Should the frequency of municipal elections be determined by the provincial government?
Fifty years ago municipal councils were elected to one year terms. Forty years ago the law was changed to allow for two-year terms. Twenty-four years ago terms were extended to three years, and now councils are to be elected to serve four year terms. The reasons for every term extension were to reduce election costs, to give new councillors more time to learn the duties of their office, and to increase voter participation. On this last point, with voter participation at less than 28% province-wide in the last election, extending terms has been an abysmal failure.
A Union of British Columbia Municipalities (UBCM) task force four years ago compared the arguments for and against extending council terms from three to four years. The study’s criteria were accessibility, efficiency, and transparency. The discussion paper’s question of principle was: “Does extending the term of office serve or hinder the principles of transparency, efficiency and accountability?” As it relates to the Community Charter’s principles, purposes, and interpretation of municipal governance, that question is irrelevant.
Ten years ago the Legislative Assembly replaced the Local Government Act with the Community Charter. This brought about a fundamental change to the legal foundation for local government in British Columbia. The purpose of an act is to prescribe dos and don’ts that must be obeyed … or else! By contrast, a charter’s purpose is to establishrights, powers, privileges, or functions granted by the sovereign power of the state to a person, corporation, city, or other unit of local organization. The roles of an act are of a regulatory nature; the roles of a charter are of a constitutional nature. As the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is a constitutional guarantee of rights for Canadians, so the Community Charter is a constitutional guarantee of powers granted to municipal governments.
Section 1 of the Community Charter establishes the principles for municipal government in British Columbia:
Municipalities and their councils are recognized as an order of government within their jurisdiction that:
(a) Is democratically elected, autonomous, responsible and accountable,
(b) Is established and continued by the will of the residents of their communities, and
(c) Provides for the municipal purposes of their communities.
Canada’s Constitution establishes a maximum term of five years for provincial legislative assemblies without prescribing fixed terms and fixed dates for provincial elections. Every province has the constitutional right to schedule elections and to establish term limits within the constitution’s 5-year limit. It would be consistent with constitutional principles for the Community Charter to set out a maximum term municipal councils may serve, leaving individual municipalities with the right to schedule elections and establish terms in accordance with local preferences.
How is the autonomy, responsibility, and accountability of a municipal council served, much less strengthened by provincially imposed terms and election dates? What benefit do residents from Pouce Coupe to Greenwood derive from holding simultaneous municipal elections? What harm would their communities suffer if residents of Terrace held their municipal elections on the first Sunday of April every two years while the residents of Duncan held theirs on that last Tuesday of November every four years? The Community Charter should establish a maximum term for municipal councils just as the Constitution does for provincial legislative assemblies and the House of Commons. To be true to the Community Charter’s principles, every municipal council should have the right, subject to ratification by its residents, to establish the term of office for their mayor and councillors, and to set the date for their election.
The Community Charter declares municipal councils to be autonomous, responsible, accountable, and established by the will of the residents of their community. Arguments about accessibility, efficiency, and transparency notwithstanding, imposing province-wide election dates and terms makes a mockery of these principles.
Andre Carrel is a retired City Administrator, journalist, author, and full-time grandpal.