The Queen famously called 1992, the year that marked her 40th anniversary, an “annus horribilis” — a horrible year — in part because of a series of family scandals. Of course, royal mishaps garner much attention. Yet closer to home, municipal politicians in Greater Victoria have recently experienced their own catalogue of self-inflicted disasters.
There’s the ongoing fiasco of the Johnson Street Bridge, tens of millions over budget, years overdue for completion, and still no one held accountable.
There was the bungling of the investigation into allegations that Victoria’s police chief was guilty of professional misconduct. Mayors Lisa Helps and Barb Desjardins, who co-chair the Victoria and Esquimalt police board, made a royal mess of that.
The incoming mayor of Saanich dismissed the district’s chief administrative officer before he had even started working with him, costing the district $477,000 in severance payments.
The tent city that has sprung up next to the courthouse is by no means solely a reflection on municipal planning. But some of the blame lies there.
And what to say of the shambles our mayors and councillors have made of the wastewater project? After years of footling around, the province has had to step in and give carriage of the project to an independent board.
The capital region is not alone in scenes of civic dysfunction. Nanaimo’s mayor has stopped talking to his council colleagues, and the city’s CAO berated His Worship in public.
To preserve a sense of balance, it must be noted that some local councils have done an admirable job representing their constituents and keeping an orderly ship.
Nevertheless, the string of high-profile embarrassments that have plagued the capital region suggest the need for corrective measures. Part of the problem is that local governments are being asked to manage far more complex and expensive projects that ever before. The wastewater-system rebuild is a good example.
Yet there are limits to what small organizations with limited resources should be asked to take on.
There are also limited opportunities for new mayors to gain executive experience before taking office. Provincial premiers often advance to the top job after cutting their teeth as cabinet ministers or legislative secretaries.
But the heads of our two largest municipalities, Victoria’s Helps and Saanich’s Richard Atwell, had no prior executive experience of governing. That’s not a criticism; however, it is a liability.
Then again, with no system of party politics to support them, council members in Greater Victoria are left to their own devices. They lack the kind of well-vetted platform that parties build up over time.
That’s not an argument for instituting party politics here. Quite the opposite. The bickering and obstructionism that parties bring is a price not worth paying. Nevertheless, in their absence, municipal councils too often resort to making it up as they go along.
Clearly, there are lessons to be learned here. For a start, the province should reassess the capacity of small municipalities to handle major projects. At a minimum, these should be undertaken on a joint basis, and not merely handed off lock, stock and barrel.
It might also help if the municipal auditor took a hand. Novice mayors and councillors require guidance on a host of matters, such as compensation policies, fiscal planning and project management.
It would be a considerable benefit to local governments across the province if the auditor laid out generally accepted procedures for handling these functions.
For, as things stand, too many municipalities are flying by the seats of their pants.