All over the province, taxpayers are complaining that their civic leaders aren’t listening to them.
It’s happening in big cities like Surrey. It’s happening in smaller towns like Port Alberni and Oak Bay. Days before the 2014 election, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson apologized to voters for not listening to them. His contrition saved his bacon, but nothing has changed in the years since. Vision Vancouver still rams through its agenda with no attention paid to the concerns of its residents.
A tempest struck Pitt Meadows recently, when it was reported that taxpayers are paying $5,500 for Mayor John Becker to take a Simon Fraser University course in civic engagement.
But the Becker blowback was little more than a stiff breeze compared to the furor over Penticton spending $85,000 to hire a civic engagement officer – on top of the recent creation of a communications officer job.
Several mayors and councillors actively pushed their spending agendas in local referenda campaigns, and taxpayers rejected them. In Kamloops, the mayor and council wanted a new $90-million theatre complex; the people said no. In West Kelowna, the leaders wanted a new $14.8-million city hall; the people said no. And in the Lower Mainland, virtually every mayor in the region wanted a sales tax to fund TransLink; the people said no.
There is clearly a disconnect between taxpayers and the level of government branded as being “the closest to the people.” Residents feel they are not being heard, or that their priorities are not being reflected by their leaders.
Rather than take courses or hire expensive bureaucrats to listen to citizens, there are better ways for mayors and councillors to turn this around.
First, councils should make every effort to avoid negative-option billing. People who lived in BC in the 1990s will likely remember cable companies adding channels and raising everyone’s rates without consumer permission. It was a massive controversy.
Municipalities use negative-option billing today. In North Vancouver, the Lower Lonsdale Business Association’s efforts to create a business improvement area tax had been stopped a few times over the years by landowners. Instead of ordering a straight vote of those affected, city council has now gone for an alternative approval process – unless a majority of landowners sign papers opposing a tax, it will proceed automatically.
Negative option processes are inherently unfair (all non-responses are counted as a YES) and shift the focus away from making a case for the positives of a given proposal. It corrodes the relationship between residents and councils. They should be avoided as much as possible through true public consultation and referenda on controversial projects.
Second, create environments that spark real discussion – and do them in places and times where everyday taxpayers will be. Community events, shopping areas, festivals, kids’ sports: there are dozens of opportunities every week to go and get a good feel for what the public is saying and feeling. MLA Spencer Chandra Herbert does a great job with his mobile community office and should be a model for others.
Third, ask voters for their opinion before a city’s plans are virtually set in stone. Too often, the public isn’t “consulted” until thousands of dollars have been spent on plans and supporting material. Why not ask them first?
Finally, leaders have a responsibility to resist their own cynicism and scratch beneath the surface to hear what people – even those who are opposed – are saying. What is the core concern driving the speaker? Is it affordability? Safety? Mayors should ask genuine questions of people, and actually listen to their responses.
No elected official is ever going to be perfectly in sync with voters on every issue. But turning around the growing disconnect between BC city halls and the taxpayers they serve needs to be a top priority for every mayor and councillor going forward.
Jordan Bateman is the British Columbia director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.