Comment: Provincial involvement in municipal affairs is a good sign

It’s heartening to see the province rebuke a local government, and hopefully it signals less a laissez-faire and more an assertive approach in municipal affairs.

The tendency of the City of Victoria council is to aimlessly wade into provincial, federal and even world affairs, instead of focusing on its core responsibilities such as maintaining roads.

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The latest instance was a few weeks ago after council advocated free bus transportation in Greater Victoria.

To which Premier John Horgan said: “I understand the principles behind the Victoria resolution, but I see a lot of resolutions out of Victoria that seem to be all driven at provincial policy and federal policy and not a lot of resolutions at the issues that affect taxpayers in Victoria.”

But it’s not the first time the province, as the senior level of government, has flexed its muscles.

A few months ago, B.C.’s solicitor general Mike Farnworth defended the province’s ability to overrule the Township of Esquimalt over the hiring of six new police officers.

“In a nutshell, you can say that sometimes the kids can’t play in the sandbox, and dad has to come in and say, ‘This is how it’s going to be,’ ” offered Farnworth.

For years, both Liberal and NDP governments have been willing to allow municipalities to flounder and have been reluctant to take corrective action.

In the case of a Nanaimo council that had a number of internal problems and public conflicts, there was virtually no provincial intervention.

Mercifully, the fall election ushered in a new council after “months of duelling lawsuits, criminal investigations, physical altercations and scores of senior staff coming and going.”

The most recent take-charge-and-get-something-done approach is also evident in the province’s involvement in the regional transportation file. Money has been earmarked for various improvements to Highway 14 and a study on the E&N Railway corridor.

More importantly, though, is the Lower Island Strategic Transportation Initiative, which the province contracted to the consultant firm Urban Systems. The Capital Regional District failed to tackle this file adequately, the main reason regional transportation is in such a mess.

The 10-month initiative will study all transportation modes, including highways, overpasses, rail, transit and cycling. There will be technical updates, leading to an evaluation of costs, benefits and choices for the province.

Clearly, though, this project is not being run through the municipal councils. Their role will be in an advisory capacity.

If all this signals a change in the previous hands-off approach by the provincial government, it’s welcome.

Grumpy Taxpayer$ monitors 13 municipalities, the CRD and three electoral areas on the South Island and regularly witnesses the muddle called local government. So, we can think of plenty of other worthy tasks for the province to take the reins and rejuvenate local government.

For starters, the Local Government Act and the Community Charter, the underlying legislation of local government, haven’t seen any type of substantive review in more than 50 years.

Granted, local government is messy by its nature, but dated underlying legislation often hampers effective governing and discourages the public from embracing and legitimizing local government. In short, it’s hobbling decision-making and costing tax dollars.

Another perennial hot-spot is politicians’ pay. The government could wade in by setting up a provincewide process for remuneration while respecting jurisdictional size and ability to pay.

There’s also the issue of the insatiable need for more municipal revenue and where that money is coming from.

Municipalities have more than one source of income than property taxes, namely, casino profits, recreation fees, developer fees, federal and provincial grants, etc. But an argument can be made that the province needs to broaden municipal funding sources.

With the South Island population estimated at 413,000, all hands must be on deck to solve challenging issues.

As the senior government, the province must continue to roll up its sleeves.

Most of our economy is in the hands of the municipalities, and when they fail or underperform, the province as a whole suffers.

It’s encouraging the province has brought back adult oversight to the region. To be sure, the government knows an election is not that many months away.

Stan Bartlett is chair of Grumpy Taxpayer$ of Greater Victoria, a non-partisan advocacy group dedicated to lower taxes, less waste and more accountable municipal government.

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