Thursday, April 15, 2010

Local elections task force

The province is leading a task force to review local government elections and municipal governance. The key issue is the concept of the corporate vote, a privilege we dispensed with in the 90's when the NDP was in office.

I don't believe property or corporate votes have a place in democratic governance. The rights of citizenship belong to people alone. It's something I often struggle with on the road where many believe a driver's license gives them title to our public rights of way - after all, they argue, they "pay for the roads". They don't, and that's another issue, but attaching a price tag to public office or any other rights of citizenship is offensive to the notion of government by the people.

Corporate voting right are nearly extinct in western democracies, anachronisms of historical privilege and we don't need to bring the system back.

The provincial task force has been hearing a lot of that from local government representatives serving through the Union of BC Municipalities. Still, the Liberal government seems enamoured of the concept and may still try and introduce changes, though the oppositon has been loud and clear.

Several other issues are also being reviewed by the task force, and on those, the province and the task force are doing good work. The Minister has, to his credit, also canvassed the opposition on their views, and that's keeping up a finer tradition of government.

I submitted my own thoughts, which I think closely reflect what I've heard from other, urban based representatives I have the privilege to connect with when I attend regional or provincial gatherings of various other local government leaders. Here's what I submitted to the task force:

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on local elections in British Columbia.

With respect to the Task Force issues here are some of my thoughts:

Campaign financing is an issue in our larger municipalities and particularly those where the stakes may be high - valuable land, concentrations of business and commercial properties, and the opportunity for significant and profitable development.

Campaign contribution and spending limits make sense to me. They can level the playing field to ensure that access to office is not limited to those with wealthy backers. Our democratic institutions need representation from those that want to serve and who can earn the confidence of their fellow citizens, not just those who can afford to run for office.

At the same time transparency and accountability must be resilient. Anonymous contributions have no place in elections, or for that matter, in our referenda and counter-petition processes. Citizens and communities have a right to know who is financing the campaigns of those who run for office, or those who take on the role of supporting or opposing initiatives of local governments by way of non-election year campaigns.

Tax credits may also be useful. Public financing has been effective at federal and provincial levels and does provide some support for ordinary citizens to contribute to support the candidates of their choice. This too helps to level the playing field and provide some support for people of modest means to run for office or to support those who do. They have a voice that needs to be heard.

Enforcement of election rules is important. There should be a role for the BC Chief Electoral Officer in supporting the efforts of local government to ensure fair and transparent adherence to election rules. Many small communities may not have the resources to ensure the thorough and professional oversight that could be provided by an office like the Chief Electoral Officer.

Terms of office could be extended to 4 years as has been recommended in some communities. It will provide for more long term planning and less campaigning (and at reduced cost to taxpayers) and can provide for more stable and thoughtful approaches to municipal governance. Election cycles that do not compete with provincial elections would also be useful to focus campaigns on relevant local issues free from the distractions of competing provincial campaigns. With fixed election dates now provided for in provincial legislation, this cycle should be simple to achieve with a 4 year term.

Corporate Vote: I believe the corporate vote was discarded for good reasons and it would be a step backward to re-introduce this anti-democratic initiative. The principle of any democracy is a vote by the people, not attached to property or business rights. It is not available in other jurisdictions, at the federal or provincial levels and it has no place in local elections in British Columbia. The rights of citizenship belong to people, not corporations. Businesses, their owners, directors, shareholders or employees all have rights as individuals that should not be abridged by providing votes assigned to and exercised by corporate leadership.

Thank you again for the opportunity to contribute my thoughts on these important issues.

John Luton, Councillor
City of Victoria

1 comment:

  1. Due to the elimination of the business vote in 1993, an overwhelming majority of businesses in BC now say that local government taxation and regulation are their biggest headaches. Businesses in BC have become increasingly disenfranchised by their local government, whose foremost concern is residential votes. Small business’ concerns are often an afterthought in the local decision making processes. A good way to start to restore accountability to businesses is by returning the business vote.

    As for your view representation with taxation is not practised in BC, that the vote is not attached to property, I am afraid you are wrong.

    It is interesting to note that the Local Government Act allows residential property owners to vote as non-resident electors, in multiple municipalities, wherever they own a residential property even if they are not residents of the municipality.

    The right to vote as a non-resident elector recognizes the inherent right to representation relative to the taxes a property owner pays in each municipality. It points to a fundamental connection between taxation and representation.
    It is this fundamental right to have a vote in relation to property taxation that BC’s businesses are seeking through restoration of the business vote; a right that non-resident residential property owners already enjoy.

    The non-residential elector who owns five residential properties, in five different municipalities, gets to vote five times in relation to the taxes they pay in each. How is this fair in relation to business owners in these communities that do not even get one vote to represent their business taxes? (Especially when they pay on average three times more than us)

    I would ask you to look at CFIB's full submission at:

    Brian Bonney