Comment: Self-appointed boards can’t serve the public well

When the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority was charged with managing and developing valuable public land a few years ago, the public interest was to be served by allowing the City of Victoria, Esquimalt, the Capital Regional District, local First Nations and a number of tourist and business organizations to appoint members to the board.

The current GVHA board is working toward a very different system, however. It sees the board itself picking the board members, not government bodies and local organizations. It sets “competencies” for new directors and interviews potential directors to ensure their support for the “vision” of the current board. It can exercise a subtle discipline over existing members with dissident views, who may find that a new set of “competencies” is now required when they come up for reappointment. Several of the GVHA’s members are appointed by vote of the board itself, so they must conform fairly closely to the views of the majority if they want to keep their seats.

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It is as if city council members had to run at each election with only existing councillors voting instead of the public. In such a system, it would be hard for councillors to avoid self-satisfaction and “groupthink,” and to remain responsive to the public.

I am sure the GVHA board is sincere in believing good “governance” is best achieved with a board of professionals and experts that carefully selects its own members, but the flaw in this thinking should be obvious. It is not the expertise and unity of a board that are important, but rather the mechanism for outsiders to provide oversight and guidance, and ultimately to penalize bad policies.

Shareholders and the market provide this oversight for private corporations, and voters provide it for the “boards” (cabinets and city councils) that run governments. The GVHA and similar boards, such as the Victoria airport authority, are in between. Like the provincial hydro and ferries boards, they enjoy monopoly positions in vital services, so their performance is not really tested by the market. But voters who do not like fast ferries or smart electric meters can vote against the provincial government and expect change. GVHA or airport board members are not directly responsible to either investors or voters.

The GVHA and the airport board benefit from competent and public-spirited directors, and they have served the community well — but no board can properly judge its own performance. The airport board makes an effort — directors are asked to evaluate themselves as to whether “I help colleagues cut through complex issues,” “I push the group to confront reality” or “I keep discussions on track by avoiding talking too much, reminiscing, or engaging in philosophical arguments.” But like the GVHA’s new appointment policies, the airport board also places board solidarity and support for group decisions over expression of individual opinion.

This is sad, because the best way to ensure good outcomes is for the affected public to know how decisions are made (in public as much as possible) and for directors to have a greater feeling of responsibility to the bodies that appointed them than to their fellow directors. Directors who are appointed by the boards themselves should, like the B.C. auditor general, have a single, fixed term so they can be truly independent.

 

Geoff Young is a Victoria city councillor and member of the Capital Regional District board. He is also a past Victoria Harbour Authority alternate member, and a past member of the Greater Victoria Airport board, Provincial Capital Commission, Financial Institutions Commission and several other boards.

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