COLUMN: Cities must earn support

Local governments need to show fiscal responsibility

Mayors from across B.C. gathered in Penticton last week to grapple with the perennial problem faced by local governments – a lack of funds to do all they would like to do.

While there is no doubt that local governments have had a great deal downloaded on their shoulders by both Ottawa and Victoria, citizens should greet any requests for more funds with considerable caution.

While local governments generally do a good job in handling their responsibilities, there is often an astonishing lack of democratic oversight of their decisions.

Surrey, which has been well-run under Mayor Dianne Watts in the past six years, is a good case study. Watts has a high rate of approval from citizens, so high that her Surrey First slate won all nine seats on council in November – something that has never happened in Surrey before. Yet the voter turnout in that election was about 25 per cent.

Contrast that with the most recent provincial election, which had a low turnout – but still saw one in two voters show up at the polls. Last year’s federal election had a 61 per cent voter turnout.

Local governments aren’t open to changing the way council members are elected either. Suggestions that a ward system be looked at in Surrey are met with curt dismissals from Watts and her slate mates.

Yet it is clearly impossible for an individual or smaller slate to  realistically challenge a powerful slate like hers.

Surrey First spent almost $700,000 in the November election.

Then there are the closed-door decisions which are a hallmark of local governments. Many of the most controversial decisions made by local councils are done secretly, often on the pretext that the matter involves property or litigation.

Decisions are often announced after they have been made, and citizens are left trying to air their opinions after the fact.

While they are listened to, the decision has been made and all councils are often willing to do is tinker around the edges.

There is the opportunity for more accountability locally – council members can’t avoid seeing members of the public, as their federal and provincial counterparts can.

They run into their constituents whenever they are in the community.

However, local governments could do a much better job of genuine engagement with the public before major decisions are made.

They could also do a great deal more to open up the decision-making process.

Large cities like Surrey could take a serious look at how councillors are elected. Council could also put more issues to referendum, which often has the added bonus of bringing out more voters to the polls.

Mayors were smart to bring up the housing issue at their Penticton gathering. At one time, both federal and provincial governments contributed a great deal towards social housing. This has dried up to a trickle, with housing becoming a much more political issue than it used to be.

Yet it is obvious that this issue can’t simply be solved by the marketplace.

The thousands of illegal suites in Surrey are testimony to the inadequacy of the housing “solutions” available today.

Mayors are correct that they are handcuffed by their reliance on property taxes to fund most municipal services.

Yet many B.C. municipalities have come up with some creative ways to deal with challenging issues, such as the drainage parcel tax in Surrey, which has done a great deal to mitigate lowland flooding and allow for more development of the uplands. There have been few complaints about that tax by taxpayers.

A more sustained interest in democracy and accountability by mayors and councils might help convince taxpayers that local governments can be entrusted with providing more services in a cost-effective manner.

At that point, it might make sense to give them more funds.

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