Comment: In search of ‘good governance’

A commentary by the chairperson of the Grumpy Taxpayer$ of Greater Victoria, a citizen’s advocacy group for municipal taxpayers.

If puzzles, knitting, birdwatching and adopting pets are enjoying a resurgence during the pandemic, who knows, holding politician’s feet to the fire has potential as a pastime.

When 5,100 survey respondents were recently asked to rank the most important objective of Victoria city council, their answer was overlooked by media.

Residents could have chosen climate leadership and environmental stewardship, affordable housing, prosperity and economic inclusion, health, well-being and a welcoming city, strong, liveable neighbourhoods, reconciliation and indigenous relations, or sustainable transportation.

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Instead, they chose “good governance” as the top priority.

It comes as little surprise. We all know that objectives are all talk and simply bad theatre unless “good governance” is the priority. Not unlike a hockey game, little can be achieved without fair and reasonable rules to the game that are in place, followed by the players, and enforced by a referee.

The terms “governance” and “good governance” are used to characterize governments —and I’m being kind here — increasingly those that aren’t working to potential.

Most of us would agree “governance” means the process of decision-making and the process by which decisions are implemented (or not implemented).

There’s less agreement on “what is good governance?” but the United Nations takes a stab at it. After all, they dole out tens of billions and are keen on getting better value for the tax dollars they collect from member countries.

According to the UN, good governance has eight major characteristics: It is participatory, consensus oriented, accountable, transparent, responsive, effective and efficient, equitable and inclusive, and follows the rule of law.

If you think your municipality is failing to adhere to those principles, with effort local residents can have considerable influence.

Sorting out municipal affairs can be a Herculean task especially given the complexity of local government in Greater Victoria with 13 jurisdictions, three electoral areas and one regional government.

Here are essential documents to help you understand and effect change:

Many are familiar with the Local Government Act and the Community Charter, the underlying legislation for municipal and regional governments. Neither, unfortunately, really articulates what constitutes good governance.

The B.C. Protocol of Recognition is a little known agreement between the province and the Union of B.C. Municipalities that attempts to clarify the relationship between the two. It was signed in 1996 with the NDP administration of the day, but predates the drafting of the Community Charter legislation in 2003.

The Capital Integrated Services and Governance Initiative (CISGI) was ordered by the Liberal administration and released by the NDP government in 2017.

It gathered facts about current service delivery.

It also looked at increasing understanding about service delivery best practices and opportunities to better integrate services and governance in the capital region. But, like many government reports, it landed with a thud and prompted little change.

The 84-page Fraser Institute report Governing Greater Victoria: The Role of Elected Officials and Shared Services (2016) describes how local government has evolved in Greater Victoria, its benefits, and its challenges. It concedes local government is not perfect and needs to continue to evolve.

There are useful third-party documents aimed at improving municipal administration. There’s the Council and Board Remuneration Guide (Union of B.C. Municipalities 2019), Bylaw Enforcement (Office of the B.C. Ombudsperson, 2016), and A handbook for Municipal Mayors and Councillors (2015) by lawyer Lorena Staples.

The latter puts the Local Government Act and Community Charter into layperson’s language and focuses on the role of the mayor and council. It talks about public participation and open government, conflict of interest, closed meetings and so on.

When municipal budgets are discussed by taxpayers (and council) often a dark and mysterious cloud will descend sometimes with heavy rain. A Guide to Local Government Financial Statements (Government of B.C., 2012) is very helpful for the ordinary person to understand the fate of their tax dollar.

Here is something for more serious students of municipal government. The impressive paper Power and Purpose: Canadian Municipal Law in Transition (2020), published by a think tank called The Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance, overviews municipal law, powers, institutions and finance in Canada’s 10 provinces and identifies similarities and variations among and within provinces.

In the end, good municipal governance — whatever that may be — is best achieved by knowledgeable, informed residents demanding better value for their tax dollar.

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