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10 ways to return coherence to Vancouver’s municipal government

It is time to give the dysfunctional Vancouver municipal government a true trashing. It’s not personal. Those people can be changed at election time. It’s bigger than them. It’s the political system and framework of the city that begs broad change.

It is time to give the dysfunctional Vancouver municipal government a true trashing.

It’s not personal. Those people can be changed at election time.

It’s bigger than them. It’s the political system and framework of the city that begs broad change.

Unquestionably the most relevant level of government in our daily lives is the municipal one, yet it stands as the least coherent of all. Its powers are limited, but its behaviour in recent years has been to overreach on some issues and ill-tend its lane, often due to this structure that produces overlap and leave gaps at the same time. No wonder it garners pathetic turnout at election time.

The list of problems is long and solutions are not easy, but here are 10:

1) The party system in municipal politics is more of a curse than a blessing, and it needs to be retired. Parties have awkwardly served slices but not a wide swathe of the city in ages. Municipal affairs have taken on the partisanship and surrogacy of, and lost their independence from, senior governments and special interests. The largest among them do not have democratic processes to nominate their candidates, picked by boards that themselves have no public accountability. In power, parties vote as blocs with little tolerance for debate or compromise, so often fail to serve the broader community purpose. We need one-person parties, even if slates will emerge of like-minded candidates without the heft of a party apparatus.

2) After nearly 90 years of an at-large electoral system, we have to recognize it fails to reflect the diversity and identity of our neighbourhoods. We have to move back to a ward system to provide conditions for a range of representation. Our three largest communities of colour – Chinese, South Asian and Filipino – are not represented in an at-large system but would almost certainly be in a ward system. How many wards is an open question, but 15 to 18 is probably close. But as it stands, when coupled with the party system, Vancouver council is one of the least-representative elected groups in the country.

3) It will sound a little facetious, but there can be too much democracy. These roles are not for casual players. It should be more difficult to run for office. Non-refundable deposits should be higher and nomination forms should require more signatures – not to repel people without means, but to attest to initial community groundswell for candidacy.

4) You should need to live where you run. At the moment anyone in British Columbia can run for office in Vancouver.

5) Council should by statute leave city hall to conduct their meetings at least once a month in community centres or elsewhere so neighbourhoods can witness and accessibly participate in the conduct of the people’s business.

6) We don’t get enough time from councillors, in part because they often hold down other full- or part-time jobs. We should pay councillors more, primarily to reflect the reality of their full-time jobs and to ensure stronger candidates are drawn to public life. And we should require them to quit or take unpaid leaves from their jobs to hold office. Today’s five-figure pay is mainly attracting those who either haven’t earned this much ever – which should tell us something – or have to juggle other jobs and cannot devote service fully. Council should be a profession attracting professionals. In a budget approaching $2 billion, the pay grade for the politician shouldn’t be the priority. The calibre matters, and you get the attention and competence you pay for.

7) There is a good reason why there is only one elected park board in Canada. It isn’t a good idea any longer. It doesn’t have agency over its budget, which is set by its council, and its paltry pay for commissioners either lucks out to attract true public servants in rare cases or, as is much the current and recent cases, a posse of moral arbiters out of their depth. Their latest decision to choke vehicular traffic in Stanley Park is a good indication of too much responsibility in the unsuitable hands. The future of our parks will be entangled in questions of housing development, or of their occupation by those seeking housing, so accountability needs to be squarely on council.

8) We are gradually taking big money out of municipal politics for campaigns, but we need to make these limited donations tax deductible for citizens as they are at other levels of government. They need to be transparently disclosed in real time. If we keep the party system, we also need between-campaign financial reforms to avoid war chests and binge-spending outside of the writ period.

9) We ought to have term limits. No matter the integrity of a councillor, conflicts and cosiness ensues with longevity of incumbency.

10) The city needs not only the auditor general it is about to get, but an ombud to field public complaints about maladministration and a chief transparency officer to ensure there is timely, clearer furnished information to the public.

(A post-script disclosure: When I ran for Vancouver mayor in 2014, I was hand-picked by a party board, later served on it and lived on UBC campus outside city limits. Today in those same conditions, knowing what I know now, I would choose not to run. •

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of BIV and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.