It's that time of year again, when local governments across B.C. grit their teeth and post their annual statements of financial information for all and sundry. Depending upon your perspective, they're either a veritable treasure trove of news stories or a minefield of PR disasters waiting to happen.
Most of the billions spent on B.C. infrastructure projects in 2012 flew under the provincial radar. Out of sight, out of mind. Cost overruns rarely made a media ripple outside of the affected community. Yet, through various cost sharing formulas, we're all on the hook for them one way or another, whether it's the Vancouver Convention Centre expansion or new roads in Campbell River.
In 1982, then Social Credit cabinet minister Grace McCarthy was suspected of using her influence to have her Little Mountain riding boundaries redrawn to include a sliver of a wealthy Vancouver neighbourhood. That sliver was forever known as Gracie's finger. Thirty-two years later, the B.C. government is proposing amendments that could make the controversy over Gracie's finger pale by comparison.
TransLink -- everyone's favourite whipping boy in the Lower Mainland -- is about to be put to the electoral test and it promises not to be pretty. The fate of TransLink's future funding will be decided in the midst of the introduction of the Compass card, and Lower Mainland residents know full well how that initiative has been going as of late. It doesn't bode well for the vote.
Bill Bennett, minister responsible for the B.C. government's core review, is trying his darndest lately to reassure British Columbians that the government "has no plans to dismantle" the Agricultural Land Commission and that much of the speculation was simply the result of government "brainstorming." That's nice. Doesn't mean much in government-speak, but it sounds comforting. It's what comes next that should be of concern. In an interview with the Globe and Mail on Tuesday, Bennett confirmed that the Commission would, however, be subject to the government's core review.
Who knew? Count 'em all up and B.C. has 1,660 elected officials sitting on 250 local councils and school boards across the province. That works out to one for every 2,000 registered voters. It's also a lot of paycheques. Some of the lucky ones get to collect two paycheques, if they happen to be chosen to sit on a regional district. The two biggies of course being Metro Vancouver and the Capital Regional District.
No matter how well-intentioned the B.C. government's first round of electoral reforms may be, they are -- for the most part -- cosmetic in nature when contrasted against the public's very real loss of confidence in local democracy. Without meaningful electoral finance reform including election spending and contribution limits, candidacy for local government will -- by and large -- remain the purview of the affluent and well-connected.
If local campaign spending is obscene, it only follows that candidates need to fall back on contributors with obscenely large wallets to pay the bills. And fall back they did. In the 2011 elections, the single largest donation was $960,000 courtesy of local land developer Rob Macdonald to Vancouver's NPA. To put that sum into context, it's more than double what Naheed Nenshi spent on his way to winning the mayor's chair of Calgary in 2010. Calgary has nearly a quarter of a million more voters than Vancouver.
Garbage -- or to use the more politically correct term, waste -- is big business. Really big. It can also be a messy business, particularly when politicians get involved. So no big surprise that the left hand doesn't seem to care what the right hand is doing at Metro Vancouver when it comes to regional waste management.
Small-town B.C. may be facing a plague of what disgraced former U.S. vice president Spiro Agnew called the "nattering nabobs of negativity" -- or at least that's what a number of B.C. mayors and their supporters would have you believe. One B.C. mayor went so far as to criticize citizens for contacting the media and provinvial watchdog groups (including IntegrityBC), claiming that no one in his administration would ever stoop to such a dastardly deed.
At least 30 officials in the communities that make up Metro Vancouver earn a minimum six-figure salary that puts them among the top one per cent of all income earners in Canada. It takes a lot of kahunas for some of these same civic officials to claim that their cupboards are bare when the cookie jar is overflowing for themselves.
According to an Ipsos Reid exit poll poll of 1,400 British Columbians, the top issue influencing voters was open and honest government. On this issue voters chose the BC NDP by a 10 per cent margin (47 to 37 per cent).The fourth issue was trust in a particular leader or party. The Liberals lost those voters by five per cent. It's easy for political operatives to sweep such inconvenient truths under the rug when they've just pulled-off a miracle, but Liberals do need to take note: they've lost the trust of a significant block of voters.
Over 35 years, the NDP has seen its share of the popular vote decline and its actual vote stall, despite an electorate that has nearly doubled in size over the same period. Parties that don't grow their base lose and risk withering away. The message for the NDP in all these numbers is ominous and it's not just about Adrian Dix. It may have more to do with the brand.
Over the past three decades, the percentage of British Columbians who actually vote has steadily fallen, from more than 70 per cent to a little over half last time out, when nearly one out of every two voters seemingly slept the day away and never bothered to cast a ballot. In fact, B.C. has the dubious distinction of having some of the lowest voter turnouts in the country, which says a lot when you consider that some of those other provinces don't have much to boast about either.