OUR VIEW: Mayor Needs to Lead Reforms

Big Money Gone Next Election?Vancouver, like every other municipality in BC, has a long way to go when it comes to addressing the democratic deficit at the local level.  But recent news from Victoria may herald change for the better, at least when it comes to reforming civic elections.

On Oct. 2, Premier Gordon Campbell announced a new task force that will consider sweeping changes to how municipal elections are conducted in this province.  As the jurisdiction with the most expensive elections in Canada bar none, the taint of big money is hurting our city’s reputation for holding fair elections. Other symptoms of Vancouver’s anti-democratic malady are declining voter turnout since 2002, a lack of neighbourhood accountability at city hall and a host of other civic participation ailments.

According to the Premier, the task force’s mandate will be to consider opportunities to adapt the principles of the provincial election act to local elections, such as disclosure requirements and changes that will improve fairness, accountability, transparency and public participation.  It will be co-chaired by the new Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM) president and the minister of community and rural development. It will also include two other UBCM designates and two government MLAs.

The task force will present recommendations to the legislature by May 30, 2010. These recommendations will then be further developed and implemented in time for the next municipal election in 2011.

The civic electoral reform train is leaving the station. All aboard.

The question before citizens now is how can we ensure the new reforms strengthen our local democracy? For Think City, we believe the outcome will depend on the role Vancouver’s government plays over the next eight months. But just what should city council do?

History has shown Vancouver cannot necessarily rely on merely lobbying the provincial government or the UBCM to deliver on much-needed democratic reforms.  In the past, when Victoria was asked by both NPA Mayor Sam Sullivan in 2007 and COPE Mayor Larry Campbell in 2005 to make significant electoral reforms to the city’s charter – reforms that had unanimous, bi-partisan support in council – the answer was not right now. Instead, both Premier Campbell and Opposition Leader Carole James gave the City of Vancouver the same message – seek support from the UBCM first before coming to Victoria.

Taking the provincial leaders advice, Vancouver city council then pursued the matter through UBCM’s 2009 convention process. However, when Vancouver brought forward a Coalition of Progressive Electors-inspired motion calling for limits on campaign finances and tighter laws on donor disclosure, no effort was made by the UBCM leadership to make this a priority agenda item at their recent fall conference.

Even when Vancouver’s campaign finance reform solutions received support from 31 mayors, generated significant media interest and became a hot topic among UBCM convention delegates, the motion was left at number 112 on the list of resolutions. As a result, the debate on dramatically modernizing local campaign finance rules in Vancouver and across the province never hit the floor. The convention ran out of time.

Since lobbying senior elected bodies on electoral reform has gone nowhere in the past four years, Vancouver city council should now go to Plan B – campaign publicly for the necessary reforms. It has worked before.

For example, Mayor Robertson can learn a lesson from how the battle over harm reduction in our city was won by a previous pair of mayors. The leadership by then Mayor Larry Campbell and his predecessor Mayor Philip Owen, coupled with a campaign to mobilize public support, successfully led to Insite’s creation, reversing the long-standing federal war-on-drugs policy of the day.

If Vancouver had merely quietly asked in the backrooms for senior government approval, would our city now have North America’s only safe-injection site? Not a chance.

The push for substantial local democratic change will need the same kind of mix of civic leadership and public support. It will have to start from council chambers at 12th and Cambie, as part of a larger campaign that seeks the input and support of citizens along with leaders from labour, community organizations and business.

As a first step, Think City is urging city council to consider establishing its own electoral reform body to review the recommendations from the city’s 2004 Justice Berger commission and consider new solutions for improving the city’s elections. The recommendations from the city’s process could then form the basis of council’s submission to the province’s local democracy task force.

Mayor Robertson and his Vision Vancouver party campaigned last fall on making Vancouver's elections process more accountable, accessible and transparent. The province has opened the door to debate. Let's get across the threshold and start a discussion. 

Campaign Spending reform

When I brought the campaign spending reform motion to Vancouver City Council, I was excited to find I had unanimous support from all Vancouver City Councillors. Unfortunately my motion was buried at the Union of BC Municipalities Conference and did not make it to the floor for debate or vote. It will go to next years UBCM which will be too late to influence the Premier. I encourage people to talk to their MLAs and to their UBCM representative to let them know you support electoral reform and as part of that you support Campaign Spending reform so that the people with the big bucks don't determine which people get elected and how they vote once elected. Sincerely Councillor Ellen Woodsworth

Municipal Election Reforms

Not a bad idea, even if it is Gordon who is behind it. As far as contributions, while I am sure the unions in Vancouver would like to see who is contributing to the NPA, they should not forget that this amendment is also a double-edged sword... . I don't doubt that many members would also like to know exactly how much our union contributed to both Vision Vancouver and COPE in the last municipal election by funnelling members' funds through CUPE BC so it would appear that it is CUPE BC showing as the contributor, not the union... . A far more meaningful piece of legislation surrounding contributions would be to require a majority vote of the members of the union rather than the current practise where by a simple majority of a very small turnout of 30 or so members out of a total membership of 5,000 make the decision to contribute. Internet ballotting is long overdue.

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