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Comment: Victoria council failed to consult public on huge pay increase

Good governance around an important, complex or controversial issue such as substantial pay increases would include talking to your constituents.
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Victoria City Hall’s entrance on Pandora Avenue. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

A commentary by the vice-chair of Grumpy Taxpayer$ of Greater Victoria, a non-partisan citizens advocacy group for municipal taxpayers.

“I think this process has gone on long enough,” Victoria Coun. Jeremy Caradonna said at the city’s committee of the whole meeting on March 14.

It’s not surprising that Victoria taxpayers are vocal and growly, given there’s been no mechanism to express their views on councillors immediately giving themselves a huge pay hike.

At the last second on March 14, ­Caradonna shamelessly introduced a motion to hike council’s pay by 25 per cent. The lack of advance notice eliminated an opportunity for council, the public and media to review the contents in detail.

As a result, Mayor Marianne Alto “strongly suggested” on two occasions that he give advance notice and change the motion. But she was unsuccessful convincing him, the motion was ruled in order and proceeded.

Normally good governance around an important, complex or controversial issue such as substantial pay increases would include talking to your constituents. But the council has failed to do that over the years.

In 2019 there was also a dust-up around council pay, when former councillor Ben Isitt tried to get a 55 per cent wage increase. It resulted in strong opposition in a survey of 5,100 residents that was done to inform the annual budget.

When asked if raising the annual base salaries and benefits of councillors — excluding the mayor — to the median city staff income of $70,100, the suggestion was roundly rejected.

The overwhelming majority of respondents, 86 per cent, said they “strongly disagreed” with the idea, according to a staff report.

Fast forward to 2022 when the council of the day ordered the governance review. It recommended maintaining current levels of council remuneration and to apply the next annual cost of living adjustment according to the current bylaw for ­January 2023, pending completion of a more comprehensive independent task force review.

However, the last and current councils failed to act on this opportunity to consult the taxpayers or get some members of the public involved.

This year council ordered a study to examine comparators in B.C. and capitals across the country.

However, another opportunity to talk to taxpayers was lost.

On March 27, Coun. Dave Thompson perhaps tried to mitigate the volume of negative and angry letters about council pay increases in the newspapers and social media.

“I hear from a lot of people every day — and with a wide variety of views on any given subject. We all know that social media and the Letters to the Editor page tend to disproportionately attract and amplify angry views, so I like to sometimes share the happy ones,” Thompson wrote in his blog.

It’s not surprising the pay issue struck a nerve with taxpayers.

There’s $2.7 million (a hike of 34 per cent by the way) proposed for the communications and engagement department at city hall in the 2024-28 financial plan.

Council has neglected to even ask the public in its “Have Your Say” section of the city website or in its newsletter to ­ratepayers. They don’t want “your say.”

After all, you may ask, where is the empirical evidence that you get a better council if you pay them more? Or will voters have a difficult time getting rid of them, and the high pay in fact decreases diversity?

Perhaps they already know what taxpayers think about a last-second motion to immediately increase their own pay by 25 per cent.

There are various current and past public engagement projects in Victoria — and public consultations — but not, it seems, when it comes to talking to taxpayers about council pay.

The manipulations around the issue continue shamefully this time with the fast-tracking of the remuneration bylaw for the three readings on Thursday. The majority on council are heading for a political car crash which still can be avoided.

>>> To comment on this article, write a letter to the editor: letters@timescolonist.com