it strikes me that in the end it means the unfettered right to be as foolish as one wants. This may be an appropriate right for a true human person, but is it one that should be given to corporately legal persons?
PS: Especially a corporately legal person who, unlike those corporately legal persons in business not only employs his hands in mesmerizing you to cough up your dollars voluntarily, but has his/her hands directly in your pocketbook plucking out its contents.