Are BC's cities and towns turning into little fiefdoms?
Who is running our cities in BC? And what can citizens do when governance of them seem to be spinning out of control? Do you think our un-elected city management staff have too much power, and along with our elected officials, tend to abuse the power of public office and perpetuate abuse of fair and democratic process? When the BC Community Charter (no thanks to BC's GordonCampbell Regime) can be used by Local Governments to sue its Citizens, we know there is a real problem eroding democracy. What can we do, short of being SLAPP'ed (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation)?
A friend in the USA suggested: "I think that the answer is always the same: government doesn't change until massive numbers of citizens start loudly complaining & demonstrating."
You can be sure that isn't going to happen any time soon with the poor voter turnouts we have been seeing during BC's local elections. So for the time being it will continue to be a case "of the city making demands and people simply acceding." And this will perpetuate the abuse of process. Maybe this year -- but the BC citizens have three years to prepare, and next Spring to vote out the Campbell Regime. Hear! Hear!
It's impossible to know how many similar cases there are across British Columbia, where (local government) processes are so opaque that citizens either can't get a hearing or they are excluded from the debate.
Citizens' recourse is extremely limited. They can go public, as Fushtey has after having spent close to $100,000 trying to go through proper channels. They can go to court as desperate Cambie Village merchants are in an attempt to regain what money they've lost because of the Canada Line construction.
They can engage in civil disobedience as some Langford citizens did after council pushed through a $32-million highway interchange. Or they can rail futilely when presented with deals that councils signed after secret meetings with private developers.
What Fushtey would like is a municipal ombudsman who could review a citizen's complaint and force some sort of action.
There used to be an inspector of municipalities, but the office was a victim of downsizing and deregulation. The inspector had a staff and the power to do random inspections, investigate and even overturn decisions made by municipalities.
A number of years ago, his oversight powers were handed off to the ombudsman's office, which has no staff with expertise in municipal disputes and is responsible for a long laundry list of ministries, authorities, Crown corporations and even self-regulating professional bodies.
That opened the door for shenanigans by both civic administrators and elected officials and left citizens with nowhere to turn for help, even though politicians and civic staff have had their powers enhanced.
Since the inspector's office has shut, there's been explosive growth in most B.C. municipalities. Discretionary zoning and deal-making with developers have become the norm and municipalities are increasingly using money tucked away in special funds to avoid going to taxpayers for borrowing approval.
Between 2000 and 2006, municipal governments' spending increases have been astronomical -- averaging nearly double the combined rates of population growth and inflation, according to the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. Among its findings is that average civic wages are 14 per cent higher than those in the private sector.
The federation wants more transparency and improved oversight. It wants restrictions on wage increases and additions to staff. And it wants all spending increases limited to the combined increase in population and inflation.
Since the B.C. Liberals approved the Community Charter, municipalities have been able to sue citizens, which has resulted in a rash of so-called SLAPP suits -- Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation.
Last spring, after Powell River sued three citizens for defamation, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association launched its own action asking the B.C. Supreme Court to declare that no government has the right to sue its citizens.
Surrey's Mayor Dianne Watts believes there's another problem: political complacency. Because of public apathy and/or confusion, incumbents rarely lose. But Watts believes new ideas and fresh blood are needed. So she's pushing for a three-term limit -- nine years and out.
All of those solutions require the provincial government taking action.
But until then, citizens' ultimate recourse is casting informed votes. And, across the province, we all get our chance this Saturday.
Are we going to get MAD enough to do something about it? Let's start by voting for only those who deserve our votes, but get out there and vote!