ON THIS WEEK’S episode of Municipal Councils Behaving Badly, we give you Nanaimo.
We all enjoy a good horror story at Halloween.
Although there was no seconder for this motion, it did seem to signal that a long-standing division at city hall — seven of eight councillors signed a letter asking the mayor to resign in March — continues. This toxic soup has been simmering since 2014, and there’s nothing the voters can do about it for another two years.
Likewise, the good people of Grand Forks — where council A) fired the town’s administrator, paid him $200,000 in severance, then hired him back two months later, and B) went to court in an unsuccessful attempt to boot out a councillor — might not be happy about waiting another two years for the next election. Ditto for those in such locales as Pouce Coupe, White Rock, Chase and, yes, Saanich, where some eyebrow-raising soap operas have left some people wishing the next vote was sooner than November 2018.
The nuttiness in Nanaimo’s neighbour Lantzville actually got so bad that voters did get to go back to the polls last year — taking a do-over, as it were — but only because four of seven elected officials quit, leaving the municipality without enough councillors for a quorum, let alone a game of bridge.
Hey, British Columbia, how are those four-year terms for local officials working out for you so far?
Up until November 2014, B.C.’s municipal and school board elections were held every three years. Then the province switched to four-year terms, reasoning that this would put councillors on the same cycle as provincial and federal politicians and allow them time to wrap their heads around complex issues.
OK, but four years is a long time between elections if you’re in a community with a dysfunctional council.
We have had such bodies locally. In 1985, Conrad Adams, father of rock star Bryan, lasted all of six weeks on Colwood’s very first government before resigning. (“I quit through sheer frustration,” he said.) Colwood is also where mayor Beth Gibson spent a fractious three years at odds with the rest of council after being elected in 1999. In 2012, things got so bad in North Saanich that the municipality had to hire a mediator to help councillors play nicely together.
It’s not just a B.C. thing, of course. The council in Sarnia, Ont., voted this week to expel the mayor from his city hall office for bullying staff. In Quebec, a small-town mayor convicted in January of sexually assaulting his administrative assistant is proving hard to crowbar out of the job. In the Montreal area, you’re never sure whether a mayor with his hand on the Bible is taking the oath of office or preparing to testify. Also: Rob Ford.
Remember that it wasn’t that long ago — prior to 1990 — that B.C. local officials were elected for two-year terms. Not only that, but elections were held annually, with half the council being elected one year and half the next. Angry voters didn’t have to wait long to make a change.
Not only did annual elections provide frequent accountability, they gave newcomers a better chance to win office. Former Saanich mayor Frank Leonard remembers his pal Murray Coell running in 1981 and 1982, building profile each time, before being voted to council in 1984. If you lose today, you have to wait four years for another crack, by which time the voters will have forgotten your face.
The longer terms also favour professional politicians. In most communities, council is meant to be a part-time job, one in which you serve your community, not make a living — yet four years is a long commitment if you have a parallel life, one in which businesses grow or fail, or people get transferred, or laid off, or promoted. Note that in 2014, Wendal Milne cited the longer term as a key reason he chose not to run for re-election as mayor of Sooke.
Halfway through our first experiment with four-year elections, it’s something to chew on (but not bite).
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