Have Your Say!

I may have mentioned before that the Province recently announced the creation of a Local Elections Task Force to investigate and make recommendations for improvement related to the local government election process. The Task Force will explore issues such as campaign finances, enforcement and outcomes of election rules and regulations, role of appointed officials such as Chief Electoral Officer, existing election cycle or term of office for locally elected officials (currently three years) and other issues previously raised by the Union of British Columbia Municipalities (UBCM), of which locally elected individuals such as Mayors, Councilors and Regional Directors, among others, are members.

The following is my response to the Task Force's request for feedback and I am happy to share it with you.

In the meantime, I encourage you to contact the Task Force with your comments, suggestions and ideas to improve local government elections. I believe there is a real need for improvement, as you will see from my comments. The Local Elections Task Force can be reached through their website at www.localelectionstaskforce.gov.bc.ca

Please take the time to participate and have your say about how local elections can be improved and administered so that your voice and the needs of your community are not lost after all the ballots are counted.

First and foremost, all municipal elections should be conducted through Elections BC, just as with provincial elections; this same administrative infrastructure can provide oversight, controls, accountability and processes, pursuant to existing and/or new legislation. Related to the election process, there should be few, if any, differences between provincial and local elections, apart from the obvious legislative statutes/rules that differentiate local from provincial jurisdiction and authority.

Campaign Finance, including contribution/spending disclosure and limits, and tax credits
This is the most significant area needing better oversight and accountability. There is a quotation, "The smaller the community, the easier it is to corrupt." While no one wants to admit to corruption and it is hard to prove, it can emerge in a more benign form as "campaign irregularities." Such dynamics occur most often because of the high stakes related to local land use decisions. My experience running in three local elections and observing another local election in a neighbouring community, points to the need for new enforcement and accountability processes that "shine a light in the dark corners" of our local communities where personal agendas or private interests sometimes trump the common good and community best interests.
Financial limits should also be placed on campaigns. A campaign for the position of Mayor, Councilor, Trustee or Regional Director should have spending limits tied to a per centage of the annual stipend for each position. For example, if the Mayor's position earns $25,000 a year, then a candidate running for Mayor could have a campaign spending limit of up to 35% of the stipend amount. There are as many formulae as there are locally elected positions but whatever is decided, the formula should be applied consistently across the Province.

Disclosures should be tightly controlled and transparent, to prevent campaign organizers, lobbyists, corporations and private individuals from having undue influence or from hiding donations to individual campaigns. In the case of corporate or organizational donations, they should either be prohibited completely or capped. The ceiling for Individual donations should be lowered and all details about lobby groups, corporations or organizations, including the names of its principals, directors, terms of reference or purpose and any other relevant information should be disclosed in full as part of the public reporting process.

Enforcement process and outcomes
This area needs vast improvement. In my opinion, there appears to be a lack of clarity and consistency about the application of rules and sanctions during local elections. When legislative rules appear to have been violated during a local election, enforcement processes seem vulnerable to subjective interpretation; it is often unclear as to whom is responsible to report, enforce, investigate and process infractions or impose sanctions.

Local election processes seem to vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, as do enforcement and outcomes. Where there has been a clear breach or violation, It does not seem fair or appropriate that members of the public are left to pursue the matter and in some cases, bear the costs of investigation and prosecution.

I suggest that Elections BC is the arm's length body that should provide the enforcement framework for local government elections, leading I hope to a fair, consistent and transparent application of relevant legislation and sanctions in every local jurisdiction across the Province.

Role of chief electoral officer in local government elections
I do not believe that local government staff should act as or serve in the capacity of Chief Electoral Officer during local government elections; the Chief Electoral Officer should be independent, appointed directly by the Province and directly accountable to Elections BC. The practice of appointing local government staff members appears to be a common one in many jurisdictions but creates, in my opinion, an untenable situation for staff who, ultimately, report to the incumbent Mayor and Council. Whether real or perceived in the eyes of the public, this situation creates the potential for conflict of interest and for compromising the entire election process and the staff who are involved.

Election cycle (term of office)
I suggest no change to the existing three-year term of office.

Other agreed upon matters (UBCM, etc.)
The one area where I believe that UBCM has tried to make a difference to local election outcomes relates to restrictions on who can run for and hold local government office.

One Lower Mainland community urged UBCM to consider a resolution that would restrict real estate agents and land developers from running and holding local office. I believe that this is a sound recommendation and should be seriously considered for implementation by the task force, given that the majority of local government decision-making and business involves land use decisions.

Any potential loopholes should also be addressed to avoid the situation where, for example, the realtor or land developer suspends temporarily, for the purposes of the election process, their activities and/or assigns responsibilities/holdings/commercial activities to a silent partner or family member. Rather, I suggest that the realtor or land developer should be proved, through a public process, to be "inactive," with no interests whatsoever, in their respective business or profession, for a minimum of three consecutive years prior to their candidacy and/or election.

For relevant background on this important issue, please refer to the precedent-setting 2005 Supreme Court case, Godfrey et. al. vs. Bird.