08/07/2013 11:10 EDT | Updated 10/07/2013 05:12 EDT

Civility in Local Council Fiefdoms? Yeah Right.


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.

What's the crime these nattering nabobs have committed? Having the audacity to challenge council gospel.

In one town, a local mayor accused those who opposed plans for a new sewage treatment plant of behaving like bullies,while in another, the chief administrative officer referred to his critics as "a cancer."

Someone else took issue with a newspaper column critical of a local mayor and sent a letter to the editor asking, "What are her sources? Are they my neighbours, your neighbours?"

Some of it reeks of McCarthyism, some of amateur hour.

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 -- all while blissfully ignoring the fact that his chief administrative officer was given free rein to attack local ratepayers on CBC Radio.

Pick up any of B.C.'s community newspapers and chances are you'll see these fights playing out in the letters to the editor section, if not on the front page. Sometimes these papers find themselves pulled into the brawls through no fault of their own.

Trace the origins of many of these civic street fights and the common denominator echoes what the Captain said in "Cool Hand Luke," "What we've got here is a failure to communicate."

The saying "you can't fight city hall" seems to be giving way to "you can't criticize city hall" and that's not a good omen for local democracy.

While some town councils are finding innovative ways to engage their citizens online, in town halls, and through creative advertising, others are hiding behind closed doors, barring citizens from critical decisions that effect their community's future.

Something is seriously amiss when Central Saanich meets on camera more often than council members of the City of Toronto. Chances are most local councils across B.C. are doing the same thing, and what's getting decided behind those doors isn't small potatoes.

One morning, White Rock ratepayers woke up to learn that their council had decided to purchase the a water system from City of Edmonton-owned Epcor, even though it wasn't for sale.

The report council based its decision on must be stamped "top secret" because outside of a select few, no one else has seen it. Councillors allegedly don't even have a copy.

In a tongue-in-cheek series of newspaper columns -- 13 Ways To Kill Your Community -- Alberta's Municipal Affairs Minister Doug Griffiths wrote, "The seventh of 13 things that you can do to ensure that your community fails and dies is to refuse to meaningfully cooperate with other organizations, businesses, agencies, boards or communities."

Griffiths could have easily added ratepayers to that list, because elections to office don't come with blank cheques. Democracy doesn't end when the polls close. To succeed you need buy-ins.

And when on average two out of three voters stayed at home during the last set of civic elections, councils should be encouraging more civic involvement instead of trying to snuff it out.

Consider in 2011, Prince George mayor Shari Green was elected by 13 per cent of all registered voters; Kelowna's mayor Walter Gray by 15 per cent; and Nanaimo mayor John Ruttan by 14 per cent.

With local elections a little over a year away maybe it's time to hit pause on the vitriol because there's something to be said for civility.

In his new book, The Importance of Being Civil: The Struggle for Political Decency, McGill University professor John A. Hall explains that civility is the glue that holds society together.

In an interview with the Globe and Mail, Hall went on to explain that, "Talking is crucial because, if you talk, you make people more reasonable. Civility on the part of government is absolutely vital."

Hall's book should be required reading for local councils and every candidate before next year's local elections.