VICTORIA – The red-headed stepchild of democracy is shivering on the doorstep again. Most won’t open the door.
Local government elections are always overshadowed by louder events, and this year is no different. The “occupy” nonsense, the teachers’ strike, the precarious economy and the media’s fixation on them are part of the problem.
But let’s face it. Public indifference to local government has left it mainly to self-serving politicians and special interest groups. Community newspapers soldier on through the three years between elections to highlight issues and choices, but few people join the debate when it's time to vote.
The recent Union of B.C. Municipalities convention demonstrated this. Local politicians love to tell senior governments what to do. They’d much rather debate smart meters or bad old Ottawa’s RCMP costs than talk about their own performance.
Most of the mayors and councillors on hand were unhappy with the province’s plan to appoint a municipal auditor-general to examine the efficiency of municipal spending. Just another layer of bureaucracy, according to these experts on the subject.
At the convention, I asked NDP MLA Carole James about this. A veteran of local government, she observed that it would be awkward for local politicians to go back to their communities and campaign against accountability.
There is much that is not discussed and it goes beyond technical details like performance auditing. How about amalgamation in places where there are clearly too many municipal boundaries, policing is fragmented and administration is duplicated? You won’t hear much about that, unless a lot more voters insist on it.
Business groups and community newspapers raise it, and it fades away. Not enough people care.
Few challengers and even fewer incumbent politicians signed the taxpayers’ pledge offered up at local election time by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. It’s a modest proposal to match spending growth with real growth.
Candidates don’t want to talk about the fact that B.C. municipal spending, adjusted for inflation, is now growing almost four times as fast as population growth. Pay and benefits for municipal employees grow much faster than private sector rates. Not enough people care.
The Canadian Union of Public Employees is campaigning against contracted private development of water utilities. They prefer their high-cost monopoly. And outside their special interest support, not enough people care.
School board elections have become even more of an insider activity. To take one example, a school trustee candidate forum in Abbotsford last week started with a protest march by 18 teachers. They carried their message inside, demanding smaller classes, more special needs support, the familiar list of demands in their dysfunctional relationship with the provincewide bargaining agent.
Of course school trustees have no actual authority over these huge and costly issues. The province took away school board taxing authority long ago, because the teacher and support staff unions have the money and voting numbers to control low-turnout local elections for their own benefit. Now the unions have to settle for vetting candidates according to their willingness to lobby the B.C. government on behalf of unions.
(If anyone has attended a trustee forum that wasn’t taken over by teachers, please e-mail me. I haven’t heard of one for years.)
There are still things you can do to compare candidates, and it doesn’t take long to sort through a dozen or two hopefuls.
Please, check this paper’s website for recent surveys and stories on the local candidates, and take some time on Saturday to back the people who you think have the best experience, independence and understanding of the community’s needs.
Occupy the voting booth.
Tom Fletcher is legislative reporter and columnist for Black Press and BCLocalnews.com