Governance, the Governors, and the Governed

Ron Bolin: Jan. 23, 2019

The City of Nanaimo has recently undertaken to exchange its “Committee of the Whole” for a “Governance and Priorities Committee”, a move to which I look forward with considerable anticipation.  I say this because it is my contention that successful governance is the key to successful government.

But what is meant by “governance”? The Cambridge dictionary defines it this way:

“the way that organizations or countries are managed at the highest level, and the systems for doing this:”

It should be noted that a discussion of governance is often examined in the light of the powers of the governors, i.e. the elected officials and the Staff hired to carry out administrative duties, with relatively little attention given to the governed.  While a number of systems intertwine in the governance of the City of Nanaimo, there are two documents which define by far the majority of the elements of governance which impact citizens in our City:

BC’s Community Charter which contains the provincial legislation under which BC municipalities are governed, and
The City of Nanaimo Procedure Bylaw, which defines in greater detail how the activities outlined in the BC Charter are to be understood and administered in Nanaimo.

While I have previously written about the Procedure Bylaw in this blog –and will no doubt again- this document deals only with the Community Charter.

The Charter is a lengthy and very technical document. Most of it deals with the rights, obligations and responsibilities of members of the municipal government, i.e. Mayor, Council and Staff. This post will deal only with Part 4 – Public Participation and Council Accountability; Sections 81 to 99 of the Charter (out of a total of 292 sections) which lay out the general limits of the relation of the governors and the governed.

(Take note that clicking on any Part, Division or Section of the Table of Contents in the above document will take you to that Part, Division or Section…. If you get lost you can go to the Table of Contents as found at the end of the Part or Division in which you are located and start over.)

Part 1, Section 1 of the Charter : Principles, Purposes and Interpretation, defines Governance as it is seen by the Charter, i.e. the Principles of Municipal Government are defined.

Among your basic rights as a citizen under the Charter are:

1. Voting for a City Council once every four years (Division 1 – Elections, Petitions and Community Opinion – Section 81);
2. Petitioning Council (Division 1 – Elections, Petitions and Council Accountability -Section 82);
3. Approving Special Council Actions primarily spending (Division 2 – Approval of the Electors – Sections 83-88);
4. Attending Council Meetings (Division 3 – Open Meetings – Sections 89-93);
5. Information provided to the Public (Division 4 – Public Notice and Access to Records – Sections 94-97)
6. Reporting (Division 5 – Annual Municipal Report, Sections 98-99)

To briefly outline our rights as municipal citizens under the Charter they may be summed up as:

The right to vote every four years;

The right to petition Council – 

The right to disapprove any exceptional actions or spending by means of a mandated referendum (or by an alternative approval process, a form of negative option billing).

The right to attend Council Meetings.  To attend, not to speak, barring petition. Council meetings may be closed to the public under sections 90-1 and 90-2 of the Charter which, at least in my opinion, are so loose as to cover any municipal matter without any specifics having to be given.

You will note that the two longest segments of the Charter under Part 4 deal with the elements which allow a Council to override two of the rights which have been granted by the Charter: to attend free and open meetings (Sections 90-1 &2), and overriding the right of citizens to a direct referendum on special spending and related matters by means of the Alternative Approval Process, a form of negative option billing (which is in some jurisdictions  illegal) .

All in all the basic rights of citizens under the Community Charter are quite limited.  It must be noted, however, that these rights may be expanded by municipal Councils under the terms of a Procedure Bylaw.  As previously mentioned you may examine my complaints about Nanaimo’s current Procedure Bylaw which was passed at the final meeting of the previous Council and which I believe will come up for early review by our present Council as it impacts on the rights and privileges of citizens.

I ask that you examine the Community Charter with particular emphasis on Public Participation and Council Accountability (Part 4) by linking to the on-line version of the Charter shown above as it impacts us as citizens, and on the role of Council in interacting with Citizens during their terms, a time frame which, for better or for worse, protects Councillors, once elected, for four years.

It is my opinion that the Community Charter is in serious need of updating in a number of general areas, particularly taking account of new technologies which allow electronic communication for a number of areas which can improve public participation and the establishment of video recordings of public meetings as official public records along with published minutes and agendas.

I look forward to your comments and suggestions on this vital topic.  The Community Charter forms the bed rock of our municipal governance.