Comment: Hold new municipal councils to account

Your newly minted municipal council has packed away the election signs, attended an orientation session on local government and found their executive chairs around the table.

There’s a sense of renewal in our community, never more so than after the 2018 municipal election resulted in a rebooted local government. As a result of resignations and the newly elected, 36 of 91 councillors and mayors across the region are fresh faces, a substantial 40 per cent churn in elected representatives.

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Their challenging task is to spend hundreds of millions of dollars wisely to deliver quality services for 400,000 residents of the south Island. That mandate includes having mercy on taxpayers in an unaffordable region.

So, the question becomes, how do we hold our elected representatives to account to ensure they’re fulfilling their responsibilities and meeting our individual needs? You will recognize some of these techniques.

Approach with civility — It’s a very difficult job running a municipality with ever-increasing demands, costs and complexity. In recent years, there have been instances of rude, even criminal, behaviour — especially through social media — where residents have crossed the line. If your issue or beef is to be solved, it simply must be approached dispassionately with as much civility as you can muster. It sounds trite, but at the end of the day, “we are all in this together.”

Do your homework — If you want to win your issue, build your argument. That includes collecting city hall documents, photos, media reports and audio tapes, court documents and so on. A lot of conflicts are a result of incomplete information or misinformation.

Grab a coffee — Scraps with a council or city hall are best resolved in person over a coffee, and not by phone or email. Many politicians in the region hold regular open houses to allow them to hear voters’ concerns. Follow it up with a letter recording the result — it’s a record of the conversation and how and when the issue will be resolved.

Keep personalities out of it — It’s not easy to like or love politicians sometimes, but things generally go smoother if personalities are kept out of it. The best bet is to behave in a strictly businesslike fashion. After all, you are essentially their employer. But on the other hand, they are often paid little and log long hours in your service.

Appeal to council — As a resident, you have the right to address and appeal to council with your issue. It is fairly painless — you will have about five minutes — but again, bring your homework and documentation. You now have the issue on public record, which might interest the media.

Talk to the media — If there’s no progress on your issue and you’ve reached a dead end, gather your homework and evidence and talk to a reporter. If you have a legitimate issue of interest to the public that’s newsworthy, they might bring it to light or even champion the issue. Do not underestimate writing to the editor; the letters section is one of the best-read parts of the newspaper and can be quite influential.

Petition council — If there’s pattern of bungling and inaction by an MLA, voters have the power of recall. Not so for your municipal politicians, but you can petition council on an issue. The chief administrative officer or city clerk will advise as to how to go about it.

File a freedom-of-information request — While sometimes abused by the public and the government, by and large, freedom-of-information legislation has improved the ability of the public to gain access to documents from local government. It’s easily done and usually at little cost, but it can be time-consuming and might come to nothing. Potentially, it is an option to help fight city hall.

Appeal to the ombudsperson — If you think you have been wronged or mistreated by your local government, the provincial ombudsperson might take on your case. If the issue is resolved, you have the added satisfaction of making a change that will affect the system itself. Unfortunately, the ombudsperson might find in your favour but has no power to force a resolution.

Launch a lawsuit — Depending on the issue and circumstances, a lawsuit might be in order. A lawyer, of course, would best advise you on whether your case has merit, the odds of winning and the costs. It’s a time-consuming, pricey option that shouldn’t be entered into lightly.

Collectively launch a lawsuit — Again, if all else fails, there’s an ability to collectively sue a municipality or other jurisdiction. The powers and responsibilities of municipalities and districts and their elected officials are detailed at length in the Local Government Act and Community Charter. Again, this option is complicated, expensive and time-consuming.

You most certainly can hold your local representative to account, but it will take the right frame of mind, documentation, patience and civility. Or, probably, it will just take a sit-down for coffee with your mayor or councillor.

Stan Bartlett is the 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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