COLUMN: A vicious, political circle

Serving public shouldn’t be about money for Metro Vancouver politicians, writes columnist Frank Bucholtz

Local politicians are so out of touch with the people who pay their bills, they blithely take pay raises each year.

They do it by rote – without even thinking.

The latest to take dollars out of taxpayers’ pockets are the very well-paid directors of Metro Vancouver. As most of these people are mayors, they are already at the top of the local government-salary food chain.

They are well-compensated in their own municipalities, and each of them also gets a decent stipend for being part of the TransLink Mayors’ Council.

The latest Metro pay increase is a modest (for these people) 2.3 per cent for 2013, retroactive to the beginning of the year. It means politicians get $354 for every Metro board or committee meeting they attend. If the meeting runs more than four hours, the amount they receive doubles.

One wonders how often politicians in the fourth hour of a meeting look at their watches and are tempted to talk just a little longer on a specific topic.

The meeting fees that Metro politicians receive has jumped 40 per cent in five years – from $253 per meeting in 2008.

Since that time, of course, there has been a worldwide recession. The Lower Mainland economy is still soft in many respects, and a large number of the people who pay taxes to all levels of government have not received any raises. If they have, very few of them have seen a 40 per cent pay increase since 2008.

Metro Vancouver chair Greg Moore, who is also mayor of Port Coquitlam, has no problem justifying the latest pay increase.

“Those are the rules that we live in,” he said. “We’ve tried to do it as fairly and transparently as we can and this is what we’ve come up with.”

He says Metro has to be sure that politicians don’t fall behind.

It isn’t just the Metro board that is so out of touch. When the issue of a pay raise came up at White Rock council recently, council members were so eager to take more money from taxpayers that they overruled a suggestion from staff for a more modest pay increase.

Instead of tying their increases to council salaries in three small cities, Port Moody, Langley City and Pitt Meadows (two of which are slightly larger than White Rock), they voted to add to the median three larger cities – Port Coquitlam, North Vancouver City and West Vancouver.

This is a very typical move, one that Metro itself follows. Councils are constantly comparing themselves to other cities – usually looking for those who hand out larger increases. They then raise their pay accordingly and justify it by saying “the other guy is doing it.”

Metro itself sets the pay for meetings based on the median rate of pay for mayors in the region. So it is one big vicious circle: Mayors’ salaries are based on other mayors’ salaries; Metro salaries are based on mayors’ salaries; and cities base their ongoing and constant pay raises on decisions made in other communities.

Local politicians should lose all power to give themselves raises. It’s easy to say that voters can get rid of them if they are offended by the raises, but until more people start paying attention and actually voting, that is not likely to happen.

Perhaps the provincial government needs to regulate the salaries paid to local politicians and set a maximum amount based on the size of the community. That maximum should include all extra meeting fees, such as Metro Vancouver and TransLink fees.

At one time, the province did just that with school trustees. In the early 1980s, trustees were permitted to make a maximum of $2,000 per year, with the school board chair allowed to collect up to $4,000. That low level of pay didn’t stop people from running for school trustee positions, and by implicitly agreeing to that low salary as candidates, they set a good example of public service.

It’s too bad that attitude of serving the public and not being in it for oneself has fallen out of favour so badly with municipal politicians.

Frank Bucholtz writes Thursdays for the Peace Arch News. He is the editor of the Langley Times.

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