Catherine Holt: Province must fix impasse over police budget

The Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce cares deeply about the safety of our community. It’s the foundation all citizens rely on to function. At the moment, we’re not sure it’s headed in the right direction.

At the recent Victoria budget town hall, the most controversial topic was the police budget. Some asked the city to reduce the number of police officers, while others urged it to hire more. Both sides believe they want the right thing for the citizens of Victoria.

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However, the result is we’re now into the second year that the police budget is trapped between two municipal decision-makers and the police board. Last year, Esquimalt voted not to provide its share of the increase requested by the police board. And, this year, Victoria is sending the budget back to the board for a revision that the police chief says will actually reduce police resources once inflation, population growth and the Employer Health Tax are accounted for.

That creates an impasse. When the mayors send the budget back to the police board, they are sending it back to themselves — because they are the co-chairs of the board and they approved it in the first place.

This has unnerving similarities to the regional sewage-treatment project, which spent years suspended between municipalities that didn’t want to host sewage-treatment facilities, with the Capital Regional District, provincial and federal governments insisting it was required. At one point, we had the mayor of Esquimalt chairing the CRD when it approved its sewage-treatment plan — and the same mayor voting against the CRD plan along with her municipal council.

That happened because a bad governance design by the province plagues the regional district by allowing local government representatives to play conflicting roles. The impasse was only fixed by the province stepping in with a separate project board with decision-making authority.

With police board governance, the culprit is Section 25 of the B.C. Police Act. It forces mayors to chair their municipal police forces. No exceptions. Even if a mayor has been convicted of a crime, is married to the police chief or just doesn’t want to find themselves in conflict with their role as mayor, he or she is the chair of the police board. Period.

Civilian oversight of the police is a necessary principle. Obligating mayors to chair the police board is not necessary and leads to the ridiculous situation the police budget is now in. I know because I was on the Victoria police board for a term many years ago and saw this conflicted governance situation.

If you want a high-functioning board, there are a few essential qualities you need in an appointed chair: knowledge of what they will be governing, governance expertise and independence from the organization’s operations.

Mayors get elected to do good things for their community. Mayors Lisa Helps and Barb Desjardins were both handily reelected in the fall, which is evidence they are doing their mayoral jobs well. But no mayoral candidate runs to be chair of the police board and they don’t meet the criteria. So why does the province force them into it?

Section 25 also, inexplicably, prevents mayors from stepping aside if they can’t carry out their responsibility to the board. Normally, with other boards, the chair can be excused temporarily or permanently if they can’t fulfil their responsibilities. But the mayor is the police board chair, come hell or high water.

This caused problems with the board’s disciplinary action regarding two previous police chiefs. To sum up those situations as simply as I can, there were concerns the mayors worked too closely with the police chiefs to be objective about their behaviour. The public perception was the mayors avoided doing the right thing by not handing their responsibilities over to an uninvolved third party.

The reality was, because of Section 25, they had no legal ability to do so.

The current police budget impasse further highlights the shortcomings of Section 25. How can the mayor credibly approve something in one forum and then reject it or criticize it in another? The police board should be free to submit the budget it thinks is credible and necessary, and the mayor and council should be free to critique it and approve it, or not, without having the objectivity of both processes compromised because they are led by the same individuals.

A solution is to have the province fix Section 25 so that the police board chair is a highly qualified citizen appointed by the mayor and council — as in Edmonton, Calgary and Toronto.

And keeping mayors at arm’s length from oversight of the police department would free them to fulfil their responsibilities to consult with the taxpayers and determine how much they are willing to pay for policing, and get on with it.

Catherine Holt is CEO of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce.

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