Think of it as an electoral echo. While many British Columbians are just getting over the election hangover from May's blockbuster BC Liberal comeback win, 13 municipalities are about to head into by-election mode.
Four mayors and 10 councillors from 13 different communities were elected May 14th. A dozen BC Liberals, two New Democrats: all will need to be replaced in the coming weeks, triggering a series of expensive by-elections.
Dan Ashton, who left the mayor's office in Penticton after winning a seat as that community's MLA, will pay for his by-election, having promised up to $35,000 to ensure taxpayers weren't left with a big bill to replace him.
The other dozen communities facing by-elections aren't so lucky. Bills could range from several thousand dollars to replace Councillor Jackie Tegart in Ashcroft to as much as half a million to replace Councillor Marvin Hunt in Surrey. Langley City, Coquitlam, Dawson Creek, Pemberton, Oliver, Delta, Prince Rupert, Sicamous, Abbotsford and Pitt Meadows all had mayors or councillors elected to the Legislature.
Some councils have talked internally about trying to avoid the expense by encouraging newly-minted MLAs to take unpaid leaves of absence until January 1st, when provincial law stipulates that by-elections no longer have to be held ahead of the usual November 2014 municipal election. While we would generally applaud cost-saving efforts at municipal halls, this is not the place to cheap out.
Democracy is always worth the money. Taxpayers deserve to be fully represented, and mid-term votes give a unique opportunity to focus on issues that can be overlooked in larger campaigns. But the issue of municipal politicians moving on to provincial politics isn't a new one and it's not going away.
Any municipal politician who stays on until January 1st, even on a leave of absence, may be in contravention of B.C.'s conflict of interest laws, especially given the broader interpretation of the law brought down in a recent B.C. Court of Appeals judgment.
The simplest solution, long-term, is to marry municipal and provincial election dates. In 2017, for example, both levels of government have elections scheduled; this will rule out any costly by-elections for politicians changing jobs. Why not have these elections on the same day, with the same ballots?
There will be some logistical issues that need to be worked out, but they are manageable. For example, ensuring that voters get the correct ballots for provincial ridings that cross municipal borders. Elections B.C. will be needed to oversee these votes.
In the May election, the NDP promised to move the fixed election date to the fall of 2017, in order to allow preliminary numbers from the February budget to be available to taxpayers before they vote. This is one NDP plank the BC Liberals would be wise to embrace, as it would extend their term by six months with no fight from the opposition.
To keep election dates together, municipal politician terms would need to be lengthened to four years. While not ideal to reduce the amount of democracy provided to local voters, this is supportable, as long as B.C.'s recall legislation is extended from MLAs to cover mayors, councillors and school trustees.
The one major snag would be what to do if the provincial government fell in a minority parliament. This has not happened since the 1950s, but is always a possibility especially if the Greens or Conservatives gain support. A provision could be made to allow such interim votes with a return to the regular electoral calendar as soon as possible.
While some may argue that the provincial campaign might overshadow local issues, the fact remains that only one in five eligible voters cast a ballot during municipal elections today. What we are doing now is not working.
By tying these election campaigns together, taxpayers can avoid more rounds of big by-election bills.