A Matter of Public Service

The Times Colonist (TC) editorial titled "Public service, not free money" (August 10, 2010) reflects, in part, a sentiment that I have always shared -- that the essence of the work of an elected municipal Council member should be service to the public, emphasizing a higher form of volunteerism and not focused on self-service, as appears to be the case for some recent BC municipal Councils reportedly voting themselves healthy raises (in one case, an increase of 76% to the Mayor's salary alone).

These generous awards to the stipends of locally elected officials are particularly offensive to a tax-paying public that has weathered serious recession impacts, a new consumer tax, challenging government cutbacks to public services and programs and little or no increases to the public sector (wages or positions) or to organizations and agencies who also rely on the taxpayer for funding. In fact, B.C.'s public sector wage increases have been consistently in the 0% to 2.0 % range for many years. Further, B.C.'s minimum wage, seemingly now administered by Scrooge himself, is apparently the lowest across the country, an issue that I believe should be addressed without further delay but, that's another story for another time.

Stipend increases for municipally elected officials were also the subject of heated debate in North Saanich about three years ago. It was my first Council term and I remember when the former Mayor of North Saanich struck a Task Force to review income levels of the Mayor and Councilors, despite what I understood was a recommendation just a few months earlier from an appointed residents' group suggesting an increase consistent with the cost of living (COLA). In the end, the Mayor's new Task Force suggested, for example, that a 32% increase to the Mayor's stipend should be made (if granted, I calculated that the former Mayor would have likely been the highest paid Mayor on the Peninsula). While a lesser increase for Councilors was also recommended, the former Mayor and his supporters appeared to lobby hard for the increase to the Mayor's stipend, citing in part the need to keep up with other municipalities, stressing that the job was more demanding.

I strongly disagreed (as did some of my other Council colleagues at the time) with what we perceived as an attitude of entitlement, arguing that such large increases, especially for the Mayor's position, were out of line and unfair to North Saanich taxpayers. I also did not agree, as some others argued, that compared to other municipalities, North Saanich was falling behind. Nor did I agree with the final argument that by substantially raising stipends, we would attract "younger" people to elected office. I believed then (and still do) that the issue of attracting younger people to public office has less to do with money and more to do with their available time --- the majority of younger people I know are busy raising families, working full-time and volunteering in their communities, making it difficult for them to take on the additional duties and responsibilities of an elected official whose schedule most often involves daytime and evening hours (in the end, more modest increases were approved).

As the TC editorial points out, the nature of Council work is part-time and, in my experience, the amount of time devoted to the job can vary depending on one's level of commitment, size and make-up of community and complexity of issues. My understanding from those who served during the 1990's, however, is that the work has definitely changed since then and has become more complex, particularly since 2001, due in part to greater provincial government downloading to local governments. Nevertheless, in my opinion, time commitments for the average Council member cannot yet be compared to a full-time private or public sector job. And while some will argue that the annual stipend is not enough, the TC Editorial states, "...increasingly, municipal councils in B.C. seem to view elected office as just another form of employment...it places self-interest ahead of the public interest." The editorial adds "...it raises personal ambition above the needs of the community. And it invites the rise of lifetime politicians who will do anything to stay in power and perpetuate their income."

In my nearly 5 years as an elected official, I am pleased to say that I have met very few municipal Council members who would fit that rather jaded description. In my view, most of my Council colleagues across the CRD behave and believe in working as "servants of the public," keeping always the public's best interests at heart. They dedicate long hours to the role of Councilor and longer hours to the role of Mayor. North Saanich is lucky, for example, to have elected a Mayor and Council majority whom I believe reflect the very best of what service to the public means.

As the TC Editorial concludes, many of us continue to believe that "the traditional service-based approach [to the work of local government] is more healthy." While the TC editorial is highly critical and makes some valid points, I believe that "whopping increases" are still not the norm. I do believe that we need "broader guidelines that would apply to all municipalities" so that the tax paying public can be confident that the quality of local government they receive is not tied simply to the amount of remuneration that elected officials believe they deserve. As altruistic as it may sound, holding public office at the local level is a matter of public service. We are, at the end of the day, "servants of the public" and as local governments, closest to our constituents.