Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Four-Year Terms

Times Colonist Editorial, Mar. 4, 2014

The B.C. government is proposing that municipal elections be held every four years, instead of every three. While it will likely benefit larger municipalities more than smaller ones, it’s generally a good move, providing it includes an effective means to get rid of bad apples. Four years is a long time to be stuck with a Rob Ford.

The government plans to introduce legislation this spring that, if passed, will take effect following the November municipal elections. It would apply to all elected municipal bodies, including municipal councils, school boards, regional districts and parks boards.

The measure has broad support. Four-year terms were recommended by the Local Government Elections Task Force, and the change has been endorsed by the Union of B.C. Municipalities and the B.C. School Trustees Association. Its supporters include mayors Dean Fortin of Victoria, Frank Leonard of Saanich and Barb Desjardins of Equimalt.

Leonard says his community formulates five-year strategic plans, and longer terms in office will enhance the implementation of those plans. More time between elections also means a smaller proportion of the term will be spent politicking, he said, and councillors will have time to be better versed in municipal operations.

(When Leonard entered municipal politics in 1986, elections were held yearly, with half the councillors running every other year.)

Mayor Larry Cross of Sidney is a little more cautious about the change, noting that while it will help continuity in government, a four-year commitment might dissuade some people from running.

And it will be a hardship for small communities, says Mayor John Ranns of Metchosin. Elected officials in communities such as his are paid little for their service, and the longer term might discourage younger candidates.

A longer term could also be a hardship for residents of a municipality where an elected official goes rogue, behaving in ways that hinder municipal operations or bring disrepute on a community. Toronto’s boorish mayor looms large over Canadian municipal politics these days. While Ford is the exception, he is an example of what can happen when the next election is the only way to remove a wayward politician.

B.C. Community Minister Coralee Oakes said the government is developing tools, including an oath of office, to remove problem politicians. That oath should include a code of conduct that, if violated, allows for a practical process to remove a person from office without a protracted bureaucratic tangle.

Perhaps recall legislation, implemented on a provincial level by B.C. in 1995, would be appropriate.
Some U.S. states have recall legislation, which has occasionally resulted in some rather silly scenarios, but it hasn’t been abused in B.C., the only jurisdiction in the Commonwealth to have such legislation. Elections B.C. has approved only 24 petitions for recall since the legislation was implemented in 1995. Twenty-three of those failed to collect enough valid signatures.

But the one petition that made it all the way proved the process can work. Seeing the handwriting on the wall — or the petition, as it were — the errant politician, Parksville-Qualicum MLA Paul Reitsma, resigned.

While a longer term has the potential to enhance the effectiveness of municipal boards and councils, constructive change comes not from electoral reform, but from the people involved — the elected officials and those who elect them. No amount of legislation will change the fact that B.C. has a dismal record when it comes to voter turnout for municipal elections — the provincial average in 2011 was less than 30 per cent, with several of the region’s municipalities well below that mark.

If people want effective representation, it’s up to them to ensure they are effectively represented.